Brewing Controversy: A Respectful Disagreement with John MacArthur

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[The following reply is a guest post originally published on spencernix.com (hyperlink removed the site is currently hacked) by friend and fellow blogger Spencer Nix. Spencer is a north Georgia native and Lead Pastor of Isaac’s Keep in Canton, Georgia. He enjoys connecting with people and their story and living life simply and beautifully in his corner of Creation, the intersection of north Atlanta and Southern Appalachia.]

Or it’s more Puritan title: Brewing Controversy: A 12 Point Respectful Disagreement to the Estimable Rev. John MacArthur over the subject of Beer, which We Greatly Enjoy and Hope He Someday Will, too.

This post is a response to John MacArthur’s latest blog post. In no way was I ever contacted or asked about anything regarding the post prior to its posting. I was singled out along with a few others, through hyperlinks in Dr. MacArthur’s post. I do not represent anyone but myself and Reformation Brewery.  I don’t feel the need to respond directly to the author, nor to every point in the post.  I simply want my friends and those who associate with me and the ministries I’m involved with to know that I’m encouraged and grateful even as I disagree with a dear brother.  We can disagree and remain faithful to the Gospel, I can disagree and still love Big Mac.  The common criticism from those disillusioned with Christianity is often, “they can’t stop fighting with each other”. I’m mindful of that criticism and would prefer to have not been singled out by MacArthur on this issue, my hope is that my response communicates a deep respect for a fellow Christian even in disagreement.

First, I love John MacArthur without really knowing him personally, he is a hero to me in the Christian faith. When I first became a believer at age 20, his course material, Fundamentals of the Faith, was solid gold in my life. As a young Christian I read many of his books, I traveled the country to conferences in large part to hear him preach.  He has been used by God in my life and his heritage is not short or lean.  I pray the best for Dr. MacArthur and his continued ministry in the Gospel.

Second, I agree with what I believe is MacArthur’s largest point in the post. I believe his primary point is the danger of elevating any freedom over the primacy of the Gospel itself.  While I think MacArthur overstates his case against alcohol, the warning should be heard and I am hearing it.  Anything elevated over the Gospel is simply wrong and should be destroyed and repented of.  The fact is, we can take anything, even restrictions, and elevate them above the Gospel. John Calvin wrote that the human heart is an idol factory. Beer can indeed be an idol, but then so, too, can tee-totaling when it becomes your source of righteousness.

I understand the temptation to use a common existential experience we’ve all had, loved ones affected or tragically killed by the abuse of alcohol, and then to draw the line from there to an abstinence-only position. But trying to do exegetical gymnastics with biblical texts to prove that point is frankly disappointing. If you abstain because of pain and your association with the substance to the pain, I completely understand and respect, but don’t play fiddle with a grand piano. My wife and I have both painfully experienced how the abuse of alcohol destroys, and I agree that the larger culture of alcohol that we see mass marketed is deplorable and tasteless; it needs to be changed. But there exists more than one biblical and historical option in changing that reality.

Respectable and historical scholars understand that Jesus changed water into something much more potent than beer. Furthermore, beer and Christianity have risen hand in hand throughout history. It wasn’t to make anyone hip or worldly or whatever else, it was simply a gift to be enjoyed.  The last century isn’t total beer history, in fact it is the worst in terms of American beer, and why is that? It could be argued the abuses we see today are in large part from a misguided prohibition movement that essentially laid the path for mega corporations to take over the American beer culture and turn it into the sleaze it is today.  Perhaps if the church taught and lived a more healthy respect for food, alcohol and other gifts of God, we would change history. We can reform it to a more biblical balance.

MacArthur’s argument goes deep south from his primary point, as he appears to me to be arguing that liberty is imprudent at best and sinful at worst given the real dangers of alcohol and addiction. While I agree that alcohol does have intrinsic temptation towards addiction and idolatry, I would simply ask what doesn’t? As a pastor I assure you I see all kinds of temptations wreck a believer’s life.  I have witnessed and ministered to those desiring something as wholesome as children, and have seen that desire radically test their faith. Do we avoid children simply because there is intrinsic temptation towards desiring them above the Gospel?  Maybe something even more relevant in my context, what about food and sex? We all know the dangers and havoc pornography has played, should we abstain from sex too? Should we abstain and not talk about the good things regarding food and sex enjoyed under the right boundaries that God has given?  I mean no offense, but I meet a lot more people on the street and in the church who are struggling to push away french fries more than they are Fat Tires. The Centers for Disease Control reports that obesity is actually killing more Americans than alcoholism, drugs and car accidents combined, it’s not even close.  Who is railing against gluttony?

