Is Social Drinking a Sin?

Does the Bible condemn social drinking? Alcoholic beverages are a plague upon our society. Alcohol has a part to some degree or another in what seems like every car accident or domestic dispute in our country today. Alcoholism is on the rise in our nation and the world in part due to the global pandemic and its lockdowns. 

Alcohol is around us all the time. One can scarcely find a restaurant that does not serve it, a grocery store that does not promote it, or a gas station that does not provide it for those about to get in their car and drive. We are inundated with advertising that glamourizes and glorifies what they call “drinking responsibly.” They make it look like so much fun and leave the impression that it will make one sophisticated, witty, and attractive. But, is social drinking a sin?

Is Social Drinking a Sin? | Oak Grove Church of Christ, Jack McNiel, Evangelist

What is Social Drinking?

The Christian is surrounded by this every day. Friends and coworkers may imbibe, and they might think the Christian who abstains is peculiar and strange. And since people usually are not comfortable with being different from those around them, some might be tempted to partake of alcohol in what they consider to be a modest way, simply to fit in socially with those ‘round about.’ This is called “Social Drinking.” 

Since this temptation is very real and there are many in the Christian world who have succumbed to this sin, it is important that we emphasize that Christians must abstain from the unruly and pervasive evil of social drinking.

However, before entering a serious discussion about a Christian and beverage alcohol, it would be wise to define the terms of such a discussion. In this study we hope to discover the truth about drinking.

The Terms Concerning Social Drinking

1) Wine

Wine in both Testaments is a generic term. It can mean either the unfermented juice of the grape, including sometimes when it is still inside the fruit, or it can refer to the juice which has been fermented. 

In the New Testament, wine is translated from the Greek word oinos. This is a generic term for the juice that comes specifically from grapes, either fermented or non-fermented. The entire context of where the word oinos is used will dictate whether fermented or non-fermented is meant. 

Just like our English word cider, which can be either hard (alcoholic) or plain (non-alcoholic) cider – it all depends on how it is used, the same principle is true of wine in the Old Testament. 

W. D. Jeffcoat wrote,

Yayin is the first and most frequently used word for wine in the Old Testament… It is a generic term for ‘all sorts of wine,’ new or old, unfermented, or fermented. Although usually fermented, yayin was not always intoxicating, and in most instances in which it is used as a beverage, it no doubt was but slightly alcoholic in content… In some instances, yayin specifies the blood of the grape, which has been freshly expressed. By a natural extension of meaning, it gradually came to designate wine and all of its subsequent stages, and even applied retrospectively, to wine still confined in the cluster.” — W. D. Jeffcoat wrote,[1]

Notice the following passages and answer the questions for yourself:

  • Isaiah 16:10 – What comes directly out of wine presses? Plain grape juice or fermented grape juice?
  • Isaiah 65:8 – What is found inside a bunch of grapes? Fermented juice or unfermented?
  • Deuteronomy 11:14 – What is “gathered in” when the grapes are harvested? Grape juice or alcoholic wine?

Wayne Jackson wrote, 

“Wine can be a generic term, occasionally referring to fresh grape juice. Isaiah referred to ‘wine in the presses’ (Isaiah 16:10), which obviously is simply the juice of the grape. There were ways in antiquity to preserve juice all year long from fermentation. There is no reason to assume that the. ‘wine’ made by Jesus was alcoholic and content (John 2:1-ff). Depending upon the context, ‘wine’ can refer to a beverage capable of producing intoxication. (Ephesians 5:18). Wine is sometimes viewed as a substance of medicinal value. (Luke 10:34. 1 Timothy 5:8.)” — Wayne Jackson [2]

2) Strong Drink

This word is used primarily in the Old Testament as a generic term to denote any strong intoxicant. It comes from the Hebrew word, shekar meaning, “strong drink, intoxicating drink, fermented or intoxicating liquor.”[3] 

Every context in which it is used describes a drink with high alcoholic content. The term is also used one time in the New Testament, from the Greek word sikera, defined by Thayer as, “Strong drink, an intoxicating beverage, different from wine; it was an artificial product, made of a mixture of sweet ingredients, whether derived from grain and vegetables, or from the juice of fruits (dates), or a decoction of honey.[4]

