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May We Drink Alcohol Recreationally?

Alcohol has a variety of legitimate uses. For example, it is quite effective as a cleaning agent. Likewise, since alcohol is an antiseptic, it can be used topically for disinfecting lacerations, such as when the Good Samaritan applied “oil and wine” to the injured man’s wounds (Lk. 10.34). 


Furthermore, like John (Lk. 1.15), Timothy was a teetotaler, choosing to “drink only water.” But the young man suffered from “frequent infirmities” and “stomach” pains. As a medicinal remedy, Paul encouraged him to 


“no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities” (1 Tim. 5.23). 


In the ancient world, “wine” (oinos) was a generic term alluding to “all kinds” of grape-based items (Neh. 5.18), including the grape itself (Num. 6.4; Jer. 40.10, 12), the juice when still inside the grape (Isa. 65.8), the unfermented juice that is squeezed out of the grape in the press (Isa. 16.10; Jer. 48.33; Joel 2.24), and the alcoholic liquid it yields after the fermentation process (Prov. 23.31). Actually, 

“according to various Roman Classical writers, their best wines were not fermented” (Jeffcoat, p. 56). 

In 1 Timothy 5.23, then, “wine” could refer to vinegar, akin to the “sour wine” (oinos) Jesus declined on the cross (cf. Mt. 27.34; Mk. 15.23), which is highly therapeutic for stomach ailments. Perhaps Timothy, like Jesus, had been reluctant to consume vinegar due to its acerbic taste and needed a little coaxing from his mentor. 


It is also reasonable to think the apostle was recommending “a little” alcohol. The water of the region (Ephesus; cf. 1 Tim. 1.3) was frequently contaminated. To combat illness, doctors in the ancient Western world sometimes prescribed a small amount of alcohol [1], which would be diluted usually “three to five times” when mixed into their water (Norrie, p. 12), though some recipes were diluted as much as “twenty-five parts water and one part wine” (Hippocrates, Diseases 3, ch. 17, 7.160,5f). 


Galen — a second-century physician — recommended this wine-infused water 

“because it stops small pains pertaining to the humours (fluids, AP) in the stomach” (Galen in Oribasius, Coll. med. 5.6,5–7; quoted in Jacques Jouanna [et al.], p. 188).  

Craig Keener adds:

“Wine was often helpful in settling stomachs and preventing dysentery (it disinfected water)” (Keener, p. 619). 

That said, while the Bible endorses the restrained use of alcohol in medicinal situations, what about consuming alcohol purely for pleasurable purposes? Does God permit us to drink alcohol for a recreational “high” or “buzz”? 


Degrees of Intoxication

First of all, Bible writers employ different words to describe various degrees of drunkenness. Consider:


Excessive Intoxication — Binging Alcohol

There are several ways in which the inspired authors prohibit the practice of becoming excessively intoxicated. 


First, in his list of qualifications for elders, Paul disqualifies any man who is “given to wine” (1 Tim. 3.3; Tit. 1.7). The term (paroinos) signifies one who stays “near” (para) “wine” (oinos). 


It is possible that “wine” was meant as a synecdoche referring to any type of consumption. If so, Paul means that an elder must not be someone who is indulgent or lacks self-control — whether with alcohol or food or any other thing. 


If literal, “not given to wine” indicates that an elder must not be an excessive drinker — i.e. who lingers at wine (cf. Prov. 23.30).


Second, “older women” are also “not” to be “given to much wine” (Tit. 2.3). “Given” comes from a verb (douloo) that means to “reduce to bondage” (Thayer, p. 158). “Much wine” (oino pollo) describes an excessive amount of alcohol. Thus, they are not to be “slaves to much wine” (ESV) or “enslaved to drink,” as Bauer, Ardnt, and Gingrich put it (Bauer, p. 565). 


The same is true of “deacons” (1 Tim. 3.8), though the term employed there (prosecho) denotes to be “attached” or “devoted to” “much wine” (Abbott-Smith, p. 385). 


