Alcohol, John MacArthur, and the Growing Pains of Christian Liberty

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.”

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • Nick

    I love the illustration.

  • Nick

    And Alan’s point about the “mythical brother” is a really good one, I think. It both exposes a faulty interpretation and emphasizes the necessity of intimacy among the local church.

  • Scott cunningham

    The real scandal is the number of beer drinking calvinists who try to pass themselves off as ones whose hands are the same as everyone else even though clearly they aren’t because they are broken (QED). When is CAPC going to tackle that one? The silence is deafening – almost like they have something to hide.

    That said, I like this post. But JM’s note makes me wonder if other things are going on. JM writes basically as someone on the outside lookIng in when he talks about how people are wearing these things like markers defining some sociological boundary. It made me wonder if true then how does JM know them at all? Maybe at his church, maybe online, conferences and so on?

    I wonder if we appreciate how previous church generations tended to agglomerate, forming homogeneous groups with a similar culture. Yes it’s true maybe that JM does not know of Christians in the past that did something this way or that way, but perhaps that just speaks to the historical self selection in associations that protestantism (especially) had. What seems different now is the sheer number of regular interactions that all of us seem to have with people who are different from us in so many ways. Maybe there are people who like to drink more, need sleeping pills to rest, or whatever, and JM is just interacting with them at a higher frequency, and in turn mistaking that for some shift in the culture. But it’s entirely possible that the world is just a lot smaller, and we are all engaging others in ways that historically sociological and technological processes did not practically support.

    But seriously, broke hands. That is I think different. They are living among us, taking our jobs. American jobs! They must have some incredible reach (but not with their hands; some other kind of reach I guess) bc the mainstream media and even the muscular restless reformed youth center in city doesn’t even acknowledge they exist!

    I know Seth knows what I’m talking about.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Scott,

    Seth may know what you are talking about. I, however, have no idea. I cannot make sense of your first and last paragraph no matter how hard I try. What on earth are you talking about?

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Scott Cunningham you managed to sandwich a thoughtful comment in the middle of an inside joke in such a way that most people will never understand the thoughtful part. ;)

  • Alan Noble

    Scott and Seth and a few others note that I have overuse syndrome in my hands so I have to use voice dictation software to write. We like to make fun of my broken hands because, well, what else is there to do?

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Alan – I just talked to someone who was really confused by that comment because they didn’t know anything about your hands ;) It was funny to me because in the middle of Scott’s comment is some insight into how we communicate today and how that affects discussions of these types of issues.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Thanks Alan. I had no idea. Sorry about your hands. I will make a note of that in order to make fun of you in the future. ;) (Or not.)

  • Steven Smith

    Very interesting insight from both….Brad, you continue to amaze me with your insight (and I don’t easily amaze!)…and for each of you to use “puerile” in sentences…when that word probably hasn’t been used four times in sentences throughout all of America during the past 25 years…well that truly is amazing!

  • http://gulfcoastpastor.blogspot.com David R. Brumbelow

    It should be pointed out that a large number of believers do believe drinking alcohol is wrong and that the Bible condemns it. They make a credible case that Scripture, both directly and indirectly, speaks against alcohol and recreational drugs. It is incorrect to simply dismiss them as legalists.

    Richard Land and Barrett Duke have done this in a couple of articles at the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Peter Lumpkins has a book on the subject, “Alcohol Today.”
    David R. Brumbelow

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    David,

    I am aware of them, and I have read their articles. I think that they are wrong and that their case is biblically indefensible and not credible. If they calling something sin that isn’t sin, they may not be “legalists” like the Galatians, but they are wrong nevertheless.

    “Recreational drugs”, or whatever that means, is in a separate category all together. Their is no use in lumping hydrocodone or marijuana in with alcohol. It’s apples and oranges.

  • http://seventhsola.blogspot.com Joel Griffith

    Excellent article. I think Mr. Noble partially missed John’s meaning in the area where he talked about it being puerile for pastors to ENCOURAGE drinking alcohol recreationally in church settings. Scripture does indeed say that “wine gladdens the heart.” However, I don’t think the intent was ever to open a wine bar in the Old Testament Temple or the New Testament assembly/church meeting.

    The Apostle Paul in fact climbed the Corinthians’ case about their behavior . . . “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.”

    We need to be careful here. I think Paul is trying to remind us of what the assembly is for — to worship and glorify God, to fellowship with other believers, and to be equipped in God’s Word for ministry. If the atmosphere is more like Hooters than a worship service, I can understand the concern. What’s next? Sunday school classes on “pole dancing for Jesus?”