I have witnessed Dr. MacArthur’s increasing stream of criticisms toward so many who respect him, it has saddened me personally and now I am in that stream. I don’t know Dr. MacArthur’s heart, I only know some of his writings and some of his sermons, I have been tremendously blessed by them.

I close with a few thoughts and quotes from some of my other heroes. Martin Luther, a father to us all, was not known for backing down, he gave stern warning to those who retreated from everything that might tempt them, “do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused, men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we prohibit women?” John Calvin writes in the Golden Booklet section, that God “made the earthly blessings for our benefit, and not for our harm.” Later in the Institutes he writes, “we are nowhere forbidden to laugh or to be satisfied with food… or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine.” He also wrote, “it is permissible to use wine not only for necessity, but also to make us merry.”  And finally this from C.S. Lewis, “It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotalers; [Islam] not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons – marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.”

There is a difference in being merry and being drunk, from practicing abstinence from alcohol and requiring all others to do the same. I’m grieved and frightened by those who don’t see it. Heroes are not immune to wrong turns, grace is sufficient, the Gospel is prime.

Grace be with you,

Spencer Nix

I would like to thank my church elders and Nathan Maphet specifically for helping me think through this response, may God be glorified through the Gospel of His Son.

What would it look like if Satan took control of a city? Bars would close, pornography banished, tidy, smiling pedestrians filling pristine streets. No swearing. Children would say “yes sir” and “no ma’am”. And churches would be filled every Sunday…where Christ is not preached. -Donald Grey Barnhouse

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Frank Turk August 17, 2011 at 10:40 am

I think MacArthur’s secondary point is that when license is disguised as liberty, things fall apart.

2 Jack Hager August 17, 2011 at 11:58 am

I, too, respect very much Dr. Mac Arthur.
Theologically, I disagree with him on the basic premise.
BUT…as an alcoholic who works primarily with teens and with prisoners, I also detest alcohol. I wish with all my heart the Bible did forbid it; alas, it does not.
It of course condemns drunkenness, and of course there is only one way to absolutely ensure one doesn’t get drunk.
But I do wish those who have freedom to “drink in moderation” would be a tad less public about it.
A click on my website will take you to an “Open Letter” I wrote a long time ago to my friends who drink.
I recognize that because of my own alcoholism (I’ve been dry for over thirty years) I can’t be objective…I recognize the Word does not forbid alcohol…and I do agree that there are SOME who patently indicate that puffing a cigar and drinking a brew is a mark of spirituality…and I find it hard to appreciate them…
Bottom line, is it wise to drink in public, and to publicly say it is okay, and even good?
Methinks not.

3 Tom Parker August 17, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Mark:

The issue of “moderation” is being used by some to further divide those left in the SBC, even after the CR is supposedly over.

Abstentionists wish to marginalize those that believe the Bible says differently about alcohol than them.

As God guides you stand your ground!

4 sean mucci August 17, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Just an opinion!!! when God graciously saved me from the kingdom of darkness into his light on Dec 10,1983 grace was given me to put down the alcohol and drugs i was 21 at that time.Even though I am “free” in Christ to have “one or two” drinks i choose not to mainly because i remember how it treated “ME”.Yes the truth is some can handle their pleasure drinking and remain rational and i know you don’t advocate drunkenness and abuse.Beside the scripture of not letting your liberty becoming a stumbling block,my concern for the tavern ministry reformers is not to judge the people who wish not to have a drink or two.Scripture says let each man be persuaded in his own mind “in these matters” and it goes vice versa for John Mac Aurther and company.Not saying you do!!! may we always attempt to give “GRACE” to one another in these differences.God bless you!!