As an aside, it would be rash to assume that because the male leaders and older women in the congregation are prohibited from excessive drinking, the younger folk must have been exempt. On the contrary, the older men and women are to be “model” Christians for the young to follow (Tit. 2.7). 


Actually, the apostle was engaging in enthymemic (“within the mind”) teaching — i.e., leaving a premise or conclusion unstated. This method of teaching is designed to encourage the audience to fill in the blanks for themselves — to come to the conclusion in their own minds instead of being told what to think. In this case, the unstated enthymeme is this: If seasoned folk are prohibited from alcohol addiction, then certainly the unseasoned folk should take these injunctions to heart as well. What sense would it make to suggest that while elderly folk should not be enslaved to alcohol, young folk — whose decision-making skills already tend to stand on tenuous ground — can drink all they want? 


Third, in 1 Peter 4.3, the apostle uses three different words to describe various levels of alcoholic consumption — viz., oinophlugia, komos, and potos. Let us presently examine the first of these words. 


Oinophlugia — “drunkenness” (NKJV, ESV, NIV), “excess of wine” (KJV), “winebibbings” (ASV) — has to do with a “bubbling up” or “overflow” of “wine,” which suggests a drinking “debauchery” (Abbott-Smith, p. 314). Trench defines it as an 

“…extravagant indulgence in alcoholic beverages that may permanently damage the body” (Trench, p. 240). 

Hence, the term describes a dangerous level of “drunkenness.” College beer-chugging contests and other drinking binges are apt examples of oinophlugiais. Peter insists that Christians are not to participate in such things (1 Pt. 4.1-4).  


Finally, in Luke 21.34 Jesus inveighed against “surfeiting” (KJV, ASV), “carousing” (NKJV, NIV), or “dissipation” (ESV). The term (kraipale) is a compound word, stemming from the words “head” (kras) and “to toss about” (pallo), and hence underscores the effects of drunkenness (Thayer, p. 358). Trench notes that it

“refers to the disgust and loathing that arise from…drinking too much wine” (Trench, p. 241). 

Abbott-Smith says it means: “drunken nausea” (p. 256). Both Thayer and Strong describe the term as the “giddiness” and “headache” that arises from “drinking wine to excess” (Thayer, loc. cit.; Strong, “Kraipale”). Accordingly, the term generally alludes to the impairment of the mind (during the drunken phase) and the ensuing hangover (during the recovery phase).


In short, excessive drunkenness is wrong. 


Would it be sensible to assume that since God prohibited excessive drinking, he must have condoned moderate drinking? Put another way: Since we are not to be “enslaved to much wine” recreationally, does that mean we can be enslaved to some wine? Consider these points in response:


(1) When Solomon counseled: “Do not be overly wicked” (Ecc. 7.17), are we to assume he permitted being a little wicked? Absurd (1 Th. 5.22; Rm. 12.9; cf. Isa. 1.16; Ps. 37.27).


(2) If the prohibition from being “devoted” (prosecho) to alcohol implies we can drink in moderation, does Paul’s prohibition from being “devoted (prosecho)…to Jewish myths” also imply that we can embrace some Jewish myths, provided we believe these myths in moderation (1 Tim. 1.4; Tit. 1.14)? 


(3) Does the fact that murdering many people (e.g., genocide) is wrong justify murdering just one


Surely this reasoning is flawed. Banned excess does not imply the authorization of moderation. Actually, there may be a reasonable explanation as to why these passages ban excess in particular, which we’ll explore later in this study. 


Moderate Intoxication

There are also several ways Bible writers condemn recreational intoxication at moderate levels.


First, the New Testament frequently prohibits “drunkenness.” 


For example, Jesus warned us to “take heed,” lest we engage in “drunkenness” (Lk. 21.34). Failure to do so will result in the “Day” of Judgment “closing upon [us] suddenly like a trap” (ibid., ESV). 


