John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley California, recently wrote an article titled, “Beer Bohemianism, and True Christian Liberty.” The article was part of a series of articles the veteran pastor wrote to address some of his concerns with the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement. MacArthur wrote the article out of concern for church leaders who feels are overly excited about their Christian freedom to drink alcohol. As often happens in debates about hot-button issues, MacArthur’s article was met with a strong response from Christians on both sides of the argument. We asked guest writer Brad Williams (pastor in Albertville, Alabama) and CAPC editor Alan Noble to weigh in on the article from their own perspectives, as it raises important questions as to how we understand Christian liberty and our interaction with a broader culture.
Brad Williams: “If you are inclined to have a Corona tonight after dinner, it’s hardly a William Wallace freedom moment.”
John MacArthur is a mean old man; he has come to the “Christian Theology Pub” and told all the boys to grow up. At least that is what I think his article, “Beer, Bohemianism, and Christian Liberty,” meant to do. Some interpreted MacArthur’s piece as an all out assault on the Christian’s freedom to drink alcohol, as if he had come to the pub, punched the Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd in the mouth and took their Guinness Draft. While I take an unusual amount of delight in that image, I think MacArthur is providing a correction that is far more valuable than a legalistic appeal to teetotalism.
I understand the YRR crowd. Anyone who has been in bondage to legalism understands that the freedom of a Christian is intoxicating in its own right. It is marvelous to see that Jesus went to a wedding party and made wine. It is amazing to find out that sex isn’t dirty, and that in fact God desires for us to enjoy sex to its fullest extent inside that blessed union we call marriage. Naturally, the discovery of Christian freedom means it is party time, and nobody likes the guy who comes to turn out the lights and declare the party over.
Some might think that is what MacArthur does in the article, but I beg to differ. You can search that document up and down, but you will never see a place where MacArthur says partaking of alcohol is sin. I really do not think he cares if you drink beer or wine; I think he believes you are free to do that short of becoming intoxicated. What MacArthur is against is pastors encouraging people to drink alcohol, and that is an altogether different matter.
Perhaps the most provocative line in the article is this one: “It is puerile and irresponsible for any pastor to encourage the recreational use of intoxicants—especially in church-sponsored activities.” First, we need to define puerile, it may not mean what you think it means. According to dictionary.reference.com it means: 1. Of or pertaining to a child or childhood. 2. Childishly foolish; immature or trivial. If we parse what MacArthur is saying carefully, I dare say that he is correct. It is indeed foolish to encourage people to use intoxicants recreationally, as this might be the very violation of conscience that the YRR is so studiously trying to avoid.
Just like sex, alcohol is a gift from God. Just like sex, alcohol can prove to be a dangerous temptation and a ruination to the soul if abused. Just like sex, alcohol can be abstained from in a manner that glorifies God and brings honor to Jesus. For this reason alone, we should never “encourage” the consumption of alcohol. Meaning, I should never say to anyone, “Dude, beer is awesome. You really ought to drink some!” Because, frankly, he might not ought to drink some, and it is completely irrelevant whether he drinks it or not.
Apparently, we are so excited about drinking alcohol that we want to have theology meetings at the pub, teach our folks to brew beer, and to go to church sponsored wine tastings. At what point are we acting like a kid who just got out from under curfew? Sure, he is all excited that he can stay out past midnight, but really, who cares? If you keep on telling everyone how awesome it is to be able to stay out past midnight, eventually someone is going to think you are crazy, especially people who like sleep. If you are inclined to have a Corona tonight after dinner, it’s hardly a William Wallace freedom moment.
I took this article from MacArthur to be a challenge for us to grow up and quit acting silly about alcohol. First off, non-Christians do not care that you are suddenly free to have a Sam Adams. They probably just think you were odd for not drinking one in the first place. Secondly, there are people in our midst who rightly abstain from alcohol. Our constant prattling about how awesome beer is does not help them and can even serve to alienate them. So let’s be wise, grow up a little, and try and enjoy our freedom without becoming annoying to those around us.
