Thinking Out Loud

December 10, 2009

Christians, Alcohol, and James MacDonald

Recently, the radio program Walk In The Word repeated a couple of programs featuring a message James MacDonald gave at Harvest Bible Chapel on the subject of Christians and alcoholic drinks.   MacDonald believes in total abstinence.   In other words, zero consumption of alcohol.   If there was a way to even further that position by inserting a negative number, that would be his position.   Don’t touch that bottle.   Don’t even look.

James MacDonald, pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Northwest Chicago and host of the Walk In The Word radio program

James MacDonald is the kind of person you would probably listen to and decide you’d like to meet.   His radio show has a cool theme song.   He takes himself seriously but not 100% seriously.   There is a fair amount of honesty and transparency.  There is a request for money at the end of each broadcast but it’s tempered with some empathy for the pitch-weary listener.

But it would probably be a short meeting in which he would dominate the conversation.    James is a strong personality.   He understands brokenness, but projects having it all together.    Frankly, if there were 30 kids in a classroom, I think James would be the bully; and I’ve said that to a few people lately who agreed the analogy fits.

So if James says stay away from alcohol, you know you’d better do what he says because if you don’t it’s SIN.   That’s capital-letters SIN.

Of course, James believes Christian women should be homemakers, and it is a requirement of his male staff that their spouses not work, something he shares in common with Mark Driscoll.   I’m not sure if this means to do otherwise would be capital-letters SIN, but disobeying him certainly would.   I’m also not sure how he accounts for the various female staff members who work at Walk in the World and Harvest Bible Chapel.  But it shows that he has strong opinions on many issues that are non-issues elsewhere.

Sometimes, James MacDonald appears to get it wrong.   Occasionally everything from scientific statistics to Bible texts seem to get misquoted or misapplied.   Sometimes, this is due to the fact he’s broadcasting older sermons; one trusts that with today’s wisdom he might say some things differently.

He has six points for abstinence:

1. Because drunkenness is a sin and not a disease.
2. Because alcohol impairs wisdom.
3. Because alcohol is an unnecessary drug.
4. Because alcohol is destructive.
5. Because alcohol is addictive.
6. Because wisdom calls me to set it aside.

Some of them are given to subjective interpretation.   Let me explain.

I love Christian rock music.   For many years, I earned an income selling contemporary Christian music.   But every so often, I ran into people who were on that part of their journey that involved leaving the secular rock music scene.   And for them, Christian rock was not acceptable.    For most of my friends and customers however, Christian rock — the music, the concerts, the means of learning scripture and doctrine — was totally acceptable.

So I think that yes, alcohol is wrong for some people, especially if there is a family history of alcoholism or any addictive behavior for that matter.

But some people, like Zach Nielsen, don’t think you can make blanket statements on this subject.

Zach Nielsen writes the popular Christian blog, Take Your Vitamin Z, and is Pastor of Music & Teaching at the Vine Church, a church plant in Madison, WI -- just a few hours from James MacDonald -- starting in 2010

At his blog, Take Your Vitamin Z — a blog where eight different posts in one day is not unusual — Zach devotes six posts to engaging MacDonald’s six points.  You can read those posts here:

Ultimately, Neilsen concludes:

…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.

I’ve deliberately avoided engaging the actual issue here. (Personally, as I indicated in the footnotes of a blog post a few days ago, I generally don’t drink, but I also don’t “not drink;” if you get the distinction.)   I think you should save opinions on the actual issue for Zach’s blog, if comments are still open.

As I commented there, I “find myself returning to Walk in the Word, as I think there is a need for people to confront their sin, as James so often reminds us.   But then I find myself getting frustrated with his style, and needing to take a week or two off.” and like Zach, find myself  “living in the tension of a similar ambivalence” when it comes to Walk In The Word.

On one level, great admiration for the man and what he has accomplished, and on another level a recognition that as Christians, we simply can’t depict everything in black and white.

A viewpoint and personal stand that James MacDonald has constructed on this issue is fine for sharing over coffee with someone who asks, but it should never have been presented dogmatically as either a Sunday sermon, or a prescription for all Christ-followers in all places, all situations, at all times.

HT: Though I have Take Your Vitamin Z bookmarked, I was alerted to this series there by Darryl Dash.


  1. Drunkenness is a sin, I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a drink (I don’t partake at all) but I would point out Eph 5:18 tells us not to partake on a continual basis. Of course you know that there are a number of passages about the sin of drunkenness.

