Revising the Practice of the Lord’s Supper at Faith Presbyterian Church No. 4: Wine, No. 3
We are considering the question of the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. We have been, over the past two Lord’s Day evenings, using the arguments against Christians using wine, and by extension using it in the Lord’s Supper, as they were given by Pastor John MacArthur in a series of messages preached several years ago at his Grace Community Church. We admire Pastor MacArthur’s ministry and feel that he has made the best case that can be made against Christians using wine. He gave eight reasons for Christians not to use wine – though admitting that there is no prohibition against its use in the Bible. We have dealt with the first three of those eight and I hope to take the remaining five this evening. Reason one was that the wine of biblical times was a substantially different thing than what we call wine today, either an entirely non-alcoholic drink or a drink with such a low alcohol content as to make it difficult to become inebriated by drinking it. We replied that this claim, though widely made in temperance literature, is regarded as without foundation in serious scholarship – Christian and non-Christian alike; the scholarship of the Bible, of ancient history, and of viticulture alike – and, as well, seems clearly not what the Bible actually says. Scripture uses the same terms for wine in celebrating its virtues and in warning against its abuse. Corinthian Christians even got drunk at church from drinking too much wine at the agape feast/Lord’s Supper. Reason two was that drinking wine, while technically permissible to Christians, is not necessary for us to drink it and, therefore, it is better to avoid a dangerous practice. Reason three was like it, that it is not the best choice for Christians. John the Baptist, a very great man, did not drink wine, for example. We pointed out in response that Pastor MacArthur does not do justice to what the Bible actually says about wine – its virtues and the blessing of it, the way in which it is used as an image of God’s blessing and of the age of salvation – and that, in any case, if Pastor MacArthur is right about what wine was in those days, then abstaining from it would hardly be necessary or a virtue. Who objects to grape juice? Who thinks that non-alcoholic grape juice is a drink the more godly would do without? And, then we pointed out that, while John the Baptist did not drink wine, Jesus did and even made a point of comparing his practice with that of John’s. It can hardly be said that the Bible looks at this issue in the way in which Pastor MacArthur does. It never advises believers to avoid the drinking of wine, even as it warns against its misuse and threatens those who give themselves over to drunkenness.
We move on then, to the remaining arguments.
Reason four for not using wine, according to Pastor MacArthur, is that wine can be habit forming and so, while lawful, is not expedient. If, as Paul says, we Christians are not to be brought “under the power of anything” (1 Cor. 6:12), then surely it is wiser not to drink and risk forming a habit difficult to control. He then goes on to say, and I give you his exact words, “I want to avoid sin. I want to avoid those things that potentiate sin.” He then speaks about building a fence around the law.
Now, once again, I make at the outset the obvious point that if wine was as he says it was in the ancient world, grape juice or barely more than grape juice, it is hard to believe that anyone would worry about its becoming habit forming. If to get drunk on ancient wine one had to set out to do so with determination, overcome the limitations of one’s bladder, as Pastor MacArthur put it, and drink an enormous amount of the liquid, it is hardly likely that wine would be thought of as habit forming.
But, what is noteworthy about that argument is that it is precisely the argument the Pharisees used to develop their ethics in the Judaism of the Lord’s Day and several generations previous to his day. Their concern, likewise, was to fence the law. Indeed, it was the Pharisees who invented the term “fencing the law.” By that they meant that by the erection of a barrier of regulation the possibility of disobedience could be lessened significantly. A classic illustration is the commandment in Deut. 25:3 that someone convicted of a crime should not be given more than 40 lashes. So, the Pharisees decided that the regulation now would be no more than 39 lashes. In that way, even if the man administering the lashes lost count, he would be less likely to go over forty and so break the law. They fenced the law in thousands of ways: by a host of regulations trying to put distance between themselves and the actual violation of one of the commandments of God’s law. Pastor MacArthur’s argument is of the same kind. The law forbids drunkenness. So, if you want to be sure you never violate that law, simply don’t drink. The new regulation against drinking at all keeps you safe from the particular disobedience of drunkenness.
Now, the problems with that thinking, with that approach to ethical issues, are the problems with Pharisaism in general.
