The case against drinking

A theological and sociological reflection on the effects of alcohol consumption

Rolando Rizzo teaches practical theology at the Adventist Institute of Florence, Italy, and pastors the central church in the city.

I have been a committed Seventh-day Adventist since childhood. I believe in the church's mission. I subscribe to its beliefs. However, during my adolescence, I faced a great challenge in my faith journey: the church's stand on abstinence from alcoholic beverages. In my culture, a glass of wine is the very symbol of the party. In my large, extended family, composed of at least 100 people, though no one ever got drunk, everyone drank a glass at parties. It seemed to me then, as it seems to me now after 24 years of pastoral ministry, that there is no absolute prohibition against alcoholic beverages in the Old Testament or in the New.

However, every now and then, I have come across books and articles published to demonstrate that a biblical prohibition against the use of alcohol does exist. I have read these arguments, hoping to find that definitive word that would answer the many objections raised against abstinence. In the end, though, all these readings have not convinced me.

I am deeply convinced that during Old Testament times, to drink moderately was considered compatible with faith in Yahweh. I also believe that such was the case in the apostolic church. Here are five reasons for my stand:

1. The philology that pro-abstinence authors appeal to does not prove anything. Even though there may be words with a prevailing meaning, there are no words that clearly distinguish grape juice from fermented beverages.

2. The law of Moses, so full of minute prohibitions about every aspect of life, including a meticulous list of foods, does not contain any radical prohibition against alcoholic beverages when it would have been simple and consistent to express it.

3. The history of Judaism gives no hint of such a prohibition.

4. If texts that forbid alcoholic beverages during the practice of certain ministries or for certain vocations (Lev. 10:8-11; Prov. 31:4,5; Num. 6; Judges 13:13,14), including the leadership of the early church (Titus 3:3), prove that the biblical ideal was to abstain from these, then they also prove indirectly that a general prohibition did not exist.

5. The interpretation of passages like 1 Timothy 3:8 and Deuteronomy 14:21-29 by pro-abstinence writers seem untenable.

Theological understanding

Yet in spite of the above arguments, I am a convinced teetotaler. I believe that the church should hold nothing but a radical position against alcoholic beverages. But this declaration should be made not be cause of biblical proof texts advocating total abstinence from alcohol. Instead it should be taken because of a necessary theological reading of the Bible.

Even Ellen White indirectly invites us to this sort of reading when she asks us to read her writings, taking into consideration "time, places, circumstances." Similar sound principles of Bible reading lead us to exalt monogamy in marriage and to despise the institution of slavery.

A serious theological reading of the Bible cannot be accomplished by simply establishing what God said in the past to biblical men and women. It must also try to understand what God says today about our mission and responsibility. 1

What, then, did God say in the past in biblical situations when it comes to the consumption of alcoholic beverages?

1. He did not universally prohibit their use.

2. He showed their destructive potential by way of negative examples (Noah, Lot, etc.) and formal declarations (Prov. 23:39- 44).

3. He made it clear that even a moderate use of alcohol was incompatible with certain vocations (Num. 6; Judges 13; 14) and commanded certain people to abstain completely from alcoholic drinks during the fulfillment of services in which the complete function of their mental faculties was necessary (Lev. 10:10; Prov. 31:4, 5).

4. A few texts seem to exalt the euphoric qualities of wine (Deut. 14:22-29; Amos 9:14; Zech. 10:7), but in every one of these texts the alcoholic beverage is a poetic symbol of festivity and of abundance.

But, what does God say today, to us, to our mission and to our historical responsibility?

In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to carefully redefine the nature and modern use of alcohol. Its diversity, along with the social and human context in which it is consumed, today transcends the ancient definition and gives rise to a totally new, spine-chilling phenomenon.

Alcohol: seven facts

Seven contemporary factors radically transform the definition that alcoholic beverages had during biblical times. Alcohol today is the number one social killer in many cultures of the world—a killer against which the Christian community, conscious of its own vocation, cannot but take a strong opposing stand:

Factor 1: The variety of alcoholic beverages. The only alcoholic beverages that biblical men and women knew were wine and beer. Today there are a myriad different varieties in every culture, and they are increasing every day. Pressing advertisements have managed to make them seem to be the need of everyone, every day, especially if it is a party day. It is not unusual in many cultures at a normal dinner party to consume in different quantities eight to ten different alcoholic beverages.

