John MacArthur and his staff have been running a series on what makes a biblical pastor.

One of these blog posts concerns alcohol consumption, wine, in particular.

Some denominations and independent churches actively discourage or prohibit their members from drinking. The 19th century temperance movement is strongly connected with such Protestants. Sometimes, there were — and are — good reasons to abstain, e.g. an alcoholic parent or sibling.

We seem to be moving into a quasi-Islamist perspective on drinking. This used to come from a small group of churches and pietists. The rest of us could ignore them. Now, outside of the Catholics and mainstream Protestants, prohibitionism appears to be spreading.

John MacArthur’s essay leaves the matter fairly open-ended for pastors, although he is careful to point out that impure water is no longer an issue in the West:

And even if you subscribe to the potential health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, Paul’s exhortation has much more to do with how you drink than whether or not you do it at all. Is it an occasional drink in the privacy of your own home? Or is it a key facet of your public persona and a constant topic of conversation? Bottom line: Are you known as a drinker?

He makes a good point.

However, the ensuing discussion by readers and MacArthur’s elders turns into legalism. A few Reformed readers cited their own churches’ traditions in this regard. Comments below are referred to by number; there did not seem to be permalinks.

John Calvin’s words about Cana warn us not to abuse wine (comment 51, emphases mine):

But it is wonderful that a large quantity of wine, and of the very best wine, is supplied by Christ, who is a teacher of sobriety. I reply, when God daily gives us a large supply of wine, it is our own fault if his kindness is an excitement to luxury; but, on the other hand, it is an undoubted trial of our sobriety, if we are sparing and moderate in the midst of abundance; as Paul boasts that he had learned to know both how to be full and to be hungry, (Philippians 4:12.)

In the 19th century, one of the Princeton Greats, the Presbyterian minister and theologian A A Hodge, criticised churches which substituted grape juice for wine (comment 1):

The contents of the cup were wine. This is known to have been the juice of the grape, not in its original state as freshly expressed, but as prepared in the form of wine for permanent use among the Jews. Wine, according to the absolutely unanimous, unexceptional testimony of every scholar and missionary, is in its essence fermented grape juice; Nothing else is wine. The use of wine is precisely what is commanded by Christ in his example and his authoritative institution of this holy ordinance. Whosoever puts away true and real wine, or fermented grape-juice, on moral grounds, from the Lord’s Supper, sets himself up as more moral than the Son of God who reigns over his conscience, and the Saviour who redeemed him. There has been absolutely universal consent on this subject in the church until modern times, when the practice has been opposed, not upon change of evidence, but solely on prudential considerations.

The Revd Blake Gentry was unimpressed with MacArthur’s readers’ statements that pastors should abstain from alcohol (comment 20):

All of these accusations and “knee-jerk judgments” are the residue of prohibition. This goes beyond meat offending a brother, and lands right in the context of Mark 7, where the Pharisees questioned Jesus about his disciples “not holding to the tradition of the elders” by refraining from washing their hands prior to eating. Would it be a sin for me to have a meal with a brother who previously (or currently) struggled with alcoholism and then order a drink anyway? Yes. Is it a sin for me to have a bottle of wine in my grocery cart (for whatever purpose) when someone might potentially see it and immediately cry foul? Absolutely not. I’m all for protecting my witness as a follower of Christ and as a pastor, but this crosses the line into outright legalism and walking on eggshells.

Dr Daniel B Wallace is a Professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has also taught Greek at the university. His article for Bible.org, ‘The Bible and Alcohol’ is well worth reading.

He begins by reminding us that legalism — Pharisaism — has always been among us:

Things that once were issues are often now regarded as normal activities. For example, when my grandmother and grandfather were dating, her parents were concerned about this young man because he liked to go to football games. That was taboo for them. Some Christians have condemned others for wearing make-up, going to the opera, or even sending Christmas cards. Christians, it seems, have an incredible ability to invent rules and regulations. It’s endemic to human nature—but it’s also a modern, unvarnished form of Pharisaism.

