I brought something I want to share with you. Do you have a few minutes? I think you’ll find it interesting. It’s my “Southern Baptists and Alcohol” scrapbook. It tells the story of what I grew up hearing and believing about alcohol, Christians and the Bible. It’s the story of getting my eyes opened and all my certainties wrecked. In other words, it’s the story of one, big, happy lie. Maybe more than one, actually.
I just like to flip through these memories from time to time. Like any scrapbook, things are a bit out of order, so let’s open to a page and see what we find.
Ahh. “The Deacon In The Dugout.” A very good place to start.
I was at my first youth ministry job in a suburban church in my hometown. I’d been visiting a Christian bookstore that happened to be across the road from, among other things, a liquor store called “The Dugout.” So there I was, getting into my car, when I noticed a familiar car parked at “The Dugout.” Sure enough, out of the store, and into the car came one of the deacons from my church, carrying the famous brown paper sack. That sound you hear is my entire worldview cracking up.
Now, you have to realize that it had never entered my mind that any Southern Baptist drank alcohol. That just wasn’t the way that I was taught. It wasn’t a thought that was discussable. It was nonsense. Alcohol was simply, totally, always wrong, and no Christian, or good person of any kind, used it. Not even at the Lord’s Supper.
Yet, here was a deacon at my church, A man I saw every Sunday, a man who was one of those to whom I was responsible, apparently buying alcohol “as a beverage” as we used to say. I didn’t spend much time talking myself through the unlikely possibility that he was a twin, or was getting cooking wine or was purchasing some for the thugs holding his wife and kids at gunpoint. It was what it appeared to be: a Southern Baptist deacon, who was a drinker.
My eyes had been forced open, and would be opened even more in the future. I was to discover that, contrary to what I experienced in my family and heard in my church growing up, there were a lot of drinkers in Southern Baptist churches, particularly among certain groups, and usually well out of sight. Drinkers, liars and deceivers; all right under my nose.
Turn over a few pages. Yes….there they are. The staff at the church I served early in my preparation years. A great group of servants and some wonderful Christians. And they all drank. Every last one of them.
The pastor. His wife. The associates. Their wives. The secretaries. Their spouses. The musicians. Especially the musicians. All of them. When we had staff get togethers, the alcohol would flow, and I would watch in stunned amazement as people would get…uh….happier. I never saw anyone drunk, but I saw a number of people….happy. Seeing Southern Baptist church staff members happy is odd enough, but happy on booze? Wow.
The pastor was from the south. His family was big in the denomination. The associates were from the south, too. Big FBC type churches with major givers and well-known pulpits. These folks drank and they didn’t just start last week. They had apparently been drinking for a long time. It actually seemed they had been drinking all through their years of preparation and ministry. It wasn’t even a big deal. They knew lots of other drinkers, too. It was like a secret society.
Yes, they were aware that most Baptists didn’t drink, but they were aware that lots of Baptists did drink, even if they said they didn’t. Especially in the circles of the upper classes, church staff and educators. Again, my eyes were opened, and have been more opened since. There are lots of drinkers in Southern Baptist churches, pulpits and schools. My childhood church might not have known, but the truth was stunning. Beer and wine everywhere!
Which raises the question: Why do so many Baptists act like that’s not the case? What’s the stake in this level of dishonesty? Where is the impetus to be so duplicious about this?
Go over another page. There’s my first church after seminary. County seat, FBC, very historic and thoroughly Southern Baptist. The pastor previous to the man who was there when I served was quite the anti-alcohol crusader. In fact, the church played a leading role in local “wet-dry” elections. (That’s a Kentucky law that allows a county to allow liquor sales or not, or to regulate the sale to particular times. In much of the commonwealth, you have to drive more than an hour to find a “wet” county, so these elections are a big deal.)
I never saw as much excitement in any church as I did in that church when the “drys” won another election. You never saw anything like it revival services. People were up and cheering. It was like they had won a war.