In Romans 13.11-14, Paul identifies “drunkenness” as a “work of darkness” and a “lust” of the “flesh.” He instructs us to “cast off” “drunkenness” and “not” “walk” “in” it.


He also notes that “drunkards” are “unrighteous,” who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6.9-10).  


In Galatians 5.19-21, “drunkenness” is a “work of the flesh,” and “those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” 


Modern parlance tends to restrict drunkenness to the excessive abuse of alcohol. However, it is ignorant to assume the way our culture uses the term is identical to the way Bible authors employed it. So what did “drunkenness” mean in these passages?


“Drunkenness” in Luke 21.34, Romans 13.13, and Galatians 5.21 translates the Greek term methe. Trench observes that methe is not the most excessive level of intoxication, for oinophlugia — also translated “drunkenness” in 1 Peter 4.3 (NKJV, ESV, NIV) —  “refers to something worse than methe” (p. 240). 


However, he further noted that extra-biblical writers like Plutarch (c. 46-119 A.D.) and Philo (c. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.) often used methe to “express a worse excess than oinosis (Trench, p. 239). 


Likewise, lexicographers H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott define oinosis as “drunkenness,” but at a level that is “not so bad as methe” (Liddell-Scott, p. 1208). 


Some extra-biblical authors, then, used methe to suggest a level of drunkenness between the light “drunkenness” of oinosis and the heavy “drunkenness” of oinophlugia. 


Nevertheless, grammarians suggest that biblical authors used methe for the state of intoxication in general (oinosis never appears in the Bible). 


For example, Thayer observes that methe can be used of “any intoxicating drink,” which produces “intoxication” (Thayer, p. 395). Vincent concurs, noting that methe 

“and kindred words in the New Testament…refer to intoxication, or that which intoxicates” (Vincent, p. 421). 

The kindred verb form for being “drunk” in the Greek New Testament is methuo. Grammarian W. E. Vine notes that in Matthew 24.49, Acts 2.15, 1 Corinthians 11.21, and 1 Thessalonians 5.7, the term “is used of being intoxicated” (Vine, p. 186). William Mounce also defines the term as: “to be intoxicated” (Mounce, p. 1207). 


A “drunkard” (methusos; 1 Cor. 6.10; 1 Cor. 5.11) thus describes a person who becomes intoxicated. Even if their level of intoxication is not as severe as a drinker of “much wine,” the drunkard is still guilty of “drunkenness” (intoxication), which is sinful according to these passages.


Second, I earlier mentioned that Peter employed three different words to describe various degrees of alcoholic consumption — oinophlugiais (drinking binges), komois, and potois. Let’s explore the second of these words. 


Komois — “revelries” (NKJV), “orgies” (ESV, NIV) — is condemned in three NT passages (1 Pt. 4.3; Rm. 13.13; Gal. 5.21). 


komos is not as severe as the “drinking binge” Peter had just mentioned. The term involves drinking for festive occasions — a level of intoxication that is designed to let loose with others. Whereas an oinophlugia could be dangerous, a komos induced a “party” type of atmosphere. 


Thayer describes a komos as a 

“nocturnal and riotous procession of half-drunken and frolicsome fellows who after supper parade through the streets with torches and music” (Thayer, p. 367). 

Often, due to the inhibition-removing and judgment-impairing influence of alcohol, these merry-making parties will lead to sexual promiscuity, orgies, and other “wild” activities. But however fun these “half-drunken” raves appear to be, Christians are “not” to “walk” in them, for they are “works of darkness” and “works of the flesh” (Rom. 13.12-14; Gal. 5.19-21).


In short, the premise that when the Bible condemns “drunkenness,” it only condemns excess — is patently false.


Light or “Social” Drinking

The final word Peter employs involving the recreational consumption of alcohol is potois — “banquetings” (KJV); “carousing” (ASV, NIV); “drinking parties” (NKJV, ESV). 


