Monday, February 12, 2007

The Tyranny of the "Weaker Brother"

There are certain arguments against Christian consumption of alcohol that stem from the likes of John MacArthur. Basically the arguments look like this:

"Alcohol is not forbidden, but alcohol is not the wisest choice, therefore the Christian (desiring to be wise) would abstain from drinking alcohol."

"I don't drink in front of unbelievers because they will see it as inconsistent."

"Alcohol in the Bible was diluted, and thus when one drinks today they're drinking strong drink."

"Because of alcoholism, Christians should abstain."

The first argument is flawed in that it introduces a subtle form of pride. The person who abstains is, by their own description, "wiser" than he who does not. Thus sanctification becomes a matter of drinking alcohol or not drinking alcohol. The one who does not is "more sanctified", more holy than he who does partake.

The "Weaker Brother" Argument
Many, including MacArthur point to Romans 14 and other passages wherein Christians are told not to violate the consciences of those "weaker brothers" who do not partake of meat as indicative of how those who do drink should treat those who do not. He writes: "Paul says, "If I eat meat and it makes my brother offend, I won't eat meat. And if I drink a certain thing and it offends somebody, I won't drink."" Apart from the fact that Paul said no such thing, Paul's argument against Peter's refusal to eat with the Gentile Galatians tells us that there are occasions when eating and drinking to offense is not only acceptable, but demanded.

I realize Paul was talking about eating with Gentiles not specifically eating what they ate, but the point is sound when one considers that in this case the Judiazers might be considered the "weaker brothers" in MacArthur's argument. But eating with the Galatian Gentiles was demanded, because it was in accordance with the Gospel and the freedom believers have in Christ. When legalists demand the opposite, one must stand for Christian liberty and faith versus legalism.

There are several other problems with this analogy. Firstly, and most amusingly, it places MacArthur's position as that of the "weaker brother", since it is he who believes one should abstain, secondly, Romans 14 does not mention the consumption of alcohol whatsoever. One surely could apply the same principle, however, one would have to accept that the position of the "weaker brother" is not normative, and in fact should be transitory leading eventually to a correct understanding of Christian freedom.

MacArthur then mentions a communion service in a "Third World" country wherein real (GASP) wine is used and how then it would be "the necessary thing to do in that environment". But this incorrect, given MacArthur's views stated so far. Should not the "spiritual" leader teach these ignorant Third World Christians that partaking wine is wrong? Surely, given MacArthur's argument that Biblical wine was barely alcoholic, they should at least argue for diluted wine! Is MacArthur really teaching that non-alcoholic grape juice is the preferred "wine" to represent the blood of Christ? On what basis could he argue that grape kool-aid or other non-alcoholic beverages could not be used?

MacArthur states, "I don't ever want to be in a position of setting a standard that is going to cause another brother to stumble; to fall into iniquity." While this sounds good at first, it is practically impossible, as well as unBiblical. Christ himself is a stumbling stone because of this reason, the Jews believed that it was their works that made them holy before God, what they ate and didn't eat, drank and didn't drink. Paul explains throughout his writings that it is faith in Christ that pleases God and that makes one holy, not what they eat or drink.

Finally, the position of the "weaker brother" is not one intended to be permanent. Like Priscilla and Aquila taking Apollos aside to more completely explain the Gospel, one should endeavor to explain the true nature of Christian freedom to the "weaker" one, in love. As this is a central element to the Gospel, as Paul's frustration with the Galatians so clearly demonstrates.

Surely, if one believer was a recovering alcoholic, the other believer might abstain so as not to cause the fellow to fall again.

The Weaker Brother and Witnessing
Some believe that drinking alcohol around unbelievers somehow hurts their witness. If what MacArthur believes was correct, this might be true, however, most unbelievers find nothing wrong with drinking alcohol, thus the fact that the believer likewise consumes would not offend them, and in fact might even show them that what one eats or drinks does not make one a Christian. Some point to the "weaker brother" argument to suggest that drinking might offend unbelievers, however, unbelievers are not our brothers in Christ, weak or not. The argument cannot be made therefore that these verses address this.

Finally, those who teach the idea that "Alcohol is not forbidden, but alcohol is not the wisest choice, therefore the Christian (desiring to be wise) would abstain from drinking alcohol..." are guilty of teaching legalism and the abstinence of "foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth..."

