Original title of this work: Teetotalism Involving the Eucharist
Forward – This work was originally titled as above and submitted as part of seminary, graded work. It has since gone through further editing and review to become this article. It has not only been reformatted but further adjustments made to insure points are being made clear.
The topic at hand is centrally focused on teetotalism and its impact, whether good or ill, on the Eucharist. Many reading this are familiar with the Eucharist or Communion but are probably not as familiar with teetotalism. According to dictionary.com, teetotalism is “the principle or practice of total abstinence from intoxicating drink.”2 The only critique that I have toward this definition is that it does not go far enough. It would seem to suggest only strong alcoholic drinks. Teetotalers, as they were and are still called who followed this view, advocated for complete abstinence from any remotely intoxicating drink. The only good drink is an unfermented, nonalcoholic one to them. Webster’s Dictionary reflects this more succinctly and historically in its definition by taking the above definition and simply changing the final words to “alcoholic drinks.”7 As could be imagined, this has implications for the Eucharist which traditionally and biblically is recorded as using wine and is, therefore, something a teetotaler cannot allow. Churches today remain split on the topic of alcohol and this includes a split on whether they use wine in their Eucharist. It is the intent of this work to show that it is neither inaccurate nor sinful to use wine in the practice of the Eucharist so long as it is observed as Scripture describes.
Before we begin with the specific points involving wine and the Eucharist, I want to briefly frame this discussion historically to lend understanding as to why it is a topic now. Teetotalism was born out of the temperance movements of the 1800s. These movements were in large part a reaction to increases, excesses, and abuses brought on by alcohol use during a time period in which much of Europe and the early United States were going through significant changes, which included the industrialization processes. Teetotalism was most popular in the 1830s and 1840s, but we still see its impacts to this day with resurgences of those taking up the position at points and in various churches.14 Before all this, there had already grown a following of those who were against distilled liquors as they saw them as unnatural and clearly “strong drink” as the Scriptures would describe; beer and wine were natural and therefore fine to partake.13 However, the developments of the 1800s now meant people could often and more easily get strong beverages of any kind as compared to the past, and with the many social and economic changes occurring, people all too easily turned to the bottle to cope with their stresses. The large-scale development of temperance societies began as early as 1824.6 With these facts in mind, we can see that the teetotal influence and temperance environment from which it sprung are relatively recent on the stage of history. Not only that but it sprung from a culturally and socially changing environment that has influenced countries like the USA but not necessarily those in the East or elsewhere.
Moving on in this discussion, we want to look at both the Hebrew and Greek texts to see what light they can shed on the use of wine and alcohol in the Bible. This is important as the Hebrew gives us the background in which Jesus Christ was raised, especially in relation to the Passover, and it gives us the use of terms as we see them in the Greek in the New Testament. We also want to compare such uses between the Old Testament and New Testament. We will see both different uses for words as well as some differing views on how to best translate certain words used in relation to wine. This will set the stage for the Lord’s Supper at the Passover that Christ led with His disciples—a key component to our topic—upon which we will look at the Greek used there. Addressing these terms will prove even more important for the next point in the discussion as well so we begin with key words for wine in the Old Testament.
There are two main Hebrew words we want to focus on for this study specifically because of their common use and the first will be tirosh (חירוש). Tirosh is used some thirty-eight times in the Old Testament, and it is argued that each one of them is referencing “new wine” specifically.5 The debate is centered first over the proper translation of the term and secondly over its use in context. Of course, these two aspects cannot truly be separated so we will look at both. Tirosh is derived from the root word ירש which carries the meanings: “1. To take, to seize upon, to take possession of, to occupy, mostly by force; 2. To possesses, to hold in possession; 3. To inherit, receive one’s inheritance.”11 Many have seen these definitions, especially the first two, and concluded that tirosh is a substance that ensnares or possesses the individual consuming it and therefore must be a strong drink or, at least, has the potential to be. A. B. Rich goes on in his work to look at this term in the locations it appears, and I am led to agree with his assessment that it does appear too hasty to assume tirosh to mean strong drink based upon this root alone.11 It would appear if anything is to be taken from this root it would be the third definition. The word’s use contextually simply does not support a strong wine sort of meaning. This is significant as it puts the definition more in line with the fact that it is a new wine, as initially defined, and should, therefore, be rather weak or low in alcoholic content. Even so, this does not remove the idea of alcohol present as some may and have attempted to suggest.
