Recent years have seen renewed acceptance of alcohol consumption among evangelicals generally, and among Southern Baptists particularly. Just a few decades ago, teetotalism was the norm in evangelical circles, but now it seems the tide is shifting. If discussions I have had with several of my peers can accurately serve as any indication, the up-and-coming generation of Southern Baptist pastors and leaders will prove with time to diverge significantly from the traditional, recently resolved Southern Baptist position on the issue.
During my seminary career at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, students were required to sign a “Covenant Agreement Form” which outlined several points of requirement for conduct by which enrolled students were expected to abide. This form is still given to incoming students to sign and everyone is required to sign it before they are allowed to enroll for classes. Number six on the list of items is a wholesale prohibition on consumption of alcohol by any student, along with accompanying prohibitions on tobacco and illegal drugs. Every year, Danny Akin, the school’s president, would hold an open forum chapel service where he would field questions submitted by the student body. Every year, one of the questions he answered would be, “Why the prohibition on alcohol?” And every year, it seemed, he reassured us that this year was going to be the last year he would answer the question.
The reason for the perennial recurrence of the question ought to be pretty obvious: students, or at least a significant portion of students, thought the prohibition either unnecessary, unfair, or altogether unbiblical. During several of my classes, the issue of alcohol consumption came up as we were discussing real-world ministry practice. The professor would sometimes ask how many of the students in the class thought that moderate consumption of alcohol was biblically permissible. As I remember it, usually 1/2 to 3/4 of the class would raise their hands. Incidentally, and while this fact is not any indication that they were right or wrong, it did most often seem that dissenting students were generally older.
Assuming that you have read the title of this post, you might be wondering, “So what’s your position on alcohol, Carson?” Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you. I happen to be okay with moderate consumption and I think the Bible is too. Before you rush to judgement and label me a slovenly drunkard, let me just say, I myself do not drink – but I do feel that I have the Christian liberty to do so. Let me first address the issue of why I believe the Christian is at liberty to partake in moderate amounts of alcohol, and then the issue of why I don’t drink and why people who agree with me on the matter of consumption often drive me nuts.
I believe I am at liberty because, first of all, the Scriptures don’t prohibit it. They don’t. Period. Show me a passage that flat-out and incontrovertibly prohibits the consumption of alcohol for the holy Christian under any and all circumstances. You can’t do it – because it isn’t there. The Bible simply doesn’t unquestionably teach teetotalism as a requirement for the believer. There are plenty of warnings in Scripture of the dangers of alcohol, and we are right to heed them (i.e. Proverbs 20:1; Isaiah 5:11, 22; Ephesians 5:18 – this last example is a prohibition against drunkenness and it goes without saying that no biblicist can say that Scripture endorses drunkenness). There are also certain specific instances in which Jews (not Christians) were forbidden from partaking, such as before entering the tabernacle (Leviticus 10:19) and while abiding by requirements of the Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:3), but these prohibitions were for specified circumstances and were not binding on Jews who didn’t fit the situational provisions of the laws. They are all the less binding on Christians. As a matter of fact, there are several places in the Old Testament where alcoholic drinks are spoken of favorably (i.e. Ecclesiastes 9:7; Psalm 104:14-15; Amos 9:14; Isaiah 55:1) and there are even instances where Jews are in fact commanded of God – yes, commanded – to buy and consume alcohol:
You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. – Deuteronomy 14:22-26
That’s right. The consumption of wine and strong drink was not only a matter of ceremonial worship toward God for the faithful Jew, but taught him to “fear the LORD [his] God” and, along with his entire household, to “rejoice” before him.
Here’s the second and more important reason I think the Christian is at liberty: Jesus drank. Now, I know what some of you who don’t share my views on the matter are thinking: “This is a tired argument that only serves to sully the name of Christ as a wine-bibber.” Let me spell out for you why it isn’t. We need to be honest with ourselves and with the Scriptures that if any amount of alcohol consumption at all is sinful on the face of it, we have a BIG problem concerning our salvation. Our salvation is based on the reality of Christ living a sinless life, and if he consumed any alcohol – any alcohol at all – then we do not have a sinless savior, and thus, by biblical standards, have no savior at all. Let’s be real about that fact up front.