The term signifies “a drinking” (Thayer, p. 533). It refers generally to “a feast” or “banquet” (cf. Gen. 19.3; 2 Sam 3.20; Esther 6.14, LXX), which, depending upon the company, typically involves the consumption of alcohol. 


The Greeks especially loved to hold banquets or symposiums, at which they gathered friends together to drink alcohol, eat, and discuss the various issues of the day (e.g., politics, religion, gossip, even roasts). 


To be clear, Christians also “come together to eat” and engage in convivial fellowship with others (cf. 1 Cor. 11.33; Jude 1.12). Jesus himself attended “feasts” or “banquets” (Lk. 5.29, NKJV; NIV). He even encouraged his disciples to host such events, especially for the poor (Lk. 14.12-13). However, these were not potois (condemned in 1 Pt. 4.3) but the words doche (a “warm reception” of people for a meal), ariston (a breakfast or lunch), and deipnon (a dinner). Peter does not refer to these types of social gatherings. 


Rather, the potos (potois in the plural) in 1 Peter 4.3 specifically alludes to social drinking — gatherings designed to consume alcohol and socialize. 


Trench observed that a

potos does not necessarily imply excessiveness, though it does provide an opportunity for excess” (Trench, p. 239). 

Since the purpose of these social gatherings was to engage in lucid conversation, the company generally drank lightly. However, the gathering could lead to an “excessive” phase (after having too much to drink), at which point discussion is lost and mere mirth ensues (e.g., 1 Sam. 25.36). 


Xenophon (c. 400 B.C.) — a Greek philosopher and historian — spoke of a potos (“drinking”) as having “advanced somewhat” (Anabasis 7.3, 26). Hence, social drinking can increase to excess but is not excessive per se. 


In modern parlance, a potos (drinking social) is akin to a “cocktail party” or “mixer” — a gathering to drink alcohol, socialize, and eat. A komos (drinking party) corresponds to the Mardi Gras festival — a boisterous party designed to let loose with heavier levels of drinking. And an oinophlugia (drinking binge) is akin to a beer-chugging contest at a frat house. 


In short, Peter says that’s the way pagans act. Christians, however, should abstain from each of these levels of recreational drinking — whether light, moderate, or excessive. Those who engage in such are living “for evil human desires” (1 Pt. 4.2, NIV). 


At the very least, the fact that Peter distinguished between these words indicates that it is not merely heavy drinking that is off-limits to the Christian. Rather, all these levels of recreational drinking constitute “doing what pagans choose to do” (1 Pt. 4.3, NIV) — which ought not to be done.


The Drinking Process Itself

Not only should Christians refrain from being “intoxicated” — whether socially, to party, or in a debauched way — but there are several passages that censure the process of drinking for pleasure itself, which increases intoxication. 


Several words in the Greek language end with the suffix sko (e.g., aresko, eurisko, geraskoetc). These are process terms, which emphasize the actions that create and build upon their corresponding state. Methusko is one of these words. 


The term is “an inceptive verb, marking the process or the state expressed in” methuo (Vine, p. 186). Grammarian Herbert W. Smyth notes that while “very few verbs have this meaning,” those that are inceptive or inchoative “have the sense of beginning or becoming” (p. 151). 


In his Critical Lexicon And Concordance To The English and Greek Testament, E. W. Bullinger defined methusko as “to grow drunk (marking the beginning)” of methuo (p. 238). 


Similarly, Abbott-Smith notes that methusko is the “causal of methuo (‘intoxicate’)” (p. 282). 


Moulton and Milligan also show that while methusko (“get drunk”) and methuo (“be drunk”) “are virtually synonymous,” methuo “more naturally” signifies the “status” of drunkenness, while methusko underscores the “act” (p. 394). 


In short, methe denotes the state of intoxication, while methusko encompasses the cause and growth of that state (i.e., drinking alcohol). 