Hosea 4:11 is a great example of tirosh in context and contrasts with the next term we will be looking at, yayin. The fact that both are present also points to a difference between the two. “Harlotry, wine and new wine take away the understanding” (Hos. 4:11 NASB). All three of these things possess the ability to take away understanding. The word translated “wine” here is yayin, and the word translated “new wine” here is tirosh.4 Tirosh is clearly treated as separate but is also clearly still treated as a fermented beverage that carries the ability to take away understanding. In the face of such a passage, there is no doubt that tirosh, and thereby new wine, is fermented. In addition, Geisler goes on to point out that both then and now in the East wine simply is not wine of any kind if it is not fermented at least a little.5 Add in the simple thought and fact that past winemakers did not have the benefit of modern refrigeration, and it makes sense that all drink of the vine would end up being at least somewhat fermented, the alcohol presence also allowing it to last and fight spoiling.
Following that discussion, we want to dig deeper into yayin (יין). Yayin appears in the Old Testament 141 times and is clearly the most common term used for wine there.4 This term proves to be much more mixed in its usage. As we have already seen, it can be used to indicate strong or stronger, aged wine. However, it can also be found in other contexts which could include that of new wine or any wine, though these will often simply say “wine” (Gen. 14:18). One example refers to wine making one happy which we see in Psalm 104:14-15. The only way to understand this term correctly is to read it in context. Regardless, whether it be new or old wine, it remains clear the drink referred to is fermented. This remains true despite examples of other uses of yayin (wine) as portrayed for dying cloth red as in Genesis 49:12. Such instances do nothing to completely refute the alcoholic content but show yet another use for wine as a substance.
There are a few other related words in the Hebrew. However, these terms are not nearly as frequent as the main two. For example, `asis (עסס) is a less common term that will appear at times specifically referring to new wine.11 One term that appears alongside yayin and makes it thereby weaker in that context is “strong drink”4 (כר).This term is non-specific to wine and occurs twenty-three times.4 It therefore can be a catch-all for any strong, alcoholic beverage of any make, and there were other options outside wine among the people of Israel. These included wines made from other fruits besides grapes but also alcohol from barley and honey. These options simply did not yet include distilled liquors as we would have today. Functionally, the term is useful because its appearances draw a contrast that make things all the more clear that wine and other alcoholic beverages can go too far and that there is a distinction between them as Scripture makes a point to draw a distinction. Scripture is all too clear about being against drunkenness (Dt. 21:20-21; 1 Cor. 5:11; Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:19-21) and it is clear strong drink will get one there quickest.
From the Hebrew, we move to the Greek and as we do so we move into the time of Jesus Christ who was born a Jew. Passover has always used red wine during its meal which is a big part of the context for the last supper with Christ’s disciples. The two key Greek terms for wine we see used in the New Testament are οἶνος and γλεῦκος.5 The first can be considered to be rather similar to yayin and found in verses like Matthew 9:17 and Ephesians 5:18. The Ephesians example has clear toxicity connections as well with references to becoming drunk on the wine. The second term is not as common but is used similarly and has been translated as “sweet wine” or “new wine.” Even so, looking at an example of this term in use like in Acts 2:13 makes it clear that the presence of alcohol is assumed or at least suggested by the comment made there in association with this term by Peter’s response in verse 15 saying that they are “not drunk.” It would seem to suggest there is at least the potential to become drunk off it if Peter believed it necessary to point out they were not drunk.