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Joel,

    I think I agree with you. It depends upon how strongly you take the word “encourage”. I would encourage someone in their freedoms in Christ. Here’s how that would work out for me. If I had a bottle of Merlot at my house, and a friend said, “Will you share?” I certainly would. I would not, however, bust out my bottle and say, “Dude! You’ve got to try this!” because he doesn’t, actually. I especially wouldn’t encourage it if I knew there were problems in his past with alcohol.

    However, and I think that this is where Alan is right on, if I knew this guy, and I knew he liked Merlot, and I knew he wasn’t a lush, I might actually say, “Hey bro, you really should try this.” So I really appreciated how he tied it the issue in with community and relationship.

  • Alan Noble

    Brad,

    High five.

    Joel,
    See Brad’s comment. I would only want to add that I think of an almost endless number of situations where it would be perfectly loving and appropriate for pastor or any Christian to encourage another Christian to drink. Of course, I can also think of just as many situations where it would be inappropriate and unloving. And I suppose that that is kind of my point: both MacArthur and these YRR pastors are making general statements about things that can only be dealt with in the messy particulars through love.

  • Jeremiah

    Well done. I can see the logic behind this article and am glad to see a well written argument, not simply another rant about how legalistic he is. The only area I might disagree with you on is on John Macarthur’s error and I would use TV as an example. It’s one thing for a pastor to stand up and say “I enjoy this show” and another thing entirely to say “Everybody should watch this show!” I believe what John Macarthur was saying that it is wrong to encourage (or endorce) anything that could become an addiction which I would agree with. But if that same Pastor told someone in a private conversation (or among peers) “You should try this; I really enjoyed it” is another thing entirely. The pulpit is a platform that should never be used to push man’s opinion, unless we are certain that it’s in line with the word of God.

    I think we’re both saying the same thing and you make a valid point by bringing in community. But the error you see I believe might be a tad overstated.

  • Gabriel

    Alan writes, “he falls victim to a critical error in speaking about culture by decontextualizing the issue.” I think Alan falls victim to the same error… in a worse way.

    Those who defend and promote alcohol drinking run under the assumption that the “alcohol culture” of OT&NT was the same as it is today. It was not. Were there similarities? Sure. But today the “alcohol culture” is defined by parties, women, raves, night clubs, fitting in, being cool, and whatever else. You simply cannot say, “Well Psalms says, ‘wine makes the heart happy’” and close your case.

    In biblical times it was extremely shameful to be a drunkard (i.e. to get drunk). Today it is commonplace, accepted, and encouraged (been to a college party recently?).

    Another aspect of contextualization Alan fails to discern is the context of John MacArthur’s comments. He was speaking to the YRR group–a primarily American group of people in their 20′s – 30′s. Unlike Alan suggests, MacArthur made no “universal” standard as if he intended his words to apply to pastors in icy Russia where the alcohol culture is completely different. His statements are intended to apply to a specific group in a specific sub-culture.

    In my estimation, the only person who decontexualized the issue is Alan.

  • Alan Noble

    Gabriel,

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to respond! I am sorry to hear that you feel that I decontextualized the issue. Let me see if I can clarify.

    To your first point, “alcohol culture” of today is not nearly as monolithic as you make it seem. Of the many, many, many people that I know who drink (Christian or otherwise) very few get drunk or drink in the context of debauchery (although I have seen alcohol at birthday parties which would count as “parties” and I have seen women drink, which I suppose would count as “women”).

    In any case, my defense of drinking, if I even made one, is not dependent on the idea that alcohol usage in the Old and New Testament is identical to its usage today.

    Your second point, that I take MacArthur out of context, I would like to suggest that I simply did not. Here is that quote again: “It is puerile and irresponsible for any pastor to encourage the recreational use of intoxicants—especially in church-sponsored activities.”

    I am going to take John MacArthur at his word and assume that when he said “any pastor” he literally meant any pastor.

  • Gabriel

    Alan,

    I’ll grant your second point. I can’t argue with grammar. Personally I agree with his statement at least for America pastors (and I think that though he used “any”, his mindset was pastors in our culture).

    However, on the first point, I think it’s irrelevant whether or not you personally know people who drink irresponsibly. My guess is that would change rather quickly if you spend a night or two introducing yourself to everyone in any bar on Friday night. That many Christians drink responsibly is great, but besides the point. The point is that what our culture associates with alcohol is vastly different than what people in biblical times would have associated with it. Of course I’m speaking “culture at large” not “every sub-culture from downtown NY to Haytown, KS.”