 

Methusko is employed three times in the NT. Two passages use the term descriptively (Lk. 12.45; 1 Th. 5.7). One uses it proscriptively (Eph. 5.18).


Luke 12.45 

 First, Jesus portrays the wicked servant as one who “begins…to drink and get drunk (methusko)” (ESV). 


In his commentary on this passage, Alfred Plummer noted that “to get drunk” (methuskesthai) is “distinct from methuein ‘to be drunk’ [Acts 2.15]” (Plummer, p. 332). Again, the difference is this: If Jesus had used methe, he would have been emphasizing the man’s drunken state. However, Jesus specifically describes the servant as getting that way and growing in that state (by drinking) [2]


The passage illustrates that when you “begin” “to drink” alcohol, you begin the process of “growing drunk” — since you come under the intoxicating influence of that beverage. Drunkenness, then, is a process — a matter of degrees. Like the wicked servant, the more you drink, the more intoxicated you “get.” 


1 Thessalonians 5.7

Second, Paul wrote:


“For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk (methuskoare drunk (methuo) at night.” 


As I’ll point out momentarily, the context exhorts Christians not to drink alcohol at all but to remain sober. 


At present, however, note that he describes people who “get drunk” (i.e., by drinking alcohol) and, consequently, “are drunk.” One conveys the process; the other, the state.


Ephesians 5.18

 Finally, Paul commands: 


“do not get drunk (methusko) with wine” (ESV). 


Being drunk is certainly wrong. But Paul goes further than that. Even the process of getting drunk — i.e., the “act” that “causes” the state — is off-limits. 


Unfortunately, some — either due to bias or lack of insight — are misled when they read Paul’s subsequent phrase, “wherein is excess” (KJV), assuming Paul only means we shouldn’t get drunk from an excessive amount of wine. 


If that is so, when Peter employs the same term (1 Pt. 4.4, “dissipation” [NKJV]; “excess [3] of riot” [KJV]), is it sensible to argue that he permits a little “lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries” (1 Pt. 4.3)? Does Peter censure only excessive amounts of wickedness? Such reasoning evidences a lack of discernment. 


Actually, “excess” (asotia) literally means “not saved” (Vine, p. 215) or “incapable of being saved, and thus incurable” (Spicq, p. 220). It has to do with something that has gone to waste. When you eat half your meal and let the “excess” rot on the counter, you are wasting the food (i.e., not saving it).


Trench notes that the term can be used with “two meanings” — one “active;” the other “passive” — which “blend into one another” so that “it is not possible to keep them strictly separated” (pp. 70-71). In essence, it combines the ideas of wasting (active) and being wasted (passive). 


In secular literature, asotia was frequently applied to the wasting of money on “expensive habits” and reckless “indulgences” (cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 4.1.35 [Rackham]). For copious examples, see both Trench (p. 69f) and Spicq (p. 220f). 


In time, the term became

“synonymous with dissoluteness (moral laxity, AP) and immorality, and opposed to virtue (arete)” (Spicq, p. 221).

It is thus used in a “general sense” (ibid.) for vices that are wasteful and unproductive — “squandering on one’s own debased appetites” (Vincent, p. 661) — which only tend to turn a man into “an abandoned man, one that cannot be saved” (Thayer, p. 82). 


In that light, Peter affirms that things like “lewdness, lusts, etc.” — whether in limited quantity or exorbitant volume — are of themselves “reckless” (NIV) activities that have no saving value. A man who practices them makes himself morally lax and self-destructive. Indeed, “he at once loses himself and is lost” (Trench, p. 71). 


And Paul says the same thing about “getting drunk with wine” (Eph. 5.18). 


Greek scholar S. T. Bloomfield observed that the phrase, “in which is excess” (KJV), means that in getting drunk “by the use of wine…there is a tendency to dissoluteness” (p. 403). In other words, the phrase is not about the quantity of wine but about the behavioral “influence” that imbibing “the fumes of wine” “produce” (ibid., see his citation of Calvin). 