Alcohol Strength and Impact
Naturally flowing from the Hebrew and Greek word study is the discussion of the strength of the alcohol in the wine among the Hebrews of the Old Testament versus that of people since then. We cannot be completely certain that modern alcohols and wines are always stronger than they were then, but we can confirm that the people of the Bible clearly knew the difference between simply a drink and a strong drink. This has already been shown in the word study. How they made certain their wine and alcoholic drinks were not always strong was solved rather simply. Natural alcohols like wine tend to continue to ferment and grow stronger alcoholically as they age. The easiest way to weaken such drink and thereby allow one to drink more before reaching a drunken state was to water it down. This was still occurring into the early Christian church in the East.3 Adding water to the Communion wine continues to be a practice in many native East churches to this day as well.5 Jesus would have drank this same sort of wine at Passover.5 Therefore, it follows it is the same sort of wine Jesus shared with His disciples at the last supper that has become the basis of the Eucharist. If we are to follow the Eucharist as instituted by Christ, it would make sense that we should continue to use wine and specifically red wine as we would otherwise lose the important representation that color brings in regards to the blood of Christ. If there is concern over the wine being too strong, water it down as the Jews, ancient Christians, and Easterners do to this day.
It is easy for us to degrade the historic practice of the Eucharist as instituted by Christ over concerns brought about by modern problems involving alcohol. Unfortunately, it would appear in many Western congregations, this is exactly what teetotalism has done. They have taken the very real concerns over alcohol abuse and detriment in a culture that has mishandled the substance to the extent of treating it as an inherent evil. Not every culture in the world has the same issues with alcohol as the USA does. Temperance is reasonable, especially from a biblical angle, but teetotalism goes too far. Considering what has already been discussed, it is unnecessary to go so far regarding the wine in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, there are additional arguments to address.
Common arguments against any use of alcohol for anything center on negative effects. To be certain, such things are to be avoided, and we are directed in Scripture to avoid drunkenness, and it is even referenced at points because of these negative effects. Even so, there is always the option to make use of weaker beverages. Nevertheless, it does not stop teetotalers from taking a stance that you can never be safe at which point they immediately point to data of abusers and moderates alike and the impacts of alcohol consumption on their nervous tissue from small, regular doses.8 One can simply and easily point to data on any number of other items one would consume as well that teetotalers seem to ignore. Root beer, which legally is considered nonalcoholic, technically has a small amount of alcohol (0.35-0.5%) content within it because of the fermentation of certain components during its making. This amount is far too small to produce intoxication. This conclusion agrees with the findings from Bumstead in his research in the topic on whether there was in fact a safe dose.1
It has been established by Anstie and others that in moderate quantity alcohol is decomposed in the system; that it is capable, in such case, of producing effects entirely different from those of a larger quantity, and that the poisonous effects are confined to the action of an excessive dose.Bumstead, p 60
To be clear, when the alcohol is kept weak, the body is perfectly capable of handling it. He even suggested adding water to the drink as the ancients did to make certain of this.1 In addition, it was thought at one time that nervous tissue was lost forever upon becoming damaged, but we now know otherwise today. The real danger comes from those who abuse to the point that the tissues are destroyed.
Despite what has been said there are still those arguing against alcohol, and thereby extended into the Eucharist, that it simply is not possible to set a safe amount on alcohol and it is, therefore, best to avoid it altogether.8 This argument reeks of a defeatist mentality. If we cannot win, we might as well give up. However, Scripture never does this. It always directs us to walk the narrow path (Matt. 7:14). We are to avoid drunkenness (excess) in all its forms (Eccl. 10:17; Rom. 13:13 Gal. 5:19-21). A “no dosage at all” sort of rule for everyone does not align well with Scripture nor with what has been laid out so far in the previous points made. Nevertheless, this remains an argument made even unto the point of altering an original ordinance of the New Testament that has its roots in the Passover, and both used real wine. The dedicated adherent to teetotalism is often not persuaded at this juncture; however, whether they do recognize a weakness in this argument or not, they will tend to move on to the most common fall back heard today and found in this study which we look at next.