A similar concept is found in the Greek word, gleukos which is found once in the New Testament in Acts 2:13, “Others mocking said, these men are full of new wine.” According to Vine’s lexicon gleukos, “denotes sweet ‘new wine,’ or must, as in Acts 2:13, where the accusation shows that it was an intoxicant and must have been undergoing fermentation for some time.”[5]

3) Drunkenness

The word most translated as “drunk” or “drunken” comes from the Greek root verb, methuo. Vine’s lexicon states that methuo“Signifies ‘to be drunk with wine’ (from methu, ‘mulled wine;’ hence English, ‘mead, honey-wine’); originally it denoted simply ‘a pleasant drink.’ The verb is used of ‘being intoxicated’ in Matthew 24:49; Acts 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:21; 1 Thessalonians 5:7.” [6]

“For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:7 

Here the word translated “be drunken” comes from the derivative of methuo, methusko, which according to Vine’s lexicon means, “ ‘To make drunk, or to grow drunk’ (an inceptive verb, marking the process or the state expressed in methuo, ‘to become intoxicated.’”[7] 

Notice that Paul equates those who are in the process of becoming drunk as being drunk already.

4) Sober

The command to “be sober,” as found in passages such as 1 Peter 5:8 comes from the Greek word, nepho and is defined by Thayer as, “1) to be sober, to be calm and collected in spirit; 2) to be temperate, dispassionate, circumspect.” [8] In Vine’s lexicon it is defined, “To be free from the influence of intoxicants; in the NT, metaphorically, it does not in itself imply watchfulness, but is used in association with it.”[9] 

Another Greek word translated as “sober” is sophron which is defined by Thayer, “Of a sound mind, sane, in one’s senses; curbing one’s desires and impulses, self-controlled, temperate,” [10]

Simply put, to be sober is to be in one’s right mind; to be free from things that would cloud one’s judgment and prevent them from thinking correctly. One simply cannot be said to be “sober” when he is under even the slightest influence of alcohol.

Note the following passages:

“Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” — 1 Peter 1:13 

Be sober” come from the Greek word, nephontes which is the present tense, active voice participle of nepho. The present tense implies that “sober” is to be our current state. That it is in the active voice implies that this state is to be ongoing.

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour…” — 1 Peter 5:8

Here “be sober” comes from nephontes which is the aorist tense, active voice, imperative mood, 2nd Person, Plural, the form of nepho. The aorist tense is a kind of “beyond past tense” (e.g., already have been); the active voice implies that it is ongoing, and the imperative mood makes it a direct command.

 “Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.” — 1 Thessalonians 5:6-8

Here, “be sober” comes from the present tense, active voice, subjunctive mood form of nepho. The subjunctive implies that this is a result of the predicate clause. 

In 1 Thessalonians 5:6, “Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch…” and in 1 Thessalonians 5:7-8 “For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day…” So, in 1 Thessalonians 5:6, the result not of sleeping but of being wakeful and watchful is to “be sober.” And in 1 Thessalonians 5:8, the result of being awake (as in the day) and not drunken (as in the night) is to “be sober.”

In summary, the word “wine” is a generic term depicting the juice of the grape, either fermented or non-fermented determined by the context in which it is used. “Strong drink” is a generic term for any intoxicating beverage or other intoxicant. To “be sober” means to always be in possession of a sound mind, free from all intoxicating influences. Then to be “drunk” or “drunken” not only includes the state of being drunk but also refers to the process of becoming drunk.

It is clear from these definitions and from the passages cited, along with many other passages that drinking alcoholic beverages simply for the pleasure of it, whether one becomes fully impaired or even slightly impaired (which is just a matter of degree) the Christian must abstain from this evil concoction. 

If only people would go to the Bible to ascertain God’s position on this or any other matter and change their thinking and their lives accordingly, rather than simply trying to find justification for what they want to do in God’s word! 

Sadly, there are those who do not do this and so produce many excuses and justifications for social drinking. Most of these individuals claim to believe that drunkenness is a sin, but they also try to prevaricate saying that one can drink so as not to become drunk and not be guilty of the sin of drunkenness. We are going to examine a few of these so-called justifications for social drinking.

Before we get to that, I think it prudent to discuss the medicinal use of alcohol. Years ago, in an email discussion with a young man he objected to the idea of total abstinence from alcohol on the grounds that it could be used to relax and enable one to sleep. He used his great-grandmother’s nightly glass of wine as an example of drinking not for the purpose of becoming drunk.

