PROHIBITION IN SOUTHERN BAPTIST CHURCHES
AND ITS IMPLICATION ON THE PRIESTHOOD OF BELIEVERS
Baptist theology is rooted in a deep conviction that men and women
of faith have access to their God, through the Holy Spirit. These
believers have an individual relationship with God. This view, known
as the priesthood of believers, is a foundational issue for the
Baptist faith. Since the beginnings of Baptist thought, this individual
freedom has been a basis of doctrine.
Because of this insistence on individual conscience, Baptists have
always rejected formal, binding creeds. Refusing to hold such creeds
as infallible, Baptists have suffered persecution. Banishments,
torture, and even executions fill Baptist history. However, despite
tremendous opposition from ecclesiastical, and state authorities,
Baptists held their beliefs.
Unfortunately, forsaking this historical freedom of conscience,
legalism and creedalism have become part of Southern Baptist thought.
One such example is the prohibition of alcohol. Many church leaders
expect each individual's conscience to conform to the collective
conscience. Individuals who do not fit the collective conscience
face excommunication (Hailey, 1992).
Biblical exegesis shows that the choice to drink or not drink is
a matter of conscience. In spite of this, Southern Baptists in the
United States, almost universally, have strict rules requiring abstinence.
Individual freedom is limited to the choice between church membership
Southern Baptists clothed their legalism in the title of covenants.
However, this insistence on abstinence is a direct contradiction
to the individual liberty that Baptists have always claimed. Creating
extrabiblical rules violates individual conscience.
In the history of Christianity, alcoholic prohibition is a relatively
new idea. In fact, alcohol was a normal part of life. In Colonial
America, the Puritans expected Christians to drink (Hearn, 1943).
In the 1700s, a Baptist minister created the formula for bourbon
whiskey (Hailey, 1992). During the 1800s, many Southern ministers
operated stills, and sold alcohol (Hearn, 1943). Parishioners who
owned stills would tithe their alcohol; and preachers' salaries
often included whiskey. All this began to change, however, as the
Temperance movement took shape (Hailey, 1992).
The idea that alcohol was dangerous was not new, though. In 600
B.C. Pathagoras noted, "drunkenness is an expression identical
with ruin." In 44 B.C., Cicero wrote, "a sensual and intemperate
youth hands over a worn-out body to old age," when he drinks
to excess. Centuries later, Muhammed declared, "there is a
devil in every berry of the grape" (Hearn, 1943). In fact,
Islam has a total prohibition of alcohol, proclaiming drinking a
sin (Parshall, 1989). Chaucer wrote in A.D. 1380, "character
and shame depart when wine comes in." Clearly, for thousands
of years, men have known of the dangers of alcohol. Knowledge about
the dangers of alcohol stopped few from drinking, however. Jesus
not only drank, his first miracle was turning water to wine; and
he used wine as a symbol of the salvation through his blood (Hearn,
1943; Jn 2; Lk 22:20).
For Southern Baptists, too, alcohol was a part of life. That is
until the Temperance movement began to infiltrate the religious
denominations in America. Finally, in 1896, the Southern Baptist
Convention officially denounced alcohol and asked that churches
excommunicate anyone who sold or drank alcohol. For the first time
in Southern Baptist history, drinking was considered immoral. The
success of this measure is debatable. A Southern Baptist study has
shown that in the 1990s, 46 percent of members drink alcohol (Hailey,
Investigation shows that although people knew of the danger in alcohol,
throughout history, Christian prohibition is a new, and rather American,
phenomenon. The decisions of churches to abstain came out of the
American Temperance movement. David Hailey, though supporting the
SBC's resolution, admits that biblical support for abstinence was
an after-thought. Christians had decided, for social reasons, that
alcohol was wrong. Only then, did they turn to the Bible to find
support (Hailey, 1992).
THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CASE FOR ABSTINENCE
There are legitimate reasons for Christians to abstain from alcohol.
Many people, throughout history, have chosen to abstain. The reasons
usually revolve around the anecdotal observations, noted in the
previous section. People have always been able to see the ruined
lives of those who abused alcohol. However, as science and modern
life have grown, new reasons have also appeared.
In the past, a town's citizens looked at drunks as a shame. However,
drunks were little more than a nuisance to their community. This
changed during the Industrial Age. Today, drunks pose a serious
threat to all around them. Estimates are that half of all automobile
fatalities are "alcohol-related." In addition, there are
approximately 18 million Americans suffering from alcohol abuse
(Koop, 1996). Of those 18 million, experts consider 10 million to
be "alcoholics." Alcohol is a cause in 30 percent of all
birth-defects, 67 percent of all homicides, and a significant factor
in most other types of crime (Hailey, 1992). Clearly, alcohol is
having many negative effects on American society.