Scripture Use and Defense
As we continue to examine these various topics and how they connect back to the Eucharist, we come to Scriptures like Romans 14-15:13 that are favorite fall back arguments for the abstention of all alcohol. Teetotalers will commonly use such Scripture to abstain from real wine use in the Eucharist as their final and closing argument. It is an argument I have heard much in my own life and have even used in my past. However, is such usage of the passage correct? Teetotaler arguments typically hinge on the idea that passages like this one in Romans are referring to a situation in which “strong” believers are called to forego whatever may hinder their “weaker” brother and can cause them to stumble into sin. Therefore, it is concluded that since alcoholic anything is such a stumbling block, it should not be allowed to be consumed among any Christian—not even during the Eucharist. A cursory reading of the chapter could lead one to read it that way. However, upon reading it again, various aspects of the passage begin to stand out that make this common understanding not so accurate.
The historical context of the passage has nothing to do with temperance or abstinence as we know them. Romans 14:1-15:13, as well as others such as 1 Corinthians 8, are frequently applied to defend the refusal to use wine in the Eucharist for the sake of the “weaker” brother or sister who may struggle with alcohol use. We must first recognize that the original audience for whom these passages were written was not dealing with the same issue. We have already shown that the temperance and teetotalism views have been a development of the 1800s and beyond. In Paul’s writing to the Romans, we see more of a specific and local occasion in view.12 Exactly who are the weak referred to in the passage is still debated—some say unbelievers, others say Jewish believers, and still others Gentile believers—but it is clear that the issue at stake here is a matter of faith.12 We see this most clearly in the wording at the beginning of the passage in verse one where it states “weak in faith.” It would seem that those who Paul has in mind that fit this description are most likely made up of a combination of backgrounds from Jews leaning on the Mosaic Law but professing faith and others who may or may not truly believe but at least profess. Snoeberger’s view is likewise.12
The principle of restriction that we can pull from Romans 14 to 15:13 is personal rather than global. The overall goal is to maintain unity and integrity in the church body. This begins by, as Snoeberger puts it after looking into the Greek of Romans 14:1, “Receive the weak without badgering them in such a way as to shake their faith.”12 We each have a responsibility to treat others of the faith, whether they simply profess it or actually have it, such that we are building them up (1 Thess. 5:11). One of the Greek terms involved (διαλογισμός), brings in the idea of opinions, but when coupled with the surrounding context we get a narrowed topic of opinions that “are non-essential to one’s Christian essence.”12 These opinions are unimportant to core doctrine. Therefore, do not quarrel over these sorts of non-essential things with the weak such that you harm their faith. Aim for unity between each other. Here it is that we find the restriction to which the strong are called. They are to even go to the extent of refraining personally from good actions if it means the strengthening of their fellow Christian. Paul’s examples here include personally refraining from eating certain foods (like meat) for their sake (Rom. 14:20; 1 Cor. 10:27). Eating such food would have been a sticking point for many Jews at the time of this letter’s writing. Even so, Paul also did not advocate for individual believers to always relinquish their liberties at all times either; however, he did come to use his liberties to become all things to win all to Christ whether that required eating or not (1 Cor. 9).
As this Romans passage is dealing with personal exercise, there are no grounds to remove wine from the Eucharist based on it. The context here and elsewhere is a matter of weak faith and salvation. We have been talking about the exercise of personal liberties and good actions that may cause some to stumble in their faith who are considered weak over nonessential items. However, Romans 14 and others have been used to remove wine from what is not a matter of personal exercise. The Eucharist is a Church ordinance as first set forth by Jesus Christ at the Passover (Matt. 26:20-30; Mk. 14:12-26; Lk. 22:1-23 Jn. 22:1-23; 1 Cor.11:23-26). It is corporately practiced and administered by the elders or ministers (1 Cor. 11:23-26; Matt. 26:26-28; Mk. 14:22-25; Lk. 22:19-22). Granted, one does not need to partake of Communion to be a Christian. One may argue on such a basis that it too is therefore non-essential. Despite this, it is a sacrament specifically laid out for us in Scripture with a history and specific symbolism behind each element. If we are to carry the Eucharist out rightly, it would follow that we do it with the original elements Christ gave us. The act goes beyond Christ’s own sacrifice but unto the Old Testament sacrifices that came before which were a shadow of what Jesus would do for us on the cross. We are therefore not sinning by using wine in the Eucharist based on this.
