Adventists and Wine, Part 1

An article of this nature should not be necessary but, sadly, alcohol consumption is snaking its tendrils around Laodicean Adventism.  There are many reasons to avoid alcohol.  Alcohol impairs motor function, causing accidents.  More seriously, alcohol disinhibits us, causing us to act against our better judgment, leading to immorality, crime, violence, poverty and misery.  The founders of Seventh-day Adventism were not only for temperance—which they understood as total abstinence from alcohol—but considered alcohol so inimical to a well ordered society that they urged us to vote for prohibition.    


Alcohol Causes Accidents and Death

 Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, impairing motor skills.  More time is needed for impulses from the brain to reach the muscles, and from the muscles to the brain, and this loss of reaction time and coordination results in many accidental deaths.  Alcohol-impaired driving accounts for nearly 40% of all traffic fatalities, including 10,000 impaired driving deaths per year in the U.S. (which, thanks to a raised drinking age and increased enforcement, is down from around 25,000 in 1980).  Alcohol is estimated to cause about 88,000 accidental and disease-related deaths per year, according to the Center for Disease Control

South Dakota instituted a 24/7 sobriety program for anyone convicted of an alcohol-related offense, including driving under the influence, drunk & disorderly, public intoxication, etc.  Everyone in the program must take twice daily breathalyzer tests or wear a bracelet that continuously monitors alcohol.  Anyone found to have deviated from strict sobriety is punished by at least a night or two in jail.  A RAND study found that, in those counties where the 24/7 sobriety program is in effect, there was a 4.2% drop in adult mortality from all causes.  When problem drinkers sober up, fewer people die. 


Alcohol Disinhibits Us and Impairs our Judgement

But it is not just the loss of motor skills and coordination that gets people into trouble.  Alcohol disinhibits, and people need their inhibitions in order to act on their better judgment, rather than acting upon lower impulses and appetites, and engaging in risky and foolish behavior.  Solomon tells us that, “Wine is a mocker, intoxicating drink arouses brawling, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”  Prov. 20:1. After the Flood, Noah got drunk and passed out naked, and this led to very serious sinGen. 9:20-27.  Lot’s daughters got their father drunk in order to sleep with him and impregnate themselves, something Lot would never have agreed to do, nor done, had he been sober.  Gen. 19:30-38.  David tried to use alcohol to deflect Uriah from his duty.  2 Sam. 11:12-13.  Absalom used alcohol to lower Amnon’s guard prior to having him killed.  2 Sam. 13:28-29

Its disinhibiting effect is why alcohol is the universal “social lubricant,” always on offer wherever people are looking to get into trouble (usually with strangers of the opposite sex) and need “liquid courage.”  Alcohol is associated not only with sexual immorality but with all types of crime.  The U.S. Justice Department reports that alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes, and 37% of jail and prison inmates report having been drinking at the time of their arrest.  According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, about 3 million violent crimes occur each year in which the offender was drinking.  About half of all homicides and assaults are committed when the offender, victim, or both have been drinking.  In two-thirds of domestic violence cases, and three-quarters of spousal abuse cases, the abuser had been drinking


Alcohol Hurts and Impoverishes Us

Becoming intoxicated can seem fun at the time, but punishment follows indulgence, as surely as night follows day. Proverbs 23 describes problems such as hangovers, hallucinations (alcohol-induced psychosis), and delirium tremens:

 9 Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
    Who has strife? Who has complaints?
    Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
30 Those who linger over wine,
    who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
31 Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
    when it sparkles in the cup,
    when it goes down smoothly!
32 In the end it bites like a snake
    and poisons like a viper.
33 Your eyes will see strange sights,
    and your mind will imagine confusing things.
34 You will be like one sleeping on the high seas,
    lying on top of the rigging.
35 “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?”

The long term consequences of alcohol are not limited to physical problems.  Alcohol takes over your whole life, making it difficult to manage your daily tasks, much less excel at them.  When you are drinking you are not taking care of business, which is why “he who loves wine and oil will never be rich.” Prov. 21:17. Soon, the plates you thought you had kept spinning come crashing down: “The drunkard and the glutton come to poverty, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.” Prov. 23:21.


