Introductory Thoughts

I had originally decided to not post this piece in hopes that the alcohol issue would eventually die, but after reading this article, I feel it incumbent upon me to write this article. It’s a bit lengthy, but I can assure you it was not written in haste. Over a month has transpired since Greensboro, and the ultra-conservatives who have joined the blog world have made it their agenda to address the alcohol issue. Consider what Brad Reynolds said on his blog:

On a serious note, beginning this Wednesday, I will be posting some articles written by different leaders in the SBC, which may be very insightful to the ethical dilemma we are facing. I believe this issue deserves our attention and sober contemplation. Therefore I have asked the leaders of our Southern Baptist agencies, our current president, and two past presidents who helped lead the resurgence to write an article; each bringing their own clarion insights to this hot-button issue.

He then goes on to mention folks like Dr. Akin, Dr. Fish, Dr. Patterson, Dr. Phil Roberts, and Dr. Vines as already agreeing on this issue. We have already heard from Drs. Patterson and Akin, so there should be nothing new here. Furthermore, I do not expect to hear any more convincing arguments from the new contributors either (and I have heard a bunch already).

I am writing this article to argue that the alcohol resolution number five is a pseudo-demarcation line in the SBC. Over the past month, there has been a plumb line drawn in the shifting sands of the SBC over the issue of alcohol consumption, splitting conservatives over a nonessential matter. As you have seen SBC presidents and key SBC politicians are weighing in on the issue. However, I find it incredibly ironic and hypocritical that those in the SBC who are against this issue do not have the liberty to speak out against it. Just this week I heard of an SBC professor who publicly wrote his disagreement with the resolution. The response from some was, “What are you doing? Don’t you know that you can get fired for this?” The article was then removed. Furthermore, strong conservatives are being black-balled by the SBC because of their position on this issue. Within the accepted SBC ultra-conservatives you will find monolithic thought and one absolute interpretation. The scholars and pastors who disagree don’t chime in because, 1), they think this issue is silly and don’t want to, and 2), they can’t because the consequences they face in doing so are simply not worth it. The SBC is naïve and bullish to think that healthy discussion is possible when such suppression and domineering occurs on the one hand, and sneering and baseless rhetoric on the other. Furthermore, I have read dozens and dozens of comments from bloggers who are for this resolution, and after hearing their tone and sarcasm, I find myself distancing myself from those I actually agree with in practice. I would rather associate with a humble, godly brother who drinks wine than 99% of those making the abstinence arguments on the blogosphere. Call be drunk or label me liberal, but I have seen Jesus honored and the Bible expounded (that being ALL the Biblical data, not just the ones that supports one’s position) by my brothers in the moderation camp in a way that I simply have not among the total abstinence proponents.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times when it is prudent to draw a line in the sand over certain issues. The question is whether the dividing line is legitimate and carries sufficient grounds for doing so. In the case of the alcohol resolution, the case for moderation and total abstinence are both biblically argued, and BOTH can be reasoned and explained biblically. The rub comes when one position seeks to trump the other as in this case the total abstinence crowd (BTW I am a teetotaler) has done with the moderation crowd.

Why Demarcation?

So what is the point in having such a demarcation? According to Merriam Webster, a demarcation is “a delimiter which seeks to fix or define the limits or determine the boundaries of an entity.” It is absolutely necessary to define limits and determine boundaries as was shown in the ministry of Paul. Clearly there were some who Paul admonished that believers should “mark” off and avoid fellowship with, including false teachers and those who have “shipwrecked their faith” or “swerved from the truth” (see Rom. 16:17-18; Gal. 1:6-9; Phil. 3: 17-19; 2 Thess. 3:6-12; 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 6:3-5; 2 Tim. 2:16-18; 3:1-9; 4:14-15; Titus 1: 10-14; 3:10-11). There were many who walked as “enemies of the cross”, who attempted to “preach another gospel” or pervert the ways of the righteous or claimed to have a secret, mystical knowledge of God. Therefore throughout the formation of the Church in NT times, drawing the line and determining the boundaries was absolutely necessary—but it was always over an essential matter of the Christian faith.