1. First, the general idea of avoiding temptations is, of course, biblical. A man who knows he is prone to drink too much is precisely the man who ought not to drink. But, as a way of conceiving of the Christian life in general, it puts the emphasis in precisely the wrong place. It conceives of godliness in an external way, a way of calculation and rule keeping – what is called moralism in the history of Christian thought – and begins quickly to lose touch with the Bible’s emphasis on love and obedience in the heart producing consecration of life. It was not legalism per se. No one, at least at the beginning of the Pharisaic movement, was thinking in terms of earning his or her peace with God by works of merit. But it was a state of mind that led inexorably to legalism in due time because it placed the emphasis in living on what we are able to do, what steps we can take, how we can prevent ourselves from falling into sin. The “without me you can do nothing” part of the gospel fell slowly out of sight. The Christian life came more and more to be understood as a manageable thing, something that could be accomplished well enough if only the proper precautions were taken. No one would say this, of course, but it is the inevitable consequence of attempting to manage godliness with extra-biblical regulation. What is required, instead, in the Bible is the embrace of God’s law and its outworking through faith and love. This was the problem with the Pharisees of Jesus day. And this was the Lord’s accusation: they tithed their mint, dill, and cummin and neglected the weightier matters of the law. And such has been the charge made against fundamentalism as a movement in 20th century American Christianity. They observed their regulations assiduously, but neglected the weightier matters of the law. The moralism of American fundamentalism led too often – not always, of course – but, too often, to a detachment from the real power of the gospel, a living dependence upon the Lord Christ present by his Spirit. “No we have calculated the Christian life and here are the rules by which it may be successfully lived.” That is where the Pharisees ended up and that is how they got there! They domesticated the Christian life, the life of faith. They reduced it to regulations and cut out its heart.
2. Second, when one seeks to manage godliness with regulations that are not in the Bible, that is, with man-made regulations, there is an inevitable tendency to prefer one’s own regulations to God’s. Ours are easier to keep, in the first place, and, as well, we have pride of ownership. The Pharisees came to regard their regulations as the real sum and substance of their religion. The Lord made this charge against them that they worshipped him in vain, for their teachings “are but rules taught by men.” [Mark 7:6-7] All similar approaches to Christian living, domesticating it by the addition of man-made laws, have always suffered this fate. The man-made laws become more definitive to piety than God’s laws. It is interesting to me, for example, that in the fundamentalism of my upbringing, great emphasis was made on not smoking or drinking, but we never heard about fasting. Young people heard a great deal about dancing and movies, but almost nothing about racism, and so on. Our laws really were more important than God’s, though that would have been hotly denied by everyone. But the results didn’t lie.
3. Third, this approach to godliness seriously mistakes the nature of sin. It imagines that sin can be reduced to the actual violation of the specific commandment of God’s law and it grows more and more indifferent to the fact that God’s law requires a state of mind and heart as well as an outward behavior. It domesticates sin, in other words, and makes it manageable. This is what the Pharisees did, and it is here, above all, that the Lord attacks them. Their view of sin was far too superficial. This is the great theme of the Sermon on the Mount. And a superficial view of sin inevitably led them to a view of salvation that did not require the titanic achievement of Christ on the cross. In this respect, let me just point out that in 1 Cor. 6, the text that Pastor MacArthur cited – where Paul says that he would not be brought under the power of anything – the particular subjects that are being discussed are food and sex. And, in each case, Paul does not condemn or recommend abstaining from the thing in itself, but rather the holy use of it. That is a much more complicated thing, requires much more in the heart, than simply organizing one’s behavior to stay away from something that may produce a problem. There were those, of course, in that day, who made the argument that Pastor MacArthur makes here regarding wine, but made it instead regarding food and sex. Gluttony and sexual immorality are likewise a danger, but Paul rejected the solution of abstinence, at least for most Christians. Sex and its enjoyment, the enjoyment of food are also parts of the Christian life, the life of faith, but to enjoy God’s gifts without abusing them is more complicated a matter. That requires walking with Christ!
Once again, finally, I’ll just point that while there is a superficial logic to Pastor MacArthur’s argument – you’ll never get to be a drunk if you never drink wine – it is not the way the Bible teaches the Christian life and that same logic, that way of thinking about the Christian life, was the slow death of spiritual life among the Jews. And, of course, we still have yet to say the obvious: if this logic is so transparent, why did Jesus and Paul not follow it themselves?