Adventists Were Strong Prohibitionists

            Given how destructive alcohol is to the fabric of society, and to a peaceful, law-abiding, productive, dignified society, it is not surprising that early Adventists worked to outlaw it.  Ellen White told us not even to vote for an intemperate candidate (and, in her understanding, temperance meant abstinence).  “Intemperate men should not by vote of the people be placed in positions of trust.” Temperance, 254. Clearly, she had no qualms about basing a voting decision on the candidate’s moral habits. And prohibition of alcohol was very important to her.  Her son, Arthur White, quoted her saying: 

“Shall we vote for prohibition?” she asked. “Yes, to a man, everywhere,” she replied, “and perhaps I shall shock some of you if I say, if necessary, vote on the Sabbath day for prohibition if you cannot at any other time.[1]

Ellen White and the early Adventists believed that temperance was not just for the Christian believer, for the covenant community, but for the entire society:

The advocates of temperance fail to do their whole duty unless they exert their influence by precept and example—by voice and pen and vote— in favor of prohibition and total abstinence. We need not expect that God will work a miracle to bring about this reform, and thus remove the necessity for our exertion.

*  *  *

What can be done to press back the inflowing tide of evil? Let laws be enacted and rigidly enforced prohibiting the sale and use of ardent spirits as a beverage.

*  *  *

The prosperity of a nation is dependent upon the virtue and intelligence of its citizens. To secure these blessings, habits of strict temperance are indispensable. The history of ancient kingdoms is replete with lessons of warning for us. Luxury, self-indulgence, and dissipation prepared the way for their downfall. It remains to be seen whether our own republic will be admonished by their example, and avoid their fate. Gospel Workers 1915, 387-388

 Let the danger from the liquor traffic be made plain and a public sentiment be created that shall demand its prohibition. Let the drink-maddened men be given an opportunity to escape from their thralldom. Let the voice of the nation demand of its lawmakers that a stop be put to this infamous traffic.  Ministry of Healing, 346.2

The early Adventists did not share the squeamishness that some contemporary Adventists exhibit regarding voting and lobbying to align our society with Christian morality.  In an editorial, the Review wrote:

Were we living under an absolute monarchy, all we could do would be to pray; but in this Republic we have an instrument given with which we can second our prayers, and that is, our ballot. Advent Review & Sabbath Herald, Feb. 17, 1891.

The odd notion that Adventists should not vote their own morality and their own biblically-informed conception of a rightly ordered society has lately been frequently expressed in Liberty Magazine. But that periodical was not always so lamentably misguided.  In Ellen White’s day, and even long after her death, Liberty carried the following statement of principles:

The tenth item of the Religious Liberty Association Declaration of Principles printed in Liberty asserted that “the liquor traffic is a curse to the home, to society, and to the nation, and a menace to civil order, and should be prohibited by law.”[2]

Ellen White advised Adventists to work closely with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union:

The [WCTU] is an organization with whose efforts for the spread of temperance principles we can heartily unite. The light has been given me that we are not to stand aloof from them, but, while there is to be no sacrifice of principle on our part, as far as possible we are to unite with them in laboring for temperance reforms.... We are to work with them when we can, and we can assuredly do this on the question of utterly closing the saloon.  Daughters of God, 125.3

The counsel to unite with the WCTU on prohibition is striking, because the WCTU also promoted Sunday legislation, working to outlaw Sunday activities they considered wrong, including golf.  But how often during the past few decades has Liberty Magazine counseled us not to cooperate with—and even to work against—the “religious right” as they urged Christians to vote for family values and Christian morality, based on the fear that perhaps, someday, the “religious right” would promote Sunday legislation?  Yet Ellen White urged Adventists to work with the WCTU on the shared goal of prohibition, notwithstanding that the WCTU was even then promoting Sunday legislation!