Throughout church history, as the faith was more precisely articulated, the practice of via negativa was as important in their denials of heresies as were the affirmations of orthodoxy. Ergo, the development of creeds and confessions were the universal agreement of a unified orthodoxy. Whether it was the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, or the Baptist Faith and Message, the essential doctrines and beliefs were affirmed while at the same time false teachings and false witnesses were definitively and unapologetically rejected.

But here we are in 2006 – 27 years after the Conservative Resurgence. We have reaped the blessings of a conservative convention now that stands on the inerrancy of the Word of God, the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, and the priority of missions and evangelism to reach our world. I have tremendous respect for those who were instrumental in bringing about such a reformation; however, I am afraid that those who have fought so hard on a worthy hill to die upon are seeking new hills and a new fight. Some have found that fight against Calvinists, and others have now found the issue of alcohol. Let’s be totally up front. This is not a debate of conservatives versus liberals. This is conservatives against conservatives, and what is at stake is the definition and delineation of what biblical conservativism really is.

Necessary and Unnecessary Demarcation: A Lesson from the Ministry of Paul

For the past month, what I have seen taking place is an unnecessary division based on a pseudo-demarcation determined by an illegitimate dividing line. Just as it is necessary to defend orthodoxy from liberalism, it is equally as necessary to defend it from ultra-conservativism. This was the threat Jesus faced as we as the NT apostles. I would say the conservative threat of the Judaizers and Pharisees was far more subtle and deceptive than the outright attacks of Gnostics and Stoics. The case is no different today. Let me give two examples in the ministry of Paul that explains a necessary and unnecessary demarcation:

Necessary Demarcation: Galatians 2:11-14

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

The book of Galatians is a powerful case for the gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of the cross, and justification by faith. All three of these core beliefs were being comprised in Galatia by the influence of Judaizers who sought to add circumcision as a necessary qualification for one being saved. These Judaizers were involved in causing Galatians to “quickly desert” the God who had called them by the grace of Christ, so much so that Cephas (Peter) had bought into their party. Paul rightly drew a line of demarcation because of what was at stake and called Peter a hypocrite who “stood condemned.” This was an attempt to “nullify the grace of God (2:21) and cause believers to boast in their circumcision rather than in the cross of Jesus Christ (6:13-14). With this dividing line and confrontation of Peter and the “circumcision party,” Paul was restating that “it was for freedom Christ has set us free” (5:1) and that they should not submit themselves to a yoke of slavery. If they do, Paul argues, “Christ will be of no advantage to you” (5:2). As you can see, this is without question a necessary demarcation. What was at stake was the gospel of Jesus Christ, the grace of justifying faith and imputed righteousness, and the glory of the cross. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.

Unnecessary Demarcation: Acts 15:36-41

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Barnabas, cousin to John Mark (Col. 4:10), kept insisting to Paul that they should take him along with them on their journey. Paul, having been frustrated by John Marks earlier failure (at Pegra cf. Acts 13:13), had no confidence in him and did not want to take him. This resulted in a “sharp disagreement” in which their partnership in the gospel was dissolved “amicably but with violent emotions” (MacArthur 2:82). So was this dividing line necessary? Some may argue yes, but it is worth noting that John Mark, because of the encouragement ministry of Barnabas, later became a co-laborer in the gospel with Paul later on (Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:11; Col. 4:10) and eventually wrote one of the four gospels. F.F. Bruce writes, “It was a pity that the present dispute was allowed to generate such mutual provocation, but in the providence of God it was overruled for good, for in the upshot there were two missionary expeditions this time instead of one” (NICNT, 319). Therefore, looking back in light of providence and history we would say it was necessary, but Barnabas and Paul were not privied to this information.

