Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 5:18a “And. . .”
This conjunction vitally connects Paul’s command here with what he has just previously said. The context (vv. 15-17) involves being able to think wisely, in order to walk circumspectly, redeem the time, and understand the will of God. To accomplish these latter three objectives, one must be wise, a condition which demands a Christian keep a clear mind always.
The Christian walk is to be dictated by wisdom, and is thus a controlled life. Alcohol makes one act unwisely by producing a loss of mental control. An inebriated mind is governed by something other than Biblical wisdom. Such a one has trouble walking circumspectly. A person who cannot walk straight physically certainly cannot walk straight spiritually, but “reels in both” (Maclaren). A drunk person cannot redeem the time. Drunkenness makes it impossible to recognize, to assess the value of, and to take advantage of, fleeting spiritual opportunities which present themselves to us. Intoxicated people will certainly have trouble understanding what the will of the Lord is, for they lose all ability to reason clearly.
Paul could have chosen any of several vices to highlight the contrast between living wisely as opposed to unwisely. He singled out this one particularly heinous evil because it works against every Christian virtue. When alcohol takes control, wisdom is forfeited. Thus, Paul admonishes. . .
Eph. 5:18b “. . .be not drunk. . .”
Drunkenness has been a common vice ever since the Flood. Noah became drunk and exposed himself (GN 9:21). Lot became so inebriated that he did not realize his own daughters were committing incest with him. He thus became the father of his own grandchildren (GN 19:30ff). Historians tell us every major civilization in ancient history died drunk.
In Greco-Roman culture, drunkenness was especially rampant, indeed epidemic. Alexander once held a tournament to determine who could drink the most wine. Thirty of the rivals died in the competition. Alexander himself, proud devotee of Mars the god of war, died a sotted sacrifice to Bacchus the god of wine. At Ephesus Diana was the chief deity; her nearest rival was Bacchus. When Mark Antony entered the city, the women of Ephesus danced round his chariot dressed as priestesses of Bacchus.
Drunkenness was a curse in Paul’s day, as it always had been and evermore shall be. It was even a problem within the Church. Some were becoming intoxicated (1 C 11:21) at the taking of the Lord’s Supper.
Having a tender pastor’s heart, Paul could not turn his head and look the other way. He was ever intent on blending doctrine with practicality. Christianity is not merely a lesson to be learned, but a life to be lived.
To ignore the problem of drunkenness, to act as if it did not exist, would put Paul in the position of denying the essence of his call to love. I, due to God’s call on my life, must also tackle this difficult issue. To skirt it would be wrong. God’s servants must help where help is most needed.
Drinking alcoholic beverages is a controversial subject, and rouses harsh feelings on both sides of the debate. Often, anger gets out of control, and wild rhetoric causes the real issue to become clouded. Thus, let me begin by honestly seeking to set the record straight about my own denomination and its role in the liquor debate. No one can speak for Southern Baptists as a whole, but three obvious trends among us are identifiable.
First, Southern Baptists are rightfully known as America’s champions of teetotalism. I want to set the record straight on this detail. We take much abuse and ridicule on this front because many of our people drink. I heard one say, “Baptists are the people who refuse to drink in front of each other.” What are the facts? A National Family Research poll in 1986 found that 40% of Southern Baptists drink at least occasionally. This seems to reflect negatively on us until we compare it with the fact that 69% of other Protestants drink, and 82% of Catholics. In other words, we are significantly more likely to have total abstainers in our ranks. In studies published in the book Baptist Battles by Nancy Ammerman, Southern Baptists were asked which practices Christians should avoid. More than 95% of those identifying themselves as conservatives said drinking alcoholic beverages should be avoided; 86% of moderate/conservatives and 63% of moderates agreed (all statistics from “Word and Way,” 09-17-92, page 7).
Second, regarding the congregation at large, an overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist leaders advocate, but rarely seek to enforce, teetotalism. In former generations, members were sometimes excluded from churches over this issue. In 1956 we felt strongly enough about it to include in our denominationally published hymnal the “Church Covenant,” which included a pledge “to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage.” Many churches still use this covenant, but neither my dad nor I know of a Southern Baptist church in recent decades which has excluded anyone from membership due to the use of alcohol. It probably has happened, but the fact we know nothing of it shows it truly is rare.