Indeed, alcohol by its nature erodes self-restraint and increases a laxity in morals. “In which is excess” is Paul’s way of describing the disinhibiting quality of alcohol, so that the process of getting drunk by the use of wine is a “reckless pursuit of excitement” (Ellicott [ed.], 2023) — a type of recreation that is wasteful. To paraphrase: do not begin growing drunk by the use of wine, for that activity is a wasteful indulgence that only increases reckless behavior. Thus, the NIV reads:


“Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.” 


In the broader context, Paul argues that those who “grow drunk” are foolish (Eph. 5.15), wasting their “time” (Eph. 5.16), “unwise” (Eph. 5.17), and morally lax (Eph. 5.18b). So instead of imbibing liquid spirits, Paul insists, we should imbibe the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5.18c). Instead of singing drinking songs as the pagans do, we should sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5.19). And instead of singing to Bacchus (the false god of wine, women, and song), we should “sing to the Lord…and to God the Father” (Eph. 5.19-20). 


Consequently, it is not just recreational intoxication that is wrong but the process that causes and increases it. 


The point is this: It is just as wrong to get yourself drunk as it is to be drunk, and consuming the first drink of alcohol is how you begin the process of getting drunk. This is both wasteful and wasting, like leaving “excess” food to rot on the counter. 


The Command For Sobriety

Even if there were no negative injunctions prohibiting us from either getting drunk or being drunk, there are still positive commands requiring us to remain sober. 


1 Thessalonians 5.6, 8

First, Paul urged Christians to “watch and be sober” (nepho). 


Some Greek terms — translated “sober” (e.g., sophroneo, 1 Pt. 4.7) — merely mean serious-minded or, broadly, sane. 


However, nepho is a compound word that means “no (ne) drink (piein).” Hence, it meant: “free from the influence of intoxicants” (Vine, p. 583), “to abstain from wine” (Abbott-Smith, p. 302), “without wine; wineless” (Liddell & Scott, p. 977). Indeed, it refers to the “abstemious lifestyle” of the Christian (Verbrugge, p. 863). 


Intriguingly, Paul sandwiches the command, “be sober” (nepho), in 1 Thessalonians 5 verses six and eight with the following explanation in verse seven: 


“for those who get drunk are drunk at night.” 


Certainly, nepho can be used figuratively, meaning: free from mental or moral “fuzziness” — i.e., clear-headed (see Bromiley, p. 634). But this passage demonstrates that “be sober” in Paul’s mind at least includes the recreational consumption of alcohol, which literally makes the head fuzzy. To paraphrase: keep your head clear, including by the ‘abstinence from wine,’ for those who get drunk are drunk at night. But Christians are of the day and must remain free from the influence of things that make the head fuzzy (like alcohol).


1 Peter 5.8

Second, when Peter commands us to 


“Be sober (nepho), be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pt. 5.8),


he employed a vivid play on words. Adam Clarke explains:

“There is a beauty in this verse, and a striking apposition between the first and last word, which I think have not been noticed. Be sober (nepsate) from (ne), not, and (piein), to drink; do not drink, do not swallow down: and the word (katapie [“devour,” AP]), from (kata), down, and (piein), to drink. If you swallow strong drink down, the devil will swallow you down” (Clarke, p. 869). 

Hence, Peter means that we must “avoid drunkenness of your senses, and drunkenness of your souls,” for “strong drink is not only the way to the devil, but the devil’s way into you” (ibid.). 


1 Timothy 3.2

Third, Paul insists that a bishop be a “temperate” man (see also 1 Tim. 3.11; Tit. 2.2). The term (nephalios) is the adjectival form of nephos, meaning “holding no wine” (Bromiley, p. 634). 


