Monday, December 07, 2009

James MacDonald - Wise Up About Alcohol - Part 6

Here is Pastor MacDonald’s final reason for why he believes that total abstinence should be the norm for all Christians. Listen to his message here and here if you like.

6. Because wisdom calls me to set it aside.

I am honestly glad that Pastor MacDonald is convinced in his own mind that the wisest choice is for him to totally abstain. I have zero problem with that. And because he has this conviction, it is the wisest choice for him to abstain. But what I do have a problem with is his trumpeting of this view for all his people as the wisest choice for all Christians. As pastors we are called to teach our people the explicit word of God and seek to unify our people around the centrality of the Gospel. When a pastor stands before his people and proclaims his views on matters that are amoral it goes against what Paul writes here in Romans 14:
3 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. 4 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.
If the Bible does not give a firm stance on an issue then those who lead God's people should not either. It is not as though a pastor shouldn’t speak to issues that are amoral and help his people think through them, but this should always be done in such a way as to not give the impression that those who choose differently than the pastor are somehow weird, odd, or backsliding. I find this statement from Pastor MacDonald to be profoundly unhelpful for his people:
“I can’t imagine for the life of me why a follower of Jesus Christ, a blood purchased son or daughter of the living God, would involve themselves with something that is reeking the havoc in our society that it is. I don’t understand it.”
On issues such as this, pastors should rather use the advice of Paul from Romans 14 and “keep it between themselves and God” (Rom. 14:22). As Augustine said, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” I fear that Pastor MacDonald is not showing his people the way of liberty, but rather dividing them by condemning something that the Bible does not condemn.

Pastor MacDonald uses Proverbs 20:1 to support his view that total abstinence is the best choice. It reads, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” Pastor MacDonald anticipates the potential objection of someone saying, “I am not being ‘led astray’ by alcohol so this verse doesn’t apply to me.” He responds by saying that it is even better to not be on the path to being led astray by alcohol, so total abstinence should be chosen. He would say that since he has chosen total abstinence he is farther removed from any temptation than one who chooses to partake in a responsible fashion. At face value this sounds good, but in reality does not follow.

Think of sex. Alcohol abuse doesn’t even hold a candle to the way in which sex is abused in our culture. Does the fact that I participate in sex with my wife mean that I am somehow going to be led down a path of sexual abomination? This does not follow. Consider eating. How many people do you know that have a problem with eating and are grossly overweight? But does eating in general necessarily lead you down the path of being sinfully gluttonous? Certainly not. His logic simply does not hold. Participation in something within healthy, God-given boundaries does not necessarily mean that one will certainly be led to abuse that same thing.

Pastor MacDonald closes his message by using Romans 14 to support his position. It seems to me that if he took the above verses (3-4) to heart he wouldn’t preach his message the way he did. I won’t take the time here to interact with all the Paul is trying to get at in Romans 14, but I will point you to a short paper that our teaching pastor at Desert Springs Church, Ryan Kelly, wrote for the elders of our church that has to do with this topic. Key questions to consider are dealt with in his paper and I would recommend it to you all.

Pastor MacDonald says towards the end or his message:
“It’s best for you that I abstain. So that when you look to me as an example, you can say, ‘Well he is so concerned about it that he’s decided to have nothing to do with it. Maybe that’s the choice that I should make too.’ And I praise God if people choose to steer completely away from alcohol. There is nothing good for you there. I respect that choice. I think that is wise.”
I wonder if Pastor MacDonald would be willing to say this to Jesus and his disciples? Why didn’t Jesus or his disciples make the choice that Pastor MacDonald does? Were they not wise? Does Pastor MacDonald have little respect for Jesus’ choice to not abstain? Why should he condemn for his people what Jesus has approved? It seems that he is treading on very dangerous ground with this statement.

R.C. Sproul writes the following in his commentary on Romans 14:
Someone I know sits on the board of trustees of a Christian institution, and as a member of that board, he is not allowed to drink wine. The organization has elevated a preference to a rule. They have legislated where God has given freedom. He explained to me that the board was concerned that its members stand out from the culture at large, and I replied, “Do you realize that Jesus and the apostles could not serve on the board of your organization?” We can appreciate their concern to keep the institution unspotted from the world, but their position is one of weakness.
Sproul closes his comments on Romans 14:1-13 with this:
I recall a certain dinner I ate with a group at a restaurant. The waitress came to serve us and asked, “May I take your drink orders? Would anybody like a cocktail?” Our hostess cut her off, saying, “No, we are Christians.” The smug self-righteousness of our hostess not only embarrassed the waitress, who was simply doing her job, but she gave a wrong message about Christianity. Christianity is not about eating and drinking.