The other passages generally referred to that also breached this topic were also given in some of the examples and those include 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. It is chapter eight that the word liberty comes from in this discussion, but the topic is much the same in the chapter except the context is more focused on idols. Again, the topic is narrowed and not an issue one would likely find common today. Chapter ten, however, is less frequently referenced in arguments but does speak on the Eucharist in verses fourteen to twenty-two. The point of it is to flee idolatry and thereby from serving two masters. Even so, this still connects back to chapter eight starting in verse twenty-three regarding idols. This is something that appears to be potentially a different stumbling block, or at least a more pronounced one, for the Corinthian Church versus the Romans. The context here is paganism and the population’s perception and reception of the gospel based upon Christian activity regarding these idols thereby making it important.10 Christians could not very well be participating in pagan practices and remain distinctive that way. Paul is, therefore, calling Christians not to consume any food sacrificed to the idol in order to keep from harming that witness knowing full well that it is simply only food and good for consuming. Such food could include solid food or drink. There is nothing here about being against food or drink itself but refraining from an action that could lead others wrongly regarding the Christian faith.
Having looked through these passages, let us entertain the thought that would directly apply them to wine use in the Eucharist. Some, in fact do, exactly this by either ignoring some of the very points that have been made, insisting on a different interpretation as has been mentioned, or they may take the spirit of the passages and still try to apply them somehow to the situation of alcohol and thereby the Eucharist as well. This does not have to be logical for people to do it. For the sake of argument, let us say they argue it is then harming the faith and gospel spread using wine. First and from my own experience, I have my doubts, especially within the USA about it harming gospel spread. I have lost count of those I have interacted with who think all Christians are simply too legalistic or uptight about things like alcohol. They would like to find Christians who were more moderate about such things. The ones I have found that could struggle with it would be among those claiming to be already Christian. However, it would not be a matter of them losing their faith over it. If faith came into the picture at all, they would be questioning the state of my faith for being permissive. Even so, this misses what the Scriptures we have already engaged have said to do. If we take this scenario as is and follow through as the Romans and Corinthians passages would have us respond, then there should be no Eucharist at all. There is no option given in any of these passages to simply put in a substitute or something similar. We either act or refrain. Specifically, we see this in the texts of Romans 14:21, 1 Corinthians 8:8, 13, and 1 Corinthians 10:25-28. Either the action is done or not at all. At this point, some may counter or attempt to say that these passages are not speaking about participation in an entire pagan practice or the like but only a piece of it that is under dispute. It would not change the point made. The point to do or not do a particular action still stands. There is nothing presented for an in-between option. With this in mind, we would now be left with only half of a sacrament if applied to the Eucharist. There would be the bread for the body but no red wine for the blood. This line of argumentation fails before and after the allowances are even made.
Throughout this study, much has been made of historical practice in both the Old and New Testament times. The Passover has been mentioned multiple times as part of the picture, and now we wish to get more specific about its involvement as this study begins to draw to its end. The Passover commemorated and celebrated the Lord’s deliverance of His people from bondage to Egypt. This parallels our remembrance in the Eucharist of Christ’s work on the cross to free us from the bondage to sin; however, the parallels do not end there as they continue into the elements as well. Within the Passover, there are several principal points, but key pieces include the sacrifice and consuming of a lamb, breaking and consuming of bread, and the drinking of five cups of red wine during the practice.9 This is ignoring any superstitious customs or the like that were adopted by various groups beyond the principal points. The wine drinking was spread throughout the Passover and was real wine with water added to it.9 When Christ gave the first Eucharist at the Passover to us, He was forever changing it as He was now the lamb, but the elements already present within the Passover continued. This lends credence to Jesus instituting the new practice at the third cup of wine in the Passover which would have been after consuming the lamb.9 It would therefore also follow that Jesus Christ did not do the traditional fourth and fifth glasses of wine as a result of this change. Making changes to the Eucharist today should not be so easily done when the practice dates back so far into history to the original practice of Passover and then the Eucharist—especially when both were instituted by God and not man.
