December 1, 2020

Mohler and Moore on Southern Baptists, Southern Seminary and Alcohol: A meandering response to the forum

Steve McCoy at Reformissionary, recently linked to a forum at Southern Seminary where Drs. Russell Moore and Al Mohler discussed the seminary’s position on the use of alcohol. (Total abstinence is a requirement for teachers and students. Violators will be dismissed.) I welcome this forum, and hope it signals a discussion of the topic.

Let me be straightforward: I believe it is time for conservative evangelicals (including Southern Baptists) to express their opposition to the abuse of alcohol through other means than requiring teetotalism in church and denominational covenants. I believe such a required abstinence simply cannot be sustained Biblically, forces thousands of believers into unnecessary, unloving crisis of conscience and hinders our ability to share the Gospel. I in no way believe that we should promote the use of alcohol, but I do believe that for churches to require abstinence as a requirement of membership is simply, Biblically, missionally wrong. It is a matter for individuals and families to decide, not for the church or its institutions to require.

The forum was recorded, and I posted the following response to it at the BHT.

NOTE: Daniel Whitfield’s survey of the Biblical material on alcohol is very helpful to this discussion. (Thanks Daniel)

pub.jpgLet me say, first of all, how much I appreciate this kind of forum taking place. When I was at SBTS, this discussion would not have occurred, and one of the reasons I love, appreciate and respect Dr. Mohler is his openness to exactly this kind of leadership. The forum is open, the questions are not staged, and the entire forum has intellectual and spiritual seriousness.

Further, Dr. Mohler does an excellent job both reminding his audience of history, being fair to other traditions and seriously engaging scripture. He is honest about his biases, and he is up front about his institutional and ecclesiastical commitments. What more can anyone ask? I applaud Dr. Mohler for being willing to go on record, as a Southern Baptist, with this forum.

Now, I raise a question: Will other Southern Baptists be able to go on the record, with differing positions, and not experience the shutting of- as Mohler estimates- “99%” of ministry opportunities in the SBC? Will there be a discussion? Will there be a conversation? Or, once again, will the conservative leadership of the denomination dictate what will be the essential position of the SBC on a non-essential matter? Is this an issue where we can discuss who we are and what we believe, or will those deviating from the position of total abstinence as a Southern Baptist essential for church membership and leadership be handed the script and told what lines to speak?

In other words, such a wonderful forum invites younger SBC leaders to truly dialog. Doesn’t it? We aren’t dealing with a confession or covenantal or Biblical essential. We are talking about a cultural distinctive of some Baptists. If we can’t have some diversity on that, without shutting doors of ministry, then God help us.

One of the most interesting things in this discussion is Mohler’s description of the well-known “Church Covenant” used by many Southern Baptist Churches for years. I do not know the history of this covenant, though I suspect it comes from one of the early “Church Manuals” published by the Sunday School board and used by pastors of churches large and small. What I do know is that the covenant is not a confession and I have never in my experience seen a Baptist Church use it as a standard before members were received. Most who do use it, do exactly as Mohler describes: they posted it publically and recited it from time to time. But when and where did a person coming to make a profession of faith in a Southern Baptist Church discover that their conscience was being bound by a church doctrine saying they promised total abstinence from the sale and use of alcohol as a beverage?

I googled “Southern Baptist Church Covenant” and here is the first hit. Notice that the covenant of this church, like that of many, many churches, is NOT the covenant Mohler refers to, but rather a covenant for this church- minus the section on alcohol. When Mohler says that Southern’s position on alcohol is an expression of the beliefs of SBC churches and of the church covenant in those churches, I believe he is right…in a general sense. But the fact is that thousands of SBC churches, pastors and members do not share this view, or at the least, do not see any purpose in binding the conscience of church members in the way the old church covenant’s prohibitionist language did.

Here are some of my thoughts as I listened to the forum. They are in some remnant of sequential order, but nothing very helpful if you didn’t hear the forum itself.

1. One cannot but be struck by the pervasive attitude that the Bible’s plain teaching is a problem for the way the SBC has traditionally done church and the Christian life. There is a kind of “Luuuuu-ccy. You’ve got some ‘splaining to do,” in all of this. “How are we going to deal with the fact that, when people actually read the Bible without our SBC culture blocking out passages that bother us, they will figure out we’ve said a bunch of stuff that’s just not so?”