Factor 2: The high proof. The average alcoholic beverage during biblical times (when distillation was less developed) did not exceed 9 to 10 percent alcohol content; in certain cases it could reach extremes of 15 to 16 percent. Today one goes from 5 to 6 percent in wine coolers, to 7 to 8 percent in sparkling wine, to 35 or 40 percent bitters (so - called digestives), and to 90 percent vodka. Alcoholism often originates from the small daily consumption of quantities of various alcoholic beverages.

Factor 3: The association to medicine. Many modern pharmaceutical drugs and sedatives use alcohol as well as tobacco in prime destructive blends.

Factor 4: The easy availability. In the past, alcoholic beverages were found in the cellars of the rich and in the relatively few taverns at crossroads and in villages. Mostly, alcoholic beverages were consumed on holidays. How ever, today you can find alcohol everywhere, and many homes have a small bar.

Factor 5: The low cost. Forty years ago, in my hometown, an agricultural town and a large producer of wine, a liter of wine cost at least a fifth of a laborer's daily wage. To day, a fifth of a laborer's daily wage can buy at least seven liters of wine. Drinking costs comparatively little today.

Factor 6: A strong pedagogical perspective. During Bible times, adolescents who saw their fathers drink had little possibility of imitating them away from feasts. There was no massive commercial system that moved them to drink nor were there images that associated alcohol with success and strength. They did not have the numerous opportunities to drink, sniff, and smoke that young people today have. Unlike to day, youth in biblical times had a pedagogical fortress, made up of a patriarchal family of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters.

Factor 7: The higher need for readiness of mind. Travel in biblical times, on foot or on the back of a donkey, did not require the alertness or the presence of mind that today's travel by automobile does. Drunk driving is one of the major causes of premature death today.

Abstinence, a biblical ideal

These seven factors, combined together, make alcohol the number one social killer of the modern age. Its disorders, silent in most cases, make up the calamities of an appalling invisible war that kills and mutilates the bodies and spirits of huge numbers of people. In Italy, 10,000 people a year die in car accidents, of which at least 50 percent can be traced to alcohol. Some eight thou sand people die in household accidents, and even here alcohol is often responsible.

But death is not always the worst of evils. Alcohol is responsible for domestic violence, abuse of women and children, mental illness, social irresponsibility, and other crimes.

Society seems to fear only illegal drugs. Yet alcohol is no less a killer. In Italy, where about a thousand people a year die because of drugs, 50,000 die because of alcohol.

In biblical times, when alcohol was a relatively minor problem, the Bible presented abstinence as the ideal for living. How much more should this be the stand today, when alcohol has become one of the great social evils of life, affecting the physical, mental, and spiritual health of people everywhere.

Ellen G. White, motivating the pioneers of our church to take a stand against alcoholic beverages, wrote over a century ago, "Satan gathered the fallen angels together to devise some way of doing the most possible evil to the human family. One proposition after another was made, till finally Satan himself thought of a plan. He would take the fruit of the vine, also wheat, and other things given by God as food, and would convert them into poisons, which would ruin man's physical, mental, and moral powers, and so overcome the senses that Satan should have full control. Under the influence of liquor, men would be ... made corrupt."2

"It is not mimic battles in which we are engaged. We are waging a warfare upon which hang eternal results. We have unseen enemies to meet. Evil angels are striving for the dominion of every human being."3

It is not surprising that a theologian as famous as Brunner wrote: "Today, abstaining Christians are not the ones who should justify this stand, but those who refuse it should justify theirs."4

1. Rolando Rizzo, Stretti sentieri di libert (Firenze: ADV Editions, 1990).

2. Ellen G. White, Temperance (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press* Pub. Assn., 1949), 12.

3. ————, Ministry of Healing (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press" Pub. Assn., 1909), 128.

4. Quoted in Servir, pastoral magazine of the Euro- African Division, January 1983, 37.


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Rolando Rizzo teaches practical theology at the Adventist Institute of Florence, Italy, and pastors the central church in the city.

July 1998

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