Is it Sinful to Drink Alcohol Recreationally?

By: Mark Ghobrial

In our current society, alcohol has enthroned itself as a beverage of celebration, leisure, and destress. However, an important question must be answered: is it appropriate for a Christian to drink alcohol and use it as a form of celebration according to the manner that the world does? Is it acceptable for a Christian, particularly someone who accepts the title of “servant” in the church to drink recreationally?

In our current society, alcohol has enthroned itself as a beverage of celebration, leisure, and destress.  However, an important question must be answered: is it appropriate for a Christian to drink alcohol and use it as a form of celebration according to the manner that the world does? Is it acceptable for a Christian, particularly someone who accepts the title of “servant” in the church to drink recreationally?

This is the position we will defend: the physical action of drinking alcohol as a substance is not sinful[1] (this is proven by the fact that there were many nonrecreational uses for alcohol such as medicinal and disinfectant uses in biblical times that made alcohol into a necessary functional tool)[2]. However, drinking alcohol, specifically liquors and cocktails, for enjoyment or recreational uses at celebrations according to the manner that we see in the world today is a sinful practice. Such practices are not compatible with the Christian life and will prevent me from the Divine accompaniment that I am so eagerly longing for. To support this position, we will address it using arguments from four different angles: the philosophical argument, the biblical argument, the historical argument, and the service argument.

The Philosophical Argument

There are two major philosophical arguments that exist against a Christian’s consumption of alcohol.

The first argument deals with the concept of Christ’s illumination.[3] One of the central purposes of Christ’s incarnation and coming to us here on Earth was to give illumination to mankind: to bring us to the knowledge and awareness of the truth and to allow us to see reality more clearly. He says, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness but have the light of life… and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” (John 8:12,32). Again, He says, “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness,” (John 12:46). Thus, Christ has come to increase our perception of the reality of life, His presence, and eternity. Ironically, this is the exact opposite of the function of alcohol on the body. Alcohol is meant to dull the perception of reality; it weakens the senses to their natural perceptions of the world. This is contrary to the illuminating work of Christ in our life. Any substance that is consumed that functions contrary to the enlightening work of Christ in the life of a Christian, having an effect on our mental perception of the world, is intrinsically against the Christian purpose.[4]

To this some may say that there are many medicines such as narcotics which dull the perception of the reality. Does this mean these are anti-Christian? No. Individuals that take prescription narcotics, after a surgery, an injury or for pain management for example, take these medicines for an intended medicinal effect and experience sedation as a side-effect. However, it is generally agreed that if someone takes narcotics without a medical need, for the sake of enjoyment or destress, that this is a sinful practice, even if they are taken in small quantities.

However, some may say that this willful sedation doesn’t happen with one or two drinks taken moderately, thus absolving the drinking of one or two drinks. The flaw in this argument is that it is using the gravity of consequences to measure whether or not a practice is moral, which is reasoning that we would never be allowed to stand in any other area of life. For example, it is accepted that lying is a sinful practice regardless of the size of the lie or the consequences of the lie. In fact, sometimes “small” lies may have no consequences at all or even positive consequences. However, we maintain that lying is wrong regardless of its effects, because of its intrinsic nature which is contrary to the truth. The same can be said about speeding on the road. If the speed limit is 25 miles/hour, whether I am going 35 miles/hour or 65 miles/hour, both are considered speeding, regardless of each’s legal or safety consequences, because speeding is intrinsically wrong in the eyes of the law. The same can be said of alcohol. Alcohol’s intrinsic nature is to dull my senses, which is a sinful pursuit when I drink it recreationally. Whether that is accomplished or not based on how much I am drinking is irrelevant of the fact that the alcohol’s nature is contrary to the illuminating work of Christ. I cannot use the perception of lack of consequences on my senses to justify alcohol-drinking as being moral.[5]