    Of course, “wine culture” is more sophisticated than “beer culture”, but what you see on TV beer advertisements should make any Christian steer away from participating in that scene. Like MacArthur, I’m not saying that alcohol is wrong, but I do agree with him that because of the culture in which we live, pastors–those who should hold the highest moral standards–should refrain from being open about their freedom (at least), and even give up their freedom entirely (at most).

    Our American culture accepts as normal what goes on at college campuses, bars, night clubs, frat parties, raves, pubs, etc. It’s not that alcohol can be abused, rather, alcohol is actively destroying thousands of lives daily. Why would any pastor want to defend what many of their congregants are negatively impacted by? This is where I appreciated your thoughts on being a “servant of all” at the beginning of your response.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    @Gabriel – Though I don’t agree that it’s really all that relevant, I would suggest that social reaction to public drunkeness in the average town in the US is probably not far different from the reaction meted out in the ancient world. Today, in most areas, a man stumbling down the street drunk out of his several spinning gourds is generally distasteful (the exception is when one takes a dark and/or cynical view—then it becomes humourous). The situations in which that would be shrugged off or ignored are few and I can’t think of a single instance when society at large might find it heroic or praiseworthy. Today, the stigma of binge drinking is still in effect. Good luck with that job interview if your prospective employer finds Facebook shots of you hitting the beer bong or passed out with your pants around your ankles and your body tattooed with Sharpied genitalia.

    To Alan’s point about cultural monoliths and their non-existence, you will certainly have occasional sub-sub-cultures that revel in the misuse of alcohol (e.g. university culture, secondary school culture), but most of American culture probably doesn’t see the misuse of alcohol as something inconsequential. This may vary by state or county or city or neighbourhood, but the cultures within American society that think lightly of the misuse of adult beverages is probably pretty small.
    ____________

    To another point, participation/endorsement in a product does not necessitate participation/endorsement in whatever culture might grow up around it.

    When I was in junior high and high school, I adored Marvel comics. Couldn’t get enough of them. I went to the local comics store every Wednesday to get the newest chapters of what were my favourite stories. However, I never took part in comics culture. There was this whole scene that grew up around comics. The people in that scene represented something I wanted no part of. So I easily segregated myself, while still freely enjoying the product that the scene was simultaneously enjoying. The one had no necessary effect on the other.

    If there was some sort of pervading beer culture, the same could said of it. Participation and enjoyment of adult beverages does not necessitate participation and enjoyment of any particular culture that may have grown up around adult beverages. Not that we see any such monolithic culture or anythings, but if we did…

  • Gabriel

    Seth,

    Participation and enjoyment of adult beverages does not necessitate participation and enjoyment of any particular culture that may have grown up around adult beverages.

    I completely agree, and perhaps I didn’t word my comment as well as you did to communicate that. However I would say that while you may not be participating in that culture, others might associate you with it. And that is where Alan’s original post got it right–we must hold the balance between personal freedom and being a servant of all. Biblically, the balance is tipped decidedly on the side of being a servant of all.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I think you’re right about the balance being tipped toward servant of all. And I think context definitely matters. It may be that I’m just not a part of any cultural context in which men or women from a church going to the Yardhouse to relax means anything in particular.

    I was part of a culture for whom such a thing would matter though. It mattered for a time when I was a member of Calvary Chapel, but only within the culture of the congregation. At that time, it meant you were a bad witness and probably a bad Christian as well. It wouldn’t have meant anything to those outside the church, but for those inside Calvary Chapel, going to a bar or buying a bottle of wine meant nefarious things.

    After Calvary Chapel and finding myself liberated from the constraints of that culture, I never really did go on a license spree (probably being beyond the age when such things are attractive). But what I did find in the new church culture I found myself in was I think a more mature, healthy interaction between the Christian and alcohol and the culture of the world around us.

    Instead of admonitioning the avoidance of alcohol, elders proposed mature use by example. If the worldly use of a good thing was too often reckless, then the better Christian response might be the moderate use of that good thing. If the worldly theme was to be ruled by drink, the better Christian response would be to rule drink. By proposing an interaction with alcohol that celebrated a good thing by responsibly setting forth a Christian testimony (by the manner of interaction), we point out that the problem with a culture is not the object itself but in the sinners misuse of the object.

