May Deacons Participate in Social Drinking?

By H.E. “Buddy” Payne

The question posed above usually arises in connection with a discussion of 1 Timothy 3:8 where, among other things, the Scripture teaches that a deacon must not be “given to much wine.” A similar statement with regard to bishops in 1 Timothy 3:3 indicates that bishops must not be “given to wine.” Because of the difference in these two expressions some assert that deacons (and presumably other Christians) may participate in social drinking while bishops (elders) may not. The discussion of these particular verses and their implications in answering the question above will be postponed until later in the article. Let us turn first to some more fundamental questions.

What do we mean by social drinking? The term “social drinking” is not used in the Bible so we must establish its meaning from modem usage. The word “social” means pertaining to or characterized by friendly companionship or relations. “Drink” or “drinking,” as used in the question above, means to partake of alcoholic beverages. Thus, social drinking means to partake of alcoholic beverages in the presence of companions or friends or to be sociable. In common usage it also implies drinking moderately, not to excess. Thus, the question which forms the title of this article is asking whether a deacon can participate in moderate drinking, drinking which does not cause him to be drunk.

What does the Bible have to say about alcoholic beverages? The biblical terms relating to alcoholic beverages are “wine” and “strong drink.” The word “wine” in our English versions of the Bible most often translate the Hebrew word yayin or yain in the Old Testament and the Greek word oinos in the New Testament. The term “strong drink” translates the Hebrew word sekar and the Greek word sikera. When the two terms are used together, the term “strong drink” probably refers to all kinds of fermented drinks other than wine, which referred primarily to drinks derived from the grape (see ISBE, Vol. 1, p. 993, 1979 revision). The following excerpts from the book The Bible and Wine by Ferrar Fenton are instructive with regard to the usage of the word “wine.”

As in the Hebrew yain, the word does not in the Greek always signify fermented intoxicating drink, but grapes as fresh fruit, dried raisins, or prepared as jam, or preserved by boiling for storage, or as thick syrup for spreading upon bread as we do butter; and that syrup dissolved in water for a beverage at meals, as described in the Hebrew Bible by Solomon and others, and amongst Greek writers by Aristotle, and Pliny amongst the Roman ones. This mixing of the syrup with water ready for use at meals is alluded to in more than one of our Lord’s parables. The liquid was absolutely non-alcoholic and not intoxicating. Grape juice was also prepared by heating it, as soon as possible after it had been squeezed in the press, by boiling, so as to prevent fermentation, and yet preserve its thin liquid form as a drink. To ensure this certain resinous gums were dissolved in the juice, or sulphate of lime, or what is now commonly called gypsum, was put into it, as it now done in Spain, to make the liquid clear and bright, and prevent subsequent fermentation arising from changes of atmosphere. . .

It should never be forgotten that when reading in the Bible and the classic pagan writers of “wine” we are seldom dealing with the strongly intoxicating and loaded liquids to which that name is alone attached in the English language, but usually with beverages such as above described. They were as harmless and sober as our own teas, coffees and cocoas. Had they not been so, the ancient populations would have been perpetually in a more or less pronounced state of drunkenness, for they had not of our above-mentioned herb-made drinks to use as a part of their dietary. These facts should never be forgotten when we read of “wine” there, – for it was simple fruit syrup, except where especially stated to be of the intoxicating kinds, which latter the Prophets and Legislators always condemned.

The case of Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee offers a good illustration of the need for care in dealing with the word “wine” in the Bible. Mr. Fenton calls the passage in John 2:1-10 “one of the most misunderstood, and misrepresented passages in the whole of the gospels,” and then adds the following comments.

The misunderstanding has arisen from imposing upon the ancient Greek text, and ancient Jewish habits of food and drink, entirely the modem and Northern European conception, that the word “wine” always means intoxicating liquor. Amongst the old Orientals and the Romans, such an idea was not attached to “wine” as a universal conception. On the contrary, their “best wines” were not fermented at all … The ordinary drink of the Romans, learned writers ten us, was juice of the grape, which they mixed with water, both hot and cold – (the same as the “mingled” or “mixed” wine of Solomon, and the parable of Jesus about the royal feast at the King’s son’s marriage), and sometimes with spices.