One possible reason that alcohol abuse is so prevalent in America
is the alcohol industry's use of mass media. One study found that
in 1980 alone, alcohol producers spent more than $300 million on
advertising. In 1991, the Anheuser-Busch Company spent $144,540,000
advertising during televised sports alone. This almost unimaginable
advertising budget can only be justified if the advertising is creating
greater product sales. Evidently, these advertisements succeed,
not only because producers continue to spend this money, but also
because Americans now spend more on alcohol than on their household
electricity. Each year, Americans spend $70 billion on alcohol.
That is $17 billion greater than electricity, and $28 billion more
than on private education (Hailey, 1992).
For some Christians, a sense of love and justice leads them to abstain
from alcohol. Seeing alcohol's devastating effects on society, these
Christians feel compelled to act. Taking a strong stand against
alcohol and its consequences is a tangible way that they can demonstrate
their faith. These Christians believe that abstaining from alcohol
is the best, possibly the only, solution to this societal problem.
In addition, abstaining from alcohol guarantees that one will never
fall prey to alcoholism (Hancock, 1999).
As noted in
earlier, biblical support for abstinence came after the public demand
for abstinence. Once Christians decided to abstain, they looked
to the Bible to support their views. This, of course, is a poor
method of biblical exegesis, and usually leads to poor interpretation.
Unfortunately, as Christians sought abstinence in the Bible, they
often took verses out of context, or otherwise misled to support
First, when one examines the text, he or she will notice that the
Bible mentions alcohol quite often. In fact, the Bible mentions
alcohol 240 times (Hailey, 1992). Many of those references are favorable
toward wine. Verses such as Neh 2:1; Est 5:6; Job 1:13; Mt 9:17;
21:33; and 1 Tim 5:23 are all casual references to wine, showing
it as normal part of Hebrew life. Further, Dt 14:26; Ps 4:7; 104:15;
Hos 2:8; Pro 3:10; SS 1:2; 4:10; 7:9; and Is 25:6 are all positive
aspects of wine. Wine is a symbol of joy (Ps 104:15), God's blessings
(Pro 9:2,5), and a worship offering to God (Ex 29:40). Hailey goes
on to note that considering Jesus drank, (Lk 7:33,34; Mt 26:26-29)
and that he created wine (Jn 2:1-11), "we can derive no other
conclusion except that our Lord assigned positive qualities to wine"
However, some Baptists have tried to claim that the Bible requires
abstinence. Some even contest whether Jesus created alcohol at Cana.
Aubrey Hearn writes, "the view that Jesus supernaturally provided
a large amount of intoxicating wine for the wedding guests has against
it the general character and spirit of Jesus..." (Hearn, 1943).
However, Hearn fails to consider verse ten. "Everyone brings
out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests
have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."
The master could only be speaking about alcohol. If the wine were
non-alcoholic, it would not matter how much the people had to drink.
They would still be able to detect the cheaper wine. However, if
the wine were alcoholic, the early wine would dull their senses,
so that later, they would not notice the cheaper wine.
One Baptist writer, Glenn Knight, admits that Jesus created alcohol,
but claims, "the object of the miracle was to show his power
as the divine Son of God (verse 12) [sic, verse 11]" (Knight,
1955). Unfortunately, Knight, too, does not consider the whole story.
Verse eleven states, "this, the first of his miraculous signs,
Jesus performed.... He thus revealed his glory." While it is
true that this miracle showed his glory, that was not the purpose.
Verses three and four state, "when the wine was gone, Jesus'
mother said to him, They have no more wine.' Dear woman,
why do you involve me?' Jesus replied. My time has not come'."
Jesus' purpose in performing this miracle was to fulfill his mother's
demand. Jesus had no desire to show his divine nature. He clearly
stated that the time had not yet come to reveal himself.
Knight goes on to twist the Bible. He writes, "the parable
of the faithful and unfaithful servants (Luke 12:25-49) illustrates
exactly how drink destroys mental and moral alertness" (Knight,
1955). Knight seems to reverse the order of events here. In this
parable, the moral failure comes first. Then, the unfaithful servant
commits various sins, including drunkenness. The drunkenness was
a result of the servant's moral failure, not the failure as a result
Knight makes this same mistake in writing, "as early as the
days of Moses, a provision was made for total abstainers to be set
apart unto the Lord (Numbers 6:1-22)" (Knight, 1955). However,
the Nazarite vow, cited here, states that those set apart, must
abstain, not that abstainers were set apart. One could abstain and
not be set apart. Knight simply does not pay attention to the text.
