The Bible, Alcohol and John MacArthur: Part 2

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The following is the followup post to a series of blogs I wrote on the topic of Alcohol from my old Transplant Ministries blog. People have requested that I post it somewhere they could have access to.  So here it is.  This is the second in a series please read part one here.

The issue of how to address the weaker brother is no small matter and it is not to be handled lightly. A brother’s or sister’s conscience is on the line and there is nothing funny about trampling over a weaker brother for one’s own selfish gain and amusement. There are many who have abused alcohol in the past, who have been bound by it’s sinful lure and I know that even today as I write this that there are still many Christians who constantly battle temptation with alcohol. I love my weaker brothers and I will do what I can to keep them from sin, both in stumbling and violating their conscience, but I also refuse to allow them to sin by twisting Scripture (knowingly or unknowingly) as a means to create a legalistic worldview.

But we have to ask the right questions and not insert our presuppositions about alcohol into the mix, which is why I decided to write the first petition so that we as a body could replace our traditional view of alcohol with a more Scriptural view – one that reflects what we see in Scripture.

As I stated previously, in Deuteronomy 14:26, God tells Israel that they are to:

“Spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.”

Issues to emphasize from this passage:

  • Both wine and strong drink (“shekar”) are listed.
  • This is a public proclamation, to all the people of Israel to purchase whatever their appetite desires, even intoxicating drink.
  • This is to be done with rejoicing.
  • This is to be done before the Lord.

The questions that need to be asked by looking at this text are simple.

  • Is drinking strong drink a sin?
  • Is commanding people to eat whatever their appetite desires placing gluttons in danger of stumbling?
  • Is publicly telling people to drink wine or strong drink a sin because it will cause someone to stumble?
  • If it is a sin to do so, then how can the Lord issue a command knowing it will cause people to stumble?

These questions answer themselves, since to answer in the negative would damage the very character of God. It is only in light of these passages, as well as many other Scriptural passages of public drinking, that the issue of the weaker/stronger brother can be addressed.

In other words as we dive into this very sensitive subject, Scripture must interpret Scripture. Not our emotions, modern psychology, past history with alcohol, or other aspects outside of the text.

I use the text in Deuteronomy as the foundation for this before diving into Romans 14 because it uses the term “shekar,” or strong drink. No matter how one tries to make “wine” appear less alcoholic by jumping to extra-biblical theories of diluting wine, there is no getting around the command of God to purchase “strong drink” in the text. “Shekar,” in its original language, is defined as “intensely alcoholic” and is used several times in Scripture to warn against the sin of drunkenness (Proverbs 20:1, Isaiah 5:11), but it is also used in worship as described here in Deuteronomy, including its use as an offering unto the Lord (Numbers 28:7). This begs a number of questions: if alcohol was inherently sinful, or should not be drunk by Christians in public, why would God want it served and poured out as worship to him? Is God worshipped properly when “controlled substances” (which are regarded as symbols of the world and which have held so many in “bondage”) are used during public worship? If this can be considered proper worship, how can one be in “sin” before the Holy and just Lord, and “rejoice” at the same time?

Clearly, as Scripture tells us, it is the command of the King Himself to use alcohol in public worship to Him, not just in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well. Paul rebukes the Church of Corinth for intoxication at the communion meal, indicative of their unworthy participation. Clearly the wine used in Corinth and the churches of the New Testament was alcoholic.

But how is this possible? Surely throughout all of Scripture there must have been weaker brothers as well? Were they not present during communion? Did Jesus Christ place our weaker brothers in temptation by commanding the use of wine for his sacrament? Certainly not. To say so blasphemes the nature of God, who tempts no one.

A discussion on the weaker brother would not be complete without an examination of the primary text of Romans 14. Let’s take some time to look over that passage, starting with the first few verses that are often overlooked by the opposing positions.

Romans 14:1 – As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

The very first thing to note is that in the preceding chapter of Romans, Paul speaks about the importance of loving our fellow neighbor, and thus leads into Romans 14 to discuss how to handle those who are “weak in faith.” This matter is first and foremost an issue of loving those whom are weaker in the faith or new Christians, ones who do not understand fully their freedom and grace that is to be found in the Gospel. Because we love the weaker brother, we can never allow them to remain stagnate in the faith as a result of their own ignorance to what Scripture commands.

This text is not about going out of your way to bend to the desires of those who are older in their faith, and wrong in their reasoning, nor it is not about creating an entire system of church regulation built upon the weaker faith of another.

As the text says “He [the weaker brother] will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” When discussing this text, John Calvin points out Philippians 1:6: “He who began in you a good work, will perform it to the end,” to show that the position of the weaker brother should be one that is temporary.

When speaking of the weaker brother, the Apostle Paul is speaking of newly converted Jews and Gentiles who were still bound to their traditions, (such as not eating meat sacrificed to idols) having not yet arrived to the proper conclusions regarding the cleanliness of foods.

We must not make the same mistake common among many Christians, which is to assume that the weaker brother has a more sensitive conscience. Within the context, the weaker brother is not an esteemed position, but rather is someone who is still holding on to traditions, who is still clinging to legalism and law, and who does not yet understand how to manage his freedoms under the Gospel. It is a cruel thing to allow one to stay in that position, and we can trust that the weaker brother will not remain as such, since the Lord, who is able to make him stand, will also keep him from falling.

In others words, as individuals, we are to temporarily make accommodations for our Christian brothers and sisters who are new to the faith as they grow in sanctification. If we go out to dinner with them, we abstain from ordering a drink, but if they come to our house we are not under any law to clear out the fridge as Paul says, “Let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats.”