There are two common rebuttals from teetotalers to this argument. The first is that what Jesus drank was actually grape juice. While it is true that the Greek word οἶνος may mean unfermented grape juice, the straight-forward lexical definition of this word is wine and defining it as grape juice under every circumstance just doesn’t square with Jesus’ teachings and ministry. For instance, when Jesus turned water into wine in John 2, the master of the house said to the bridegroom in verse 10, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Obviously, the master of the house wasn’t talking about “good” grape juice. It was wine. Here the teetotaler is faced with a secondary problem: even if Jesus himself did not partake in the wine he created during the Cana marriage feast, we are still left with Jesus endorsing and enabling in others what is, supposedly, sin. Additionally, consider Jesus teachings on the wineskins in Matthew 9:17: “Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” Old wineskins would burst due to the gas production of the fermentation process. Once a skin had been initially stretched during this process, further stretching was not possible, and so, if a person was to put new wine in an old wineskin, the continuing gas production of the new wine would build up pressure inside the already-stretched container, causing it to rupture. Personally, I’ve never had this particular problem with a bottle of Welch’s. Again, it is obvious that Jesus here is referring to wine, not grape juice.
The second rebuttal teetotalers will commonly offer to Jesus’ consumption of alcohol is that what Jesus drank was actually water mixed with a bit of wine for sanitation reasons and that it would have taken much more of it to get drunk than it would for a person who drinks wine today. I am absolutely willing to concede that this was in many, if not most times, the case. However, this supposed rebuttal still hasn’t gotten around Jesus consuming alcohol, even if it is a small amount. Also, by making this argument, what the teetotaler has actually done is make the moderationist’s case for him. If it is actually the small amount of alcohol that makes drinking acceptable, then the moderationist is indeed being biblically faithful.
There are several reasons why a moderationist might wisely choose to avoid drinking alcohol. Perhaps they choose to abstain because they are mindful of the modern cultural connotations of drinking. Perhaps they desire to remain above reproach, not wishing that anyone should ever have any way to accuse them of drunkenness – particularly if they are in ministry. Perhaps they don’t wish to tempt other Christians who may have had a history of previous alcohol-related sin problems. Perhaps they are afraid they might become addicted. Perhaps they signed a covenant.
Well, now that my cards are on the table, why don’t I drink? Though there could be several reasons, my primary motivation is the fact that I am hoping to plant a church with the North American Mission Board. Upon my seminary graduation, I was subsequently freed from any covenantal vow to abstain from alcohol. However, NAMB currently has a policy in place that no NAMB employee may be hired if he has had a drink within the past year (see “4.A.” here). At the time, I wasn’t sure exactly where the Lord was calling my wife and I to plant a church, or if he would make that clear within a year’s time. I thought it prudent, therefore, to deny my liberty and to abstain instead – just in case God moved in our lives in an unexpected way. I did not want my pursuit of my own Christian liberty to delay any work that the Lord might have wanted to do with me. I joyfully submitted to a law I was not bound to obey for the sake of the gospel. And wouldn’t you know it – God honored that. About two months after my graduation, the Lord opened doors for us to eventually plant a church in Philadelphia, and we are currently in the process of being assessed by NAMB. I still abstain for this reason.
