“The Only Biblical Position”
While attending an evangelism conference in Europe, a Southern Baptist seminary professor went to a local restaurant to eat during a meal break. A fellow conference participant from Germany was sitting at a table already. The professor requested to sit at the table, to which the German minister agreed gladly. Shortly thereafter, an British participant requested to sit at the table. The trio was conversing about the conference when the waitress brought a glass of beer to the table for the German. The British gentleman was aghast, and declared, “An English Christian would never dare to drink a beer!” The German Evangelical replied, “I thank God I am not an Englishman,” then proceeded to drink his beer.
When I heard this story during one of my seminary classes I was not surprised, as were some of my fellow divinity students. Having lived in Germany as a high school student, I understood the cultural differences present in Europe, even among Christians. This past week these differences have been in the forefront of my mind, brought forward by the actions of the Missouri Baptist Convention. The Executive Committee of the MBC decided to withdraw funds from any church plant associated with the Acts 29 Network. This was not a sudden decision, but one which had been brewing for some time.
On March 4 of this year, NBC’s “Today” show host Campbell Brown was part of a report entitled, “Beer and Bibles: New Churches Lure Young Members.” Darrin Patrick, founder and senior pastor of The Journey in St. Louis, was featured in the report. Also spotlighted in the segment was that church’s discussion group, “Theology at the Bottleworks,” hosted at Schafly Bottleworks. NBC’s focus on this discussion group obscured the sober-minded approach The Journey takes in reaching a cultural-generational demographic group. Pastor Patrick, who came under immediate scrutiny, told Baptist Press he abstains from alcohol and that his church “doesn’t personally encourage nor corporately promote the use of alcohol.” The pastor explained, “We don’t believe that having a current event discussion at a bar is unbiblical. We try to choose venues for these events where un-churched members of our community would feel comfortable. Others have taken place at restaurants, coffee shops, office buildings and cafes.” He informed Christianity Today, “Theology at the Bottleworks was started to reach people who are actively opposed to Christianity, by discussing contemporary cultural issues in a neutral environment.” Those in attendance discuss political or spiritual topics, such as the role of women in society, the legal system, and animal rights. Even prior to the NBC segment, The Journey garnered media attention when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article entitled, “Beer and the Bible.” These stories attracted the attention of the MBC, who loaned $200,000 to The Journey for church planting efforts. The congregation, which has grown from a group of 30 to nearly 2,000 since its inception in 2002, would normally be admired and modeled by pragmatists in denominational life. The “pub” methodology, however, was not able to pass without criticism.
David Tolliver, interim executive director of the MBC, in reaction to the stories, stated, “We need to engage the culture, but without compromising our biblical, traditional Baptist values. For me, that includes abstinence from alcohol.” Patrick has noted that The Journey adheres to the same theological confession as the MBC. Despite the theological agreement, Tolliver exclaimed at the annual MBC meeting this past October:
“I understand that the Bible does not say, ‘Thou shalt not drink. The Bible doesn’t say that. I get that. The Bible doesn’t say ‘Thou shalt not drink’ anytime, anywhere, for any reason. It’s not that explicit. I’m a little slow at it, but I can read, and I understand that the Bible does not say that. The Bible does not specifically call the drinking of alcohol a sin—not in so many words. But I want you to hear me very carefully this evening, and I will be clear to say that I believe the only biblical position for Christians in this 21st century Show Me State environment that we live in is total abstinence.”
During the same meeting, Rodney Albert, pastor of Hallsville Baptist Church near Columbia, Missouri, and a “rising star among the conservative leadership of the convention,” proclaimed, “2007 was the year Missouri Baptists became soft on alcohol abstention. We must fight the alcohol fight and keep it out of the convention.” His proclamation was met with thunderous applause.
The issue of alcohol consumption has not been confined within the borders of Missouri. This fall the issue also spilled over onto denominational convention floors in Florida and Texas. Baptists in Florida overwhelmingly approved a bylaw revision requiring all trustee nominees to “agree to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages.” James Smith, editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, stated he was “sympathetic to my brothers who argued against the resolution on the grounds that it pressed an ‘extra-biblical’ standard on Southern Baptists. But the idea that adopting a resolution which calls for total abstinence of alcohol is anti-biblical fails to take in account the full biblical witness. . . .” Baptists in Texas (SBTC) replaced the bylaw requiring all convention employees and elected officials to abstain from drunkenness and now demand abstention from “the use of alcohol as a beverage.” These state convention meetings reflect the national (SBC) resolution on alcohol approved by messengers at the 2006 annual meeting. The 2006 resolution stated, in part:
WHEREAS, There are some religious leaders who are now advocating the consumption of alcoholic beverages based on a misinterpretation of the doctrine of “our freedom in Christ”; now, therefore, be it RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina, June 13-14, 2006, express our total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages…
It seems ironic that David Tolliver can assert that “the only biblical position” for Christians is abstinence immediately following his assertion that “The Bible doesn’t say, ‘Thou shalt not drink’ anytime, anywhere, for any reason. . . . The Bible does not specifically call the drinking of alcohol a sin…” As Christopher Lynn Austin notes in his doctoral dissertation (Baptist Ministers’ Habits, Attitudes, and Beliefs Concerning Alcohol Use):
“Regardless of fundamentalist or moderate labels, what is surprising is that Baptists, in general, appear to promote an image of opposition to alcohol. Southern Baptists, and even many estranged moderate Baptists, pride themselves on having a high view of Scripture. . . . For a group purporting to view the Bible being totally true without error in all matters of knowledge, it is perplexing that a scriptural interpretation for total abstinence came to the fore.”
Indeed. Because I’m an Inerrantist, it is impossible for me to assert that Christians must abstain from alcohol “anytime, anywhere, for any reason.” I fear, in fact, that my Lord is no longer welcome in denominational life. He is guilty, after all, of “manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming” alcoholic beverages, as declared by the inspired and inerrant Word of God (Gospel of St. John 2:1-11). While abstinence may clearly demonstrate love towards others and may be the wisest approach to take, let us not pretend that it is “the only biblical position.”