What’s wrong with drunkenness?

In our congregation, there are quite a few university college students. One of the students asked me the question, “Society today is very party-oriented. Is it a sin to get drunk?”. My friend Rob (a chaplain on the uni campus) is preaching through Isaiah at the moment, and he had some very helpful insights for me as I answered this question. I thought it might be helpful to share with you the answer.

Dear ______,

This is a good question. Let me summarize some of the Bible’s teaching on the use and abuse of alcohol to help you to navigate your way through the party culture at college! I’ll start with two important points.

Firstly, there’s nothing wrong with alcohol in and of itself. God made alcohol to make us feel better (check out Psalm 104:15). Jesus himself turned water into wine (John 2:1-11), drank it himself (e.g. Matt 26:27-29) and used it positively in illustrations (e.g. Mark 2:22).

But secondly, the Bible always condemns drunkenness—that is, excessive drinking to the point of losing self-control. There’s lots of Bible verses for this one: Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 6:10, Ephesians 5:18, 1 Peter 4:3, and so on. So it is definitely a sin to get drunk. In fact, the verses I cited all have to do with drunkenness in the context of a ‘party’ culture. Christians are not to do what the world around us does; we are not to get drunk even if others are doing it. Why? 1 Peter has an explanation:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Pet 4:1-5 NIV)

This gives us a hint as to why drunkenness is wrong. Drunkenness is consistently condemned in the Bible because it robs us of the ability to act responsibly and soberly for the sake of others. Human beings are created in God’s image in order to rule the creation (Gen 1:26)—to live as God’s agents with the responsibility to care for the world and for others. But drunkenness stops us from doing this properly. It prevents us from thinking clearly, and from being able to act in love. It increases our propensity to speak or act in ways that are selfish, unguarded and irresponsible. Noah, the first person in the Bible who was recorded as getting drunk (Gen 9:21), did such a thing, sinning and causing his son to sin.

Proverbs 23 describes this process of drunkenness robbing us of self-control in graphic detail:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things. You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging. “They hit me,” you will say, “but I’m not hurt! They beat me, but I don’t feel it! When will I wake up so I can find another drink?” (Prov 23:29-35 NIV)

And Proverbs 30 gives advice to kings about not getting drunk:

It is not for kings, O Lemuel—not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what the law decrees, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights. Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov 31:4-9 NIV)

The problem with getting drunk is that it stops people from exercising self-control, and from being responsible. This is why kings, in particular, should not get drunk (see also, for example, Isa 5:11, 28:1-8). It’s kind of ‘okay’ for people with a hopeless life, who are destined for judgment and destruction, to get drunk; after all, they have no real responsibility—they’re already condemned and sinful—so why not get drunk (Isa 22:13, 1 Cor 15:32)? But anyone with God-given responsibility (e.g. kings) should avoid getting drunk at all costs. That’s why Christian leaders, in particular, must not be open to the charge of drunkenness (e.g. Titus 1:7, 2:3).

But does that mean that it’s okay for a Christian to get drunk, as long as they’re not a leader and have no responsibility? Well, the Bible teaches that all Christians have a great responsibility. We have God’s Spirit, who brings us salvation from destruction, gives us a sure hope of eternal life, makes us sons and reforms us as heirs of God (Gal 3:29, Rom 8:17). That means we look forward to an inheritance. It also means we have the responsibility as sons to do what is right. That’s why the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23)—all things that are about living responsibly for the sake of others, and all things that drunkenness inhibits (see the previous verses, especially Galatians 5:21). And that’s why the ‘spirit’ of drunkenness is the polar opposite of the Spirit of God (Eph 5:18).

Hence the greatest witness to the hope of everlasting life amongst our party-oriented society is to avoid drunkenness at all costs.