Diluted Alcohol?
Now, MacArthur also likes to talk about how the alcohol mentioned the Bible was much less alcoholic than that of today, being mixed with water. MacArthur only points to the "scholarship" of that bastion of all things orthodox, Christianity Today, to back up this claim.

MacArthur then claims that because of this, wines and beers of today are more closely related to what the Bible refers to as "strong drink". He states that people of Biblical times "mixed their wine, anywhere from 3:1, 4:1 to 8:1, so that it was greatly diluted, so that you could not hold enough of that liquid to be drunk..."

This of course would mean that when Jesus turned water into "wine", he left most of it water!

Building on these arguments, MacArthur teaches,"So I think that God knew the danger of it; the system of mixing it with water took care of that danger, but we live in a time when wine is not mixed today and can cloud someone's thinking and someone's judgment, and I don't want to have part in anything that does that."

In another article, MacArthur states that the Bible teaches that leaders in the church cannot be "known drinkers". He takes this from 1 Timothy wherein Paul tells his closest disciple, "No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments..."

MacArthur elsewhere likens spiritual leadership to those in Scripture who had taken a Nazarite vow, believing: "I want to live at the highest level of self-denial. I will be unconcerned about what I wear; I will be unconcerned about my looks, my hair, and all of that. I will touch neither wine nor strong drink". He specifically ties this to church leadership saying: So the man who is in spiritual leadership is not a man who is given to wine. Not a man given to lingering beside his wine; being addicted to his wine, and all that goes with that. "

This is no different than the "wise choice" argument, except it is based on Scriptural concepts, though not sound Scriptural principles. Thus this argument is an even more insidious one than the other, for it misuses Scripture in order to suggest that Paul taught leaders in the church somehow were bound to vows like that of the Nazarites. This completely ignores the purpose of Nazarite vows, and the significance of Christ's death and resurrection to such vows. Those who hold, and teach, this therefore are not teaching New Covenant living.

Alcoholism and Abstinence
The argument that Christians should abstain because alcoholism exists ignores the fact that alcoholism, and drunkenness in general, has existed since the beginning. Noah became drunk after the flood, Lot became drunk as did others in Scripture... perhaps they would be classified today as "alcoholic". While in the cases mentioned in Scripture where one became drunk terrible consequences usually resulted, this does not somehow establish an argument against drinking of alcohol altogether. (In fact, these examples from Scripture show us that MacArthur's argument that alcohol in the Bible wasn't very alcoholic to be flimsy at best.) Rather this only proves what Scripture tells us, time and again, that drinking is good but only in moderation and with care.

Finally, as reported by the White Horse Inn, studies have shown that the religious sects with strict policies against alcohol usage (Baptists and LDS!) had higher rates of alcoholism than those who did not (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic). It seems that when a person breaks one taboo of their denomination or cult, going further is only a short step. The Baptist's insistence on abstinence only pushes the suffering believer into a life of addiction, rather than comforting them with Gospel care.

Too often these kinds of subtle legalistic arguments are made against all sorts of things the Bible does not legislate against. Believers must loving encourage those who repeat these teachings to better understand the Bible's clear message Christian freedom and the acceptance and thanksgiving for many foods and drinks God has given us. Finally, we must strongly oppose teachers who teach that true sanctification is a matter of what one eats or drinks.


  1. johnMark8:29 PM


  2. ...someone touch a nerve somewhere, Micah?


  3. is it too much? am i wrong? ive gotten a little feedback so far...

  4. I wasn't offering a critique of what you said, either positive or negative with my post -- at least not yet. ;)

    Given the discussion in #pros the other day, I was just wondering. This seems to be a hot topic for you, that's all.


  5. It is always a hot topic when someone suggests that it is "ok" to engage in something and yet they abstain from it because it is wise to do so. This suggests that the person who does not abstain is "unwise". This has been concern of mine for a long time and hearing a MacArthur sermon on the radio (basically stating what I've outlined here) spurred me to think this through, the recent discussion in #pros certainly was the impetus for posting.

  6. Well, perhaps it is wise to do so -- for that person. I don't drink largely because I don't think it would be wise for me to do so. I know what the Bible says about getting drunk, for example, and I am afraid that I would enjoy such things too much, and end up getting drunk. Besides, such things are a lot more expensive than say, water or even soda. So, while I will by no means condemn someone for drinking alcohol (of course, if they get drunk then they are sinning), I won't drink it myself for the aforementioned reasons.