It is true that many people feel the need for some sleeping aid. There are many options for over-the-counter sleeping pills (Tylenol PM, Benadryl, etc.). The use of a sleeping aid can certainly be medicinal, whether prescribed by a doctor or not. Drinking a small amount of wine in place of a sleeping pill would amount to the same thing and would not be sinful, as this would not be a “recreational” use. 

This would fall under the category of “thine often infirmities…” (1 Timothy 5:23). If such were truly one’s motivation for a nightly glass of wine, then it would not be sinful. But as in all things, one must,

Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” — 2 Corinthians 13:5.

Consider also, though, that there are alternatives to drinking alcohol, such as Tylenol PM, which work as effectively and do not carry the same stigma as alcohol. 

Also, we need to consider our influence on others, who might see us purchasing alcohol or consuming it, and misunderstand. I do not recommend alcohol as a sleeping aid but cannot find where it would be sinful if used strictly for that purpose.

Alcohol is a major ingredient in many different medications that are beneficial to one’s health, and the legal and properly prescribed use of these drugs and medications is not a sin. But this does not justify drinking for purely pleasurable or social reasons!

Arguments Used In Support of Social Drinking

1) The Jesus turned water turned to wine argument.

The most popular argument in favor of social drinking is based upon the account of the wedding feast of Cana found in John 2:1-11. 

Earlier, we established the fact that the Biblical word “wine” can sometimes be used in a generic sense (either fermented or unfermented), but that still does not answer the question as to whether Jesus made an alcoholic beverage when He turned the water into wine in John chapter two. 

As was noted previously, to establish which use of the word applies in a certain passage, the entire context needs to be considered – not just the immediate context (same chapter or book), but the broader context must be accounted for as well. 

In the Biblical context in which Jesus lived and in which the wedding feast at Cana took place, it would be a sin for one who, like Jesus, is a Jew to consume alcohol or to give his neighbor alcohol (see Habakkuk 2:15-16).

We know that Jesus lived a perfect and sinless life – never transgressing a single, solitary commandment under the Law of Moses. 

  1. “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth…” — 1 Peter 2:22
  2. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin…” — Hebrews 4:15

These inspired statements are false if Jesus provided alcohol to the guests of the wedding feast. Jesus did not sin here, nor did He tempt others to sin. James 1:13 affirms that fact. 

“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.” — James 1:13 

Therefore, we can know assuredly that Jesus did not turn the water into alcohol. Yet, some make the objection that the immediate context gives the impression that Jesus did provide alcoholic wine. They quote the “governor of the feast” in John 2:10, “Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now…” It is assumed by some that the phrase “well drunk” refers to the guests being inebriated. 

That assumption does not consider the possibility that “well drunk” refers to the quantity they had consumed rather than the effect (drunkenness) it had on them. They had consumed enough grape juice that their sense of taste had become dulled. 

The “governor of the feast” was simply noting the unusual circumstances in which the host had brought out the superior quality wine after the lesser quality wine had been consumed.

Alongside, this goes the argument, “A person can drink with God’s approval as long as they do not get drunk.” I debated with a young man via email over this very thing several years ago. He stated to the effect that not all drinking is done with the intention of becoming drunk. I responded with the question, “At what point does one become drunk? And how can one know how much they can drink before becoming drunk?” The only way to know one’s limit in matters such as these is to exceed the limit. Then perhaps, the next time knowing their limit they will not surpass it. 

The problem with this line of thinking is that the only way to drink without sinning is to first commit the sin of drunkenness to learn one’s limitations! Also, remember the definition of methusko (drunken)!

Notice what Donald L. Gerard, as quoted by W.D. Jeffcoat, has to say on the matter, 

“There is a general sequence of events which commonly occurs when a sober person begins to drink alcoholic beverages. These events are expressions of the degree to which a person has lost control over his speech, emotional expression, and motor behavior. The rate at which this effect takes place is related to the quantity of alcohol ingested, the rapidity of the absorption, and the body weight of the drinker. With the first few ‘social’ drinks the individual’s judgment and inhibitions are affected… Many studies have indicated that ingestion of relatively small quantities of alcohol not only affects the rate at which tasks are done but also diminishes efficiency and accuracy…” — Donald L. Gerard [11]

2) The qualifications of elders and deacons argument

Another common argument in favor of social drinking is based upon the “qualifications” of elders and deacons. 