    I’m not a fan of this particular terminology, but in a very real way, people of moderation redeem the culture of its excesses by their witness and example. And this appears (to me) to be a witness more properly in line with the works and teaching of Christ and the apostles (not to name drop) in that their admonitions seem to be likewise. And this is not just a witness to the unbeliever but a corrective testimony to errant churches as well.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    Instead of admonitioning the avoidance of alcohol, elders proposed mature use by example. If the worldly use of a good thing was too often reckless, then the better Christian response might be the moderate use of that good thing. If the worldly theme was to be ruled by drink, the better Christian response would be to rule drink. By proposing an interaction with alcohol that celebrated a good thing by responsibly setting forth a Christian testimony (by the manner of interaction), we point out that the problem with a culture is not the object itself but in the sinners misuse of the object.

    This reminds me of Chesterton’s quote: “We should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.”

  • http://www.calvinistgadfly.com Frank Turk

    I knew Brad when he was only a gadfly …

  • Jeff Schultz

    God himself encourages the use of intoxicants — in a church-sponsored activity, no less. Read Deuteronomy 14:22-26.

    I have respected John MacArthur for years, and he has some valid and valuable things to say to the YRR crowd. But this universal proscription — which cannot be supported scripturally — is inappropriate. And it’s made people dismiss the good insights he has to offer.

    I think there’s also some misrepresentation going on here, both from MacArthur and even in Brad’s comment: “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.”

    I don’t know who these people are. Perhaps they exist somewhere. But in my hometown, an Acts 29 church sponsored theology discussions at a local brewhouse — because that’s where the people are. It was a way to reach people who would never come to church, not a way to show how cool they are because they could have a theology meeting at the pub. And I actually brew beer with a few guys from church — because we like beer and we like each other, and it’s been a good way to hang out, talk about what’s going on in our lives, have fun, and do something productive.

    How can Brad know that I or others do these things because “we’re so excited about drinking”? Again, outside the context of community it’s easy to judge others’ motives.

    Is it possible to brew beer or have a theology discussion in a brewhouse to the glory of God? If so, then why assume people are doing those things for selfish, juvenile reasons?

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Jeff,

    I’m not far from agreeing with you, probably. But this line, “It was a way to reach people who would never come to church” is just worn out. People will come to church. That’s a fact. You don’t have to meet in a pub or a movie theater to “get people to come.” You may not have meant it this way, but it sounds exactly like the pragmatic thinking that permeates the “seeker sensitive” movement. That, as much as anything else I believe, is what MacArthur is sounding off about.

    Just take his church, for example. They have thousands of people coming there, in California, and MacArthur is “old” and wears a suit and the service is about as traditional as one can get. Yet, people come who aren’t Christians, and some of them get saved. I’m not saying theirs is the “right” way, or only way, or even that you shouldn’t have a theology meeting in a “pub.” (We don’t have ‘pubs’ here, we only have bars. They are emphatically not the same thing.) What MacArthur is decrying seems to be the very thing you are espousing: You should meet in a pub and drink beer because that method will get more people interested in the gospel. I disagree with that whole-heartedly.

    The gospel, by itself, is powerful enough to get people to come to a meeting in a barn. You don’t have to go into a pub to attract a crowd, and you certainly don’t have to have a worship service there to meet the people of the world.

    Again, we may nearly agree. I’m just trying to show you what I see when you write what you write.

  • Jeff Schultz

    Brad,

    Thanks for the thoughtful and gracious engagement. I think we do agree on a lot.

    I don’t think it’s an issue of “having” to meet in a bar or movie theater to get people to come. I realize that those things can be driven by an unhealthy pragmatism. My question is whether those things deserve a blanket dismissal as being motivated only by pragmatism, or whether those things can be done to the glory of God.

    Paul went to Mars Hill to debate because that’s where the people were. Jesus turned water into wine to keep a wedding feast going because that’s where people were. Jesus was accused of being a drunkard and glutton. I think we are to take it not that he was either of those things, but that he was hanging with those people in places where gluttony and drunkenness might (did?) happen.

    Do you have to go to bars to find lost people? No, there are plenty all around. But to find certain ones, I think you do.

    Look, if it’s legitimate (and not scandalous) for Christians to be in a brewhouse at all, what’s wrong with them going there for the purpose of presenting the gospel? Or is it that Christians have no business in a brewhouse? Or is it that God or talk about God doesn’t belong in a brewhouse?

    (I do recognize the difference between a pub and a bar. I was quoting your “pub” language from above. I’ve mentioned brewhouse because that’s closer to the idea of a pub, and that’s the context in which the church in our community had a theology discussion — because the brewhouse was open to having people representing all kinds of philosophies come and speak, much like Mars Hill in Athens. It’s not a place of drunken debauchery; it’s a place where people eat, talk, and have a beer. I think most bars have a vastly different atmosphere, and I agree that it would be counter-productive to try to have a theology discussion in one).