The second philosophical argument revolves around the transformative work of Christ. In John 2, we see Christ perform His first miracle: He takes water that is at a wedding and He transforms it to wine, when the guests ran out of wine to drink. Water is the substance of life; all living things in this world, live on a water. Water is a symbol of our life here on Earth. Wine is a symbol of joy and celebration. By turning the water into wine at the wedding of Cana of Galilee, Christ is teaching us that He has come in order to transform our Earthly life into a life of joy. [6]  Later on in the gospels, Christ does something remarkable: at the Eucharist, He then takes the wine and transforms it into His own blood. Christ does this to show us that He not only wants us to have joy, but that He wants to have joy that stems from a communion with Him. The earthly wine that we offer Him, He turns into divine wine that is His true blood. It is a spring of joy that comes only from having a Eucharistic communion with Christ. The question here is, how is it that Christ takes the earthly wine and transforms it into His blood in order to give me access to divine joy, and then I choose to leave this heavenly wine to drink the wine of this world? How is it that Christ elevates the carnal wine to new, Eucharistic wine to give me the ultimate joy, and yet I am not content with this and leave it to go back and drink the old wine of this life which is no more?[7]

 The Biblical Argument

At the most basic level, the Bible repeatedly addresses the primary effect of alcohol: drunkenness.

Here are only a few verses that mention the Bible’s stance this:

  • “Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit,” (Ephesians 5:18)
  • “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which [is]: … drunkenness…those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God,” (Galatians 5:19-21)
  • “Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may follow intoxicating drink, who continue until night, till wine inflames them!” (Isaiah 5:11)
  • “But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly,” (Luke 21:43)

The Bible clearly condemns becoming drunk or buzzed, even going so far as to equate drunkenness with idolatry, murder and heresy and to say that such people that continue in this will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. Such behavior only works to bar me from experiencing the presence of God in my heart and His working hand in my life. There is no greater fulfillment for a Christian other than laying aside the pleasures of the Earth in order to seek the true joy that come from above[8]: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” (Hebrews 12:1). Alcohol stands in the way of our relationship with the truth; our union with the truth is the fundamental foundation of the Christian life[9]: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” (John 8:32) and “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage,” (Galatians 5:1).

Furthermore, when we look at the Biblical etymology, we see that there are ten different terms that are translated to the word “wine” in English (6 Hebrew terms and 4 Greek terms). Some of these terms refer specifically to wine that is freshly squeezed, some refer to fresh juice still inside the grape clusters hanging on the vines, some refer to diluted wines with negligible alcohol content, some refer to moderate wines and some refer to strong drinks or intoxicating wines.[10] Therefore, it is our duty to understand in every context what exactly is meant by the English term “wine” when used in the Bible, and not to automatically assume the wine ancient peoples dealt with is identical to the alcoholic beverages we have today.


The Historical Argument

It is extremely important to understand the place of alcohol in Biblical times and understand the differences between the role it played in ancient societies compared to the role it plays in our society today. Alcohol had many nonrecreational uses in antiquity that are reflected in various biblical explanation.

Primarily, alcohol was used as a medicine. Ancient people understood wine to have many medicinal properties. Ancient doctors used wine to treat upset stomach, pains and fevers.[11] It was also used to mask the flavor of horrible tasting medicines that doctors would prescribe to make them easier to take. It was also used as a disinfectant for cleaning wounds[12] but especially for water; when drinking was making people sick, it would either be mingled with wine or wine alone would be drank instead because the alcohol in the wine was known to make it more sanitary and disease resistant (ancient people didn’t have proper knowledge of bacteria and its weakness to alcohol, but still understood alcohol’s disease fighting principles), making it safer to drink.[13] Many biblical scholars believe this is what was meant by St. Paul: St. Timothy was beginning to serve in Ephesus, away from his hometown of Lystra. Like many missionaries, the local drinking probably gave his stomach trouble. This combined with any ailments that occurred in his body due to self-exertion in service and ascetism began to take a toll on St. Timothy.[14]  For this reason, St. Paul suggests to his disciple to use alcohol medicinally to allow his body to sustain him in his service (1 Timothy 5:23). Furthermore, in the same epistle, St. Paul says that those who commit themselves to the deaconate should not give themselves over to “much wine” (1 Timothy 3:8), meaning that despite the beneficial effects wine may have had at the time, those who commit themselves to the service of the church should respect their limits due to the problematic effects of over-drinking.[15]