5 Mel @ Trailing After God August 17, 2011 at 12:50 pm

My take on an important part of what MacArthur is saying is that he doesn’t think it’s wise to have it at church functions. I have to agree there. I don’t see how that is necessary or edifying and is quite dangerous for those seeking to escape those kinds of scenes in order to stay clean and sober. As with anything, common sense has to come into play. If you know you are prone to abusing alcohol, you need to stay away from it 100% – there’s no wiggle room for that one. I grew up with an alcoholic father and I’d hate for the church to be a place of temptation for anyone who is desperately trying to stay away from alcohol. We will not always know the inner struggles of each individual we spend time with. I’d feel terrible if I offered a drink to someone who was trying to stay sober and in a moment of weakness caved because, hey, the church girl is doing it. I do think we need to be careful when we draw a line in the sand and say never or always. You both have good points to this argument.

Blessings,
Mel
Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

6 JR August 17, 2011 at 1:05 pm

I read this before I read MacArthur’s post, and I was surprised to find the content of this author’s rebuttal was largely inconsistent with Mac’s general argument. I think this paragraph sums up his point nicely:

“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. It is wrong-headed, carnal, and immature to imagine that bad-boy behavior makes good missional strategy. The image of beer-drinking Bohemianism does nothing to advance the cause of Christ’s kingdom.”

Nix’s response fails to address MacArthur’s overall thesis outlined above. While abstinence from alcohol is certainly an auxiliary argument of Mac’s, it isn’t his main focus. The fact that Reformers’ love of beer is touted as a linchpin of Christian liberty is undisputed, and while I tend to agree with Nix on the use of alcohol, I think MacArthur makes some fantastic points that shouldn’t go unheeded by the Reformed community.

7 Micah Burke August 17, 2011 at 3:16 pm

“I believe his primary point is the danger of elevating any freedom over the primacy of the Gospel itself…”

And yet, isn’t that Paul’s central point in Galatians?

Gal 3:4 Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery…

Consider that in Mac’s church, in order to serve there as an elder, you have to sign an agreement to not drink alcohol, not because it’s a “good idea” but based upon Mac’s faulty exegesis of Scripture. Not only that, but this is the same drum he’s been beating since his anti-alcohol sermon of 1978.

How can we say Mac makes “fantastic point” when he backs it up with eisegesis, ahistorical claims and down right fallacious argumentation? Mac is simply repeating cultic and fundamentalist arguments that the Reformed such as Machen and others fought against. Why give any ground in this matter?

8 JR August 17, 2011 at 3:36 pm

“Why give any ground in this matter?”

Because there are more important things in life than beer.

9 Micah Burke August 17, 2011 at 3:55 pm

There is nothing more important, according to the Apostle Paul, than defending Christian liberty over the laws of men.

10 JR August 17, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Paul defends Titus’ freedom to abstain from the slavery of circumcision. To utilize his apology for an excuse to use beer as a defense of Christian liberty is asinine. You’re equating the importance of the “primacy of the Gospel” with the “slavery” in the Galatians 2 (eh-hem) passage.

“There is nothing more important, according to the Apostle Paul, than defending Christian liberty over the laws of men.”

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (6:2) You’ve got it backwards, mate.

11 threegirldad August 17, 2011 at 6:30 pm

[M]y hope is that my response communicates a deep respect for a fellow Christian even in disagreement.

What a breath of fresh air. May Pastor Nix’s tribe increase.

12 Mark August 17, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Sean, as I read the moderationist and the abstenitionist it seems that it is more the abstentionists who are passing judgment on the moderationists. Some churches, schools, etc. have rules stating that none of the staff or students may drink alcohol while working or enrolled at the institution.

I’ve never seen those holding to a moderationist view of alcohol demanding that every student or staff member drink a minimum amount of alcohol per year.

13 Mark August 17, 2011 at 11:18 pm

Mel, not one YRR comes to mind who I think would disagree with anything you said. Well, I suppose it depends on what kind of functions you are speaking of.

Thanks for stopping by.

14 Mark August 17, 2011 at 11:29 pm

JR, I believe Micah’s point isn’t beer specifically, but MacArthur binding others’ conscience beyond what Scripture does for eldership, therefore taking away freedom in Christ.

Bearing one another’s burdens is not a law allowing a pastor/elder to bind the conscience of others. Rather, elders led by – “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:3 ESV)

15 Mark August 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm

tgd, Spencer is a great guy and that quote of his is true of where he stands in his approach.