    Comment by David H Mercier — December 10, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    • My understanding of the wedding ceramony is that Jesus turned the vats of water into a un fortified wine-meaning non alchaholic? I believe our Lord and Savoir wants the very best for us and drinking or doing anything that would effect our service to Him and mission of living a Christ “like” life sadens Him! John the Baptist was a man that was “without drink” because he was wise. A man or woman striving to be wise in the Lord will not drink! For some this may be a longer process then others, but as Christians we are all striving and dealing with issues. Remember being a Christian isn’t about being perfect, its about trying every day to be more like Christ! God bless all in this process! Be an example to others that Christians truly are not of this world!

      Comment by jeff — January 7, 2010 @ 7:05 am

      • The view you suggest is your first sentence is subscribed to by a number of people, but simply isn’t supported by a study of the rest of the New Testament use of words. [i.e. Do not be drunk with wine… but be filled with the Holy Spirit. – Galatians] We are given food to eat and permission to consume freely, but gluttony is a sin. God knew when he created the world the effect of allowing certain juices to ferment, but he also knew the value of discerning and careful use of this principle, hence Paul’s advice to Timothy to calm his stomach with wine.

        The fact of the matter is, though we are long removed from Eden, there are still “forbidden trees” in our lives, and God wants to build character and discernment and moderation into our lives as he works in us conformity to the character of Christ. For some the “tree” is the availability of certain kinds of content on the internet, for others it’s materialism, for others its the consumption of alcohol. Each can be avoided in different degrees. Each one of us can make a lifestyle choice ranging from abstinence to moderation to ‘giving in’ to excess, and our choices may vary on different issues.

        Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — January 7, 2010 @ 9:09 am

  2. I will admit that I drink when when I go to a wedding and that is all.I drink on occasions,but I hate to drink regularily.Didn’t Jesus turn water into wine.He did that at a wedding celebration.I don’t think that it is wrong to drink,but it says in the bible that we are not to be drunk with wine.

    Comment by mike42lan — December 10, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

  3. The Lord had mercy and saved me out of a evil wicked drunken life and all the sin that goes along with that type of life style back in 1980.
    God Bless You, A Weaker Brother

    Comment by Ron — December 11, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

  4. I agree with the drinking-is-not-a-sin camp. I’ve enjoyed a bit of white wine twice in the last week (like half a glass each time).

    However, I think so many Christians today take that stance that today we do not hear enough the drunkenness-IS-a-sin message and the be-very-careful message. We need to hold all in balance, and even if we are free to drink moderately we need to be very aware and ready to immediately relinquish that freedom to drink– which is never a right to drink.

    Comment by Phoebe — December 18, 2009 @ 2:25 am

  5. pls i need a passage of a bible where the bible say if u drink the holy spirit wil live u.

    Comment by victor ujata — February 19, 2010 @ 5:52 am

    • There’s this verse in the NIV:
      I Cor. 12 :13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

      Which in the KJV reads similarly:
      For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.

      I hope that helps. Salvation and Eternal Life are found in Christ’s shed blood; his atoning work for us on the cross. I’d have to study a few commentaries to see the full meaning of the verse here, but I wouldn’t dwell too much on the idea of “drink the Holy Spirit” because it’s not a phrase commonly used in scripture.

      You can look for other similar passages at:

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — February 19, 2010 @ 10:27 am

  6. Thanks for the post about James (I only read it today!). You put things very well about him. I’ve been attending his church for several years, but it seems like it is becoming more and more James-driven, as if the church was more personality-driven as opposed to God-led. I agree with James about 90% of the time, but his attitude toward others that don’t agree is arrogant. He slams the Catholic church almost weekly. He’s twittered that John Ortberg has a weak view about scripture (and that’s just naming a few of the Christians he knocks. He is even more outspoken about non-Christian religions). HIs sermons and views are nearly manic to me. Which is a shame that such a dynamic, gifted preacher is so full of his own “God-appointed” view. I attended Oral Roberts University in the late 70’s, and trust me, Oral was just as sincere and outspoken in his beliefs, with back-up scriptures as well!

    Comment by Suzanne — September 29, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    • I share your ambivalence. Like you, I admire a great deal of what James preaches, and all that he has accomplished at Harvest. But sometimes he can be like a freight train in a china shop. It’s a safe guess that as a child in elementary school, he was the schoolyard bully!

      But God has a history of using people despite issues in their personality.

      However, if you’re losing confidence in your pastor — assuming you’re at Harvest Elgin or Harvest Rolling Meadows — the good news is that you’ve got dozens and dozens of great churches to choose from in the Chicago northwest suburbs.

      Here’s a link to Doxa Fellowship — a much smaller church up in Woodstock, IL; which is pastored by blogger Steve McCoy that I would probably visit if I were in your area.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — September 29, 2010 @ 10:50 pm

  7. Suzanne- “non-Christian religions”? They would be cults, in my humble opinion. Jesus Christ is the only way to God.

    Comment by karen — October 25, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

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