Furthermore, ancient peoples often struggled against malnutrition due to limited access to diverse food groups (a struggle that is virtually nonexistent in the modern, developed world). Simply put, wines were one of the few beverage options people in antiquity had to drink for the nourishment of their bodies. The slight alcohol content of the wines also prevented them from spoiling by being lethal to bacteria, an extremely beneficial quality in a world without refrigeration or preservatives. Thus, alcohol played an extremely functional role that is basically obsolete in a modern world with advanced medicine, remedies and wide access to nutrition.[16]

On top of this, it’s important to look what exactly people were drinking back then. The Bible mentions two types of alcoholic drinks: wine and “strong drinks” (wine that was super fermented to have a very high alcohol content. Ancient wines typically contained between 1-5% alcohol whereas ancient “strong drinks” typically contained 10-15%.[17] Compare this with modern times where most wines and beers contain about 7-11% alcohol and most liquors (or the strong drinks of our times) can contain 40-60% alcohol.[18] For this reason, the sin of drunkenness was often times connected in the Bible with the sin of gluttony (Proverbs 23:20-21), because people in Biblical times would have to drink so much wine to reach the point of drunkenness. Compare this to nowadays where it is very easy to get drunk off of a few shots of liquor. Simply put, to call Biblical wine and modern drinks both “alcohol” is not a fair comparison. The extreme difference in alcohol content renders the two drinks incomparable. The action of drinking modern liquors or strong drinks lends itself to drunkenness very readily in ways that ancient alcohols could not accomplish and thus is considered sinful in the eyes of the church.[19]

It was also a common practice in antiquity to take the standard wine they had and further dilute it by mixing it with water. Many writings verify the fact that the ancients dealt with this dilemma by mixing their wine with water to prevent intoxication. Consider the following examples. In civilized Greek society, Homer mentions a ratio of twenty parts water to one-part concentrated wine.[20] Hippocrates also considered “twenty parts of water to one part of the Thracian wine to be the proper beverage.”[21] Pliny mentions a ration of eight parts water to one part wine.[22] Athenaeus’ “The Learned Banquet” (200 A.D.), mentions that the custom of the time was to mix three parts water to one part wine. In fact, in ancient, civilized societies, it was considered a savage practice to drink concentrated, unmingled wine not diluted with water. This was only done by the tribes of barbarians at the time.[23]

The Service Argument

When it comes to the Christian who has accepted the title of “servant”; a representative of Christ for others; a man or woman of God, there are two major issues that such a person must contest with when it comes to the recreational drinking of alcohol.

Firstly, regardless of what anyone says, whenever a servant drinks alcohol in a public setting at a wedding or a celebration, it is almost guaranteed to stumble others, whether they be the kids served by these servants, or the parents of those kids. This is because on a societal level, drinking alcohol is publicly associated with sinful celebrations and inappropriate partying and dancing. Therefore, even if a servant is drinking alcohol in a manner that they personally deem “proper”, this action will nonetheless inevitably cause others to stumble, especially those who lack the wisdom to know better and those who fail to understand the context in which the servant is drinking.[24] A similar issue is brought up in 1 Corinthians 8, where St. Paul tells the Corinthians that an idol is nothing more than a powerless statue, therefore there is no issue with consuming food and meat that is offered to idols. However, St. Paul also recognizes that this practice could have the potential to stumble others, as many Christians disagreed with St. Paul and thought that food offered to idols was unclean and sinful. Thus, St. Paul in his wisdom teaches us: “But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble,” (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). St. Paul teaches that my freedom to live in personal liberty should never be more important to me than making sure my brother does not stumble. To live my life by making choices according to my freedom and not take accountability for causing my brothers and sisters to stumble is not the spirit of the Christian. Therefore, drinking alcohol, especially in public settings, poses the real risk of causing others to stumble that simply cannot be ignored, and “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea,” (Matthew 18:6).

