DALLAS (ABP) — A growing number of Baptists may have welcomed the New Year by raising a glass of something a bit stronger than iced tea. In recent years, Baptist attitudes toward alcohol consumption have seemed to change, according to some experts.
Consider the debate sparked last summer when messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting approved a resolution opposing the consumption of alcoholic beverages and an amendment disqualifying imbibers from service as trustees of SBC entities.
Messengers passed resolutions on such volatile issues as same-sex marriage, illegal immigration and genocide in Darfur with little discussion, but the call for total abstinence prompted debate on the convention floor and ongoing dialogue on Internet blogs.
“The Southern Baptist Convention is committed to drawing boundaries. It was inevitable this would be one of them,” Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest Divinity School, said. “Each year, Southern Baptists try to find ways to set themselves off as different than the prevailing culture. But this time, they discovered that even inerrantists may take a drink every now and then.”
Indeed, some self-described inerrantists and Calvinists kept the issue alive long after the annual meeting, arguing in Internet chat rooms that the Bible condemns drunkenness but does not present a compelling case for total abstinence.
Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., recently wrote on his blog a satirical list of 10 reasons why tea and coffee drinkers should be excluded from Southern Baptist leadership and missions service.
Burleson, whose earlier blog postings nearly led to his removal as an International Mission Board trustee, poked fun at many of the arguments traditionally used to promote total abstinence from alcohol by applying them to the use of tea and coffee.
“Drinking tea leads a person to addition to caffeine,” he wrote. “There might be some who allege that drinking just one or two glasses of tea does not lead to caffeine addiction. This is technically true, but unfortunately, not all Christians who partake in moderate tea drinking can stop with just a couple of glasses.
“It is not uncommon for Christian men and women to progress from tea, to coffee, to 64-ounce colas or Mountain Dews. Where does it stop? How does one know when the line of addiction has been crossed? If caffeine is addictive, then why play with fire?”
Burleson's satire is a far cry from the position fundamentalist icon W.A. Criswell took. In a 1968 sermon he preached at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Criswell pointed to the Old Testament prophet Daniel as an example for Christians because Daniel “purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself” by drinking the king's wine.
“We're not talking about moderation. That's not in the book, and I preach what's in the book,” Criswell said. “We're talking about abstination [sic] — total abstinence.”
Criswell countered the argument that Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana by insisting he made something else.
“It was the celestial drink that we shall share together when we sit down to the table of the Lord at the marriage supper of the Lamb, some glorious and final day,” Criswell said. “Do you think that God made in that cup what it is that makes men stagger, that makes men beasts, that makes men drunk? It is unthinkable. It is unimaginable.”
Today, some Baptists insist modern-day problems associated with alcohol abuse present a compelling argument for abstinence, but few appeal to Scripture for an absolute prohibition or argue that Jesus made unfermented grape juice at the wedding in Cana.
“The Bible does not put forward just an abstinence perspective. John the Baptist apparently took a Nazarite vow of abstinence. But Jesus made wine,” said Bill Tillman, an ethicist at Hardin-Simmons University's Logsdon School of Theology.
Tillman insists Baptist attitudes toward alcohol have been influenced both by culture surrounding the church and by culture that developed within it.
“It's more of a church culture that has been imposed than one operating out of seeking and asking, ‘What would the gospel have us do?' The church culture tends toward more of a law-and-order approach,” he said.
Baptists differ over how Christians should balance freedom from the Old Testament law and their need to give up some privileges for the sake of other people, Tillman noted. What's more, an appraisal of Baptist attitudes toward alcohol consumption must acknowledge a fair measure of hypocrisy, he said.
“There's long been a pattern running through our history of Baptists publicly forbidding the consumption of alcohol but privately consuming it. There's a lot of duplicity that has gone on,” Tillman said.
Historically, early Baptists in the United States drank moderate amounts of beer, wine and hard liquor. Elijah Craig, a Kentucky Baptist minister who founded the Baptist-related Georgetown College and a distillery, has been credited with inventing bourbon whiskey.
As Baptists, along with Methodists, moved to the American frontier, they saw the breakup of families and the general lawlessness that accompanied easy access to saloons.