Knight further misrepresents scripture by claiming, "almost
all the prophets.... Isaiah (5:11,12,13), Jeremiah, Hoseah, and
Amos.... called for abstinence..." (Knight, 1955). The truth
is that the prophets warned about alcohol, but did not call for
abstinence. Isaiah wrote in 25:6, "on this mountain the LORD
Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet
of aged wine the best meats and the finest wines." Amos
declared God would rescue Israel and that, "new wine will drip
from the mountains and flow from the hills.... They will plant vineyards
and drink their wine..."(Amos 9:13-14 NIV). Jeremiah and Hosea
wrote that a lack of wine was a sign of judgement from God (Jer
48:33; Hos 2:9), not a blessing. Hosea even wrote that having wine
is a blessing from God (Hos 2:8). Knight is mistaken when he claims
that the prophets called for abstinence.
As if these failures are not enough, Knight continues:
not specifically mentioned in the New Testament as a drink in
connection with the Lord's Supper. The drink is referred to
as the fruit of the vine.' By stretching our imagination
we may interpret this drink as wine in its fermented form. If
the drink of the Lord's Supper was the same as the Passover
drink, it cannot be argued that fermented wine was used by our
Lord as an element in the Lord's Supper. In fact, according
to Exodus 12:15 nothing fermented was to be eaten from the time
the Passover meal was eaten to the end of the Passover week....
So, we conclude that the Lord's supper does not require nor
permit the use of fermented wine for the ordinance nor for any
other occasion. (Knight, 1995)
that it was true that this drink was not fermented, there is no
plausible reason why this would not "permit the use of fermented
wine...for any other occasion." There simply would be no relationship
between the Passover drink and other occasions. However, Knight's
entire statement is utterly wrong.
Rabbi Abraham Bloch writes that there is a rabbinical teaching,
dating back to the first century before Christ, which requires that
Jews have four glasses of fermented wine as part of the Seder for
Passover (Bloch, 1978). Traditionally, "Kosher for Passover"
wine is used for the Seder. Only in recent decades have some Jews
begun using "Kosher for Passover" grape juice, because
they do not want to feel "tipsy" during the Passover (Strassfeld,
In fact, the verse that Knight cites, Ex 12:15, makes no mention
of fermentation. The verse prohibits bread with yeast, known as
hametz' (Holidays on the Net). Secondly, the prohibition against
hametz' does not pertain to grain alcohols, such as whiskey
Besides all this, Knight is wrong when he claims that "wine"
is never mentioned "in connection with the Lord's Supper."
Has Knight never read 1 Cor 11:20-22, where Paul specifically mentions
that some were getting drunk at the Lord's Supper?
Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, claims
that the Nazarite vow is proof that abstinence is God's ideal. He
states that the vow was the holiest vow an Israelite could take.
Since the vow required abstinence, Patterson believes that abstinence
must be the holiest state (Patterson, 1999). Patterson's view is
poorly reasoned, however.
Daniel Wallace writes, "If someone today wants to claim that
believers do not have the right to drink alcohol on the analogy
of a Nazarite vow (as some today are fond of doing), they also should
say that believers ought not to eat Raisin Bran" (Wallace).
After all, the Nazarite also vowed to abstain from raisins (Num
6:3). In addition, if someone believes that Christians should live
up to the Nazarite vow, then Christians should also abstain from
cutting their hair (Num 6:5) (Hailey, 1992). Since Patterson does
cut his hair, it may be assumed that he does not believe that long
hair is holier than short.
Patterson also states the proverb, "wine is a mocker; strong
drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise"
prohibits alcohol (Pro 20:1). He believes that this proverb says
all alcohol is unwise. He writes, "I read nothing of drunkenness'
in the passage" (Patterson, 1999). Does this mean that Patterson
believes Jesus was unwise, because Jesus drank? Certainly, most
Christians would not accept such an interpretation. The logical
interpretation is to realize that the term "led astray"
This tendency to pick parts of the Bible and ignore others is inescapable
when trying to fit the Bible with preconceived ideas. Another Baptist
author, John Gillespie, cites Rom 14:21, "It is better not
to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause
your brother to fall." Gillespie claims that this verse demands
that we abstain. His reasoning is that some will be offended or
turned away from the gospel if they see Christians engaging in the
sensual act of drinking. Consequently, Christians must abstain to
prevent this (Gillespie, 1955). However, Gillespie makes no mention
of a need for Christians to become vegetarians to avoid offending.