Clearly this text is not saying that drinking is a sin, nor is it saying that eating is a sin. The context of this text is not even dealing with people who used to be gluttons and drunkards in their pre-regenerate state, or even people that abused the gifts of God! It is speaking of the opposite. It is speaking of those who, in the past, abstained from things that the Gospel now allows them to enjoy freely!

For example, the ex-homosexual who has now repented and saved is not to abstain from all sexual activity, instead he should desire (as we should desire for him) to be married, have children, and raise a godly generation!

Likewise, the ex-alcoholic should not desire to always be abstinent, but to instead desire to be restored to a maturity that allows him to drink alcohol, partake in communion, and enjoy God’s gift rightly!

But with as glorious of a picture of the Gospel as that is, the text does say that for the sake of the weaker brother, we ought to abstain when necessary so as not to violate his conscience.

“It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”

But is this a permanent abstinence, and to what extent should an individual abstain? Should the church corporately submit to whatever yoke the weaker brother requests of it? Not at all.

I have many Christian friends who come to my house. They know my position on alcohol. Some evangelist come to my house for the weekend knowing my positions concerning alcohol and I, knowing theirs, abstain while they are in my home. Other Christian friends and evangelists come to my house to fellowship and enjoy a good beer as well as bring their own. I am not to love the brothers who do not drink any less than my brothers who do drink. The brothers who do not drink are not to love me any less nor are they to think less of me or question my devotion to the Gospel because I drink.

If a brother who does not drink comes to my house, should I empty my fridge? Would the site of seeing a beer cause him to run to the nearest ABC store and devour a bottle of Jack Daniels? Would I be responsible? Certainly not. If Jesus Christ can turn water into wine at a public celebration and not be charged with placing people into temptation, and can command people to purchase wine and strong drink to worship him, then certainly we can purchase beer in public, drink in public, and take part in teaching others to brew beer and make wine publicly.

Remember the text I started this post with? It described a public command by God to drink and eat whatever one desires corporately! Therefore the church’s position on alcohol cannot be something that would require us to rewrite the very commands of Christ for His sacrament. I like how R.C. Sproul defines “Christian liberty” in his commentary on Romans 14:

“The Classical understanding of Christian Liberty is this: we are not to try and force somebody with a scruple against something, as uniformed as that scruple may be, to violate his conscience. The basic principle that unfolds here is one of loving sensitivity. If my brother believes that drinking a glass of wine is sin, I ought not to try to coax him into drinking a glass of wine. That would be an attempt to entice him to violate his conscience, . The violation of one’s conscience, even if it is a misinformed conscience, is a serious matter. That does not mean that we should stand back and allow our weaker brother to make his scruple the law of the Church. Paul makes clear in his teaching that though we are to be sensitive, loving and kind to the weaker brother we ought never to allow him to exercise tyranny over the church”

We who regularly enjoy alcohol are never to force another brother into violating his conscience. We are not to coax or twist their arm into doing something they do not feel comfortable with. It’s serious business to do this and an incredibly grievous sin.

But is one forced to drink alcohol by smelling it? Is one ever forced to partake of communion against their will? Is one forced into drinking alcohol to the point of sinful drunken stupor by seeing a frosty beer in a photo on Facebook, or by seeing a six pack in my fridge, or by seeing a blog title photo of the bar taps on Grace to You’s own website?

Certainly this is absurd reasoning that is not based from Romans 14, which commands us to engage in the “mutual upbuilding” of one other. Instead, this sort of lopsided non-biblical tyranny is not based on Paul’s commands but on Alcoholics Anonymous-Freudian psychology, and not on a Biblical understanding of sin, regeneration, and sanctification.

A while back, as a way to prove the inconsistency of this point, I posted some photos of Krispy Kreme doughnuts on my Facebook. Was I rebuked for causing people to stumble? Was I warned of the possibility of causing a glutton to dive into an entire dozen by himself? Was my devotion to the Gospel questioned?

Most assuredly it was not.

Instead I was treated to hardy har hars from people who said they were “tempted” and “stumbling” – none of them serious, of course. Yet when I posted the photo of a beer, suddenly I crossed the line. I went too far in expressing my Christian liberty and, though no one was tempted toward gluttony in one picture, I was in danger of causing countless Christians to fall into despair because of the other.

We as Christians should demand consistency with every Scriptural argument that contradicts how we live our lives. If Christian prohibitionist or “abstinence is wisdom” crowds were consistent with their view of alcohol and the church, they would no longer go to pot-lucks, they would not be seen at a restaurant, bakery, or grocery store, they would eat only in the privacy of their own home with closed curtains, or they would starve to death out of fear of causing a brother to stumble. Why don’t the teetotalers  demand that engaged women cease to wear a ring on their finger as they are clearly causing other single woman to covet. If the teetotaler position was consistent and as sensitive with other subjects as they are with alcohol, there should be no public weddings at all to prevent single brothers and sisters from coveting being married.

The teetotalers’ logic and reasoning is absurd. We as a body of believers are not to reconstruct our church policies, our practices, and our sacraments based on the opinions of every weaker brother who walks into our building.

So then, Romans 14 is clear: out of love for our weaker brothers in the faith we are to abstain when necessary from those actions requiring a mature handling, all the while teaching and encouraging the weaker brother to grow out of their yoke of bondage, in order that they might stand.

This cannot happen without public teaching on the subject. The church today demands that there be no teaching on the right use of alcohol and therefore the perversion of alcohol by the world is the only education on the subject our culture receives. This is very dangerous.

The weaker brother is to be loved and accepted by the body. But he is not to judge unrighteously or force the stronger brother into bondage and fear.

May we as a body of Christ cease to cause division over this subject any longer, and to stop treating God’s gifts as taboo subjects or worldly vices. May Christ allow us as a body to break free of the misunderstanding of God’s gift of strong drink.

And most importantly, whether we eat or drink, or whatever we do, let us do all to the glory of God.

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