Tuesday, July 10, 2007

the SBC and alcohol

Once upon a time, some admirers of C. S. Lewis, teetotalers, wrote to the author wondering how he could rectify his faith with his fondness for a good brew. Lewis's response:

I strongly object to the tyrannic and unscriptural insolence of anything that calls itself a Church and makes teetotalism a condition of membership. Apart from the more serious objection (that Our Lord Himself turned water into wine and made wine the medium of the only rite He imposed on all His followers), it is so provincial (what I believe you people call "small town").

Now, I don't know that its being a "small town" idea really does to these fellows' arguement, but that's beside the point. The weight of Lewis's response to them lies in the word unscriptural.

Fast forward 60 years.
The Missouri Baptist Convention has recently moved that any church plant receiving funding from them must teach alcohol abstinence. This is a reaction to Theology at the Bottleworks, an outreach of the Journey church(who was funded by the MBC), where folks would essentially drink beer and discuss different topics. While Donald Miller would likely applaud such a concept, this Rasta-esque outreach doesn't do it for me. Beer and church may not be incongruent, but I don't see them as really congruent in this sense, especially given the divisive nature of the conflict over alcohol, and the serious conviction that many believers have against it. Drink your beers after the discussion, but alas, here we are.

And here the MBC is.
While I would have expected a response to this, I would NOT have foreseen

Church planters who receive money from the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) must now teach alcohol abstinence.

This, under the banner "we need to engage the culture, but without compromising our biblical, traditional Baptist values." Baptist values, I'm afraid so. Biblical? No.

Now, there certainly are Biblical restrictions on alcohol consumption. The warnings against drunkenness are plentiful(see Lk 21:34 and Gal 5:21, for example). Also, any Christian under the age of 21 in the United States simply cannot drink. To disregard the law of the land is not only unbiblical, but it only betrays a spirit of impatient selfishness that cannot be supported before God by any arguement. These warnings in scripture should be acknowledged with the utmost seriousness by the Body.
Nevertheless, arguements for complete abstinence from alcohol are unfounded. As Lewis points out, the Eucharist itself involves alcohol, and we can't that little incident in Cana at the wedding feast, Christ's first miracle.
In all of this, I'm reminded of a comment made recently on one of Internet Monk's posts, originally in a discussion concerning Harry Potter, but is general enough to speak volumes here:

. . .don’t underestimate the effect of rhetoric coming from the Religious Right;every statement they make, in word or deed, tends to convince the rest of us how wrong they and their creed are and vindicating the truth of Nietzsche statement in The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882) ‘The Christian desire to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad’.

The only results I can see coming from this sort of move are 1) the growing discontent of many with the SBC; 2) the further fragmentation caused by a convention cutting ties with more culturally liberal partners; and 3) the continued estrangement, unnecessarily, of those we are supposed to be reaching. . . all to uphold a principle that is "hard to argue" for anyways.
And yet the really scary part is, this could be indicative of things to come. According to CT's article, there were "heated arguements" on the topic at the annual SBC meeting in June, followed by an affirmation of abstinence. The heated arguements give me hope, as there are apparently those against unfounded teachings that serve to further ostracize many outsiders. It did pass in the end, but I have a feeling that this topic will be revisited before long.

One of my major disputes with the very foundations of the Southern Baptist church has been the lack of established authority, i.e., we have self-governing congregations and the Bible, without any real denomination-wide rule over the individual churches and without tradition or an authoritative standard by which to interpret the scripture. This turn of events, however, is one case where I am glad for the deficit; otherwise the SBC would likely impose this "tyrannic and unscriptural insolence" on us all.
My hope now is that those of us who are indeed disturbed by such decisions will continue to argue heatedly, and pray for their leaders to exercise more Biblically sound judgement.



Josh said...

Good thoughts, Nance. It seems to me that most of the complications on this issue arise because of differing cultural attitudes toward alcohol between the Bible Belt (namely, the Deep South) and, say, most other places in the world. It doesn't help that such "provincial" attitudes can likely be traced back to church-sponsored temperance movements generations ago. So it appears that modern teetotalers are employing a sort of circular reasoning when they oppose alcohol; "we're against alcohol because it conflicts with our long-held beliefs, which we hold because we long ago decided that alcohol was a bad thing."