Many people are offended by meat eating. Some, such as members of
the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals directly
call on Christians to quit eating meat (PETA, nd). However, the
SBC has never called on Christians to abstain from meat. Perhaps
the SBC would take notice if there were a larger vegetarian movement,
more like the Temperance movement.
Gillespie goes on to state:
in the who's who of the [condemned] are those who make, advertise,
sell, buy, and use intoxicating or alcoholic beverages. They
range from moderate or limited users to excessive and unscrupulous
abusers. Their distinction lies in the fact that they are
the enemies of God.... (Gillespie, 1955)
this attack on even moderate drinkers is not limited to Gillespie.
Barret Duke, the Director of Denominational Relations for the SBC's
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), wrote in a sermon:
regarding alcohol and other drugs is clear. We can either give
in to fleshly lusts and disgrace our heritage, afflict our souls,
and shame our God, or we can abstain from every lust, including
the use of alcohol and other drugs, and enjoy a life of fulfillment,
happiness, and the approval of God. (Duke, 1997)
has become the SBC's officially recommended sermon concerning alcohol.
The SBC has taken the position that Christians who drink, even in
moderation are a "shame" to God, and even "enemies
of God." The true enemies of God are those who are not content
to accept God's Word; but rather, they must add laws, twist scripture,
and attack their brothers. When questioned by this author, though,
Duke did admit that he cannot absolutely say drinking alcohol is
a sin, despite the strong rhetoric of his sermon.
Because so many
Baptists have been privately ignoring the SBC's prohibition, the
Convention has begun a new campaign to promote abstinence. At the
1999 Convention meeting, in Atlanta, delegates were given "commitment
cards." These cards, which delegates were asked to sign, called
for alcoholic abstinence. Richard Land, president of the ERLC said
the purpose of the cards was to call on Southern Baptists to reaffirm
their position that abstinence is the only acceptable Christian
position. Land added that abstinence is one of the SBC's "core
beliefs." Land reasons that now, more than ever, Southern Baptists
must demand abstinence (Hastings, 1999).
be tragic if Baptists gave forth an uncertain sound on this
issue at precisely the moment in out nation's history when the
trauma and human suffering caused by alcohol and other drugs
has prompted a growing number of Americans to consider whether
the Baptists' historic total abstinence stance is not the wisest
choice after all. (Hastings, 1999)
While some may
be convinced that the abuse of alcohol makes abstinence the best
choice, the medical research shows that moderation may actually
be the best choice. The American Medical Association, American Heart
Association, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health,
Dr. C. Everett Koop, former US Surgeon General, and numerous other
researchers, have all stated that moderate drinkers live longer
than abstainers. These drinkers live longer because alcohol significantly
helps to prevent both heart disease and stroke. The largest study
ever performed concerning alcohol and heart disease found that moderate
use of alcohol could reduce the chance of sudden cardiac death (SCD)
by up to 79 percent. A quarter of a million Americans die of SCD,
every year (Manson, et al, 1999). According to the American Heart
Association, "any prohibition of alcohol would then deny such
persons a potentially sizable health benefit" (Pearson, 1996).
The Southern Baptists claim that "Christian love and justice"
demand abstinence, and twist the Bible to support that view. Is
the SBC then displaying love for the thousands of men and women,
at risk of death, whose doctors advise them to have a glass of wine
Richard Land, and the SBC, have begun this new abstinence campaign
because they have lost ground with their radical prohibitonist stance.
Land admits that today, more Southern Baptists are "social
drinkers," but he insists that most Baptists still find this
behavior unacceptable (Hastings, 1999).
Most of the Southern Baptists' claims for abstinence are taken out
of context, show poor scholarship, or are simply ad hominem'
arguments. The SBC, and some of its writers, show no shame in falsifying
scripture, and attacking moderate drinkers. While there are valid
reasons for a Christian to choose not to drink, many Southern Baptists
are not content with giving Christians the choice.
THE PRIESTHOOD OF BELIEVERS
The Definition and History
of believers is the scriptural belief that all believers are priests
able to deal directly with God. The Baptist theologian, J. L. Dagg,
defined the priesthood as, "individual responsibility,"
where, "every man feels that the cause of Christ is in some
measure committed to him." Dagg goes on to write, "Immense
mischief has resulted from the ambition of the clergy.... To counteract
its influence, Christ commanded his disciples, Be ye not called
Rabbi, for one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren'"
(Young, 1998). For Baptists, the priesthood of believers is the
idea that every individual has the right and responsibility to read
and interpret the Bible for his or herself.