Third, an overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist churches require their pastors and deacons to be teetotalers. Neither my dad nor I have ever known of a Southern Baptist pastor who drank alcoholic beverages with the knowledge and blessing of his congregation. Many churches also expect other church leaders to abstain from alcohol. Half a century ago, Grandpa Hill dismissed a man from teaching Sunday School due to drinking. The man came to Grandpa’s house, threatened him with a pistol, and told him to leave town. Grandpa, who eventually became a veteran of both World Wars, told the man, “You did not call me here, and you will not cause me to leave,” and stared him down. Later, the man, in a drunken condition, drove his car off into a swollen stream and drowned.
Southern Baptists obviously want to make a strong statement about their negative attitude toward alcohol, but at the same time want to protect their cherished belief in individual soul-liberty. In the main, we do not feel we have Biblical justification to make the consumption of alcohol a test of fellowship. However, we do feel we have a Biblical precedent for requiring total abstinence in our leaders. Scripture does present one prominent situation wherein total abstinence from intoxicants was demanded–those who took upon themselves the Nazirite vow (NB 6), which entailed a commitment of extraordinary consecration to the Lord’s service. Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist were under the Nazirite vow for life. Thus, we have a Biblical precedent for asking those who are set apart to serve as leaders to abstain from alcoholic beverages. This has, in effect, become our way of making a strong statement to our society on the evils of alcohol while at the same time protecting soul-liberty. Do we force abstinence on our congregation at large? No. Do we expect it of our leaders? Yes.
Now we return to our text and its context. The danger in alcohol is its ability to suppress Biblical wisdom. This damaging effect on our life-style results from alcohol’s chemical effect on the brain. Alcohol is not a stimulant, but a depressant. This immediately raises a key question, if alcohol is a depressant, why do people drink it in order to be stimulated?
Alcohol first and foremost depresses the highest centers in the brain. Self-control, wisdom, understanding, proper judgment–things which help people behave at their best–are depressed, suppressed. Baser, animalistic instincts are thus allowed priority, and begin to rule. Since lower instincts are normally held down by higher ones when sober, as lower ones become prominent in drunkenness, the inebriate is fooled. He thinks he has been stimulated, but all that has happened is that the good has been depressed.
Due to this insidious trait of alcohol, some of the worst alcohol related deeds are committed by social drinkers rather than by alcohol addicts. One who drinks into unconsciousness suppresses all voluntary brain action, good and bad. A moderate drinker, however, often is stupefied enough to squelch nobler instincts and conceive wrongs, yet sober enough to carry them out.
Let me illustrate with a painful memory. A beautiful and gentle girl in our high school became pregnant. She had gone out drinking with some male friends. She got stone-drunk and in essence passed out–she drank to the point of depressing essentially all voluntary brain signals. The boys, though, were not as drunk. They were drunk enough to suppress their nobler instincts, but not enough to squelch their baser instincts. Thus they took advantage of her and each had sex with her. She could not remember having sex and never knew who the father of her child was.
I believe in total abstinence, and always have. I have never tasted an alcoholic beverage. For this I am grateful. I am a teetotaler and a Biblicist. Thus, when one reminds me teetotalism is nowhere commanded in Scripture for the congregation at large, I have to be honest and agree.
This presents us with a dilemma. Abstinence may seem flawed in theory, but is perfect in practice; whereas moderation in drinking may seem right in theory, but inevitably becomes flawed in practice. It is unrealistic for anyone to think alcohol can be consumed, even in moderate quantities, for a lifetime, without somewhere along the way abuse happening, if not to a particular drinker per se, then to his acquaintances, or his family, especially his children–68% of all who drink take their first swig at home.
When discussing abstinence, stay calm, try to cut through the rhetoric, make sure all involved in the dialogue are on the same wave length. In theory, abstinence may seem too austere; in practice, it works. In theory, moderation may seem reasonable; in practice, it does not work. In theory and in practice, all Christians everywhere must agree a believer should never, under any circumstance, be intoxicated. We all say, “Be not drunk.”
Eph. 5:18c “. . .with wine,. . .”
These two messages on alcohol deal in depth with neither our influence on others, nor the truth that drinking offends many of the brethren. I have sought to contain my remarks to the context (5:15-17). Believers are to be wise in order to walk circumspectly, redeem the time, and understand the will of God. This requires that a Christian never be drunk. Southern Baptists, with a drinking rate much lower than other Christian groups, are rightly known as champions of teetotalism. We rarely seek to enforce it among our congregations at large, but do strongly advocate it. We generally require pastors and deacons, and sometimes other leaders, to be teetotalers.