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    I feel bad we’re going to lose these comments over the weekend. Someone should probably document them somewhere and reenter them after the switch.

  • Paul Dusing

    “When John MacArthur tells pastors that they cannot encourage anyone to drink, he is making a command that unnecessarily restrains pastors’ Christian freedom.” -Alan Noble

    I don’t believe John MacArthur is making a command. He is explaining a wisdom issue. The word puerile means “childishly foolish; immature or trivial: a puerile piece of writing.” according to dictionary.com under the second definition. MacArthur is explaining that it is foolish for pastors to encourage the recreational use of intoxicants–especially at church sponsored events. I would need to hear the full sermon myself to understand the context more, but it doesn’t seem like a command so much as it seems to be advice. You do not have to discourage something if you are not encouraging it. In other words, though pastors should not encourage drinking, that does not mean they should discourage drinking. I believe your assumption is that MacArthur is discouraging drinking by saying pastors should not encourage it. But just because you don’t encourage something, doesn’t mean you discourage it.

  • Taylor

    Regarding Alan’s, well stated position;

    I’m curious about community applications. I took MacArthur’s ‘puerile’ statement as directed at encouragement specifically in the pastoral role and primarily from the pulpit. In that sense, I think we can make a generalized statement about sensitivity to the weak because of the nature of 21st century communication. I know that drinking causes some to stumble, some rightly, some wrongly. If I encourage recreational drinking in a context that will be disseminate internationally via the internet, I now have some responsibility to the superficial, yet committed church community that listens to me in a broader context.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Simultaneously, you’ll have some responsibility to the superficial-yet-committed church community that takes legalistically words that you didn’t mean that way but can easily be taken that way outside the context in which you spoke them. (Not you specifically, but the general you.)

    I suspect that with the ease and nature of communication breakdown due the global quality of contemporary communication, the responsibility for misunderstanding well-stated conversations lies more heavily on the hearer who is negligent in investigating a speaker’s context than it is on the speaker—who might be paralyzed into never speaking lest he be misunderstood.

    This doesn’t excuse poorly framed admonitions, of course, but I think it does lighten the burden on those who speak sensibly within the context and circumstance of their intended audience.

  • Alan Noble

    @Paul

    Nope. By calling encouragement of drinking childish he is clearly implying that it is wrong; if not sin, it is foolish. That’s the command I’m thinking of.

  • Taylor

    @ Seth,

    Fair enough. However, I think the obligations are different to some degree, particularly in this context. On one hand we have Christian leaders who are communicating to the church at large. On the other hand, we have a Christian leader communicating directly to other Christian leaders, with the understanding that the church at large is observing.

    In this sense, I consider my responsibility to speak the truth in love as very heavy. Not many should be teachers, and in that regard, we should fear being misinterpreted, because the fault is often ours. I agree that this fear shouldn’t be paralyzing, but when I teach, part of the process is recognizing flashpoints and refining them.

    Case in point, Dr. M’s article has been much more frequently criticized as a legalistic attack on drinking than as a case for true Christian identity. It’s easy to say that it is up to us to interpret well, but clearly, that happens less than it should, which leaves the ball mainly in the teacher’s park.

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Jeff,

    I agree with you then. If a brewhouse is a handy place to gather and have a Bible study; I don’t think it is anymore problematic than meeting at a theater or under a tree. If that were all that was going on, I seriously doubt that MacArthur would have even written this article. If you guys are doing it out of convenience and because you want to and not because brewhouses are the next great way to reach the lost, then have at it. You have to realize, and I am sure you do, that meeting in a “pub” will also distance you from some people as well, such as folks who have struggled with alcohol personally or in their immediate family and are simply “against” consumption for that reason.

    I think MacArthur’s observation is fair, and if taken with thick skin, it can be helpful. Everyone may be doing what they do out of completely pure motivations like you describe. But from here, it seems that the celebration has gotten a little bit over the top to the point that meeting in a pub is the coolest thing since Air Jordans. Of course, that’s ridiculous. Nothing can be as cool as Air Jordans were.

  • Jeff Schultz

    Brad,

    Sure, just as long as we realize the converse is also true — creating a church culture in which alcohol consumption is clearly frowned upon and Christians are discouraged from going to pubs will likewise distance you from people.

    The stronger brother who drinks must not look down on the weaker brother who does not and must nor use his liberty in a way that causes his brother to stumble. But the weaker brother whose conscience will not allow him to drink also has an obligation not to pass judgment on the stronger brother.