Walter T. Conner, one of the most respected Southern Baptist theologians
wrote, "Let no man dare come between the individual believer
and his Lord. Every one of us shall give an account of himself to
the Lord (Rom 14:9-12), not to pastor, the priest, nor the bishop.
Before the Judge of all the earth, men stand on a common level"
(Young, 1998). This belief goes back to the beginnings of Baptist
Baptists in England wrote the First London Confession of Faith.
This confession stated that men should "follow their conscience
under God, not human authorities...." Later, the Standard Confession
of 1660 affirmed this liberty of conscience. The Second London Confession
of 1667 and 1668 contained the words that later were used in the
SBC's Baptist Faith and Message. "God alone is Lord of the
conscience, and hath let it free from the Doctrines and commandments
of men which are contrary to his Word, or not contained in it."
The Philadelphia Confession of 1742 was the first Baptist confession
in America. It reiterated the statement on liberty found in the
Second London Confession (Young, 1998).
Baptist theologians have always believed that liberty of conscience
was an individual right. William Tuck, in his book Our Baptist
Heritage wrote that the priesthood is "the right of each
person to interpret scriptures for him or herself." E. Y. Mullins
believed that this individual interpretation was the greatest contribution
Baptists had made to the world. George W. Truett said that this
individual interpretation is the "cardinal, bedrock principle
from which all our Baptist principles emerge" (Tuck, 1993).
Truett wrote, "The right to private judgment is the crown jewel
of humanity, and for any person or institution to dare to come between
the soul and God is blasphemous impertinence and a defamation of
the crown rights of the Son of God" (Young, 1998).
A founder of the Southern Baptist Convention, W. B. Johnson, defined
the priesthood as "the right of each individual to judge for
himself in his views of the truth as taught in the scriptures"
(Shurden, 1993). One of the earliest Baptist in America, John Leland,
fought for the right to individual interpretation of the Bible.
must judge for himself, and be fully convinced in his own mind,
and act accordingly, as each must give an account of himself
to God.... Religion is at all times and places, a matter between
God and individuals.... God does not force all to believe alike,
nor should we attempt it.... The New Testament churches were
formed by the laws of Jesus, and the acts of the apostles only,
and so shall it be with us. (Greene, 1969)
Herschel Hobbs wrote that the priesthood meant, "each individual...can
read and interpret the Scriptures as he is guided by the Holy Spirit
(Jn 16:12-15)" (Hobbs, 1964). However, Hobbs saw responsibility
in this right.
in religion] is not to be interpreted apart from the person's
obligation to society. But it does declare that primarily the
religious relationship is one between God and the individual
person.... On the social side of the religious life there is
nothing which can properly claim the right to destroy the freedom
of direct access which all people have to God.... This is true
whether the hindrance to direct access is a system of political
government or an authoritative church. (Hobbs, 1964)
J. Terry Young, wrote that "each person has the right of personal
interpretation of the Scriptures.... The priesthood of believers
means that the Bible is open to all people, not just a few who tell
the rest what to believe" (Young, 1998). Similarly, Walter
Shurden wrote, "Baptists have no formal or informal teaching
office that hands down correct biblical interpretation. Freedom
of interpretation by each individual believer is fundamental to
Baptist thought.... If believers are to be guided by the Holy Scripture,
believers must be free to interpret the Bible" (Shurden, 1993).
Baptists have done more than just write about freedom, though. Baptists
have fought for freedom. In 1612, Thomas Helwys book The Mystery
of Iniquity was the first English declaration of religious freedom.
Helwys wrote this book to King James I, demanding freedom. Instead,
King James sentenced Helwys to prison, where Helwys died (Woodfin,
1995). Two years later, in 1614, Leonard Busher wrote, Religious
Peace: Or a Plea for Liberty of Conscience. This book was also
a petition to James I; and Busher too spent the rest of his life
in prison (Handy, 1986).
Roger Williams advocated religious liberty in Massachusetts. In
1635, officials in the colony arrested Williams and planned to deport
him. He did not give up, though. Williams escaped and went on to
found the state of Rhode Island where he established the first Baptist
church in America. Some time after Williams established his church,
the judge who sentenced Williams, Governor Haines, traveled to Rhode
Island. Haines told Williams, "I must confess to you that the
Most Wise God hath provided and cut out of this part of the world,
for a refuge and receptacle for all sorts of consciences."
Unfortunately, this insight did not stop the Massachusetts colony
from a systematic persecution of Baptists (Greene, 1996). John Smyth,
William Carey and Baptists throughout the world faced ridicule and
persecution for their individual consciences (Young, 1998).
