Christians & Alcohol: Why the Bible is Simple Except When It’s Not

There is no doubt that “What the Bible says about alcohol” was my first foray into Evangelical “heresy” (at least in the South). I simply could not reconcile my parents and pastors telling me that all alcohol consumption was sinful with passages that say things like Paul says to Timothy, “23 Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim 5:23) and passages that show Jesus turning water into wine. In fact, this was “the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). Jesus first revealed his glory by providing more alcoholic beverages for the party? Amen and amen.

And that’s when I had my second “screaming match for Jesus” with my mom (I will regret those the rest of my life no doubt). And at 16, I left my parent’s church and began attending a Presbyterian church. By myself.*

But more than just another example of how my tradition prefers rules to wisdom and moderation, this story reveals yet another reality about Evangelicalism: the Bible is simple except when it’s not.

For instance, when I say that perhaps Jonah shouldn’t be read historically, I get hate mail saying that I am corrupting the Bible because it “plainly” reads as a historical account. It’s just so “obvious,” the only reason you would read it otherwise is because you don’t believe in the Bible.

And yet, when I say that the Bible approves of drinking wine because the Bible “plainly” says Timothy should drink some and Jesus “obviously” turned water into it to help out with the party, I am maligned again. I wish someone would just tell me the rules of the game here. What did I do wrong? Doesn’t the Bible plainly say it?

Ah, not so fast. You missed a step. Because in Evangelicalism “plainly” or “obviously” too often simply means “according to the way I was taught to read the Bible and my assumptions about what Christianity is supposed to look like.”

So, basically, the Bible is simple except when it’s not. When it condemns things I have been taught to condemn, it is simple. But when it condones things I was taught to condemn, it’s not so simple . . . even though there is a perfectly “simple” 12–step theory for how to get around the simple reading. In this instance, there is the “The Bible uses the same word ‘wine’ to talk about fermented (wine) and unfermented (grape juice) drinks” theory, which depends upon an either circular or complicated argument for when you go with wine or when you go with grape juice.** Or there is the “wine is much stronger now than in Jesus’ day” argument. Maybe these are good arguments, maybe they are bad arguments. But neither of them seem like simple arguments. Nor do they do justice to the “plain” reading of the Bible.

They seem more to be justifying theories to support our already concluded assumptions. Basically, the Bible can’t say that so let’s find a reason why not. And, of course, alcohol is not the only area we use this strategy. We use it anytime the “plain” reading goes against our “plain” social mores or “common sense” views about what the Bible is and what’s in it. And you might be shocked to find out how often we employ this double-standard.

But the reality is that the Bible is not simple. It’s not common sense. But you already knew that. As I said in my previous post, that’s why we hire pastors to teach us what the Bible “really means” and professors to teach at our Bible colleges to tell our teenage children what the Bible “really means.” If it were that simple, we would simply stop paying them for their redundancy. But because we don’t, I have a sneaking suspicion that we already know that the Bible takes more than common sense to understand.

And if so, we should recognize that anytime we want to dismiss another’s opinion about the Bible simply because it goes against what we have been taught, we should make sure we are basing such a judgment on more than just whether or not it passes the “plain” reading criteria. Because remember, when it comes to reading the Bible, words like “plain,” “simple,” and “common sense” might just be keeping you from understanding the very book you rightly love.

*That is certainly not the only, or perhaps even primary, reason I ended up worshiping with the Presbyterians. My first screaming match with mom was over predestination. But it was more dramatic and made my point better to say it the way I did. But it didn’t really stick. I ended up going to Liberty University, the Southern Baptist capital of the world (which I loved by the way). But then I went to a Presbyterian-ish seminary. I have a complicated past . . .

**Why would you have grape juice to celebrate a wedding? Lame.

14 responses to “Christians & Alcohol: Why the Bible is Simple Except When It’s Not

  1. Of course, the people who say “wine is much stronger today’, are probably the same people who would say that Paul’s admonition for women to remain silent and not preach still holds true today, and that the Bible doesn’t change just because society changes.

    And if you called them on it, they probably wouldn’t even see the conflict in their beliefs.


  2. An excellent post, Jared. I have come to truly appreciate that engagement with the Bible is simply not simple. But because of that, a space for connecting with the text & the Spirit in a transforming way is created. For the “un-simpleness”, I am thankful.

  3. Nicely stated. I also appreciate the lack of snark about how dumb “they” are. We all employ this double standard, and need to remember it.

  4. Great thoughts. I’m wondering if you or any of your readers have read “The Bible Made Impossible” by Christian Smith. A bit challenging for those of us who aren’t as smart as some others, but gave some really good thoughts about how we read & ought to read Scriptures.

    • Absolutely Steve. I definitely own a copy. There is a lot of great work going on in that area. Carlos Bovell also does a lot of great work in that area, though he deals specifically with the concept of inerrancy in evangelical circles. I try to bite off simpler concepts here on the blog but I am always glad when people read other ways to be in the conversation!

  5. Jared, please forgive me if I missed your point on christians and alcohol, but are you saying that the bible really does not say if we can drink wine or not? This is a hard one for me. I do like having a glass of wine once in a while, but I am wondering should I be doing that. I try to see if there is a clear cut answer, but I keep finding that the bible has no answer, but we as believers should not drink alcohol. Please let me know what you think. Thanks

    • Sorry, I have a tendency to do this but my main point wasn’t about alcohol at all but about how we read our Bible. That might be why you were confused. But it was a minor point. And the point is this: the only place that the Bible explicitly says anything about alcohol is in Proverbs, which is right where it needs to be. It’s about wisdom. We have to learn ourselves and what we are okay with, our past, and our tendencies. Only then can we decide the things that will help us to glorify Christ best in those decisions.

      I personally drink with friends often, always trying out new beers and wine. But I have friends who do not drink at all but know that it’s a matter of wisdom for them. And I think that’s wonderful.

      There is much more to the conversation but does that help?

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