Daniel Whitfield’s survey of Biblical teaching on the Bible and Alcohol would have been very helpful in this discussion, particulary when it became obvious that the Bible’s total teaching on the subject was not going to be brought up, and the focus on the New Testament era cultural practices was going to be tight. Simple verses like Psalm 104:14-15, which any reader can understand as teaching God’s creative giving of wine to make the heart glad, are the source of real consternation when most everything you’ve said about alcohol was the preface to talking about alcoholism.

2. It was repeatedly stated that total abstinence from beverage alcohol is a good testimony. How and why is this true? Please be careful here, because I don’t want “testimony” to be redefined into “when people don’t think you drink.” Dr. Mohler asked a Lutheran lunch partner to not have a beer because he didn’t want someone to suspect he might be drinking. If THAT is the testimony you mean, then let’s admit we have redefined testimony to mean something other than “giving evidence of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Let’s go ahead and say that there are some people who don’t want anyone they think is a good Christian to drink, and we don’t want to offend them. That is making a concession, but it isn’t giving a testimony. It is recognizing a weak conscience, and it may be the right thing for some people to do. But it’s not a testimony. It’s a kind of reputation in some places in American fundamentalism.

In many places, asking someone not to have a beer in your presence is a bad testimony.

3. There is considerable discussion of teetotalism as a way of working out our witness “in our time and place and culture.” This isn’t unreasonable, but the Biblical teaching on the goodness of wine as a gift from God is not culturally defined. How much education we give to the use of alcohol is culturally necessitated. How we deal with ethical issues involving drinking is culturally influenced. But the Biblical teaching isn’t culturally bound.

I have no problem with anyone saying they believe abstinence is best in their situation, but you cannot move the Bible with you to that new position. You have to say, “I’m going beyond what the Bible teaches, but for reasons that make sense in this situation.” That’s fine. It obviously runs the risk of obscuring the Gospel, but it isn’t nonsense.

4. When we talk about doing something out of responsibility to the Body of Christ, we have to say that the Body of Christ can be wrong, poorly taught or in error. Those ministers who refused to help Dr. King and prompted the letter from Birmingham jail were refusing to join him out of a sense of responsibility to their churches. They were wrong. In the same way, if I refuse a brother in any way because he has a glass of wine with dinner…I’m wrong.

It was interesting to me that the culprits of this forum were bloggers (of course) and “immature,” “juvenile” individuals who were spitting in the eye of their fundamentalist roots. I know those people. I know that behavior. But to say that such a description captures the problem and defines why Southern Baptists need to continue their stress on abstinence from alcohol is overkill. The fact is that thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Southern Baptists drink. Everyone knows that who has been in SBC circles at all. They don’t drink to spite anyone at church. They drink because they consider it a modest pleasure. Period. If we refuse to consider these persons “good” Southern Baptists and describe that policy as being respectful to the Body of Christ, we’re engaging in doubletalk. It’s the fact that a big chunk of the Body of Christ reads the Bible and says moderate use of alcohol is ok. What’s your responsibility now? To talk them out of that position? To tell them they are out of the church if they don’t stop?

5. What was the liberty issue for Paul? It wasn’t passing on a beer he could have had in a Corinthian home. It was eating or not eating meat offered to idols, a considerably different thing than the liberty to have a drink of an adult beverage. What was at stake? The whole matter of Christ’s Lordship over all things AND the conscience of the weaker brother.

Am I supposed to believe that every time a weaker brother is offended, I give up what offends him? I mean, so many people are offended at what I read, watch, wear and do that I won’t have much left to pass the time.

6. Mohler’s argument that wine in the New Testament wasn’t the same as the specialty drinks of today’s liquor industry is a point well made. It doesn’t change what the Bible says about alcohol as a good gift of God that can be abused, but it is a point well made. As I said, we do need education and guidance that responds to changes in culture.

When he says that today’s drinks would have been considered “poison” in the first century and that today’s drinks are designed for addiction, I can’t agree, but he may be right. It does appear they had plenty of problems with alcohol in the first century world, and if abstinence made as much sense as a response to abuse to them as it does to these Southern Baptists, the New Testament writers aren’t letting us know.