Wine use in the Eucharist is neither inaccurate according to Scripture nor sinful in the proper practice of the sacrament. The various arguments addressed here and put forth by many a teetotaler advocating for complete abstinence from alcohol have been shown to be rather inconclusive, inaccurate, or incorrect. The Old Testament texts clearly referenced, and its people made use of new and strong wine as well as other drinks. The drink was praised and forewarned, and despite the use of different Hebrew terms, all indicated the presence of fermentation and therefore alcohol. Similar results were found in the New Testament. While one could concede that modern alcohol has the easy potential to be stronger than the ancient varieties, the people of the past were still very much aware of what was strong and actively watered down their drink to weaken it. This is a practice we see in various churches, especially the East, to this day in their Communion practices. These cultures also do not seem to have the same issues with alcohol as the USA would. Alcohol consumption can have negative impacts on the body, but it has been shown also that these are kept at bay when used moderately or sparingly. If alcohol is only consumed at Communion time, the body is more than capable of handling the rather small dosage contrary to what some teetotalers would lead to believe. Even the common fallback Scriptures they go to in order to defend a corporate abstinence appear to fall flat in doing what they desire. If anything, this study would appear to confirm that we are not following the sacrament as Scripture describes, and therefore as God has directed if we are to follow it as intended.
- Bumstead, Horace. “The Biblical Sanction for Wine.” Bibliotheca Sacra 38:149 (Jan 1881), 47-116.
- Dictionary.com. “Teetotalism.” Last Modified 2020. Accessed March 23, 2020. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/teetotalism?s=t.
- Dollar, George W. “The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church Part I: The Lord’s Supper in the Second Century.” Bibliotheca Sacra 117:466 (Apr 1960), 144-54.
- Geisler, Norman L. “A Christian Perspective on Wine-Drinking.” Bibliotheca Sacra 139:553 (Jan 1982), 46-55.
- Laurie, T. “What Wine Shall We Use at The Lord’s Supper?” Bibliotheca Sacra 026:101 (Jan 1869), 163-83.
- Leonard, Delavan L. “Our Notable Decade.” Bibliotheca Sacra 46:182 (Apr 1889), 209-28.
- Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “teetotalism.” Accessed May 4, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/teetotalism.
- Merriman, Daniel. “A Sober View of Abstinence.” Bibliotheca Sacra 038:152 (Oct 1881), 707-59.
- Nast, William. “The Sacrament of The Lord’s Supper.” Bibliotheca Sacra 019:74 (Apr 1862), 384-99.
- Newton, Derek. “Food Offered to Idols in 1 Corinthians 8-10.” Tyndale Bulletin 49:1 (NA 1998), 179-82.
- Rich, A. B. “Do the Scriptures Prohibit the Use of Alcoholic Beverages?” Bibliotheca Sacra 037:147 (Jul 1880), 99-133.
- Snoeberger, Mark A. “Weakness or Wisdom? Fundamentalists and Romans 14.1–15.13.” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 12:1 (Fall 2007), 29-49.
- Snow, George. “Alcohol and Temperance.” Encyclopedia of European Social History. Encyclopedia.com. Last modified April 28, 2020. Accessed May 4, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/alcohol-and-temperance.
- Zieger, Susan. “Temperance, Teetotalism, and Addiction in the Nineteenth Century.” The Victorian Web. Last modified Sept. 7, 2002. Accessed May 4, 2020. http://victorianweb.org/science/addiction/temperance.htm.