Now, admittedly, this is something of a caricature. It is unfair to flatly impose our modern judgments on prohibitionists of generations and centuries ago. Perhaps some of them had their reasons for preaching total abstinence instead of moderation and were only reacting to the circumstances of their day. But alas, here we are in a different era.

As much as many Baptists pride themselves on "sola scriptura", one would hope that an unscriptural argument wouldn't carry so much weight (not an anti-scriptural argument, necessarily, but an unscriptural one).

So how should we view this issue today? Are there any legitimate reasons to support alcohol abstinence?

Baptists need to reevaluate their stance on this issue to ensure that it is in submission to the teachings of Scripture. BUT, and this point is perhaps overlooked by some, our obedience to Scripture does not take place in a vacuum. We must also take stock of the culture around us and attempt to discern how to live wisely in this present age.

You've done a good job of identifying some key points here: namely, that Scripture clearly warns against drunkenness and disobedience to the laws of the land. Beyond that, I think the matter is one of wisdom and discernment, which means that Christians must practice grace toward one another when disagreement arises.

I think we would do well to remember Ephesians 4:2-3 when conflict happens on this (or any other) issue:

"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."

Alcohol is absolutely NOT an issue on the order of the inspiration of Scripture, or of the divinity of Christ, or of any other matter of signal importance to our faith. Thus, I don't think it should ever divide a denomination or a congregation.

The challenge here is to develop a wise and consistent ethic for addressing this issue in our age. I think that those of us who don't drink must understand that Christian charity demands that we not judge those brethren who do, in light of the aforementioned Scriptures regarding alcohol and those regarding Christian fellowship.

I've observed a sort of defensiveness from many "traditional" Baptists (particularly older ones) when this issue comes up. Many of them have likely observed our generation's more "tolerant" (progressive?) attitudes toward alcohol and are worried about where they might lead us. Are any of those concerns justified? Is there wisdom to be gained by considering that perspective?

I think the answer might be a qualified "yes" to both questions. I'm about to enter the area of full-fledged opinion here, and I realize that others might totally disagree. But when I look around at our modern American culture, I see an unprecedented barrage of messages telling us that alcohol equals fun, sophistication, and/or sexual fulfillment. Liquor companies rake in obscene amounts of money with advertising that appeals to our sinful nature and not to any sense of genuine fellowship. Is there a difference between drinking hard liquor in a context that encourages excess and drinking a beer or a glass of wine in the context of genuine fellowship? I think so. I would even suggest that supporting small wineries and local microbreweries is far better than supporting corporations that thrive on exploitation and excess.

In other words, I don't think it's an issue of quantity (are 16 ounces of beer OK, and 17 excessive?) as it is an issue of quality. What role does alcohol play in our lives?Are we buying into our culture's lie that alcohol is a necessary component of social interaction, of fun, of fulfillment, of success? Or is it merely a part of our fellowship with believers (and nonbelievers alike)? Is it something we can enjoy without idolizing it and without letting it control us?

Christians who oppose alcohol today should understand that, in light of Scriptural evidence, the decision to drink alcohol in moderation is indeed a matter of conscience and Christian freedom. But those who choose to drink in moderation should also understand that the decision to abstain is ALSO a matter of conscience and Christian freedom and one which should be respected. A teetotaler should not automatically be viewed as a "weaker brother" or a fool; indeed, there are legitimate reasons to refrain from drinking. We should heed Eph. 5:15-16, which says "Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil." Wisdom on this matter might sometimes demand temperance.

If we are serious about "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21), we won't let this issue be a divisive one. Unfortunately, it appears that some Christians have forgotten this (both the legalistic teetotalers and the arrogant mockers who dismiss them as irrelevant and out-of-step). This is an area where many of us need to "grow in grace" and work to be vigilant and discerning. The Missouri Baptist Convention (and the SBC as a whole) should leave this matter up to the individual congregations. Not only would that be more consonant with Baptist beliefs about church authority, it would be far more practical than a blanket rule and would show a great deal of respect for local congregations as they make their own decisions of conscience about the issue. Yes, some might abuse their freedom and act unwisely, but shouldn't we trust the Holy Spirit to correct and rebuke them? Is it not enough that God will judge all of our works at the last day, both as individual believers and as church bodies?