16 brig August 18, 2011 at 12:29 am

Mark,

You probably had in mind the same, but I’ll say it anyway:

I’ll disagree here with Mel’s point about church functions, since for the entirety of church history has alcohol been served at a particular church function, even during the Prohibition years: The Lord’s Supper.

17 MRWBBIII August 19, 2011 at 3:33 am

JOHN MACARTHUR – ROB BELL RICK WARREN MARK DRISCOLL SERMON JAM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HidbQZMKVI

18 D.R. Randle August 20, 2011 at 10:22 am

A little off topic, Mark, but when I tried to click on the link to Spencer’s blog at the top of the post, my Norton Anti-Virus said it tried to attack my computer. Has Spencer’s blog been hacked? Maybe it was the anti-alcohol crowd using new methods to suppress the non-teetotalers? (That last statement was obviously a joke, but the potential attack was very real).

19 Mark August 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm

D.R., I know Spencer’s blog was hacked, but I thought it was fixed. Maybe I should remove the hyperlink. And I thought MacArthur didn’t use a computer! (Joking)

20 Micah Burke August 22, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Thanks Mark, that is my point specifically.

We’re not talking about a “weaker brother” situation but apparently
a “weaker teacher” one.

We’re not talking about someone asking us to observe Romans 14, we’re talking about someone who calls drinking “carnal indulgence”. MacArthur bans the use of alcohol even in God-instituted sacrament wherein even Christ commanded consumption. I guess Christ was being insensitive for not allowing Thomas, the former alcoholic, to drink Welches.

21 JR August 22, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Alright, well my original point is that in my opinion, MacArthur gives a great warning about using alcohol as a banner for ministry. There are good points in his article apart from his prohibition of alcohol.

22 M.Grubbs December 20, 2011 at 9:50 am

I find the references by Mr. Nix as to childhood experiences with alcoholic family members to fall flat a little and show an insensitivity to others who have painful memories, yet are not as advanced in their thinking as the he. Something that doesn’t fade with the passage of time is the intense desire to wretch whenever the aroma of alcohol is around and that impulse is directly related and followed by the recollection of alcohol fueled dysfunction and remembered pain for me and, I know, for many others also. For that cause, I would never subject another believer or new convert who may struggle in the same way, even minimally so, to be exposed to my “liberties”. It is just not worth it. I think there is also an issue here of semantics. What is the difference between being merry and drunk? Who gets to decide? I am not sure, but I think if I were to indulge in my “liberties”, I would not approve of my own merry behavior any more than my drunken behavior. I believe MacArthur’s point is directed more at those who would wave their banner of freedom in the face of those who struggle. It is not wise at best, and reckless and selfish at worst and having authentic compassion for those that struggle means there is a resultant action that follows. I also am a devotee of Luther, Calvin and Lewis. But there were many times where they were merely stating their opinion about something and not putting forth a doctrinal statement. And I can’t imagine any of those great men being willing to “be merry” around someone who had vivid flashes of abuse or pain when they encountered alcohol and its effects. Keep your liberty to yourself, and I don’t state this in a condemning manner. It’s about what is God’s best for the whole body, not just one part. And freedom isn’t the liberty to do what you want wherever you want; it is the liberty to do what you ought.

23 Dr. Gene Snelling February 29, 2016 at 5:48 pm

It would be prudent for Nix to go into the beer making full-time and leave the Church job completely. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways. The intention of no drinking at Seminary was no drinking period! Nix is fudging therein. To have people to come in a communal(spiritual type) gathering in the church(and not screen the folks, who could be addiction prone) is very dangerous. Nix will answer to God, not men for this very dangerous precedent he is setting). As a certified Alcohol/drug counselor, let me assure you I would never take the chance of tempting the alcohol prone person in this way, let alone try to sanctify it as something one should do in the church. Nix has completely missed the points in Mac’s article, but of course, that is going to be the case when one is using selected vigilance to defend his position. And then for him to say he hopes Mac “comes around” to his position is sad. Do everyone a favor, Nix….Leave the church, and o what it is you seem to want to do most, and please do not call yourself an Evangelical…that term has lost all its meaning today. Look at the current political situation.

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