Not only did the persecution not stop Baptists, but by 1800, Baptists
had grown to be the largest denomination in the United States (Handy,
1986). The perseverance and success of the Baptists only proves
the truth in Tertullian's observation, "the blood of the martyrs
is the seed of the Gospel."
The priesthood of believers is unquestionably a foundation for Baptist
theology. For more than three and a half centuries, Baptists have
fought for the right of individual conscience. The Baptists base
their belief in the Bible. Verses like 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:4-6; 1 Tim
2:5; and Eph 3:11-12, all speak of our free access to God (Young,
1998). According to Robert Handy, there are 127 Baptists conventions,
in 142 countries, and religious liberty is a stated principle of
every one (Handy, 1986).
Once one understands that the priesthood of believers gives every
Christian the right to interpret the Bible for him or herself, that
person must wonder why the Southern Baptists demand abstinence.
All of the legitimate reasons for abstinence evolve from personal
convictions and personal biblical application. The Bible never demands
abstinence. Yet, Southern Baptists do demand it. At the same time,
they claim that they will make no rule that is not contained it
the Bible. The Baptist Faith and Message states:
is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the
doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His
Word or not contained in it. ("Religious Liberty,"
A required abstinence
from alcohol is not contained in God's Word. In fact, the Bible
directly gives Christians a choice. The Apostle Paul was very clear.
should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I
take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced
for something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink
or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Cor
do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with
regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or
a Sabbath day. These are just a shadow of the things that
were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col
him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable
matters.... The man who eats everything must not look down
on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything
must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.
Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master
he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord will make
him stand. (Ro 14:1-4 NIV)
Duke calls moderate drinkers a "shame" to God, is he not
judging God's servants? When John Gillespie refers refers to moderate
drinkers as the "enemies of God," is he not judging? Paul
wrote that the abstainer must not condemn the drinker. Paul wrote
that Christians must not judge each other "on disputable matters."
Are Southern Baptists not passing judgment?
There is a clear hypocrisy when Southern Baptists claim to believe
in individual interpretation, and yet they call for the excommunication
of anyone who disagrees with their interpretation (Hailey). Paige
Patterson claims that Baptists violate no one's conscience because
Christians have the choice whether or not to join the church (Patterson,
1999). However, by choosing to join, Christians subject themselves
to the established rules of the church. Is that what Paul meant
when he wrote, "do not pass judgment," or what the Baptist
Faith and Message means in stating churches will not make any
rule not found in the Bible? Paul did not say to leave your freedom
at the church door. The question is clear. Do Southern Baptists
have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves, or is their
choice limited to whether or not to be Southern Baptists?
Jeff Pool states that there is a "contradiction generated in
Baptist life by the clash between the almost fanatical Southern
Baptist insistence on the principle of religious liberty and the
corresponding failure to observe consistently and actualize the
principle in practice" (Pool, 1990). Many Baptists have begun
to realize that the stated belief in liberty and the practice of
the SBC do not always agree. The contradiction poses a difficult
dilemma for those who admit to it. In order to address the issue,
some have begun to redefine the priesthood. These Baptists maintain
the traditional view of individualism is unbiblical. Instead, they
propose, the Christian church must interpret the Bible congregationally
Several of the Baptists who subscribe to the congregational view
wrote a "Manifesto for Baptists." This manifesto, titled,
"Re-envisioning Baptist Identity," states:
all accounts of following Jesus that construe faith as a private
matter between God and the individual or as an activity of competent
souls who inherently enjoy unmediated, unassailable, and disembodied
experience with God. We further reject all identifications of
the priesthood of believers with autonomous individualism that
says we may do and believe what we want regardless of the counsel
and confession of the church. (Freeman, 1997)
denying soul competency, is a far departure from "Baptist"
theology. According to Pool, "soul competency in religion is
rightly understood as the distinctive belief of Baptists."
Pool writes that included in soul competency is "the notion
of freedom of conscience and expression within the Baptist communities
of faith themselves." Throughout history, "Baptists have
regarded their confessions as statements of consensus, but never
as documents completely or infallibly stating the faith of Baptists.
Certainly, Baptists have not regarded their confessions of faith
as creeds..." (Pool, 1990). Those who accept the Manifesto
forsake this history of Baptist thought. The Manifesto's writers
seek to use church confessions as creeds.