Ultimately, this is a matter that calls for introspection. Those who choose to drink should ask themselves: Does my drinking genuinely give offense to a brother or sister in Christ? If so, why? Does this hinder our fellowship, and if so, is it worth it? What should I do, as far as it depends on me, to live at peace with this person?

Those who choose to abstain should ask themselves: Why am I abstaining from alcohol - because of a self-righteous desire to earn God's favor and/or look down on others, or because of a legitimate decision resulting from prayer and discernment? Am I judging other Christians who drink? If so, what should I do to soften my own heart and break down walls between myself and my brothers and sisters in Christ?

These are just my humble thoughts on the issue. I don't drink, and I've struggled with the judgmental attitudes I've mentioned above. For me, in the cultural context in which I now live, it would make very little sense for me to drink, but I realize that my circumstances and my perspective might change one day. I've also realized the importance of loving and respecting my brothers and sisters (some of whom are close friends) who do choose to drink (and do so with a clear conscience), and hope that they will love and be patient with me as I too attempt to live wisely on this matter.

I'll end with these verses, which I think everyone who thinks about this issue would do well to meditate upon:

"'Everything is permissible'—but not everything is beneficial. 'Everything is permissible' — but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

"Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, 'The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it.'

"If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, 'This has been offered in sacrifice,' then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake — the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved." (1 Cor. 10:23-33)

Nance said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Josh, especially for the wealth of scripture that ultimately is all hitting on this larger issue, I think.
And that is, as you bring up, of course discernment.
Unity is paramount(another scripture to compliment those you mention on it would be Jesus's prayer in the garden in John 17), and given what we know from scripture about the believers' relation to the law--I'm thinking of Galatians--the only way to maintain unity in the body is through discernment guided by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we have nothing to really go on, and of course even a rigid system of clearly-presented laws wouldn't allow the flexibilty that would always be necessary, flexibility that the Spirit can account for.
I'm glad you brought this up; while I do come off I'm sure as a bit harsh towards those pushing this traditional Baptist view, I'm still also opposed to drinking, myself. My main contentions revolve around, 1 yes, the unscriptural nature of the arguements(presented as if scriptural) and 2 the friction that will inevitably arise between people on account of that misrepresentation. I had mainly been considering the detrimental effect on non-believers though, while the unity of the church is as serious and precarious an issue.

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

"We must also take stock of the culture around us and attempt to discern how to live wisely in this present age."

Josh speaks truly. I have often said, that as a Christian, I would hope that people know me for what I am in favor of, rather than what I am against.

An easy example: It is not merely that I am against all forms of sexual expression outside of the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman - rather I am in favor of the highest possible sexual fulfillment that can only come in the security and utter commitment of such a covenant.

Now, I went to LSU (at the time, the "#1 party school" in the country), and had no alchohol at all during my four years there, save for what I recieved at the altar of God at St. Alban's Chapel.

Then I went to seminary and started drinking. Ha. That is, I'll have a beer or a glass of wine every week or two. More often than not this meant sitting with my fellow seminarians at Trinity Hall (the best pub in the New World and named after God too) and talking about theology over a Newcastle brown ale. It was no longer the sort of suspect thing it would have been in Baton Rouge.

I guess you really have to follow the spirit on this. Now that I'm in Lafayette, I may need to drink less or none at all. That's Ok. Or not. That's Ok, too. But for whatever reason, people here seem more enammored with drinking (as if it were a novelty) than in Dallas, perhaps because many of my comrades there were older and more experienced (and Episcopalians who were, no doubt, quite used to drinking), I'm not sure.

But I can assure you that for people who do not spend time in church and whose only image of us comes from Televangelists - to them we are known for what we are against. We want to limit life somehow, in their eyes. And if they see a headline that says "Missouri Baptist mandate alchohol abstinance" or some other such thing (not that such a headline would even be true - I recall last week's headlines "Pope decides Protestants not true Christians") - when our friend the non-believer reads said slightly-libelous (is that a word) headline, his negative opinion will have been reinforced, and he will be that much further from Christ, I fear.

All that to say, I also don't think there is a one size fits all answer. We must walk in the Spirit, who is the holy Law written on our hearts, if we are to walk aright (whether or not we have a newcastle in hand - I certainly hope to swing through Trinity Hall this weekend and get one myself).