7. The statement that boastfully recommending your favorite wine or beer is immature and unloving to the Body of Christ is interesting. There are contexts where this could be true. I don’t really have a problem with saying haughtiness and immaturity- about anything- is undesirable. The same is true when Moore says we should be willing to give up anything to further the influence of the Gospel, and that the NT doesn’t give us unfettered liberty to do whatever we might be permitted to do in every situation. I agree.

But relating these negative personality characteristics to all Southern Baptists who might want wine with dinner is sheer caricature and misrepresentation for rhetorical purposes. If this is how we are going to discuss the issue- by characterizing the other parties as “immature” and “juvenile” libertines- then we must not have very much substantial to say. The whole portrayal of the Southern Baptist who might drink sounded like Spring Break was in mind.

Further, Mohler suggests there is a “new kind of fundamentalism” that says yes to everything. All resemblances to a “New Kind of Christian” are purely coincidental. Emerging Church, anyone? Wine? Cigar? Mclaren book? (I’m kidding. I’m kidding. Everyone knows Calvinists are the big boozers 🙂

It appears to me that Mohler is possibly addressing men like Mark Driscoll, who included a brewer/tavern owner in “Radical Reformission,” or Joe Thorn’s “Theology Pub” ministry. Again, bloggers get mentioned prominently. If there are SBC blogs that are pro-alcohol in an immature, boastful way, I’ll take his word for it, but I don’t know them. The discussion of alcohol I read on blogs is moderate and mature. Is there an awareness not everyone joins in? Sure, but is that a really big deal?

If men willing to take the Gospel into pubs and have a beer with people are now infecting the SBC with liberty over love, and the spirit of the Pharisee who thanked God he wasn’t like his home church, then the missional values of the SBC have truly become incomprehensible to me. Many younger leaders in evangelicalism and in the SBC have taken the Jesus of the Gospel seriously. They’ve read their Bibles. They’ve looked at their culture. They’ve done things lots of us were told we couldn’t do, but we knew Jesus did. They may not look like the slate of speakers at the Jerry Vines Evangelism Conference, and they may be a bit generationally uncomfortable to men like the current SBC leaders, but these men are missionaries to the culture and they love the church. Labelling them as some kind of threat to “unity” that is based around moralism, Southern culture and stale prohibitionism is a wrong judgment.

The picture at the beginning of this post is of C.S. Lewis’s favorite tavern, The Eagle and The Child. How many SBC-type conservative evangelicals, in discovering the great apostle to the twentieth century (and beyond) were surprised to discover that Lewis enjoyed a pint with his friends? And how many, looking at their own background and church culture, realized that Lewis would have been considered a “poor testimony” for doing so. Of course, Lewis was simply enjoying one of the many good gifts of creation as he enjoyed a deeper gift- friendship. He would have had little to say about those whose fundamentalism decided that alcohol must be fought with teetotalism rather than owned under Christ’s Lordship with the light of right enjoyment. I’m sure he would have said nothing to anyone who sought him out at the pub and ordered a glass of water to enjoy as they talked.

The problem, however, is this: that conservative evangelical knows that Lewis is practicing a more faithfully Biblical way of approaching God’s gifts through his enjoyment than the Christian who maintains that obedience to God demands abstinence. And so the dilemma remains, and I imagine will remain, for a very long time to come.

I appreciated this forum and Steve McCoy linking it, I will have more to say at in the future.


  1. BHT fellow Josh Strodtbeck (LCMS) said this:

    Beer is about as old as wine.

    I think what Mohler is labelling as immature bloggery is partially due to a resurgence of interest in the Reformation period as such as opposed to the later movements that somehow gave rise to the Baptists. Part of that is learning about the culture in which the Reformation thrived and which it later shaped–and the fact is that taverns, vineyards, wineries, pubs, and breweries were a big part of that culture. And then you have people who are more engaged with today…and neither kind of person is particularly interested in maintaining this bizarre historical aberration of teetotalism.

    After all, even Puritans had brandy, beer, gin, and wine at the first Thanksgiving.

  2. Hey, I just got in on this discussion over at Reformissionary today! Monk, as always a good essay. I to am glad that the issue is being talked about.