The Manifesto states that private interpretation is an "accommodation
to the individualism and rationalism of modernity [which] weakens
the church by transforming the living and embodied Christian faith
into an abstract and mythic gnosis (1 Tim 1:3-7)." Further,
the writers submit, "Scripture wisely forbids and we reject
every form of private interpretation... (2 Pet 1:20-21)" (Freeman,
Certainly, the biblical interpretations of the Manifesto writers
are open to dispute. However, there is a simpler and more definitive
way to examine their case. If Christians, throughout history, had
accepted the congregational view, Baptists would still be Catholics.
It was the individual interpretations of men, led by the Holy Spirit,
which brought about most church advancements. Would these Manifesto
writers say that Martin Luther had no right to come to his own conclusions
and disagree with the confession of his Roman Church? Should Roger
Williams not have fought his Congregationalist Church for the separation
of church and state? Was William Tyndale indeed a heretic for translating
the Holy Bible? If it were not for the individual interpretations
of the Reformers, Protestant theology may never have developed.
There are dangers in individualism. Individuals created many doctrines
that were truly heresy. Arius used individual rationale to deny
the deity of Jesus, and Pelagius denied original sin (Barry, nd;
Pohle, nd). However, a doctrine espoused by the majority is no less
fallible. There was a time when virtually every Christian believed
that the Bible supported slavery. The majority opinion did not make
their interpretation correct (Woodfin).
According to J. Terry Young, the recent shift by some to redefine
the priesthood is "a result of the concern for conformity of
belief and practice among Baptists, and is partly due to the emerging
issue of the authority of the pastor. The priesthood of the believer
is a threat, if not a roadblock, to an enforced conformity in belief
and an authoritarian position for the pastor" (Young). This
idea of forced conformity is not new. John Leland noted that once
people gain freedom from forced conformity, it becomes obvious that
many had always disagreed with church creed. The difference being
that they were finally free to disagree, whereas before, they kept
their disagreements private. According to Leland, forced conformity
is futile. Leland wrote that conscience and truth will win out,
over established beliefs. In the following quote, Leland refers
to any deviation from established belief as an error (Greene).
|It is certain
that the establishment of paganism, as truth, did not prevent
the error of Christianity; nor did the establishment of Rome
prevent the error of the reformation, in the sixteenth century,
nor the late revolution in papal countries, in the close of
the eighteenth century. The establishment of the English church
did not hinder the error of nonconformity, nor has the establishment
of Massachusetts stopped the rise of a number of errors and
sects in the state. (Greene)
have always been some who believed that individualism is depraved,
and that the majority mentality is sound. However, history is driven
by those who dared to think for themselves. Leland proposed, "the
right of private judgment and free debate, and the liberty of conscience,
are inalienable. These are not surrendered up to the general will,
by individuals, when they enter into society; but each retains them
in his own sovereign breast" (Greene). Every person can benefit
from the knowledge of others; but each has the responsibility to
decide for him or herself, what the Truth is according to scripture.
church history, Christians have been well aware of the potential
dangers of alcohol. The Bible warns about abusing alcohol. Many
famous characters in history have cautioned about the seduction
of alcohol. Most people had observed the effects of drunkenness.
Despite these facts, most Christians still saw alcohol as an enjoyable
part of life.
The Bible, though warning about alcohol, also praises alcohol. It
is a gift from God, given to man for our enjoyment. God blessed
men with a bountiful harvest of grapes. Those whose vineyards were
bare, were being judged. Alcohol was as an offering to God in the
Old Testament, and a symbol of salvation in the New Testament. Biblical
writers recorded that wine brought joy, and was used in celebrations.
This was true in America, until the social Temperance movement gained
power. During the nineteenth century, Americans were convinced that
alcohol was a scourge to the earth. Surely, God was opposed to this
evil, people insisted. Eventually, people sought to prove their
view, using the Bible.
Some people found good reason to abstain. The Bible was clear that
alcohol could be dangerous. Some biblical characters chose to abstain,
or even received commands, by God, to abstain. Finally, peoples'
consciences led them to believe that abstinence was best. Unfortunately,
some others were not content with these reasons, alone. These Christians
took their exegesis farther. Many insisted that the Bible demanded
abstinence, not merely allowed it. Some teetotalers made wild and
unsubstantiated claims, which their followers gladly accepted.
Within time, prohibition took over the country. Many churches and
denominations led the way in prohibition. Churches passed resolutions,
and signed covenants requiring abstinence. Churches excommunicated,
as sinners, those who dared to disagree. So ingrained was the idea
that alcohol was sinful, that it survived long after the prohibition
laws were repealed.
In the Southern Baptist Convention, the frenzy over prohibition
became so powerful that it swept aside the doctrine of liberty.