Resolution No. 5: A Pseudo-Demarcation

Now, going back to the alcohol resolution, let me explain why I believe this resolution is a pseudo-demarcation. I have seven reasons:

1. The alcohol resolution is an attempt to parade a nonessential, obscure, and peripheral matter as the essential to cooperation and a litmus test for true conservativism.

Let me quote Carl F.H. Henry (from his book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism) again from my earlier post in which he said:

What concerns me more is that we have needlessly invited criticism and even ridicule, by a tendency in some quarters to parade secondary and sometimes even obscure aspects of our position as necessary frontal phases of our view . . . it is needful that we come to a clear distinction, as evangelicals, between those basic doctrines on which we unite in a supernaturalistic world and life view and the area of differences on which we are not in agreement while yet standing true to the essence of Biblical Christianity . . . Unless we do this, I am unsure that we shall get another world hearing of the Gospel (emphasis mine) (xvi-xvii).

What we have done in the past month is parade a nonessential issue as essential to cooperation. Total abstinence has become the litmus test for true SBC conservativism and the boundary for cooperation. This is tragic in many ways, not the least of which is, as Henry says, doing stuff like this causes us to lose a world hearing of the Gospel. As I watched the live video stream of Greensboro, one could not help but hear over and over again the emphasis on missions, evangelism, and taking the gospel to the world. Whatever happened to that focus? Cooperation? Passion? Where we were once centered our attention on reaching the unreached people groups of the world, we have now centered our attention on the unreached arguments for total abstinence. Where we should be focusing on essential matters of our faith and denomination which are being threatened by our world, false doctrine, and compromise, we are debating over the percentage point of NT wine based on speculation and conjecture. Let us listen to Henry and “come to a clear distinction . . . between those basic doctrines on which we unite.” Alcohol certainly is no basic doctrine (and it isn’t a doctrine contrary to what some are arguing).

2. The alcohol resolution is seeking to equivocate social conservativism with theological conservativism, which is instable and inconsistent at best and fallacious at worst.

There are many manifestations of conservativism. There are political conservatives, social conservatives, philosophical conservatives, theological conservatives etc. However, as a Christian, what fundamentally determines what a conservative is through what one believes concerning the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. For instance, a theological conservative is one who holds to the inerrancy of the Bible, the exclusivity of the Christian faith, the reality of hell, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and a conscious commitment to the evangelization of the world through gospel witness. This is not comprehensive of course, but simply serves to show what theological conservativism constitutes in part.

Social conservativism includes various issues as the standing against divorce, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, cloning, pornography, etc. There are certain social sins which the Scriptures have specifically addressed, but there are others where the Scripture is silent. There is nowhere in the Bible that says drinking wine is a sin. Drinking alcohol cannot be lumped into these evils simply because one consumes it in moderation. Drunkenness, of course, is sinful as much as gluttony as is gossip as is quarreling. But moderation and drunkenness are as distinct and different as the use or misuse of food consumption.

Furthermore, we cannot elevate social conservativism to the level of theological conservativism lest we develop so many artificial demarcations that no one can cooperate with one another. For instance, if I took the same stance with gluttony, from what I have seen in Greensboro, there would be many who would be disqualified from service and cooperation in the SBC—and you know this is the truth.

3. The alcohol resolution is “Made in America” and thereby reveals its culturally conditioned stipulations apart from the sufficiency and authority of Scripture.

Notice the title of the resolution: “On Alcohol Use in America.” I addressed this already over at Joe Thorn’s blogpost in which I said the following:

I thought it was interesting to note that the resolution is explicitly called “On Alcohol Use in America”. This is intriguing to me because they have culturally and geographically conditioned a resolution by adding “in America.” What are we to conclude by this? Abstinence should be resolved in America, but moderation in say Europe where drinking wine is more accepted in that culture? My point is simply to note how intrinsically attached to culture this resolution has been made. It is “made in America.” But the SBC and Christians base their wisdom and convictions on the universally applied Word of God which speaks to every culture and geographic region in the world. To say that the Scripture calls for abstinence in the United States and not elsewhere is contradictory in application. So why not draft a resolution that is unconditionally universal in its scope and not relativize it to the United States? Here’s the answer IMO. The resolution itself reveals itself culturally and geographically contingencies which displace the Word of God and its sufficiency for “life and godliness” through faithful instruction and universal application. While there are many things I like that are “made in America,” this unfortunately isn’t one of them.