Which was strange, because I knew lots of drinkers in that church. Drinking was pretty common among the youth, of course, and they were getting it, frequently, from their own homes. The parents had a fridge full of beer. Big brother or Uncle Bob was making a weekly run to a wet city to fill up the truck. Beer on the houseboats. Wine for the dinner party. Our church had its share of non-locals and other denominational types, and many of them were drinkers and saw no reason not to be. It turned out that among the doctors, lawyers and business leaders in that church, there were many completely guiltless drinkers.
Meanwhile, the church acted like alcohol hadn’t touched the lips of a member in a century. We weren’t like those Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalians. Nosiree Bob. Good grief. What is going on here?
By this time, my eyes were more than open. I was stunned into shocked awareness. I had concluded that I had been lied to, and that while there was more open drinking among members of other churches, our Southern Baptist folks were far from being left out in the cold without some booze to warm them up. Alcohol was everywhere, if- if- you were prepared to be honest about it. If you wanted to continue the rap about teetotalism, the bottles would go out to the garage for a while. Then, when you leave, the party will start again.
So what in the world was going on? Why did our churches and seminaries have covenants and rules that said drinking was wrong, and that drinkers were under the threat of church/institutional discipline? Why did we bind the conscience on the issue of teetotalism, without a verse of scripture that required it? Why was alcohol use of any kind,- not just abuse, but moderate, responsible use- held up as a sign of bad character? Why was it such a big deal among leaders? When so many of them drank?
Why were we all involved in this lie?
I came to understand a bit more of the dynamics of the churches I had been a part of as they choose leaders. Divorce and drinking were always the two big issues with leadership. No one cared about anything else. The big questions were, “Has he ever been divorced?” and “Does he drink?” Now I realize that the second could not be taken for granted at all, even among those who answered correctly. There was enough duplicity on the issue of drinking to make fools of everyone. So it became the policy that we acted like everyone was dry as the Dust Bowl, nodding at the official position of the church, amening the crusaders, while the truth simply sat there, on ice.
It was like a bunch of GM execs who had Toyotas at home in the garage. It was like owners of Kentucky Fried Chicken eating their meals at Chick-fil-A. It was like nodding when the evangelist preached on the evils of drink while you had a bottle of wine and a six-pack in the basement fridge. It was exactly like that.
If you go back to the very beginning, you’ll see some pages from my very early years. I can remember my parents talking about how they couldn’t find a church in Wisconsin that was against drinking, so they wound up joining a tiny little house church started by Baptists from the south. Eventually, they moved back to Kentucky, and dad often said that if he hadn’t moved, I would never have turned out as a Baptist preacher. That’s probably true. I’d have been doomed to a life of Lutheran picnics or something.
I also wouldn’t have been told that all those other denominations, no matter what other errors they believed, were chock full of drinkers on their way to hell. Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Epicopalians, Presbyterians….drinkers all. My pastor preached against drinking in other churches with ferocity. There was no other name for his approach. It mattered deeply to him, so much that alcohol dominated many messages. What separated Southern Baptists from other Christians was teetotalism. We said the church covenant’s promise “to abstain from the sale and use of alcohol as a beverage” with emphasis. God was serious about this booze issue, and he was watching.
How many times were the evils of drinking portrayed before me as a young person in church? Thousands I am sure. Moderate, social drinkers were the worst sort of compromisers, selling out their “witness” for acceptance from the drinking crowd. And, of course, there was the Bible. Over and over, I heard the Bible’s passages against drunkenness emphasized and repeated. When I discovered that not only did the Bible have much positive material about wine as a gift, and that most of the Bible’s content of alcohol was in a positive or neutral voice, I was totally torn up. How could this be? It had been so clear! So obvious…and so wrong.
Once I was discovered eating a pizza in a restaurant that served beer. I knew, from many sermons, that real Christians never entered a place that served alcohol. We could eat racist pizza, mafia pizza and pizza prepared by drug addicted wife abusers. But if the Methodists were selling beer in there, it was the door to hell. And there I was, exposed by a deacon’s wife. I got off easy, since she had no business in there either.