    So holding church in a pub would certainly cross the line by demanding an acceptance of drinking. But having a theology discussion in a pub doesn’t, because it doesn’t demand that any Christian attend. It only asks that those with a weaker conscience not pass judgment on those whose liberty is not so restricted. I think we cross the line in the other direction when out of concern for others’ weaknesses, we say that as a church we cannot encourage people to exercise their freedom to drink.

    Take a different example — one’s conscience does not allow her to eat meat. It would be wrong to offer her meat when she comes to my house. I should even be willing to not eat meat myself in her presence. But it would also be wrong to have a church policy universally condemning meat consumption. It would also be wrong to condemn other believers who openly enjoy their right to eat barbecue and go to barbecue restaurants. If they are making that a “badge of Christian identity” then they’re wrong. But encouraging delight in God’s good gift of slow-cooked meat is not puerile or immature, even if others feel they ought to abstain because of a widespread cultural sin of gluttony. Perhaps it’s an understandable over-reaction to a previous generation that universally condemned meat-eating and made vegetarianism a badge of Christian identity.

    Or maybe all of this is my subconscious response to never having been cool enough to own Air Jordans.

  • Paul Dusing

    @Alan

    Correct me if I am wrong at any point.

    Let me perhaps give a few re-made examples.

    It is puerile and irresponsible for me to be playing games on my iphone while at work, while I should be working.

    You are right Alan, He is making a command to pastors. It seems to me by your article you are referring to the pastor’s relationship towards others in the church / people outside the church. But is John really suggesting that pastors ought to discourage people from using alcohol? Is he saying that a pastor ought to go up to every person he meets and say, “You can’t drink that! It’s alchohol!” Or would the pastor rather say, “I don’t encourage the use of alcohol, but you are free to drink a little wine, just do not get drunk.” Thanks Alan.

  • Alan Noble

    Paul,

    I do not think that MacArthur is commanding pastors to discourage drinking. I do think that he believes they should never encourage drinking. My point is that it is extra biblical to claim that a pastor can never encourage anyone to drink. I can think of many, many situations where it would be perfectly loving, appropriate, and good for a pastor to recommend a drink to someone.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    [THE SCENE OPENS OF A CONGREGATION. SUNDAY MORNING. JACKETS AND TIES. A PASTOR PACES THE BOARDS. HIS COUNTENANCE BEARS A LOOK OF CONSTERNATION.]

    PASTOR: Friends—brothers and sisters in Christ—the burden of my sermon today is heavy. I have wrestled against Satan and I have wrestled against my own flesh, both of which have sought to halt me from the words I am compelled to speak today. There is, you see, a darkness that has made its home within our Christian community. I have been tempted and given in for too long to the temptation to turn my eye blind to this befoulment.

    [THE CONGREGATION SITS QUIETLY, A MURMUR OF FEAR AND GUILT CROSSES THEIR EYES BUT NOT THEIR LIPS]

    PASTOR: Yet are we not a people redeemed? The sons and daughters of truth and light? Are we not to stand as a testament the World As It Should be rather than the world as it is? Is this not our call as sojourners in this world?

    [CONGREGANTS BEGIN TO LIFT THEIR HEADS, NODDING SLOWLY, APPROVINGLY]

    PASTOR: So then why should it be that we find ourselves settling for world's base commands? At first I thought it merely idle gossip and deceitful rumour, but the persistence of certain tidings forced me to investigate more closely. And it has become clear that there are no small number of our congregation who have fallen into mirey paths. Into the swamps of degredation.

    [EVEN WHILE SOME IN THE CONGREGATION LOOK AROUND ZEALOUSLY AND WITH THE FIRE OF A PASSIONATE RIGHTEOUSNESS, THERE ARE MANY WHO LOOK DOWN DEJECTEDLY OR SIMPLY CLOSE THEIR EYES BEFORE THE WEIGHT OF REVELATION.]

    PASTOR: Brethren! Can you imagine how it struck my heart to find out that one of our own elders has even stooped from the heavenlies into the lowlands of defeat? And yet, such is the truth of the matter. This leaven is rampant and must be dealt with. And by the power of our lord I believe we can turn all of this around in a moment. After all, the power of the blood is sufficient for all manner of inadequacies. So let me be the first in line to show you, my sheep a better path. Let me shepherd you to a green pasture and bountiful harvest, where you might be granted the peace and joy that can never be found in cheap domestic lights. Let us bask together in the amber glow of better meals, of a more righteous beverage. Let us do this now and in this instant. COme! Meet me at the table before us.