    Perhaps that is what the person meant and expressed it all wrong. 'Tis a thought anyway.


  7. Besides, such things are a lot more expensive than say, water or even soda.

    Well, this may be true. One of the reasons I enjoy the types of alcoholic beverages I do is because they're not cheap, they're quality drinks and it would be foolish to waste them by getting drunk on them. Plus, the price keeps them as only occasional.

    Perhaps that is what the person meant and expressed it all wrong.

    Perhaps, however, when one says "do n't you think it's unwise...", or "it is unwise" etc, it kind of removes it from the subjective.

    This came up again last night, but only in passing, when someone posted their church's URL and on their 'church covenant' page (the very term grates...) they had an abstinence clause. This form of legalism is more rampant than we like to believe, we coddle it, feed it, allow it to grow, and it is deadly poison to the flock.

  8. Absolutely no doubt that this is a subtle form of legalism and it strangles many in the church by placing a higher requirement on them than God does Himself. One example that you can use is in 1Corinthians 11 when the believers were getting drunk on the communion wine... surely it could not have been non-alcoholic or watered down or they would never have gotten drunk in the first place.
    Paul's rebuke to them was not "Switch to Welch's so no one is offended" or "Switch to non-alcoholic grape juice lest we be tempted to like this too much!"
    Alcohol abuse is just that, abuse.

    It is about self-control. The fruit of the spirit in one's life brings in self-control and when one cannot control themselves they are walking in the flesh just as if they would lose their temper, speak out of line, or eat too much of a fine meal.

    The arguments presented by those like MacArthur break down when applied to food. Who never eats infront of an overeater? Who abstains for the sake of the glutton? It doesn't happen.

    The requirements for eldership as well refute his arguments for if God had intended for the church to see examples of 'wiser' men in leadership being abstinent surely there would be the place to put in the "Nazarene-like" vow, but, it isn't there. Instead we see that he must not be addicted to wine, or given to much of it; meaning he must have self-control and not be a drunk. This is the consistent teaching of the entirety of Scripture.

    Many of these teachings against any alcohol use seem very gnostic to me. Matter is evil. Spirit is good. There is no power in the liquid though many act as though there is some sorta 'magic'.

    I've been on both sides of this discussion having had a severe drinking problem in my early twenties and having lived by abstaining for almost ten years.

    It was only after my study of Scripture, looking at church history, studying the prohibition movement and the roots of the Welch's campaign to demonize alcohol in the church that I saw things clearly.

    Now I can freely enjoy a glass of wine, a beer, or a strong drink with friends, family, and church members to the glory of God.

    I've actually seen more good fruit from that example (a Spirit controlled example) than I have from the other side for it shows the power of God in one's life and makes the drink just that, a drink. Our hearts are the problem not the alcohol.

    Of course if one has a weakness here they should avoid it and I do not believe in grandstanding my liberty either. However, as you have rightly stated I also take the time to talk to the 'weaker' brother and see where they are and see if I can direct them to the Scriptures for the counsel of their troubled souls.

    Good post brother.



  9. My wife's mother died of alcohol related causes. One month later (after she died) at dinner a celebrated pastor demanded (didn't ask, demanded) that my wife and I join him in drinking if we were not legalists.
    My wife and I had been abstainers for some years because of the problem her mother experienced.
    I explained why this was not suitable to us, briefly, very aware of my wife's evident distress. After he attempted to draw me into an argument with him on the issue I stated again firmly that he was free to drink whatever he wanted, as long as he allowed us the same courtesy.
    Perhaps he had a conviction on the issue (he obviously did). Perhaps he was plain arrogant. Which would you consider?

  10. "...a celebrated pastor demanded (didn't ask, demanded) that my wife and I join him in drinking if we were not legalists."

    Yeah, that doesn't sound like the fruit of the Spirit working. :(

    "After he attempted to draw me into an argument with him on the issue I stated again firmly that he was free to drink whatever he wanted, as long as he allowed us the same courtesy.
    Perhaps he had a conviction on the issue (he obviously did). Perhaps he was plain arrogant. Which would you consider?"

    While not attempting to judge said individual... I'd say he was a jerk. ;) I think it's one thing to sit around a table with friends and wrestle with such issues, its something wholly different to engage someone on this level.

    I'm sorry such a thing happened to you.

  11. Thanks Micah for assuring me that not all who are pushing for reform of the SBC are like this "gentleman".