Secondly, a Christian servant can never put themselves in a position where they are living a life or teaching instruction that contradicts the specific position of the church. The official position of the church is articulated beautifully by His Grace Bishop Youssef (of the Southern United States): “The Church does not openly say that drinking alcohol in itself is sinful but that the abuse of alcohol is. However, the Church advocates complete abstinence from drinking because the possibility of abuse is usually very high. Your body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Let us ask ourselves: are we bringing honor to the Holy Spirit through the consumption of alcohol (I Corinthians 6:12,15,19-20)?”[25] The same position is held by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III[26], and also Fr. Tadros Malaty[27]. In fact, the church itself teaches that if a Christian is to drink the night before a Liturgy, that person is barred from taking Communion and must seek absolution from the priest.[28] Therefore, if the church has a certain position on an issue, then as a servant I must not only preach that position but also be the living embodiment of that doctrine. I am not called as a servant of the church to represent my own positions and opinions, but to represent the positions and teachings of the church with both my speech and my actions. This type of submission and obedience is a requirement for a servant of the orthodox church. This is the only path that can lead me as a servant and as a Christian to be not only a disciple of the church and the saints but also a disciple of Christ. Genuine fellowship and experience of God’s presence in my life requires this kind of joyful adherence to His commandments.

Let us pray and ask that Christ may help raise our minds above the earthly and carnal wine which numbs us to the realities of life and elevate us up to become worthy of His heavenly and Eucharistic wine, that is His blood, which quickens the spirit and enlightens its perception to the present kingdom of heaven.

“Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water,’” (John 7:37-38)

[1] Bishop Youssef- Q&A: “Alcohol/Alcohol Consumption”

[2] See Section “The Historical Argument”

[3] Bishop Youssef- English Sermon: “Truth & Untruth”, 8/2/2020

[4] Bishop Youssef- English Sermon: “John 8:37-47”, 11/2/19

[5] C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”: Book III- Christian Behavior

[6] Fr. Tadros Malaty, “Patristic Commentary on the Gospel of John”: Chapter 2, Introduction

[7] Fr. Tadros Malaty, “Patristic Commentary on the Gospel of John”: Chapter 2, verse 10

[8] St. Jerome, “On Psalms”, Homily 16

[9] St. Augustine, “On the Gospel of St. John”, Tractate 41:1

[10] Enhanced Strongs Lexicon, Hebrew, Entry #3196

[11] Mark Keller, Encyclopedia Britannica: “Alcohol Consumption”- Early Uses

[12] Parable of Good Samaritan, Luke 10:34

[13] Mark Plotkin, “The Ethnobotany of Wine as Medicine in the Ancient Mediterranean World”

[14] St. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2:2

[15] Tertullian of Carthage, in “Patristic Commentary on Epistle to St. Timothy” by Fr. Tadros Malaty

[16] PE McGovern, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Ancient Egyptian herbal wines.”

[17] James Romanow, “Alcohol Content of Biblical Wines” Interview 2018

[18] Nicolle Monico, “Alcohol by Volume: Beer, Wine, Liquor”

[19] Pope Shenouda III, “Contemplations on the Ten Commandments: The Sixth Commandment”, p.61-62

[20] Homer: Odyssey IX, 208f

[21] William Patton, “Bible Wines”, p.50

[22] Plinty: Natural History XIV, vi, 54

[23] The Encyclopedia of Psychological Disorders, “Drowning our Sorrows”, p. 20

[24] “The Servants Book: A Spiritual Guide for Sunday School Service”, p.7- St. Mary’s, Raleigh, NC

[25] Bishop Youssef- Q&A: “Alcohol/Alcohol Consumption”

[26] Pope Shenouda III, “Contemplations on the Ten Commandments: The Sixth Commandment”, p.61-62

[27] Fr. Tadros Malaty, “Short Stories” 29-31, 1995

[28] Bishop Youssef- Q&A: “Fasting Before Communion”