Reason five is, I would say, the same argument as four, in other words. Pastor MacArthur argues that wine is potentially destructive and so better left alone. If something is potentially destructive, surely you are better off leaving it alone, he thinks. But, again, this is the superficial approach that the Bible never takes. There are a great many things that are more potentially destructive than wine. More souls have been ruined by television than by wine, probably as many by food as by wine, many more by sex. Where wine has slain its thousands, money has slain its 10,000’s. But the dangers of wine are easier to define, even if not, for most people, as harmful to the soul as the more subtle influences that steal the heart away to the world. What is more, of course, Pastor MacArthur, in all these arguments, seems to forget how much the Bible says in praise of wine. Sex, money, food and physical beauty are all snares, but are also God’s gifts to us and to be enjoyed as a means to that fullness of life which is our inheritance as Christians. How is wine different in the Bible than those things? And, once again, at last, if the abuse of something renders its use questionable, why did Jesus not abstain from the drinking of wine.
Reason six is that wine drinking is offensive to other Christians. Here is where Pastor MacArthur puts the famous weaker-brother argument from Romans 14. And, absolutely, if some practice, if any practice, is an offense to someone, then, of course, you do not do it in front of them. But the weaker brother argument from Rom. 14 is stood on its head when used for this purpose. Paul’s argument in Rom. 14 is precisely that there is nothing wrong in drinking wine or doing other things that might offend a novice or, as Paul calls him, a “weak” Christian. There were some Christians in the church in those days who felt it wrong to eat meat, or drink wine, and absolutely right to participate in the feast days and Sabbaths of the Jewish calendar. They were confused or offended when they saw Christians doing otherwise, Gentile Christians going to church only on Sunday, for example, and not also on Saturday, or drinking wine and eating meat. In the context of Rom. 14, it is the Christian who thinks it necessary to abstain from wine who is the “weak” Christian. It is the Christian who knows that he is free to drink wine in moderation who is the strong Christian. It has nothing to do with the likelihood that some Christian will see another Christian drink, decide to drink himself, and become an alcoholic. Paul isn’t talking about that at all.
Let me give you the summary that John Murray gives of this point in his Commentary on Romans [Appendix E].
“It has been common in our modern context to apply the teaching of Paul in Romans 14 to the situation that arises from excess in the use of certain things, especially the excess of drunkenness. The person addicted to excess is called the ‘weak brother’ and those not thus addicted are urged to abstain from the use of that thing out of deference to the weakness of the intemperate. The temperate are alleged to be guilty of placing a stumblingblock in the way of the intemperate because by their use of the thing in question they are said to place before the weak an inducement or perchance temptation to indulgence of his vice.
It will soon become apparent that this application is a complete distortion of Paul’s teaching and it is an example of the looseness with which Scripture is interpreted and applied.
1. Paul is not dealing with the question of excess in the use of certain kinds of food or drink. This kind of abuse does not come within his purview in this passage or in the other passages in 1 Corinthians. The weak of Romans 14 are not those given to excess. They are the opposite; they are total abstainers from certain articles of food.
2. The ‘weakness’ of those who go to excess is in an entirely different category from that of which Paul treats in this instance. The ‘weakness’ of excess is iniquity and with those who are guilty of this sin Paul deals in entirely different terms. Drunkards, for example, will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10). How different is Romans 14:1: ‘Receive the one who is weak in faith.”
Do you see Murray’s point? It is the one who thinks it wrong to drink wine who is the weak brother, the one who needs to learn the liberty of the Christian life.
Clearly, however, Paul did not mean that the existence of weak Christians, Christians confused on these points, meant that all Christians should stop eating meat, drinking wine, and all should begin to observe the Jewish feast days and Sabbath, even in Gentile churches of the Greco-Roman world. As he explains in a similar argument in 1 Cor. 8 and 10, one determines whether to exercise his rights or not to exercise them according to each, individual situation.
What the NT does not do is what American evangelicals so long did, viz. make a new law out of the fact that some Christians might be offended by something we did. There are many other things, by the way that offend other Christians. Some are offended by women’s use of make-up – there are entire churches that forbid the use of make-up; others by eating out on Sunday, or even taking a walk on the Lord’s Day. There are Reformed Christians who are offended by the singing of hymns, or by women praying in the congregation or by women not praying in the congregation, or by ministers wearing robes or by ministers not wearing robes. There are Christians who are offended by women in church with heads uncovered, Christians who are offended young people’s activities in which boys and girls are mixed together. And, believe me, the list goes on and on and on. There is a small, but growing number of evangelicals who do not believe in eating meat – though for different reasons than those Paul assumed in Romans 14. Paul clearly did not mean that the church was to be held hostage by any and every Christian’s list of offensive practices. He meant and said plainly that we were to respect, as we are able, the consciences and sensibility of other believers.