How moderate alcohol consumption is viewed depends on where one lives:

When I was on sabbatical in England, for example, I heard the pastor at an evangelical church use an illustration which involved alcohol in a positive light. He was speaking about our attitude toward little disasters—such as when one brings home the groceries and the one sack that had the Sherry in it falls to the ground and the Sherry bottle breaks! The very casualness of this illustration put in bold relief the difference in attitude between many American Christians and many European Christians regarding alcoholic beverages. If a pastor in the States were to use the same illustration, most churches would censure him for it if not outright sack him.

Wallace refers us to Romans 14, which is the main passage used in defending teetotalism. However, St Paul tells us not to criticise others in these matters or place unbiblical demands on them. Wallace says:

As much as there may well be good reasons for one to personally hold to certain convictions,2  we must be very careful about extending such beyond ourselves.3

Wallace discusses wine in the context of the New Testament. First, the miracle at Cana which a number of Protestants today say was really grape juice (Bible verse emphases in the original):

He made between 120 and 180 gallons of wine! Even if this had been grape juice, it would soon turn to wine because the fermentation process would immediately begin. But it most certainly was not grape juice: the head waiter in John 2:10 said, “Every man sets out the good wine first, then after the guests have drunk freely, the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” The verb translated ‘drunk freely’ is almost always used of getting drunk (and is so translated in the NRSV here). In the least, the people at this wedding feast, if not drunk, would certainly be drinking alcohol fairly freely (if not, this verb means something here that is nowhere else attested4). And this makes perfect sense in the context: The reason why a man brings out the poorer wine later is because the good wine has numbed the senses a bit. Grape juice would hardly mask anything.

Then he mentions the criticism the Apostles incurred when they began speaking in tongues:

Acts 2:13”they are full of sweet wine”—an inaccurate comment made about the apostles when they began speaking in tongues, as though this explained their unusual behavior. The point is: If they were full of grape juice would this comment even have made any sense at all? That would be like saying, “Well, they’re all acting strange and silly because they have had too much orange juice this morning!”

And let’s not forget that the Pharisees criticised Jesus for drinking wine (Luke 7:34):

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’

Wallace goes on to mention verses about wine in both the Old and the New Testament. Some condemn excessive drinking, whilst others say that wine has its place in our lives. In citing several more verses which summarise his points:

The lack of wine is viewed as a judgment from God (Jer 48:33; Lam 2:12; Hos 2:9; Joel 1:10; Hag 2:16); and, conversely, its provision is viewed as a blessing from the Lord (cf. Gen 27:28; Deut 7:13; 11:14; Joel 2:19, 24; 3:18; Amos 9:13-14). Cf. also Isa 55:1; Jer 31:12; Zech 9:17.

As for the Last Supper and the Cup:

by the time of the first century, every adult was obliged to have four glasses of wine during the Passover celebration. Jesus and his disciples did this in the Last Supper.6 The fact that the wine of the Passover was a symbol the Lord used for his blood and for the new covenant implicitly shows that our Lord’s view of wine was quite different from that of many modern Christians.

This is in no way designed to encourage non-drinkers to drink. However, it is also important for all of us to be accurate in interpreting Scripture and not to distort it via legalist revisionism to say what it does not, merely because it suits our own preferences.

It also misrepresents the Bible and the Church as a whole. This can adversely affect our efforts in spreading the Gospel. Wallace warns:

Wine is so often connected with the blessings of God that we are hard-pressed to figure out why so many modern Christians view drink as the worst of all evils. Why, if one didn’t know better, he might think that God actually wanted us to enjoy life! Unfortunately, the only Bible most of our pagan friends will read is the one written on our lives and spoken from our lips. The Bible they know is a book of ‘Thou shalt nots,’ and the God they know is a cosmic killjoy.

In closing, yes, it would be wrong for us to encourage a recovering alcoholic to enjoy a drink or to drink in front of him. Similarly, it would be inadvisable to enthuse about food with someone who was on a restricted diet.

We seem to think that legalism makes us holier. Legalism also encourages pride: ‘I don’t indulge; it’s a pity you’re so morally weak.’ There’s a lot of that about.

Let’s not fall into the same prohibitionist trap that an increasing number of Muslims have over the past 30 years.

Instead:

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.  (Ecclesiastes 9:7)

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