Before 1492, drunkenness was found only in the Old World. Native Americans never discovered fermentation. Two of earth’s most harmful drugs were the Old and New Worlds’ gifts to each other. The Old donated alcohol, the New tobacco. Now both drugs scourge all parts of the planet.
In Paul’s world, drunkenness usually resulted from the abuse of wine, the fermented juice of grapes. Grape juice naturally contains glucose (sugar, C6H12O6) and bacteria (ferments). These bacteria emit enzymes which, in time, turn glucose into alcohol (C2H5OH). Fermentation is self-limiting. Once alcohol concentration reaches about 14%, the bacteria die, victims of their own alcohol production (sounds almost human), and fermentation ends.
A tonic of more than 14% alcohol requires distillation, a process not invented till the Middle Ages, at a medical school in Salerno, Italy. Nothing imbibed in Bible times compares to the 40% to 50% alcohol level found in modern distilled spirits such as brandy, gin, whiskey, vodka, rum, champagne, etc. Thus, drinking these can never be justified on Biblical grounds.
Paul’s generation drank wine for the same reasons people today drink it, but primarily for their “stomach’s sake” (1 TM 5:23). They knew that people who drank wine became sick less often than those who drank water. Alcohol was not healthy, the problem was impure water tainted by bacteria.
People who drank wine to get drunk sought undiluted wine (14% alcohol). For everyday purposes, people generally mixed one part wine with three parts water, resulting in a 3.5% alcohol content, less than is generally found in our modern day beers (4% to 7%) and wines (9% to 14%). According to the Talmud, this 3 to 1 ratio was the one observed at Passover, and thus would have probably been the one used at the Last Supper.
Drinking 3 to 1 wine could intoxicate, but required huge amounts of consumption. One had to “tarry long at the wine” (PR 23:30). To consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine mixed 3 to 1, one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses. In other words, one’s bladder would be affected long before one’s mind.
Alcohol begins its assault on the body by mildly irritating the mouth and esophagus, a small foretaste of what is to come. Within seconds it significantly irritates the wall of the stomach, which responds by secreting digestive acids strong enough to turn the toughest piece of meat into the consistency of oatmeal in one hour. As if under red alert, the stomach acts like the alcohol has to go, and dumps it undigested into the small intestine, which in turn does not like it and passes it directly into the blood stream.
The only body part willing to take time to grapple with alcohol and chemically break it down is the liver, the body’s sewage treatment plant, through which the entire blood supply circulates every four minutes. The liver, upon detecting alcohol, sounds a red alert, “Poison is present!” The liver immediately preempts its normal cleaning functions in order to concentrate on the alcohol, working fast and furiously as it can (hourly rate of 1/3 ounce of pure alcohol) on this toxic intruder. Fats build up, liver cells die in the battle with alcohol, resulting over years in scar tissue (cirrhosis).
In the meantime, while the liver desperately tries to rid the body of this poison, the alcohol travels throughout the body at will, putting electric tissues to sleep. Alcohol anesthetizes control centers, and interferes with the neurons’ ability to receive messages and impulses. The brain becomes befuddled, puzzled. Information is garbled. People begin to say and do things they would never consider when sober, a state Paul depicts as. . .
Eph. 5:18d “. . .wherein is excess;. . .”
Alcohol begins to take effect on the brain about ten minutes after ingestion. Its first effect is sedation and tranquility, a thrill based on the perception one’s troubles are left behind. Thought becomes more vivid. The colors of imagination become more brilliant. The river of life, which had become slow and sluggish, suddenly rises, becomes a rushing flood, and overflows its banks (Dale, in BI). This euphoric, first effect of alcohol creates an almost irresistible desire to increase use as soon as one starts to drink. A Japanese proverb says, first the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man. The result “is excess.”
One in ten who take a first drink of alcohol will become addicted to it. If told you have cancer, you have better than a 50-50 chance of recovery. If told you are an alcoholic, your chances of dying with a problem caused or worsened by alcohol is 96%. One reason for this is that a major paradox of alcohol is that those who have trouble with it vehemently deny it. If you have a loved one who drinks too much, video-tape that one while he or she is drunk. Get their attention. Reveal to them their true self.
