By Bob Allen
Describing moderate drinking as a non-issue became an issue for a Southern Baptist pastor in Florida — and for the Baptist state newspaper editor who got more than he bargained for by publishing a story he hoped would prompt a debate.
A story in the July 31 issue of the Florida Baptist Witness quoted Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Fla., explaining why his church of 2,000 weekly attenders doesn’t insist on total abstinence from alcohol.
“We lose credibility when we force culture issues as absolutes,” said Inserra, a Liberty University graduate who attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “This is a gray area of Scripture that City Church has decided to make a nonissue.”
Reader reaction was swift. A flurry of letters to the editor appeared in subsequent issues, including some criticizing the editor’s decision to run a story they read as lending approval to the drinking of alcohol in moderation.
Even John Sullivan, executive director of the Florida Baptist Convention, weighed in with a commentary proclaiming “there’s no place for use of alcohol for followers of Christ.”
“A recent article published in the Florida Baptist Witness detailed an account of the moderate use of alcoholic beverages among followers of Christ, including preachers,” Sullivan said in a point-of-view blog dated Aug. 15. “I take issue with the premise. My conviction is there is no place in the Christian growth and walk that includes the use of wine or any other alcoholic beverage. In fact, after 59 years of ministry, there is not one time I recall the positive value of alcohol use.”
Kevin Bumgarner, a layman with a background in secular newspapers elected in January as executive editor of the Florida Baptist Convention news journal, wrote a column clarifying that reporting on a topic doesn’t necessarily imply endorsement.
“We published the story as a way to generate conversation on the topic,” Bumgarner wrote. “To a large degree, we were successful. To a very large degree.”
Bumgarner said he has spent a lot of time talking, tweeting and emailing readers since the story appeared, and some asked about his own position. “That’s fair,” he acknowledged. “I realize that after only seven months in this chair many of you are still trying to figure out who I am.”
Bumgarner said when he was hired he signed a covenant with the Florida Baptist Witness board of directors saying, among other things, he would refrain from using alcohol.
“For me, that did not require a lifestyle adjustment, because I did not drink prior to taking this job,” he said. “While Scripture does not say that believers must abstain from alcohol use, for me, personally, there are so many societal factors that made this decision an easy one for me and my wife from the first days of our marriage.”
Inserra followed up with a letter to the editor Sept. 13 saying that while the story was fair and quoted him accurately, he didn’t care for a headline that appeared to make the story about him instead of his point that he doesn’t believe the Bible mandates that followers of Christ be teetotalers.
“I am well aware of every argument for teetotalism, and I respect and affirm each one,” Inserra said. “However, it is a cultural vestige of the geographic South, ahistorical to Christian tradition, and an unbiblical position to promote abstinence as the final position.”
Peter Lumpkins, an administrator at Georgia Baptist Convention-affiliated Brewton-Parker College and author of a 2009 book titled Alcohol Today: Abstinence in an Age of Indulgence, said in blog posting Sept. 18 that it is the “moderationists,” not the “abstentionists,” who are forcing the issue on Southern Baptists.
Lumpkins quoted from Inserra’s letter to the editor: “If we are going to be a church ‘for the city,’ I refuse to make alcohol a dividing wall between our church and Tallahassee culture. In my context, it matters.”
“Granted, my brother Dean,” Lumpkins commented. “But you must realize that while you refuse to make alcohol a dividing wall between you and your culture, your refusal may very well create a dividing wall between you and your convention.”
Sullivan said in his article that the secular world wants Christians to believe that the use of alcoholic beverages is “a sign of liberation,” considered “sophisticated and cool.”
“It is not my responsibility to straighten you out on moral values,” Sullivan said. “However, when I am pulled into the debate because of my stand on leadership in the Florida Baptist Convention, I must respond.”
“My final word — there is no soundness in the use or abuse of alcoholic beverages by followers of Jesus Christ,” Sullivan said.