    [THERE IS SCATTERED APPLAUSE AND NUMEROUS WET CHEEKS AS MEMBERS ARE AT LAST RELIEVED OF THEIR SHAME AND GIVEN AMNESTY AND A CLEAR PATH BACK INTO THE FOLD.]

  • Taylor

    Alan,

    While I can think of many situations where it would be perfectly loving, appropriate, and good for a pastor to recommend a drink to someone, I can’t think of any where it would be perfectly loving, appropriate, and good for a pastor to recommend a drink to everyone. Effectively, that is what a pastor does when he preaches the freedom of alcohol from the pulpit. I’ve made the mistake of letting someone drink because I assumed his conscience was clear, and that happened in the realm of close freindship. I don’t think it would be fair to assume that a pastor who is heard by thousands or more could more easily avoid the mistake, which ought to take us full circle to Paul’s actual teaching on use of freedom.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    But isn’t freedom tempered with responsibility exactly what Paul admonishes to the church generally in his letters to the churches? Isn’t he encouraging believers in their liberties and then encouraging them more in their love one for another, encouraging them to care for those of weak faith in their midst that those of weak faith might grow to have mature faith?

  • http://www.alienman.blogspot.com Brad Williams

    Seth,

    I certainly think so. In these issues we have to keep reminding ourselves that freedom is freedom. We are free to drink and free to refrain from drinking. We have to remember that some will find maturity in freedom and some will also find maturity in discipline. That is, there is actually benefit in both partaking and in abstaining if one does them with liberty. It’s really a beautiful thing. What we need to do to help each other is to encourage one another in the liberties we have chosen, whether to abstain or to partake: both are commendable.

    Brad

  • Paul Dusing

    @Alan

    What do you mean by extra biblical? So are you saying that it is not loving your neighbor to not offer them a drink in certain given circumstances? Is offering someone a drink the best, most loving thing you could do for someone or is there something better?

  • Taylor

    Brad,

    In rereading 1 Corinthians 8, 9, and 10 after your comment, that methodology just doesn’t sit right with me. Freedom becomes the bad guy in this passage, because knowledge without love is arrogant. True freedom is displayed by the one who becomes a slave to all for the sake of conscience. Freedom is free, but love is better.

    Also, there is no benefit in liberty per se. “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful.” The benefit is in love.

    Even in his illustration of freedom, Paul stops to use the example of the Israelites who sat down to eat and drink and got up to do other things. He illustrates how their overemphasis on freedom lead to fall of those who thought they stood. The abuse of real freedom through foolishness can lead to slavery.

    I’ll choose slavery to my brother over slavery to freedom any day. For that reason, alcohol is always theoretical, and never encouraged until I know exactly where every observer stands. Authors, pastors, and bloggers can’t know that, so if they emphasize freedom over conscience, I think Paul might not have very kind words for them.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    Yet slavery without love is as bad as freedom without love. And neither freedom nor slavery are mutually exclusive to love. So it’s not necessarily a matter of choosing slavery and love vs. freedom and not-love.

  • Jeff Schultz

    Taylor,

    Slavery to my brother sounds loving — except what if your brother himself is enslaved to a legalistic, extra-biblical idea of Christian spirituality, like thinking that anyone who really loves Jesus must be circumcised? Out of concern for your brother’s conscience, do you drop fellowship with Gentiles?

    I don’t think one can make an absolute rule that says I will always choose slavery to my brother over freedom. I have to choose slavery to the gospel over my brother’s conscience.

    1 Cor 8-10 is hardly all that Paul has to say about freedom, the gospel, and our responsibility to others. In Colossians and Galatians Paul makes it clear that others’ consciences cannot be placed against our freedom where the gospel is at stake. When someone’s issue of conscience becomes a badge of their Christian identity, not only must I not indulge their legalism, love compels me to confront it (see Gal 2:11-21, 5:1-6; Col. 2:6-23; 1Tim 4:1-6). Even in the long section on conscience and freedom in 1 Corinthians, Paul says in 10:29-30 in regards to meat sacrificed to idols, “Why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thanksgiving, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?”

    Yes, the abuse of freedom can lead to slavery. But the legalistic restriction of freedom leads to slavery, too.

    So if my brother is offended by what I eat or drink, I will give it up for his conscience’s sake. But if my brother tells me that I can’t really love Jesus and eat or drink or wear something that Scripture has not condemned, then I have to confront him lest he confuse his conscience’s rule with the gospel and judge me for my freedom in Christ.