    I HAVE come across a lot of immaturity from believers on this issue. This is what alarms me: a sort of, “Hey we’re free in Christ, so let’s steamroll everyone else who’s got a different perspective” attitude that I’ve witnessed. It’s like those overly-sheltered Christian kids who finally get out of the house and go a bit wild trying to catch up for all those years of being held back.

    I feel like my role in the conversation will be as one acknowledging every person’s freedom in Christ, but encouraging those same individuals to use that freedom wisely.

    Interesting, I’m preaching John 2 in a couple of weeks (wedding at Cana) and alcohol will definitely be a part of that message. What a challenge to purely present God’s heart on the matter!

  3. I don’t have data immediately at hand to support this hunch, but that’s why they call it a hunch. Southern Baptists have historically occupied lower rungs on the socio-economic ladder. But, like many religious groups, SBs have experienced maturation and they are climbing in SES (socioeconomic status). Particularly in suburbs around large cities, many Southern Baptists are affluent, educated and have taken on the dispositions associated with upper middle and upper classes.

    This is why the PCA grows at the expense of Southern Baptists. I hypothosize that you could look at any large Southern town and where you have Baptist megachurches or even large churches (not yet mega), you will have thriving PCA churches that grow and grow from the influx of Baptist refugees.

    Look at RUF, which is in some respects the ministry to Southern Baptists which turns them into Reformed folks. Once they get a taste of the cognitive emphases in RUF (and the Reformed tradition more broadly) and the grace, including the freedom to drink in moderation, these young, affluent, educated Southern Baptists realize they’ve found a new home. It seems nigh impossible to return to preaching that doesn’t include an emphasis on theology, and does emphasize instead altar calls and behavioral legalism.

    The PCA will increasingly benefit if these total abstinence demands are enforced. The class dispositions associated with higher SES fairly determine it. Upper middle and upper class people really dislike gauche, and it’s gauche to be believe in total abstinence in those circles.

    Just some hunching from a sociologist. I’m not arguing what Scripture says or what people should do, I’m simply offering a hunch based on my reading of the social aspects of religion.

  4. Three things nailed this for me:

    1. Mohler admitted near the beginning that he couldn’t make the case for abstaining from scripture.

    2. His comment: “I can assure you of this: if you are associated with the use of beverage alcohol, I think I dare exaggerate not to say that 99% of all doors of ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention will be closed to you.”

    So he is apparently advocating throwing out Sola Scriptura (1) and letting tradition rule instead (2). So BIBLICAL TRUTH is no longer the deciding factor on whether a belief is valid or not and 99% of SBC churches aren’t following the Bible. No surprise there.

    The final point was his example of attending the mixed denominational luncheon where a Lutheran ordered a beer with his meal. Mohler asking him not to because it might harm Mohler’s reputation if someone saw that is just the final straw. Apparently, he’s more concerned about his reputation than anything else. And, of course, that’s what Jesus would have us do, right?

  5. want to push the envelope? 🙂

    Eucharistic meditation, September 11

  6. If the Reformed drink and Baptists abstain, then what does a Reformed Baptist do?

  7. Drinks.
    Not all Baptists have this issue. SBC mostly, and then Indy fundy types.

  8. I’ve just written an article about what could happen to Mohler and the SBC if Al changed his mind and came out against prohibition. It may ruin his career, but it may also change the SBC for the better at the same time.

    Please understand, though, that I am an Australian Presbyterian who has never darkened the door of an SBC church in my life – so feel free to correct me if need be:

  9. GL, that’s a brilliant analysis you posted. Seriously. You make some great points there. I’m a Southern Baptist pastor with lots of Reformed Baptist friends and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there.

  10. “It seems nigh impossible to return to preaching that doesn’t include an emphasis on theology, and does emphasize instead altar calls and behavioral legalism.”

    This is one of the reasons that I’m considering joining the PCA, even though I was raised a Southern Baptist. I guess I just got tired of the endless moralism, altar calls, legalism, etc. that takes place in many SBC churches and a lot of SBC culture. At the PCA church I go to, there aren’t ridiculous things such as insistence on total abstinence from alcohol, altar calls, etc. Instead, I hear the Gospel and God’s grace. I just don’t think I could go back to an SBC church regularly anymore. I think you’re definately on spot with your observation that the PCA will increase in membership from people getting tired of the problems with the SBC.