Churches no longer permitted men to interpret the Bible for themselves.
While Baptist churches still claimed individual freedom, in practice,
members either accepted church teachings, disobeyed in secret, or
left their church.
This situation pervaded for almost a century, with little question.
However, some began to dispute the church's right to demand abstinence.
They pointed out the inherent discrepancy between liberty and forced
conformity. Thus, a controversy developed in the Southern Baptist
Baptists have always been set apart for their strong belief in the
competency of the soul. Baptists are free to seek God's direction
for their individual lives. Each believer, led by the Holy Spirit,
is capable and released to seek God's will. However, for the past
century, the Southern Baptist Convention has been violating this
The demand for abstinence is not only an intrusion into soul competency,
it is biblically wrong. The Bible gives Christians the responsibility
to choose whether to drink, or not. There is no legitimate claim
that the Bible demands abstinence. The Bible gives the choice. It
is time that the Southern Baptist Convention, and its churches,
gave that choice back to members.
"Arianism," [article on-line] (accessed November 8, 1999);
available from http://www.csn.net/advent/cathen/01707c.htm; Internet.
P. The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy
Days (New York: Ktav Publishing, 1978), 128-129.
"Abstinence: The Biblical Choice," Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Prevention Sunday 1997 Suggested Sermon [sermon on-line] (accessed
October 25, 1999); available from http://www.erlc.com/Sundays/1997/
W. "Can Baptist Theology be Revisioned?" in Perspectives
in Religious Studies (Fall 1997).
R. "The Delusions of the Deceived" in The Christian
Case for Abstinence (New York: Association Press, 1955).
J. "Beverage Alcohol and the Christian Faith," Search
Perry. professor of discipleship, interviewed by author, New Orleans,
LA, July 26, 1999.
"Commitment Card at the Center of SBC Drug Task Force Report"
[article on-line] (Baptist Press: June 11, 1999); available from
Hearn, C. Aubrey
Alcohol the Destroyer (Nashville: Sunday School Board, 1943).
the Net, "Passover" [article on-line] (accessed October
15, 1999); available from http://www.holidays.net/Passover/seder.html;
The Book of Jewish Practice (Behrman House: West Orange,
G. "Heroes at Drinking Wine," in The Christian Case
for Abstinence (New York: Association Press, 1955), 64.
Koop, C. Everett.
Dr. Koop's Self-Care Advisor: The Essential Home Health Care
Guide for You and Your Family (n.p.: Time, 1996).
E., M.D., et al. "Light Alcohol Use may Protect Against Sudden
Cardiac Death," American Heart Association [article on-line]
(accessed October 15, 1999); available from http://www.americanheart.org/Whats_News/
AHA_News_Releases/08-30-99_1-comment.html; Internet. Koop, C. Everett,
M.D. Dr. Koop's, 287. American Medical Association [articles on-line]
(accessed October 20, 1999); available at http://pubs.ama-assn.org/;
The Cross and the Crescent: Reflections on Christian-Muslim Spirituality
(Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1989).
to Bruce Sabin, 25 October 1999, transcript in the hand
of Bruce Sabin.
A., M.D., Ph.D., "Alcohol and Heart Disease," [article
on-line] (accessed October 20, 1999); available from http://www.
Asked Questions" [article on-line] (accessed October 10, 1999);
available from http://www.peta-online.org/faq/index.html.
Michael. The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary (New
York: Harper and Row, 1985).
"The Bible and Alcohol" [article on-line] (accessed October
15, 1999); available from http://www.bible.org/docs/soapbox/ alcohol.htm;
ed., The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland (New York:
Arno Press, 1969), 248-249.
T. "The Principles of Religious Freedom and the Dynamics of
Baptist History," in Perspectives in Religious Studies
What Baptists Believe (Nashville: Broadman, 1964).
"Pelagius and Pelagianism," [article on-line] (accessed
November 8, 1999); available from http://www.csn.net/advent/cathen/
Pool, Jeff B.
"Baptist Infidelity to the Principle of Religious Liberty,"
in Perspectives in Religious Studies (Spring 1990).
Liberty," Baptist Faith and Message [article on-line] (accessed
November 6, 1999); available from http://www.sbc.net/bfm17.cfm;
B. The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, GA:
Smyth and Helwys, 1993).
Powell. Our Baptist Heritage (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys,
"Lessons of our Past for the Future: The Spirit of Freedom,"
in Baptist History and Heritage (July 1995).
T. "Baptists and the Priesthood of Believers," in the
Theological Educator (Spring, 1998).