Drunkenness leads to “excess.” This sin rarely travels alone. “This master vice carries all other vices in its pocket” (Maclaren). Drunkenness, John Trapp said, is not listed in the ten commandments because it is not the single breach of any, but in essence the violation of all.
When a teen, I preached at a church in Chicago and denounced alcohol. Afterwards, the church treasurer handed me my honorarium, saying, “Someday you will learn there are things worse than drinking.” A quarter of a century later, his words still have not been confirmed.
Due to its being socially acceptable, alcohol is our number one drug of abuse, by far more damaging than all other illicit drugs combined. We excuse behavior which results from drunkenness. In our efforts to support moderation, we sometimes have to put our stamp of approval on certain acts of “excess.” If we mean to support moderation only, then let our society act like it and punish “excess” with as much vigor as it berates abstinence.
Alcohol fertilizes every other social ill. Only heart disease, cancer, and abortion kill more people in the USA than alcohol does. About 65,000 lives a year are lost to alcohol. My own cousin, out drinking with some friends at a lake, downed a six-pack of beer, and then drowned. Our largest cause of death among ages 15-24 is alcohol-related auto accidents. Half the car deaths and half the murders in this country are alcohol-related.
Alcohol suppresses the holy bonds of conscience, and throws off restraint, modesty, and shame. Alcohol has never been a friend of chastity and purity of life. It transports people into gross sensuality. Three of every five college women with sexually transmitted diseases were drunk when infected. Some 95% of violent campus crime, as well as 90% of campus rapes, involves alcohol. To crusade on these matters, plus spouse and child abuse, suicide, and almost every other social ill, without dealing with alcohol is to miss the point. It empties homes by filling hospitals and jails. Mahomet said, in every grape dwells a devil. Paul saw “excess” in drunkenness.
Eph. 5:18e “. . .but. . .”
With a master-stroke of contrast, Paul in essence says that everything people seek in emptying a wine glass can be found in the filling of God’s Spirit. Analyze with me, brothers and sisters. Why do people drink?
Some claim to drink alcoholic beverages for the taste. I had in my St. Louis congregation professional tasters who worked for the 7-Up Corporation. They told me that essentially every taste inherent in alcoholic drinks can be duplicated without the alcohol. People drink alcohol for its kick.
Many just want a night-cap, something to help them relax, take the edge off, lift them above their cares a while. Is our relationship with God so shallow that wine can do this for us better than the Good Shepherd can?
Some drink alcohol as an opiate, to drown sorrows, to lessen pains of distressing memories or fears. A material substance may help one through an extremely bad time of crisis. If you need this kind of help, consult a doctor. Using a prescribed substance allows an objective, neutral person to oversee and monitor your drug use. This is in essence what happened when Paul told Timothy to drink wine. Paul was a neutral onlooker.
Some drink alcohol to interrupt the monotony of life. We hate to be bored, and seek an exhilarating rush. Desiring enthusiasm and excitement, we want to feel alive. It is okay to want to be happy. What we have to be careful about is the method of inducing it. We must seek it only in what is good. Mature spiritually. “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord” (2 P 3:18). Ask God to make us delight “in approaching to God” (IS 58:2), “in the Lord” (PS 37:4), “in the law of the Lord” (PS 1:2).
Some drink alcohol to escape themselves. They do not like their own natural personality. They in essence say, “I want to be someone other than myself.” Thus, they drink, and the quiet become boisterous–alcohol frees the tongue, sets it a-going and soon makes it run too fast. The bashful become bolder, convivial, more gregarious. The wall-flower becomes Marilyn Monroe. The 75-pound-weakling becomes macho man. God’s way of changing us is to re-make us spiritually, to conform us to the image of His Son. Instead of seeking joy in spirits, find it in being filled with the Spirit.
BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR SERMONS ON ALCOHOL
For these two messages, I have done my usual study in commentaries. Other sources were also used. The following were especially helpful.
”Alcohol, the Legal Drug,” by Boyd Gibbons, in National Geographic, February 1992, pp 3ff.
“Wine-Drinking in New Testament Times,” by Robert Stein, in Christianity Today, June 20, 1975, pp. 9ff.
A report from Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, published in part in U.S. News and World Report, 06-20-94, p. 21.
Highlights of several technical articles researched and collected by Dr. Tom Cheyne (M.D.) from professional journals.