4. The alcohol resolution is but the picking and choosing of social sins to the dismissal or even applause of others.

At Greensboro, one of the highlights was the speech given by Secretary of State Condi Rice. Now, given that she is a fellow Alabamian and has overcome so much to arrive where she is, I have much respect admiration for her. However, it is no secret that she is “pro-choice” regarding the unborn. I do not know of a greater issue that invokes more emotion and commitment from socially conservative Christians than defending the rights of the unborn. But you would not think it at Greensboro. As Mrs. Rice came to speak, American flags were waved and thunderous applause came forth from the masses in applause. This to a political leader who supports abortion! Is this not hypocritical?

As Derek Webb has said, we are trading sins for others which are easier to hide. Why alcohol? Why not divorce? Why not pornography? Why not gossip? I assure you there are hundred times more families and churches destroyed by these social sins explicitly condemned more sinful in Scripture than the “recreational” use of alcohol.

5. The alcohol resolution has lead proponents to develop arguments which are not in Scripture but regard them nonetheless equally as authoritative.

Several SBC proponents of this resolution have argued for what is “best” or “ideal” for the Christian. However, such wisdom cannot be unqualifiedly universally applied. What is wise in one situation may not be wise in another. An excellent example of how proponents have leaped Scripture and deduced logically their argument is the argument of Dr. Patterson on John 2:1-11. Consider what he said:

In Jesus’ miracle at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11), one can neither affirm with certainty that Jesus turned the water into a non-intoxicating wine nor that He drank no wine Himself. But the following evidences cannot be easily bypassed:

The text nowhere indicates that Jesus participated. Either way the argument is from silence. (emphasis mine)

Given that no one can with certainty make determinative conclusions about this text since arguments are made from silence, one must assume that Dr. Patterson would follow his own advice. But he does not. He goes on to say:

From a standpoint of logic, the “oinos” that Jesus produced was more likely pure, rather than fermented, grape juice, since that which comes from the Creator’s hand is inevitably pure. (emphasis mine)

There you have it. In one breath, Dr. Patterson argues that no conclusive or definitive statements can be made and then immediately follows with one! I can make a lot of arguments from the standpoint of logic in this passage and others such as Ephesians 5:18. Why couldn’t the oinos in Ephesians 5:18 be the same in John 2? Paul clearly says that we should not get drunk with wine. Logically speaking, this must include the possibility that the wine made could get one drunk, lest this admonition be baseless. For a clear and comprehensive rebuttal to Dr. Patterson’s article, check out Concerned SBCer.

6. The alcohol resolution was immediately seen to be an attempt to remove (or at least an attack) Wade Burleson.

After the resolution was brought to the floor, the amendment that adds the language “we urge that no one be elected to serve as a trustee or member of any entity or committee of the Southern Baptist Convention that is a user of alcoholic beverages” was added (emphasis mine). Now, I do not want to contribute to the conspiracy theories which abound (many have argued this to be true), but it is true that many in the SBC are upset with Burleson, his blogging, and his position on alcohol. One might argue that if the IMB can’t get rid of him, then maybe this resolution could be plan B. Either way, both are representative of the very thing Burleson is working hard against—the narrowing of cooperation in the SBC.

7. Finally, someone’s personal preference on the matter of alcohol cannot be elevated to the status of a resolution when there is no Biblical precedence.

