Swaggart and Wine

By Mark Swarbrick

Jimmy Swaggart advocates against the use of any alcohol. That is well and good. A strong Biblical case can be made against Christians using alcohol in today’s society. Unfortunately, Swaggart goes far beyond that, stating that if any amount of alcohol is consumed by a Christian he is then doomed to an eternity in Hell. Here is what he says in his magazine The Evangelist, Nov 2011:

“But if it takes ten beers to make a person drunk, then it is a scientific fact that one beer makes the person one-tenth drunk. The vision is impaired by that much, with the motor responses also impaired. The reaction time is also slowed. And this is not merely the conclusion of a Preacher — this is a scientific fact after exhaustive investigation… the eternal destiny of those who engage in drunkenness is eternal Hell…when a person takes just one drink, he is partially drunk.”

Of course there is a major theological problem with what Swaggart says there. According to Swaggart, you are not saved anymore f you ingest even an infinitesimal amount of alcohol. Thus you are no longer saved by grace but by works, for you must be careful to abstain from any alcohol; one drink will negate the work of Christ on the cross, according to Swaggart.

Another problem is that this position creates many conundrums in scripture. For example, Jesus turned the water into wine and used wine at the last supper. But, If Swaggart’s assertions are true, we are confronted with a parodox: Jesus, who was sinless, would be sinning by creating and drinking wine.

Swaggart attempts to evade this problem by claiming that it was only pure unfermented grape juice used or made by Jesus. He even asserts that nearly all the wine used in Israel was merely grape juice. He says, “The wine referred to here was doubtless such as was commonly drunk in Palestine. That was the pure juice of the grape…”

The problem with Swaggart’s argument is that in Israel’s climate, without refrigeration or vacuum packing, it is nearly impossible to preserve unfermented grape juice. Warm grape juice almost immediately begins to ferment. Alcohol will be present as soon as fermentation begins, which will be only one or two days. So even if somehow the disciples found unfermented grape juice for the last supper, by the time they brought it to the upper room and drank it after their supper, there would be some amount of alcohol in it already, and according to Swaggart they would therefore all be partially drunk and Hell-bound.

Another point to consider is that the Greek word oinos is used in the passage. Oinos means wine, and by definition is alcoholic. The writers of scripture could have used the Greek word for grape juice, Gleukos, but they did not. They called it wine (Oinos).

“Gleukos” literally means “New Wine” or simply put “Unfermented grape juice”. You could still get drunk on Gleukos or new wine if you drank a lot of it, for as mentioned above, the juice begins fermenting almost immediately. In fact we see this alluded to in Acts 2:13, where we read, “Others mocking said, ‘These men are full of new wine (Gleukos).’” To get drunk on gleukos you had to be “full” of it.

The only conclusion can be that there was alcohol in the wine that was used by Jesus and the Disciples. This is not a problem for the average Bible-believing Christian for the Bible never says that drinking anything alcoholic is a sin. It does say that getting drunk is unwise and that Christians should not be drunk on wine but rather should seek to be filled with the Spirit. The Bible does say that being a drunkard (someone who habitually is intoxicated) is sin. 1 Cornithians 6:10 tells us that drunkards will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

If the wine that Jesus or the Christians of the 1st century drank had no alcohol, then there are numerous scriptures that make no sense. For example, Luke 7:33-34, “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard…” They accused Jesus of being a drunkard because he did not abstain from alcohol as John the Baptist did. This is clear evidence that Jesus did drink alcoholic wine.

In 1 Timothy 5:23 we read where the Apostle Paul tells the young minister Timothy, “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” And again, the word used here is Oinos (wine) not gleukos (grape juice). Why does Paul say “a little wine,” instead of just wine? Clearly because of the alcohol content. He was admonishing Timothy to use a little for its medicinal benefits, but to avoid using too much because of the alcoholic content.

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition researchers found that the polyphenols found in fermented red wine have been proven to increase the beneficial bacteria needed in the intestines for proper digestion. This benefit is not available in grape juice, but is found in wine. It is common knowledge today that many fermented foods and drinks are beneficial to digestion. Apparently the beneficial qualities of wine was common knowledge in the first century. Because Christians were careful about alcohol consumption, Paul tells Timothy it is Okay to use a little for medicinal purposes.

Christians of the 1st century had differences of opinion on these matters, just as we do today. Many thought it was wrong to eat meat, mostly because much of it had been sacrificed to idols before being butchered and sold at the market. Some also thought it was wrong to drink wine. Paul made it clear that it was alright to eat meat or drink wine but that we ought to consider the beliefs of others and not judge one another in these matters or make it a matter of division.

Romans 14:19 – “All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.”

Paul’s word is clear, if you drink wine in view of a fellow Christian (who feels drinking wine is wrong), and he therefore drinks wine also (but feels guilty about it), then you have caused a brother to stumble. In such cases it is best to abstain.

Now of course if the wine was non-alcoholic grape juice as Swaggart contends, this whole passage becomes nonsensical, for why would anyone ever think it was not alright to drink grape juice?

Swaggart takes the opposite position from scripture and pronounces judgment upon all who disagree with him on this matter. He says, When you take one drink, you’re saying you’re in favor of all the world stands for, all the flesh stands for, and all the Devil stands for.” That is ludicrous. Many Christians take communion with real wine. Swaggart says that puts them on the side of Satan. This is the sort of division and rhetorical excess that the Apostle Paul warned against.

Swaggart says that fermented wine, is the product of “fungi and bacteria,” that it is “rotted, fermented, decayed, spoiled…” and that because of this it is evil to put it in our bodies. It might surprise Jimmy Swaggart to know that it is bacteria in our intestines that makes digestion possible. If wine is evil because it is fermented, then pickles and sour kraut are sending people to hell!

In fact, our bodies produce small amounts of alcohol in our digestive tract through fermentation. According to Swaggart you are then a little bit drunk, not to mention the debauchery of those who take cough medicine that has alcohol in it. All these people doomed to perdition and they don’t know it because they haven’t read Jimmy Swaggart’s article on wine!

Swaggart also makes a point that alcohol causes impairment and that is sinful. Well, if you didn’t get a good night’s sleep you are impaired. If you are sick you are impaired. Growing old makes you impaired. People are impaired by lots of things but that doesn’t mean they are sinning.

The Bible’s message on alcohol is crystal clear: If you drink, don’t do it in such a way that it harms your witness for Christ and do not drink in excess and become drunk. Do not judge those who don’t drink and don’t judge those who do.

When anyone goes beyond what the scripture says and starts making up rules that not even Christ followed, then you have started down the path of legalism. The problem with legalism is that it detracts from the true spirituality of being filled with the Spirit and walking with Jesus, replacing it instead with dry, dead rules. Those who choose rules over relationship end up being judgmental and divisive and then they imagine they are holier than thou because of their legalism. Romans 14:17 says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

I’ll conclude with the words of the Apostle Paul who summed it up well in Colossians 2:16,21-23,

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink… Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?  These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”