In the same email exchange, the young man wrote, “1 Timothy 3:2-3,8-11 describe the characteristics of those who hold the office of an elder or that of a deacon. An elder is ‘not given to wine’ and a deacon is ‘not given to much wine’ … Also, the purpose of the words ‘much’ and ‘excess’ appear to be self-evident… But why else put the word ‘much’ there, if it did not serve a purpose and therefore meant nothing?” 

“Neither this nor any other context establishes a distinction between the amounts of alcoholic beverage elders and deacons are allowed to drink, respectively. ‘Not given to wine’ (1 Tim. 3:3 [no brawler, ASV) is from paroinos, meaning, ‘to be alongside of wine’ in the sense of lingering or tarrying with it. ‘The ASV places the secondary meaning (‘brawler’) in the text, because one who drinks often becomes quarrelsome and pugilistic. ‘Not given to much wine’ in reference to deacons is a totally different expression (more so in Greek than in English), referring to the hold (addiction) that wine has on those who freely imbibe it. The two passages represent two different ways of issuing warnings about the dangers and evil of drinking wine. It is passing strange that some profess to see a justification for drinking in two passages which warn men of the evils of the same.” — Dub McClish [12]

The young man from my email exchange upon being challenged with the above argument further stated, “Elders are held to a higher standard, and they must be as they hold an important office.” When a comparison is made between the “qualifications” of elders and the “qualifications” of all faithful Christians, it becomes clear that elders are not held to a higher standard of conduct. 

To be sure, they have a greater responsibility and condemnation if they do not fulfill that responsibility, but not a higher standard regarding their conduct. There are no standards applied to elders that are not also applied to all Christians, with the exception being, “the husband of one wife,” or “having faithful children” (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6).

Deacons and all other Christians are not held to a lesser standard. That would make two standards: one for elders and one for everybody else, and God is not a respecter of persons (Romans 2:11). I find it striking that some seem to have found a justification for deacons to drink but not elders. 

 “The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things.” — Titus 2:3

Here the aged women are to possess certain qualities of which “not begin given to much wine” is one of them, using the exact same phrase as applied to deacons. This idea of “not given to much wine” is not applied to anyone except deacons and aged women. By this logic, the only ones who can drink any alcohol are old ladies and deacons!

In further answer to this argument consider the concept that the condemnation of the excess of something does not automatically approve of the lesser degree. James 1:21 speaks of the “superfluity [super-abundance] of naughtiness [malice, depravity, or wickedness]” and 1 Peter 4:4 refers to an “excess of riot.” Do these passages then condone a “moderate” amount of naughtiness or riot in the life of a Christian? Of course not! The excess is condemned simply as a point of emphasis to drive home the point. 

3) God would not have created something that is a temptation and then condemn its use.

A third common argument in favor of social drinking is based upon the idea that God would not have created something that is a temptation and then condemn its use. My young friend argued from James 1:13 that God does not tempt any man; therefore, social drinking is not a sin. In answer to this, one needs to understand that God created many things in which the misuse thereof is a sin.

For instance, God created the sex drive. It is natural and right that men and women have a physical desire for sexual relations, with their lawful spouse. 

“Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge…” — Hebrews 13:4

“Whoremongers” and adulterers are those who misuse the sex drive and will be condemned. God gave us all a desire for sex. He created sex. He reserves sex only for those who are legitimately married to one another.

Note also that God created the tongue (ability to speak). He created it as an instrument of blessing God (James 3:9); of praising God (Hebrews 13:15). And He created it as an instrument of simple communication. James 3 makes it clear that the misuse of the tongue (language) is a cause of great sin and harm!

And note that God created our bodies. 

“Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body.” — 1 Corinthians 6:13

We can certainly misuse our bodies or allow ourselves to be tempted to do so. All things that God created have their proper use. The fact that some are tempted to misuse God’s creation does not make God guilty of tempting us to sin. 

James 1:14-15 make it clear where temptation arises from – our own lusts! God did not create that lust!

4) The argument that the Pharisees accused Jesus of being a winebibber. 