For example, the Jewish historian Josephus noted that the nephalios (sobriety) of the Levitical priests meant they were “not permitted to drink wine” when offering sacrifices to God (Antiquities 3.12.2). Incidentally, is it somehow insignificant that Christians, in the New Testament era, are a “royal priesthood” (1 Pt. 2.9; cf. Rev. 1.6, 5.10; 20.6), instructed to “continually offer” God the “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13.15; cf. Rm. 12.1-2)? If Levitical priests were barred from consuming alcohol when offering sacrifices (Lev. 10.8-11; Eze. 44.21), then how much more should Christians abstain, who must offer sacrifices to God every day? 


Like nephonephalios literally has to do with “the use of wine,” but it can also be used figuratively in the broader sense of “self-control and clarity of mind” (Bromiley, loc. cit.). Yet, even those who broaden the term’s meaning concede that nephalios still includes “a hint of the literal sense too” (ibid.) — that is, a “temperate” man maintains self-control and clarity of mind in part by holding no wine


Perhaps this explains Paul’s other requirement (a verse later) that bishops also be “not given to wine” (paroinos, 1 Tim. 3.3). Again, this expression describes a man who lingers “near wine.” It seems these two terms — “temperate” (nephalios) and “not given to wine” (paroinos) — balance one another. Let me put it succinctly: 


A bishop must be a temperate man (nephalios) — staying away from wine altogether — lest his judgment weakens and his senses dull, enticing him to become given to wine (paroinos). 


In combination, then, these two requirements may be a picturesque way of suggesting that a bishop must be capable of total self-control, from start to finish. He must neither begin to lose self-control by drinking wine for pleasure, nor must he lose all self-control when he lingers at wine. A bishop must maintain mental and moral clarity at all times so that his judgment will never be impaired, whether slightly or greatly. In short, these expressions may constitute a 

“loose form of speech intended to express complete restraint in the use of wine” (Miller, 2002). 

The Chemical Effects of Alcohol

Finally, the Bible frequently warns against drinking alcohol recreationally due to its mind-inhibiting qualities. 


For example, in Proverbs 23.31-32, Solomon wrote:


“Do not look on the wine when it is red, When it sparkles in the cup, When it swirls around smoothly; At the last it bites like a serpent, And stings like a viper.”


Comparing alcohol to snake venom is intriguing. Some poisonous snakes are elapids, which tend to “bite” and “chew” a neurotoxin into their victim, which affects the nervous system (e.g., nerves, brain). Conversely, other poisonous snakes are in the “viper” class, which tend to “sting” their victim quickly, injecting a hemotoxin that affects the cardiovascular system (e.g., blood, veins, tissues). 


Ethyl alcohol is in both categories at once. When consumed, it predominately affects the nervous system, drugging the brain and impairing things like judgment, balance, and coordination. However, alcohol also affects the cardiovascular system, interfering with the production of white blood cells that defend the body against invading bacteria. In high doses, it can result in anemia and even death. 


One toxicologist remarked: 

“The higher nerve functions of the forebrain, such as reasoning, judgment, and social restraint are impaired by very low concentrations of alcohol in the blood” (Muehlberger, p. 683).

Dr. Donald L. Gerard likewise notes:

“With the first few ‘social’ drinks, the individual’s judgment and inhibitions are affected” (Gerard, p. 27). 

Indeed, when you drink alcohol merely for a “buzz,” that buzz indicates that your brain has begun the intoxication process. The commercials are correct: “Buzzed driving is drunk driving.” Dr. Richard Sema, a neuroscientist and journalist for the Washington Post, explained:

“Ethanol, the remarkably simple chemical compound that gives alcoholic drinks their buzz, permeates the cells of our body and brain within minutes of consumption” (Sema, 2022). 

In a study where willing participants were placed inside “fMRI neuroimaging scanners,” researchers gave the subjects alcohol intravenously “to see what happens in the inebriated brain” (ibid.). First, Sema noted, alcohol:

“dampens activity in parts of our frontal cortex, which is important for executive control functions such as inhibiting behaviors we don’t want to do. By inhibiting our inhibitions, alcohol makes us feel more stimulated” (ibid.). 