  11. From my experience, many of the writers who have had the greatest Christian influence on me are generally those who drank. G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Rich Mullins spring to mind.

    I think the “witness” line of reasoning is at the root of the problem. There’s nothing good about drinking per se. But I think the line of reasoning that associates anything abnormal with “bad witness” is exceedingly dangerous. What is the difference, really, between saying “we don’t like this, so we’re kicking you out of church if you don’t agree” and the Pharisees’ legalism? They may differ in degree, but the spirit is the same.

  12. Brian Pendell says

    Funny … I’ve been in SBC churches for 27 years and I don’t recall an issue being made about this. Alcohol abuse was frowned on, yes, but I don’t recall anyone in any of the churches I attended in multiple states on either coast insist on it as a requirement for membership. Some members did drink in moderation, and they were neither condemned nor did they advertise. When I joined my last SBC church, there were only two membership questions: Are you a believer? And have you undergone adult baptism?

    Of course, I later withdrew when they started down the PDL path but the point remains.

    But then again, I was always a layperson. I never tried to go to an SBC seminary and, if what happened above is any indication, I have no intention of doing so.


    Brian P.

    PS. Baptist churches I have attended:

    Columbia Baptist Church, Falls Church, VA
    Fairfax Circle Baptist Church, Vienna, VA
    Orangeburg Baptist Church, Modesto, CA
    Rose Drive Baptist Church, Yorba Linda CA
    and one other in Las Vegas I can’t remember clearly.

    But anyway I never even heard alcohol so much as mentioned during a sermon or even during college youth group, except to hear “binge drinking bad”, which is a perfectly scriptural stance to take. — BDP.

  13. Oh how this brings silly memories to mind. My grandfather was an SBC preacher in the hellfire-and-brimstone mold for years. He and my grandmother are strict, unwavering Baptists and are complete teetotalers. Every time they came to town for a visit, my Dad had to rush to throw out all the beer and any beer related boxes/bottles/etc. My Dad has never had a drinking problem–he hasn’t been drunk since he was in college and even then only 2 or 3 times–but liked to drink a beer or two in the evenings when he got home from work. Still, this would have been seen as a mortal sin by my grandparents.

    Is drinking bad? No. The silly worn-out oft-repeated arguments of “the wine Jesus drank didn’t have alcohol” or “the wine back then didn’t have as much alcohol as drinks nowadays” or “they had to drink wine because the water was bad” are all ludicrous. Wine has been made the exact same way as today for literally thousands of years. It is the same stuff we drink today, and a glass of wine has as much alcohol as a shot of liquor. And while I’m not as sure about the argument about the water, the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus was a drunkard thanks to his spending a lot of time at vinous feasts (such as the wedding at Cana) seems to suggest that Jesus was a fan of wine. Drinking isn’t sinful, being a drunk is.

    Finally, as the the Eucharist, since I was raised Southern Baptist I always took grape juice and broken crackers for the communion–and then only on occasional Sundays. The church I now attend does the Eucharist every Sunday with bread and real wine. I find that it makes me feel that I can take the rite much more seriously and thus spend far more time meditating upon the mystery of the sacrament. Sipping juice or wine and nibbling on crackers or a bit of bread isn’t why we do it–we do it because it has the mysterious ordination of God. Meditating upon this makes it a far more powerful thing for me, and the Baptist aversion to alcohol in any form shortchanges its congregants in my opinion.

  14. I seem to remember seeing a study at some University that placed the alcoholic content of fermented grape juice, which would have been the wine of the biblical world at roughly 12 to 13%, thus making it more potent than your average beer at roughly 6%. Another thing that is bothersome to me is the way that he wishes to define a christian by what we dont do, instead of what we do do.

  15. G.K. Chesterton, in “Orthodoxy”, makes a wonderful case for moderation in all things (except moderation, of course) and includes in his writing, “that the proper form of thanks to [that which is good] is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them…”

    Well done G.K. .

  16. Wyman,
    You’re my new best friend. When you call anything I say or do “brilliant” I’ll follow you the rest of my days.