I was taught that the Bible’s word for wine was not the word for fermented alcohol. I was taught that Jesus made Welch’s. I was taught that no one in the Bible drank unless it was a sin. I was taught that the essence of my witness was to be a teetotaler and to promote it at every opportunity. Nothing was as important in my witness in my western Kentucky community as abstaining from alcohol. This kind of thinking is still running around in my head, and I doubt it will ever come out. I hate it, by the way. It’s a mind virus. It has nothing to do with Jesus and it makes me mad. The lie really sucks.
Such was the effect on me that I was flat out terrified at my first encounters with alcohol. When I was offered it in the eighth grade there was no danger of me participating. I skipped every school party, function and prom because of alcohol. I had nothing to do with friends who drank. If I found out a friend was a drinker, our relationship changed. I had my priorities straight: Evangelism, teetotalism and no sex. This was before Christian bookstores were around to help you live the Christian life by buying cds and t-shirts.
My best buddy for years was a Catholic. There was beer in the house, and I knew it. It scared me. These good folks must have known what was going on with me, because I never saw it. But another friend had an alcoholic father, and I stayed far away from their house. I tried, I really tried, to live out what I was told about this. Being a good Christian with boozy friends was a tightrope.
Then I began to make friends in other churches. My friend Tom was an Episcopalian. They had alcohol in the house. Wine, which they pretended was classy. The deceivers. My friend Mack was a Methodist. His dad drank a beer after mowing. They had booze at his wedding reception. Mack knew I was alcohol phobic, and at my bachelor party he tricked me into drinking tea that he said was booze. Everyone laughed. He’ll be punished in the afterlife for his sins. Other friends were Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans and other denominations. They drank. My charismatic Catholic friends sang praise choruses, spoke in tongues and drank beer. There were Christians who drank. Everywhere. I couldn’t deny it. By the time I was starting college, I had begun to realize something wasn’t right about what I had been told.
From the deacon in the dugout to complete disillsuionment. The rest, as they say, is the history of ruined reality. I’m damaged goods. I was lied to, and I am tired of being lied to.
I guess we can close the book. There really isn’t much more that’s interesting. I was snuckered. The Bible didn’t say what I was told it said. There are millions of Christians who drink. Jesus made real wine. It’s what you are supposed to drink at communion. I was misled and there isn’t any other word for it. It is just one, big lie.
And now, we’re hearing it all again. I’ve heard lots of articulate people try to build a new case for teetotalism, and while I respect what they are saying, the Bible is too clear. They can make a very good practical argument, but they can’t get past Colossians 2:16-23. You can’t bind the conscience in these matters. It’s a fools errand, and life is too short to listen to it.
The Southern Baptist Convention cannot ethically, Biblically require its members or employees or seminary students to vote Republican, be pro-life, withdraw from public schools, believe young earth creationism or abstain from the use of alcohol as a beverage. They can urge these things as reasonable conclusions to the question of “How should a Christian live?” They can speculate on what Jesus would do. They can preach, teach and argue the point from scripture.
But they cannot ethically require the members of their churches to covenant to be teetotalers. They cannot ethically ask students to pledge to never have a glass of wine with dinner. They simply cannot require their employees or members to say that God wills total abstinence. They can’t say it. If they do, they are saying more than God says, and the conscience can only be bound by the Word of God. I don’t care who drinks and who doesn’t. I don’t want anyone to abuse alcohol. I want to be against all kinds of abuse of the body or anything God has made. But I cannot, and will not, and simply do not support this business of forcing people to adopt an explicit statement on teetotalism as a tenet of Christian ministry or community.
A pig dressed in a suit is still a pig. A lie called “a good witness” is still a lie. The Bible says what it says, and what anyone else says is on a different level entirely. Bind our conscience on loving one another. Bind our conscience on avoiding evil and addiction. Bind our conscience to be against every sin in scripture. But you cannot bind the conscience of Southern Baptists to teetotalism and say it’s God’s will and God’s word.
(Commenters: I’d love to hear your stories regarding Southern Baptists (and other sworn teetotalers) and the reality of alcohol use.)