Submission to others for the sake of the gospel is the pattern laid out for us in Scripture. Consider Paul’s teaching on food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8:4-13:
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Paul essentially tells us that the issue is not whether or not you have the liberty to do a thing, but whether or not it is beneficial for you to do it. With regard to food sacrificed to idols, his basic premise is this: “It’s food. Just food. Nothing more, nothing less. It has no ability to put you in right standing with God, or to remove you from it. It’s just food. It doesn’t save you, Christ does.” Though this is the case, Paul was aware that, for various reasons, some people still lived and felt as though food did matter. And he tells us that it would be better to abstain from the food in question all together, if necessary, than to run the risk of stepping on the conscience of a brother who sees things differently. Elsewhere, in Acts 16:3, he commends the same principle to Timothy regarding circumcision, choosing to circumcise Timothy with an eye toward the gospel so that Timothy could gain a greater hearing among the Jews that lived in the region. The Jews still lived as though they were under the law of circumcision. Paul showed Timothy in a very vivid and unforgettable physical lesson, that as a recipient of the grace of God in Christ, “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). Because he sought to transform unbelieving Jews into new creations in Christ, he led Timothy to submit to the painful requirements of a law which he was not required to follow. And for the sake of the gospel, Timothy submitted.
And this is where many Christians (particularly young men, like myself) who share my views on alcohol drive me nuts. As Christians, we ought to first run to submission rather than liberty. We ought to be willing to put aside something good for the sake of something better. And we ought to do so joyfully. Sadly, as I speak to my peers who share my views (several of them current seminary students), the reaction I hear is not one of, “I’m excited to submit to the will of others for the sake of cooperation and the gospel,” but rather, “They’re wrong. It isn’t right of them to impose their extra-biblical restrictions on my biblical liberty. Something needs to change in the SBC. We shouldn’t let them continue in their biblical ignorance. I can’t wait until our generation is in power so we can upend this silly rule.” Now, I’m all for open debate on the biblical merits of moderationism, but let’s make one thing clear: thousands of churches and Christians – faithful Christians from around the globe – have joined together in the Cooperative Program for, among other missional pursuits, the training of godly young men and women for the sake of the gospel. Not all of those churches agree on the proper role of alcohol in the life of the believer. This is good reasoning for SBC seminaries’ enforcement of abstention for their students. We shouldn’t walk all over the consciences of the very people that pay half of our tuition. It’s a good rule.
For those who aren’t convinced, I would simply say that there are many other denominations and networks that might be more suited to your liking. Acts29 is a popular conservative network that has been open about its favorable stance on moderate alcohol consumption. My own church partners with both the SBC and Acts29. There are other seminaries that may be better suited to your desires as well. It goes without saying that if you have signed a covenant, you are morally bound to abide by the restrictions placed on you. But that point aside, if you are currently enrolled in a Baptist school (or are considering enrolling), I can only assume that you are at least somewhat baptistic in your theology. Is it worth going to a school that potentially doesn’t share your views on several things, as opposed to joyfully submitting yourself to a school that, in terms of official policy (not necessarily even moderationism itself), differs with you on one non-essential point? And for those of you who are currently enrolled in an SBC seminary but don’t plan on contributing to the SBC’s mission after graduation because of the associated alcohol restrictions and are now begrudgingly attending an SBC church to get the 50% off of your tuition bill, grow some ethics and pay the extra money. Don’t take advantage of the hard work and sweat of your brothers and sisters around the globe just to make it easier on yourself. That isn’t submission. That is entitlement.
There may be a time in the future to question the wisdom of prohibiting SBC entities and their employees/students from consuming alcohol, but that time isn’t now. The resolution I linked to above goes to show that the majority of our churches are still teetotalers. The resolution, while showing the general opinion of the SBC as a network, has no power to keep individual non-SBC-employed-believers or cooperating churches from being moderationists or even from consuming alcohol. Bottom line: just because I may interpret a secondary issue differently than the majority of SBC churches, does not mean I can’t cooperate on the primary thing – the gospel.
I don’t know if there will ever come a time that I will leave the SBC. I don’t plan on it. I am far too convinced that we can accomplish more together for the gospel than any of us could alone. But if I do, it won’t be over SBC entity restrictions on alcohol. If there never comes a time when I can, without hindering my gospel effectiveness, freely and openly partake in a glass of wine with dinner or a cold beer with friends, that’s fine by me. I will joyfully submit, looking forward to the day when I share a glass of wine anew with my Savior in eternity.