What is also very important and interesting to note is that the same issues come up in other letters of Paul and there he takes a decidedly different approach. In Col. 2:16-23, for example, we read of those in the church who were saying “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” But because people are making a new law out of this approach and constructing a view of godliness out of these regulations – like the Pharisees did – Paul speaks no more about respecting a believer’s tender conscience. Instead he writes,
“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules…These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom…but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
“Therefore,” he says, “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink…” (v. 16) And he speaks similarly in Galatians, warning against the false principle that lies hidden in these rules like a snake in the grass.
Taking the two kinds of passages together, we conclude that Scripture teaches us to respect the scruples of brethren who do not yet fully appreciate their full liberty in Christ, but that such respect hardly requires a reconfiguration of the church’s understanding of a holy life to conform to the expectations of the weak. What is also true is that Paul begins his instruction of the weak believers in Rom. 14 and makes it clear that they are incorrect in their view of what the Christian life requires. He expects them, of course, to know better in the future.
I want to say to you young people, however – you, who are thinking about what you will do and how you will live when you can make all these decisions for yourself – that you must not forget what Paul says here. If you cannot just as easily lay aside your liberties for the sake of your brothers and sisters in Christ, or other people, if it is not more important to you to bless and help your brethren and others than that you are free to enjoy your pleasures, then you do not have the mind of Christ and you are not free, not in the Christian sense. When you start standing on your rights, and no longer easily and cheerfully give them up for the sake of a brother or sister, then wine or cigars or dancing or whatever has mastered you, not the kingdom of God.
Be clear about that, even as we are clear that drinking wine is something Christians are free to do according to the teaching of Paul and the example of Jesus Christ.
Reason seven is that wine drinking may harm a Christian’s testimony. I think, frankly, this argument really is a repetition of the previous one. For, ordinarily, the person who thinks a Christian’s testimony is ruined by his or her drinking of wine is another Christian with different views about wine drinking. An unbeliever will not care if a Christian uses wine soberly and enjoys it as God’s good gift or, in perhaps a very few cases, will take offense precisely because he has no idea what real Christianity is – he thinks it is a teetotaling lifestyle, because too many Christians have given him that impression.
Frankly, brethren, we don’t want to convey to the world the idea that Christianity is not drinking wine. We don’t want to convey that idea even if we don’t drink wine. We don’t want them to associate Christianity in any way with such an idea. Christianity is a message about God’s grace to sinners in Christ and produces a life which ought to be characterized by rigorous and impressive self-control and, at one and the same time, the most hearty enjoyment of our heavenly Father’s gifts in this world. No one ought to have a better time, ought to know how to enjoy a meal and the fellowship of a table than Christians. And no one ought to be more famous for being able to enjoy good things to the full without sinful or harmful excess than Christians!
The world wants to believe the worst, of course, but we all know that Christians have let the world far too often and far too easily believe that Christianity taught that it was holier to be a spoil-sport and not to know how to have a good time. This was not true of the Puritans themselves, thankfully – they loved a good time, a good meal and good wine, they were champions of erotic love – but it was true of too many of their epigoni, their spiritual descendants. There was some reason for H.L. Mencken’s definition of a Puritan as “someone who had a haunting fear that somewhere, someone was happy.” Shame on us if we let the world think that it knows better how to have a good time, a time that is good both at the time and in the recollection, that it knows how to set a better table or to have a more splendid feast.
Reason eight is simply Pastor MacArthur’s parting question: are you sure it’s right for you to drink? He cites Paul at the end of Romans 14: “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” We have already said that to apply Romans 14 to the case of drinking wine per se mistakes Paul’s point. But, this last gives me one more opportunity to remind you that the Bible celebrates wine over and over again. Of course, it is right to drink wine. Jesus did! What is more, he said he would drink it again with us in the kingdom of God!
Next Lord’s Day evening we’ll conclude this biblical study with a summary of the Bible on wine and the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper.
But here we rest tonight: we must not go beyond what is written in Holy Scripture nor fall short of it. The Bible celebrates the use of wine even as it warns against its abuse – as it does with many things, of course. It never takes the approach with wine or any other of God’s gifts, that it would be better, all in all, just to do without it. No, wine must be received as the gift of God and then thankfully enjoyed in full and complete obedience to him!