Question:

To say that taking a drink of alcohol means you are not completely sober (I Thessalonians 5:6-8) is wrong. By this reasoning, a moderate eater would be condemned as a glutton (Proverbs 23:20-21).

Answer:

The fault in this line of reasoning is that two different things are being paralleled. Gluttony is a sin of excess, but sobriety is a state to be maintained. It would be more reasonable to compare gluttony and drunkenness; both are sins of excess. Proverbs 23:20-21 does this: "Do not mix with winebibbers, or with gluttonous eaters of meat; for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and drowsiness will clothe a man with rags."

Most states in the United States have a blood alcohol limit to define what is considered drunken. But the effects of drinking are notable long before the legal limit is reached. In 1951, the Reader's Digest published an article titled, "What Two Drinks Will Do to Your Driving" by Don Wharton. It stated,

"How does alcohol do that?

  1. It slows down reactions. The average man after one large whiskey," according to New Zealand's Road Code, "will take about 15 percent longer than usual to depress his brake or swing his wheel in an emergency."
  2. It creates false confidence. New Zealand's Road Code put this neatly: "A little alcohol has the double effect of making him drive worse and believe he is driving better."
  3. It impairs concentration, dulls judgment. Alcohol makes drivers talk more and causes their attention to be more easily diverted.
  4. It affects vision. Dr. Goldberg conducted laboratory tests which showed that moderate drinking caused a 32 percent deterioration in vision. "Alcohol has the same effect on vision," he concluded, "as driving with sunglasses in twilight or darkness; a stronger illumination is needed for distinguishing objects and dimly lit objects will not be distinguished at all; when a person is dazzled by sharp light it takes a longer time before he can see clearly again." A British ophthalmologist found that alcohol reduced peripheral vision -- the capacity to see out of the "corner of the eye" and spot vehicles coming from side roads or pedestrians stepping off curbs."

Unlike overeating, the partaking of alcoholic beverages makes itself known from the first swallow. The question is not whether there is an impact, but how much of an impact is tolerated by society. Another difference is that the body must partake of food in order to survive; however, a person can survive without ever consuming alcohol. Therefore, trying to compare moderate drinking to moderate eating is not a comparison of equivalent items. You can compare the effects of excessive eating and excessive drinking, as the writer of Proverbs did. Their effects on a person are similar, but moderate drinking and moderate eating do not have the same effect and cannot be fairly compared.

But then, the writer of the above note is making a claim in the extreme. He is implying that by condemning the casual use of alcohol, we are calling people who consume even a small amount of alcohol drunkards. Such is not the case. Drunkenness is the excessive use of alcohol. The moderate use of alcohol is not condemned because of drunkenness but because of another problem: the lack of sobriety.

I find it particularly interesting that I Thessalonians 5:6-8 is used. It is obvious that the Greek word translated as "sober" was not looked up because the argument is based on the definition of the English word "sober" and not the Greek word. The Greek words we are interested in are the adjective nephalios and the verb nepho. They are a compound word consisting of ne, which means "not", and piein, which means "drink." Of these words, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states, "The concept which underlies the verb nepho 'to be sober' and the whole word group is formally negative. It is the opposite of intoxication both in the literal sense of intoxication with wine and in the figurative sense of states of intoxication attributable to other causes." The Jewish philosopher Philo illustrates this definition when he stated, "So too soberness [nephein] and drunkenness are opposites." Liddel and Scott defines these words as "to be sober, to drink no wine." Clement of Alexandria once said, "I therefore admire those who have adopted an austere [nephalion] life, and who are fond of water, the medicine of temperance, and flee as far as possible from wine, shunning it as they would the danger of fire."

Now that we understand the meaning of these words, let us see how they are used. "But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation." (I Thessalonians 5:4-8). Nephomen is translated as sober in both verse 6 and 8. Notice the contrasts: light - darkness, awake - sleeping, and sober - drunk. It is apparent that Paul desires the Thessalonians to be "alert," mentally watchful, and "sober," physically abstinent. In fact, we find that alertness is often connected with abstinence from intoxicating beverages (Luke 12:45). We understand that it is a physical abstinence that is being considered since it is being contrasted with being drunk.

August 3, 2012