Alan Noble: “Calling people to restrain their liberty for the sake of others or encouraging people to exercise their liberty can only be done in community. “
“A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”-Martin Luther, “Concerning Christian Liberty”
The concept of Christian liberty is perhaps one of the most difficult to grasp in our faith. I have found these words by Martin Luther to be quite helpful, as they force me to hold in tension two, opposing ideas of our total freedom and total responsibility. As Christians try to sort out what is right, good, and profitable, there will inevitably be a push and pull between these two truths. From John MacArthur’s perspective, the YRR movement has understood its freedom without properly living its service. I would like to suggest that while MacArthur is right to remind this group of their responsibility, he falls victim to a critical error in speaking about culture by decontextualizing the issue.
Before I discuss the problems with MacArthur’s post, let me begin by pointing out what I think is his strongest and most edifying challenge: it is wrong for Christians to define their identity as Christians according to their love of beer. MacArthur writes, “All kinds of activities deemed vices by mothers everywhere have been adopted as badges of Calvinist identity and thus ‘redeemed’: tobacco, tattoos, gambling, mixed martial arts, profane language, and lots of explicit talk about sex.” He later notes that, ”until fairly recently, no credible believer in the entire church age would ever have suggested that so many features evoking the ambiance of a pool hall or a casino could also be suitable insignia for the people of God” and “This tendency to emblazon oneself with symbols of carnal indulgence as if they were valid badges of spiritual identity is one of the more troubling aspects of the YRR movement’s trademark restlessness.”
The problem is that these YRR pastors are using taboo or formally taboo cultural practices as their “badge” or “insignia” of “spiritual identity.” If drinking is treated as a defining characteristic of following Christ, then we will exclude those who are unable to drink and those who find it distasteful, and also (potentially) provide approval of cultural practice that may or may not be appropriate for all the individuals in that context. But, I do not think MacArthur goes nearly far enough here.
I would argue that whenever we “emblazon” ourselves with any aspect of culture and treat it as constituent of our Faith, we discourage discernment by granting approval. Doing so excludes those who do not partake in that culture and fails to consider our brothers and sisters in Christ. Two years ago, I wrote a article on how “Christian” culture can be damaging to the body of Christ when it is treated as a “badge” of “spiritual identity.” And I would argue the same thing applies here with drinking. Both Thomas Kinkade paintings and Samuel Adams beer have the potential to alienate people and discourage cultural discernment. A church should not be defined as a “Cowboy Church” or by its use of cutting-edge technology (a 3D Easter event?) or its brewing classes. Rather, we should follow Christ’s words in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Where MacArthur’s argument fails is his claim that, “It is puerile and irresponsible for any pastor to encourage the recreational use of intoxicants—especially in church-sponsored activities.” How can we reconcile this claim with the Psalmist’s statement in Psalm 104:15 that God causes, “wine to gladden the heart of man.” If the Psalmist can rejoice in God’s gift of wine, how can we tell all pastors that it is wrong for them to encourage the use of alcohol? Here is where I believe MacArthur slips into (well-intentioned) legalism or near-legalism; he makes a universal statement that simply cannot be supported by Scripture as a universal statement.
But this does get us to the heart of why MacArthur’s post was ultimately unhelpful: in his effort to exhort pastors to remember their responsibility to be servants of all, he attempts to find a universal standard where there can only be situational standards. When Paul talks about preventing a brother from stumbling in chapter 14 of Romans, it is in a specific context: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” If Paul was saying that we should do nothing which might potentially grieve someone, then he would have to say that it is never appropriate to eat meat sacrificed to idols or to drink wine since, potentially, even by purchasing these items we might encourage someone to think that it is appropriate to eat or drink them. Rather, this verse implies knowledge of the brother who is grieved. This is not some mythical, potential brother, but someone who you know would be hurt if you exercised your liberty. This kind of knowledge can only happen in a community, a church body that knows and loves and communicates so as not to entice anyone to sin or to wrongly constrain their liberty.
In other words, calling people to restrain their liberty for the sake of others or encouraging people to exercise their liberty can only be done in community. When John MacArthur tells pastors that they cannot encourage anyone to drink, he is making a command that unnecessarily restrains pastors’ Christian freedom. Only the individual pastors can decide in every specific context whether or not it is appropriate or loving to invite someone to take a drink. But contextualization works both ways. Just as it is inappropriate for MacArthur to make these universal claims, it is also inappropriate for YRR pastors to encourage large congregations or Internet communities to drink.
What MacArthur’s post and the conversation that it has produced suggest to me is the tremendous need for “culture” to be discussed in community, because that is the only place where we can lovingly exercise our freedoms and still be a “most dutiful servant of all.”