    Actually, I think David C’s “three points that nailed me” were spot-on. I hadn’t thought of it that way until I read his comment.

    Related but different– if SBC pastors that are hugely focused on evangelism really mean they want to be all things to all people, and if they agree that Scripture doesn’t forbid alcohol in moderation, why not ease up on this non-Scriptural total abstinence pledge in the effort to reach people?

    The scenario that Mohler mentioned, and that David C. highlighted in his comment above– where Mohler asked a Lutheran not to order a beer– I read that and what springs to mind is Galatians 2 and Paul opposing Peter to his face. The nostrums of men should never hold sway over the Word of God.

  17. I was raised Methodist – a denom famous for militant teetotaling – but both Methodist grandparents had no problem with drinking beer or ordering wine with dinner when we went out.

    I suppose it’s along the lines of GL’s analysis (which is spot on I think). When Methodists were into abstention it came about because Wesley founded something close to an early version of AA to help the largely poor/underclass folks he preached to support each other in overcoming excessive drinking. That trend culminated in Carrie Nation and other women from poor/blue collar background getting fed up with their husbands drinking their pay and being abusive drunks. As Methodists became more affluent, this backdrop changed and most ignored the anti-alcohol part of the tradition. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find it within the UMC anymore. In fact, last time I was home, my parents’ church served real wine at communion.

    Of course, I’ve become an Episcopalian, so the whole abstinance thing is a non-issue for me now. But, whenever I need to sooth that lingering bit of my Methodist conscience, I recall not only the bible passages indicating that Jesus drank wine, but that Jesus was a practicing Jew. This means that He drank at least 4 full glasses for wine during the Passover Seder every year – I’ve been to a few of these, and believe me, by the end of the evening, even with a big meal accompanying the drinks, you are still a bit buzzed. Plus, He probably took part in the revelry that marks Purim (where it’s considered a blessing to get so drunk that you can’t distinguish between ‘blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘cursed is Hamon’).

  18. Brian Pendell says

    With respect, Carol, the Purim bit is something I’ve always had trouble with .. nowhere in the Bible proper is drunkenness anywhere encouraged. Alcohol in moderation, yes, but not falling down drunk.

    I think it was partly because of traditions like these nullifying the actual Word itself is why Jesus was at such continual loggerheads with the Pharisees. I’m not convinced that Jesus followed their example in this case, nor am I convinced we should either.


    Brian P.

  19. Brian,

    If anything this sort of thing exists precisely as a counterweight to the sort of excesses the Pharisees portrayed in the NT were prone to. In fact, I suspect that Pharisees of that sort would be rather likely to look down on those celebrating Purim to the max. (Afterall, if the Pharisees did get excessively drunk at Purim while Jesus abstained, He could have called them on it when they accused Him of being a drunkard.)

    But you’ll be relieved to know that while this is part of the tradition, it is rarely practiced to such an extent. The ‘blessing’ is hyperbole, like much in Mishna, to get a point across. And I think a bit of that point is that the occasional exuberant celebration is okay.

    You see, there are plenty of verses in the bible and sections in the Talmud discussing the foolishness of drunkenness. The traditions surrounding Purim and Torah study (often ended by everyone sharing a shot of brandy) are a balance to the tendency to make abstinance and rigid sobriety an essential virtue.

    There are a lot of laws and traditions in Judaism, but they often tend to offset one another, forcing moderation. I think this is a good example of that. It may also be one reason that one of the groups with the lowest incidence of alcoholism is Jews. Could be because they grow up thinking about it as somewhat normal – when drinking is NOT forbidden fruit or a rite of passage to adulthood, overindulging is not so tempting – St. Paul said something along those lines about the law ‘causing’ sin…(Plus seeing ‘Aunt Ruth’ get a bit too much at Passover and ramble on and on and on makes the whole getting drunk thing seem a LOT less cool by the time you’re a teenager ;O )

  20. GL
    As a PCA pastor, I find your insight of great encouragement! I was able to walk away from a legalistic background…

    One of the best books on the subject of grace, if you haven’t read it, is “Transforming Grace,” by Jerry Bridges. If all my SBC friends would read and apply the truths in that book….