It is practically certain that the “wine” created by Christ at Cana was of the non-intoxicating kind, which . . . was “the ordinary drink of the people” in daily fife. The knowledge of that fact disposes of the argument . . . that the guests were all drunk before the miraculous wine was produced, and therefore that Jesus decided to make them more so, to show His disciples and the people the sacred nature of intoxicants.

It appears that the Bible and other ancient documents used the word “wine” to mean either intoxicating or nonintoxicating beverages. In addition to that, even the wine that contained alcohol by natural fermentation was often mixed with water before drinking, thus diluting the alcoholic content even further. (See an interesting article by Robert H. Stein in Christianity Today, June 20, 1975, pp. 9-11.) At the very least it is reasonable to conclude that moderate drinking of today’s wine and other alcoholic beverages involves partaking of much more alcohol than the drinking of the wine of Bible times.

What does the Bible say about moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages? The Bible clearly condemns drunkenness (Gal. 5:2 1; 1 Cor. 6:10) and other drinking as well (1 Pet. 4:3): its many exhortations to be sober minded testify to the wisdom and acceptability to God of total abstinence. Social or moderate drinking lies somewhere between drinking and abstinence. It is a subject which the Bible does not discuss directly or define carefully. Even the ambiguity of the word “wine” testifies to that fact. It is not possible to say from direct statements in the Bible that the drinking of small amounts of alcoholic beverages is sinful or that the drinking of a fixed amount of alcohol constitutes drunkenness. The question of social drinking, whether for deacons or other Christians, is a question that will require the exercising of our spiritual senses to discern whether participating in it is good or evil (see Heb. 5:12-14).

Let us exercise our spiritual senses with the following thoughts.

1. The Bible wams of the danger of wine and strong drink (Prov. 21:19-21,29-35).

2. Modem-day statistics with regard to the number of people who have become alcoholics (approximately one in ten of those who drink) and the destruction that is wreaked upon our society by those who drink alcohol substantiate the Bible’s warnings and graphically illustrate the foolishness of using even moderate amounts of today’s alcoholic beverages.

3. As discussed above, there is a striking difference between the drinking of alcoholic beverages today and the drinking of alcoholic beverages in the days when the New Testament was written. The distilled spirits of today have from three to many more times the alcoholic content of the strongest drinks in the Bible.

4. Can anyone answer how much of today’s wine one can drink without losing some self-control, good judgment and clearness of mind? Are not these characteristics of being sober-minded which God expects of Christians?

5. The New Testament teaches Christians that we are to be proper examples and influences to other Christians and to non-Christians (Matt. 5:13-16; 1 Tim. 4:12; etc.). The force of these exhortations becomes particularly vivid with regard to alcohol when you have to sit through the night with a brother in Christ as he suffers the delirium tremens because he was influenced to begin drinking by another thoughtless human being. What if a brother in Christ, possibly a deacon, had invited this brother over to his home and offered him a beer or some wine with his supper? It is only a social drink! Hear Romans 14:21. “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.”

It is inconceivable to me that any Christian could find himself in a situation in which he does not wield some influence over someone who has a serious tendency to be an alcoholic, or who is simply weak in his ability to control his drinking. In our society and present circumstances it is difficult for me to conceive of any good that could come from lending our influence to the drinking alcoholic beverages at all.

Having exercised our spiritual senses with the weighty considerations above, what is your judgment with regard to a Christian’s participating in social drinking? It is my considered judgment that it is an evil thing. If it is evil for a Christian, it is certainly evil for a deacon.

But what about 1 Timothy 3:8 and 3:3, the passages to which we referred at the beginning of this article? Several comments are in order. First, the word used for wine in both verses is a form of the Greek word oinos, which we showed above to be an ambiguous word. Second, the context here seems to imply alcoholic wine because the bishop or deacon is not to be “given to” or “addicted to” the wine. Third, it is my judgment that the Lord does impose a stricter regulation on bishops than on deacons (or older women – Tit. 2:3). A bishop must have proved himself to be completely in control of himself with regard to even small amounts of the very weak alcoholic beverages consumed in the days the New Testament was written. The deacon’s qualification was not as restrictive, but he was still to demonstrate great self control. However, none of these things nullifies a single statement or conclusion made in the paragraphs above.

It is difficult to understand why any deacon would want to participate in social drinking given the considerations above. Let us all as Christians put away this evil from among us.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 22, pp. 682-683
November 16, 1989