Drinking alcohol is a controversial topic in the Christian community. Many argue that Jesus never drank wine and that when the Pharisees called Jesus a winebibber, they were distorting the truth. They also argue that the wine Jesus made for the wedding in Canaan was unfermented. Arguing that way, however, is a hopeless, tortuous treatment of the biblical text, but it happens when people come to the text with a cultural bias. Many are convinced that total abstinence is the only spiritual way, but we learn no such thing from the Scriptures - not from the Old Testament or from the celebration of the Passover. If we were to do a word study of the word wine in the Bible, we would see that it was the real thing. God sanctified it and warned against drinking too much of it, because getting drunk is a sin. God did not give that warning against drunkenness to people drinking grape juice.

This view is offensive to many people. To all such who are convinced that they cannot drink wine, then they must never let wine touch their lips, because for them it is a sin. For others it is not. Our brother ought not to judge us, and we ought not to judge our brother.
So why am I taking so much time to write on this subject? A couple closing remarks:

1. Our churches should not be divided on these types of issues. When it comes to this message, I fear that Pastor MacDonald has contributed to an ethos at his church that is unhelpful and unbiblical. We should be communicating freedom on extra-biblical matters and not give such a strong word on one side or another. Most Christians are spring loaded towards legalism and we should not add fuel to that fire. In the end, these posts are probably less about alcohol and more about healthy ecclesiology.

2. I honestly have not done a lot of thinking along these lines in the past and wanted to systematize my thoughts a bit on this issue. It is sure to come up at the church where I will serve in Madison, WI, thus these posts will probably turn into a position paper of sorts.

If you have been tracking with these posts, thanks for reading. I never thought it would generate the type of response that it has. Again, please consider Paul’s words again in Romans 14:3-4 as you ponder this issue. We are sure to disagree at times, but may love rule the discussion.

If you would like to read all of these post in one place, you can do so here. (Start at the bottom.)


sh said...

Zach, thanks for being a brave soul and posting this series. It is much needed as the comments suggest, to me anyway. I would also like to propose the idea that the reason we have a "drunkeness" and abuse problem in the wider culture is because the Church has NOT been mature and NOT led the way in showing how to live in moderation. The teetotaler position is mostly a modern notion crept into the church through the Temperance & Prohibition movement. I think if we look at cultures that have led the way in exhibiting wisdom here, (far less abuse) we will find not total abstinence but moderation. I'm thinking of the Jewish culture for one and the Puritans for another. The young are taught by precept and example the right use of alcohol and therefore do not abuse it when they are older. It would certainly take away the "mystery" for a multitude of Christian kids who go away to college and are tempted with abuse because they have no clue and no discipline tools to deal with it.

amy Romero said...

i, too, appreciate this series and the thought you've put into it. our home group just finished Romans 14 last night, so it was our discussion. :D

Steve said...

I appreciate your posts on this topic.

Maybe this has been addressed already, but I've heard some take the stance that it's okay for "everyday" Christians to drink in moderation (without getting drunk, presenting a stumbling block, violating their conscience, etc.), but that elders are called to a higher standard and therefore should abstain.

I think that argument is also lacking. For one, the qualifications that Paul gives Timothy and Titus simply don't require total abstinence.

Secondly, I think it's a mistake to say that the qualifications for elders are not characteristics that ALL believers should strive for. It's one thing to say, "sorry, you can't be an elder while struggling with a besetting sin, but you can be an usher." It's another thing altogether to give the impression that we needn't emulate our spiritual leaders because we don't have to meet the same standard they do.

Jack Hager said...

I did not come to Christ until I was 26; and from the time I was 12 or so I was a heavy drinker, and I now hate alcohol perhaps only as an alcoholic can. I do wish that the Word forbad drinking; I concur it does not. Though I'm older than dirt; I'm still primarily a youth worker, and I tell students the Bible does, of course, forbid drunkenness, and thus the only way to fully insure not getting drunk is to not drink; similar that the only way to avoid marrying a non believer is to never date/court one.
I appreciate the tone of your counter to McDonald (who I value highly as a teacher/preacher).
Still, no one will ever drink in my home; but I will not rail on someone if they offer me a glass in theirs.
I would still urge followers of Christ, in our North American culture, to drink in private...

Bob Hayton said...

Thanks for a good series, Z. Like you've said this is an important issue as it touches on matters of legalism and greater concerns.

Blessings in Christ,


Joe Crispin said...

Just wanted to say that I thought your posts were full of sound wisdom, firm conviction, and a gracious spirit. Not easy to come by sometimes. Good work.

Souchem said...

I'm confused. Is this the same James MacDonald who's friends with RC Sproul Jr, the defrocked pastor who's got such a bad reputation for abusing alcohol and stumbling weaker brethren? If that's the same James MacDonald then I can't understand why he associates with Sproul Jr.

Anonymous said...

great articles!