Professionals Should Cork the Bottle

Those whose duties are important to others should not drink at all.  “It is not for kings to drink wine, not for rulers to crave beer, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and deprive all the oppressed of their rights.”  Prov. 31:4-5.  Regarding our alcohol-addled justice system, Ellen White said,

“How many innocent persons have been condemned to death, how many more have been robbed of all their earthly possessions, by the injustice of drinking jurors, lawyers, witnesses, and even judges!”[3] 

And it isn’t just lawyers and judges who need to lay off the sauce, but responsible professionals like doctors, teachers, administrators, and military officers.  Alcohol should be off limits to those responsible for the safety of others, such as power plant engineers, police officers, firemen, airline pilots, air traffic controllers, train engineers, bus drivers, and truckers. In fact, there are not many jobs in an advanced, complex economy that are compatible with alcohol use. 

It could be argued that there is no harm with people in these responsible positions having a couple of drinks at night and on the weekends, but those who, to deal with job stress, self-medicate with alcohol often eventually come to the place where they cannot limit their drinking to nights and weekends.  The safest course is not to drink at all.  This comports with Ellen White’s counsel that only abstinent men should be voted into public office. 


Spiritual Leaders Must Not Drink

The fate of Nadab and Abihu is a cautionary tale for preachers and gospel workers. These sons of Aaron offered unauthorized fire and were struck dead. Lev. 10:1-2. But there was a reason why Nadab and Abihu could not discern the sacred from the common. Ellen White states that they “would never have committed that fatal sin had they not first become partially intoxicated by the free use of wine.  . . . by intemperance they were disqualified for their holy office. Their minds became confused and their moral perceptions dulled so that they could not discern the difference between the sacred and the common.” PP. 361-362. Therefore the command was given, “Do not drink wine or strong drink . . . when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you will not die-- it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations.” Lev. 10:9.

In his list of requirements for those who seek the church leadership offices of elder/bishop, and deacon, Paul makes very clear that these people must not be prone to drinking wine. 1 Tim. 3:3, 8; Titus 1:7. Those who are engaged full time in the Lord’s work must never imbibe, and that includes not only preachers but also teachers in Adventist schools, who influence the young. 


Drunkenness Excludes Us from Heaven

Scripture could not be plainer that those who abuse alcohol will not inherit the kingdom of heaven; drunkenness will exclude you from eternal life.  Paul commands Christians not to get drunk (Eph. 5:18) and he groups drunkenness with murder, sexual immorality, witchcraft and other serious sins in saying that “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Gal. 5:21. “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, . . . nor drunkards, . . . will inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Cor. 6:9-10. He directs Christians to not even associate with someone who claims to be a brother in Christ but who is a drunkard.  1 Cor. 5:11.

In a warning that applies both to 70 AD and to the closing days of earth’s history in which we live, Christ says, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.”  Luke 21:34. In other words, those who are still drinking at the end will be lost eternally.  Don’t let that happen to you!  Pledge yourself to strict abstinence, and pray for God’s power to keep your pledge.


Moderation or Abstinence?

Some will argue that the many texts I have cited above condemn only “drunkenness,” and not moderate drinking.  Some Christians seem to want to draw a line and say, “this much drinking is okay, but beyond this is too much.”  And the law does draw such a line. The criminal law arbitrarily sets a blood alcohol percentage of .08 as the line that may not be crossed, saying, “if you have a blood alcohol level of .079, you are not guilty of drunk driving, but at .081, you are guilty.”  Should Christians draw a similar line for purposes of our faith and practice?

I say no.  The effects of alcohol are along a curve that starts with the first drink; even a little alcohol produces a neurological and disinhibiting effect.  One drink produces a perceptible psycho-physiological change, two makes you “buzzed,” 3 makes you very buzzed, 4 and you're getting drunk, etc.  But even one drink produces a disinhibiting effect that Christians should avoid, and should want to avoid.  We should not be trying to see how much neurological depression and disinhibition we can get away with.  If we want to draw a line, we should draw the line at zero.





[1] In Arthur L. White, Ellen G. White: The Lonely Years, 1876-1891 (Hagerstown, Md.: Review & Herald, 1984), vol. 3, p. 161.

[2] Rachel E. Whitaker, “Adventist Activists: Seventh-day Adventists in the Fight for National Alcohol Prohibition, 1913-1920” (Honors project, Andrews University, 1997), pp. 10, 11.

[3] Christian Temperance and Bible Hygiene (Battle Creek, Mich. Good Health Publishing, 1890), p. 29.