The final argument in favor of so-called social drinking that I want to discuss also came from my email exchange. This one is the most disturbing one I have yet encountered. He stated

“The Pharisees had accused Jesus of being a ‘winebibber.’ 

The Greek word for winebibber is oinopotes and is defined as ‘given to wine’ or ‘drunkard.’ Obviously, this is an exaggeration and a false claim, but an honest heart must ask, on what evidence is this claim based? 

I believe that the reason they claimed he was a winebibber is based on the fact that he consumed wine. That does not mean Jesus became drunk off of the wine but keep in mind that the Pharisees were quick to claim any falsehood against the Son of Man and it seems reasonable to me that they claimed he was a winebibber because they had seen him drink wine.”

I answered that argument first with this: I personally would be concerned with my position if I found myself agreeing, to any degree, with the Pharisees concerning their false accusations against Jesus and His disciples! 

On what evidence did the Pharisees base this false accusation? Was it because they had personally seen Jesus drink wine, or was it because they had seen him eat with publicans and sinners who were known to imbibe, assuming Him to be drinking alcohol with them (Matthew 9:10-11; Luke 5:29-30)? One cannot assume that Jesus drank alcohol from the fact that he ate with publicans and sinners.

Furthermore, they coupled the accusation of being a winebibber with that of being a glutton. A glutton is one who overindulges in eating and drinking; this is strongly associated with “banquetings” which are condemned in 1 Peter 4:3 and connected with “running to an excess of riot” in 1 Peter 4:4 and which disposition is described by Paul in Philippians 3:19 as one “whose god is their belly…” 

As well, gluttony was an offense for which one could be stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 21:20-21) This was yet another false accusation against our Lord, based solely upon the fact that He and His disciples ate with publicans and sinners.

Plus, Jesus was falsely slandered and accused of many other things, including casting out demons by the power of Satan. 

“And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils.” — Mark 3:22

Was there any basis for this accusation? No! 

In fact, Jesus pointed out that they were blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Jesus in John 8:44 Jesus tells the Pharisees “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it…” Christ said in effect that the Pharisees were liars. [The Pharisees then go on to accuse Jesus of being “a Samaritan” saying that he “hast a devil” (John 8:48), and that they “know that thou hast a devil” (John 8:52). 

Were any of these accusations based on fact? Will not those who are liars tell a lie or make slander against one they seek to destroy? Can we judge our Lord and His actions based upon false accusations by men who were His avowed enemies?

This final argument shows us the lengths to which some will go to justify social drinking. They so strongly want to engage in social drinking that they will attempt to drag the very Savior who suffered and died on the cross for them through the proverbial mud and sully His flawless reputation to justify themselves before men and God! 

I would not want to be them and stand before the Almighty God in judgment and answer for that blasphemy!

What has been said here about alcohol applies equally to any other intoxicating drug, such as marijuana, opioids, or even cocaine or heroin. The Christian must abstain from any substance which impairs judgment or brings on a state of inebriation. 

The only exceptions would be narcotics prescribed by a physician and used only as prescribed or the use of drugs or medicine containing alcohol to treat a legitimate medical condition. 

The consumption of any intoxicant merely for the sensation it produces is a sinful misuse of that substance. The Christian is called to be holy and to “abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).

By Jack W. McNiel
[1] Jeffcoat, W. D.; The Bible and Social Drinking, (2006 Publishing Designs Inc., Huntsville, AL.) P. 28, 29.
[2] Jackson, Wayne; Bible Words and Theological Terms Made Easy, (2002 Courier Publications, Stockton, California). P. 192, 193.
[3] Brown, Driver, and Briggs; A Hebrew and English Lexicon, [1906] As found in the e-Sword Bible study software program. Public Domain.
[4] Thayer, J. H.; Thayer's Greek Definitions. [1896] As found in the e-Sword Bible study software program. Public Domain.
[5] Vine, W.E.; Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. [1961] As found in the e-Sword Bible study software program. Public Domain.
[5] Thayer, IBID
[6] Vine, IBID
[7] Vine, IBID
[8] Thayer, IBID
[9] Vine, IBID
[10] Thayer, IBID
[11] Jeffcoat, IBID
[12] McClish, Dub; Annual Denton Lectures: Studies in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, (2001 Valid Publications, Denton, Texas) p. 128