Three years ago I was sitting in the parlor of Buechel Park Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, for an interview with the pastor search committee. They were wrapping up the interview when one member asked me a final question: “Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?”
The question came on the heels of hours of dialogue about membership growth, strategic planning, church secrets, financial fears and all the other normal challenges of congregational life. However, this last question caught me a little off my guard. It wasn’t as though they were asking me if I could turn water into wine, and I had answered every other question honestly with deep thought, displaying my top-shelf strengths and many of my closeted weaknesses.
I knew if I was called by this church I would be their first female senior pastor. At that time, I was only 28 years old and knew I would be carrying heavy burdens while also helping pave a new way forward for Church at large. After a few moments, my answer came to me – neat and straightforward.
“Yes, you all need to know I drink bourbon.” After an awkward second or two, half the group laughed while the other half stared in shock.
“Jesus … always chose people over purity, vulnerability over shame and courageous love over fear-based beliefs.”
When the Baptist pastor declares her preferred drink is bourbon, people’s minds often leap to the story of Jesus and the wedding in Cana. I’ve heard some folks argue that scripture tells us that drinking is a sin and that the Bible never claimed Jesus drank. Other folks counter with the question: Why would Jesus open the bar at that wedding if he thought alcohol was a sin?
I do wonder: If Jesus were not attending a traditional Jewish wedding but rather a hoedown in the Alabama hills would he have turned water into moonshine? If he was in a trendy bar in Dallas, would he have brewed IPA beer? If he was at the Kentucky Derby, would he have poured everyone mint juleps?
Of course we all know if Jesus were at a Baptist potluck, he would have simply made more sweet tea.
Alcohol continues to be a loosey-goosey topic in many Baptist churches. Since prohibition, Baptists, like much of conservative American Christianity, have demonized beer, bourbon and certainly Catholic communion. Many Baptists still talk about booze like they talk about boobs and bedrooms. This puritan approach keeps a lid on consuming food or drink – or for that matter keeping any malicious substance out of the body. Purity culture, at its fundamental level, is an artificial separation of clean and unclean, pure and impure, saved and unsaved.
Keep alcohol away, and your body stays clean. Keep women away from the pulpit, and the pastorate and Body of Christ remain pure. Keep sexuality away from varied understandings of scripture and theology and relegated to one way of belief and practice, and everyone will be saved.
It’s interesting that many churches continue to raise girls to be strong, faithful women, but when these women grow into their strengths and callings they’re shunned by the religious status quo. The pharisaical powers say, “Go home. Get out of our way.”
Churches also tell children they are loved by God and created in the image of God, but when they embrace God’s love through their God-given sexual orientation they are kept out of loving covenants of marriage. Too many churches and other religious institutions quietly follow the practice of don’t ask, don’t tell. But let me tell you a secret: These religious rules and regulations are outdated purity codes that wound people, cutting deep into the community of God.
“It’s really quite strange, if not downright prurient, how Christians put what happens in the privacy of one’s bedroom on center stage of our religious hang-ups.”
Many Baptist congregations and other churches have clung to a tradition of keeping the shutters closed on difficult topics like alcohol, the role of women and human sexuality. For too long, Christians have chosen purity over people. Purity codes and other forms of Christian cleanliness have excluded people for centuries, keeping out entire communities who did not follow one way of living, one way of interpreting scripture and one way that works for one group of people – namely, those with all the power.
Growing up in my Baptist home, bourbon (or any alcoholic beverage for that matter) was banned and considered an abomination, much like women preaching and same-sex marriage. At my wedding nine years ago, an open bar was a Starbucks coffee bar. My husband and I would have been shamed and shunned by our community if a Middle Eastern man showed up at our wedding reception and turned water into wine.
From an early age, I was taught that the Bible was a sword to be plunged into the hearts of those who did not look like me, think like me and live like me. We marched and we saluted as good Christian soldiers; we wielded the Word of God for the salvation of heathen sinners. But the Word of God should never be a weapon used to conquer or control others in the name of Christ. The word of God became flesh and dwelled among us, living in peaceful protest against the powers that projected false religion and dehumanizing practices.
That afternoon when the search committee asked me that final question, I had to make a choice. If I became their pastor was I going to drink hiding in the closet? Was I going to keep pieces of myself compartmentalized for the sake of purity as defined by others?
If the Church is truly the Body of Christ, a community of people called to live faithfully in the world, then we must get serious about following Jesus with our full selves. This means churches need to stop keeping people from full public participation because of individual, private purity practices.
Churches are called to public witness to the Gospel. In order for us to give authentic witness to the Way, the Truth and the Life, we must bring our full selves to the table. In order for the Church to be in relationship with herself and the world she cannot be forced into closets of shame and secrecy. Secrets keeps people from fully participating in the benefits of community, the resource of love and accountability for every individual body.
Women have been shoved aside based upon biology – basically because we have boobs (and, yes, our breasts aren’t the real issue but rather our inferior plumbing). Ironically, the same conservative religious groups that use biology to justify family and church patriarchy claim that science has no place in the body of Christ. Apparently, biology isn’t as relevant when it comes to the topic of human sexuality. Talking about sexuality in the church is like walking in on your parents when they thought the house was empty. Without saying more, churches, like most of us, are in need of good therapy (as well as better theology).
“I was taught that the Bible was a sword to be plunged into the hearts of those who did not look like me, think like me and live like me.”
On those occasions when Christians and churches brave the new world and engage in bold conversation about sexuality, the conversation tends to swing to someone else’s bedroom. It’s really quite strange, if not downright prurient, how Christians put what happens in the privacy of one’s bedroom on center stage of our religious hang-ups.
Even in the midst of stale ministries intent on retaining status quo religious practices, the greater Church is changing. Slowly, like a long, painful reformation movement that takes centuries to catch fire, the people of God can change the arc of history. The Body of Christ can practice what she preaches by following Jesus, who always chose people over purity, vulnerability over shame and courageous love over fear-based beliefs.