Consequently, the conservative revivalists joined forces with social gospel liberals in launching a temperance movement that ultimately developed into an abstinence movement. It also became a way for Protestants to set themselves off as different from immigrant Catholics who drank socially, he added.
Baptist enthusiasm for the anti-liquor crusade in the late 19th and 20th centuries was fueled by genuine concern over the damaged lives, fractured families and financial heartache associated with alcohol abuse, as well as a tendency among some believers to equate Christianity with a set of prohibitions, Tillman added.
It also led to debate over whether the Last Supper drink was fermented and whether churches observing the memorial meal should use wine or grape juice.
Herschel Hobbs, the pastor-theologian who chaired the committee that drafted the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message, maintained the cup instituted as one of the elements of the Last Supper was filled with grape juice, not wine.
“Some interpret ‘fruit of the vine' as wine. However, as the bread was unleavened, free of bacteria, was the cup also not grape juice?” he asked in his church study course book he wrote to explain the Baptist Faith & Message.
“Wine is the product of the juice, plus fermentation caused by bacteria. Since both elements represented the pure body and blood of Jesus, there is reason to ponder. The writer sees ‘fruit of the vine' as pure grape juice untainted by fermentation.”
But until Thomas Welch, a Methodist minister-turned-dentist and leader in the temperance movement, developed the pasteurization process for nonfermenting grape juice, Baptist churches consistently used wine in communion, Leonard said.
“I've always found it ironic that Baptists have insisted on a literalist approach to Scripture when it comes to baptism by immersion, but when the temperance movement came along, they fell off the wagon and gave up wine in communion at the drop of a hat,” he noted.
However, he noted, a few churches “argued as biblical literalists that they couldn't give up wine in favor of the grape juice that the liberals used.” Some backcountry churches in the Southeast have continued to make elderberry wine in their basements for the Lord's Supper, he added.
Baptist attitudes toward alcohol have also been influenced by geography, Leonard noted. West of the Mississippi and in the Deep South, abstinence has been strong, but churches in the East — Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina — generally have been more accepting of social drinking.
Robert Prince has seen “definite regional differences” on alcohol consumption firsthand. Next month, Prince will mark his fourth anniversary as pastor of First Baptist Church in Waynesville, N.C. Before that, he was pastor of First Baptist Church of Vernon, Texas.
“Probably 80 percent of the church in Vernon would have been against the use of alcohol. At our church here in Waynesville, it's probably more like 40 percent,” he said. Ironically, he sees little difference between incidences of problem drinking in the two communities.
In addition to geography, generational differences account for varying attitudes toward alcohol. Ken Hugghins, pastor of Elkins Lake Baptist Church in Huntsville, Texas, said many younger Baptists seem less adamant in opposition to alcohol consumption.
“Most of the hard-core reaction against it is from the older generation,” he said.
But the younger generation may be influenced more by non-Baptist evangelicals who write and talk freely about meeting friends in bars or drinking wine at meals, he observed.
“A lot of them come from non-Baptist backgrounds, and there is a lot of cross-pollination” with other traditions, he noted.
Both Hugghins and Prince agreed a less hard-line approach toward alcohol consumption seems to reflect a more honest approach to Scripture, but both quickly added the Bible clearly condemns drunkenness.
“We should quit overselling it and quit over-stating the case. We should quit making absolutes out of cultural preferences,” Hugghins said.
Bobby Broyles, pastor of First Baptist Church in Ballinger, Texas, fears that's exactly how young people interpret their parents' permissive attitudes toward alcohol and their apathetic attitude toward underage drinking.
“It's a pervasive problem, but too many people don't think it's a problem,” he said, noting underage drinking may be even worse in fairly isolated rural communities than in metropolitan areas usually associated with substance abuse.
Knowing how to stand against something without making it “forbidden fruit” can be challenging, Broyles noted. Even so, he hopes Baptists don't change their views on alcohol consumption too much.
“I'd hate to think we're softening our stand on this issue when it's causing such untold problems in families. When it's at the root of so much physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse,” he said.