  • Taylor

    Jeff,

    To keep this in the realm of the current conversation, I’m going to leave out the aspect of freedom Paul was dealing with in Colossians. Here’s my reasoning. In Colossians, the issue at hand was truly legalism, that is, a form of works-salvation was being reintroduced to the church via proselytism. In Corinthians, the issue at hand is not legalism and license, it is liberty and conscience. Some Christians believed that because they were Christians, they oughtn’t do certain things. This is quite the reverse of imposing certain things on people so that they can be Christians.

    This discussion belongs in the realm of Corinthians. It was never stated that teetotaling is a prerequisite to Christianity. It was stated that parading freedom without considering the conscience of others is both unwise and unloving. I think it would be most fair to both sides to avoid the legalist/licenscious name calling and remain in the domain of liberty and conscience.

    The difficulty, and I think MacArthur nailed this (albiet in a less than eloquent fashion), is that if we recognize conscience as the issue, we are left with the call to adopt slavery before using our freedom, for our brother, and in order that our freedom may not be judged by another’s conscience.

    So, I completely agree with you, I just think that in the context, we aren’t fighting legalism, we are fighting a caution to be sensitive to both the helpfulness of our freedom, and the conscience of others. And in that particular battle, I will always choose slavery. Is that fair?

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    @Taylor:

    Parading freedom without considering the conscience of others is both unwise and unloving.

    I don’t think there’s anyone on any side of the discussion who would disagree with this statement. For that reason, I don’t think anyone’s arguing against “a caution to be sensitive to both the helpfulness of our freedom, and the conscience of others.”

    For that reason, I don’t think your choice to always choose slavery is particularly germane to the question of pastors encouraging those in their flock to drink alcohol—since it is perfectly plausible to encourage the mature, faithful, responsible use of wine/beer/bourbon/etc in a manner that considers the conscience of others and is neither unwise nor unloving.

  • Taylor

    it becomes germane because that was Paul’s stance in a society remarkably similar to ours. And it was his stance even when acknowledging the liberty he had. Paul never makes a case that the Corinthians were somehow less able to see reason than we are; he actually seems to insinuate that knowledge shared was singularly unhelpful. Rather than telling the weak to grow up, he tells the strong to be careful.

    I’m simply of the opinion that it is difficult to be truly careful from the pulpit when we advocate the use of something. Orthodoxy is always secondary to Scripture, but the idea that we need to convince people to use their freedom in non-essentials is an extremely recent development.

  • Jeff Schultz

    Taylor,

    I think we ought to be careful in trying to draw a distinction between the situations in Corinth and Colossae, for example, with the result that we only consider part of what the NT has to say on Christian liberty. I think the distinction is a false one anyway, because in Corinth the issue was license while in Colossae (and Galatia and Ephesus, writing to Timothy) the issue was legalism. They’re flip sides of the same coin. Paul’s instructions in Corinthians can’t be taken in isolation. Colossians is absolutely relevant because MacArthur is very close to saying, “Do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch.”

    As Brad wrote initially, when MacArthur says “It is puerile and irresponsible for any pastor to encourage the recreational use of intoxicants—especially in church-sponsored activities” he is very close to (if not already in the realm of) binding others’ liberty in regards to alcohol based on his conscience, in contradiction to Scripture.

    No doubt some of the YRR crowd has gone too far in focusing on their liberty to drink beer. MacArthur would be well within scriptural guidelines in exhorting leaders to practice restraint and show sensitivity to others. But MacArthur goes beyond that and argues that a pastor cannot ever encourage the enjoyment of God’s good gifts. My concern is that MacArthur’s cure may be as bad or worse than the disease.

    Finally, it is not true that “the need to convince people to use their freedom in non-essentials is an extremely recent development.” God does it directly in Deut. 14 and John 2, and indirectly in passages like Deut 20:6, Ps. 4:7 and 104:15, Joel 2:22-24, Zech 8:12, 10:6-7. Jesus promises that we will drink the fruit of the vine with him in the Kingdom of God. And the apostle Paul repeatedly exhorts us not to let others’ legalistic denial of God’s good gifts keep us from enjoying all that God has made.

  • Jeff Schultz

    Taylor,

    I’d encourage you to re-read MacArthur’s blog post as I just did. Is there anywhere in it where MacArthur echoes the Bible’s picture of the enjoyment of God’s good gifts (which include wine)?

    MacArthur paints alcohol consumption as immature, degrading, and beneath Christians. He conflates drinking with drunkenness. He assumes that only reason people drink is either to get drunk or impress those who do. Not only is this uncharitable, it is intellectually lazy and unbiblical.


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