Then, 

“[b]eing pleasantly buzzed also releases dopamine and increases activity in the striatum, a key brain region associated with rewarding stimuli” (ibid.). 

In another series of tests designed to determine the impact of only small amounts of alcohol on mental functionality, E. M. Jellinek and R. A. McFarland concluded:

“The cumulative evidence of tests on memory, association, judgment, reasoning, etc., definitely establishes the impairment of intelligence in alcoholic intoxication” (Jellinek, [1940]:361). 

Indeed, the invention of highly sensitive analytical instruments has helped researchers attain a much clearer understanding of how alcohol affects the brain. Recently, the University of Pennsylvania published a report suggesting that “one alcoholic drink a day” is “linked with reduced brain size” (Baillie, et al., 2022). “According to a new study,” they note,

“…alcohol consumption even at levels most would consider modest—a few beers or glasses of wine a week—may also carry risks to the brain. An analysis of data from more than 36,000 adults, led by a team from the University of Pennsylvania, found that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption was associated with reductions in overall brain volume” (ibid.). 

And going from “half a beer” a day to “a pint of beer or a glass of wine” per day 

“was associated with changes in the brain equivalent to aging two years. Heavier drinking was linked with an even greater toll” (ibid.). 

In short, as Solomon observed, alcohol is a toxic drug that inebriates and impairs the brain, even if only in small quantities. No wonder Solomon warned: “...whoever is deceived by it is not wise” (Prov. 20.1; cf. Isa. 5.22; 28.7). No wonder the righteous Jonadab instructed his sons “not to drink wine” (Jer. 35.14), for which God blessed his obedient posterity (Jer. 35.18-19). 


And consider this too. The alcohol in common use during biblical times was far less potent than the fortified alcohol available today. Not only that, but alcohol was customarily rendered even less potent by the ancient practice of mixing the alcohol with water and other spices (cf. Prov. 9.2). In that light, even if the Bible had authorized the drinking of a light amount of alcohol for pleasure on occasion, that would be a far cry from sanctioning the consumption of the more intoxicating beers and wines available today. Indeed, since the Bible warns against drinking the light spirits from the ancient world, surely that warning is amplified all the more with regard to modern alcoholic beverages.


Conclusion

Recreational pleasure, per se, is not wrong. But to engage in a type of recreational pleasure that by its very nature erodes self-control, increases poor decision-making, and defies the will of God is wrong. Drinking alcohol — whether socially, to party, or excessively — is not only “wasteful" (as Paul put it), but it also is the very type of activity that “gives place to the devil” (Eph. 4.27) — that is, it allows him to sow more seeds of wickedness in your life. Instead, the Holy Spirit urges us to remain “sober” and “temperate.” 


Certainly, using drugs in a restrained way for medicinal purposes is perfectly appropriate. But using drugs for a recreational high is neither wise nor ethical. Indeed, the Christian’s responsibility as the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth” (Mt. 5.13-14) is too vital to allow our judgment to be unnecessarily impaired by intoxicants — even in the slightest degree. 


 

Footnotes

[1] In the east, they chose instead to boil the water.


[2] Bengel calls methusko in this passage the “habit” (Bengel, 1897), by which he may mean the process (i.e., series of repeated actions) of growing in intoxication (by drinking). It is also possible he means that while the servant began to drink on one occasion, he kept getting himself drunk on multiple subsequent occasions.


[3] The KJV renders asotia as “riot” in 1 Peter 4.4. “Excess” is a different term (anachusis), which means a “pouring out” or “flood” (NKJV). 

 
Resources
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Sema, Richard. "Why Do People Like Being Tipsy? Here’s How Alcohol Affects The Brain." Washingtonpost.Com. December 29, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2022/12/29/alcohol-tipsy-brain-social-impacts/.

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