It is a personal preference of mine to abstain from drinking alcohol. Yet I cannot biblically argue that those who drink in moderation are not pursuing godliness because they do not conform to my standards. Where should we go with this? How about hair touching the ears? A suit on Sunday morning? You may choose to dress and look such, but there is just as much prohibition against the consumption of alcohol in moderation as there is the articles of clothing I wear. As Nathan White has said, “If you see total abstinence as anything more than a personal preference, then you undoubtedly begin to look down on others who do not follow your ‘conviction’. You will undoubtedly convince yourself that your abstinence is a mark of your obedience and holiness. Your adherence to a rule will only blind yourself further to the real sins of your heart.” Mark Lauterbach adds, “We have no right to bind the conscience of others by adding to the Word of God.” Simply put, where there is no biblical precedence, you cannot push your preference and make it law.

Concluding Thoughts and Personal Appeal

Let me conclude with a few personal remarks. I appreciate the concern of my fellow teetotalers concerning the dangers of alcoholism today. I too have experienced some heartache and pain brought about by ruined and even lost lives. However, we must be clear about something. The real problem is the human heart and its depravity, not alcohol. If we really want to address this issue of alcohol, let us address the human heart and trust the Holy Spirit to do his convicting work without our Pharisaical tendencies to do it our own way. As John Piper said,

“The enemy is sending against us every day the Sherman tank of the flesh with its cannons of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. If we try to defend ourselves or our church with peashooter regulations we will be defeated even in our apparent success.” (Emphasis mine)

What has this resolution accomplished? I don’t know exactly. Maybe the power brokers want a resolution like this to act as catalyst to rally the conservative base because of the events which took place. It was my guess that those who have been in control of the SBC and its future so far have felt threatened by SBC bloggers, and it makes sense that so many have joined the blogging world and using folks like Brad Reynolds to propagate their positions. Maybe.

But what I do know is that the three favorite words of the Pharisees was, “Is it lawful?” And Jesus’ favorite response to them was, “Woe to you, hypocrites! Now I am not calling proponents of this resolution modern-day Pharisees or legalists, but there is a real danger they are facing which they must answer. As Thorn said, “You can’t raise a generation of men and women on the infallible/inerrant word of God and expect them to remain comfortable while introducing extra-biblical law and denying our Christian liberty.” Our conviction on the sufficiency of Scripture should cause us to rest in God’s complete revelation in the Word of God written and the Word of God Incarnate. Where Scripture is silent, we must not speculate.

The other day I was thinking about the work guys at the Together for the Gospel are doing in bringing brothers together across denominational lines with a confessional identity that centers on the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is truly a beautiful thing! I cannot tell you how many brothers I have met from across several denominations who have immensely encouraged me in their words and walk. Now, juxtapose that picture with the alcohol resolution in the SBC. We are a convention being divided over such a pathetic issue as that of alcohol. We could learn some lessons from the T4G guys. Where they have learned to come together for the sake of the gospel, we have learned to be divided for the sake of alcohol. There could not be a more stark contrast than this!

There are three “all’s” which I try to think of regularly during my day. They are, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do ALL to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do ALL (everything) in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col. 3:17), and “I do ALL things for the sake of the gospel, that I may be a fellow partaker of it” (1 Cor. 9:23). The glory of God. The name of the Lord Jesus. The gospel of Jesus Christ. These three we should do in all things, including what we eat and drink. Do I believe someone can drink wine in moderation to the glory of God? Yes I do. Jesus did.

I long for the day when Baptist Press’ First Person articles are confessions about our triumphalistic attitudes and denominational arrogance wherein we publicly repent of our pride. I long for the day when we point the fingers at ourselves and face the music by making resolutions on our need for reformation and revival. I long for the day when we forge new partnerships for the sake of the gospel and cooperate together for the glory of Christ. I long for the day when we can actually address that issues that exist rather than trying to develop one that doesn’t.

I hearken back the Apostle Paul in my concluding thoughts. At one point in his ministry, he drew a line in the sand over the issue of John Mark because of his weaknesses or ministry failures. I wonder if he pondered this during his missionary travels. Maybe he watched the ministry of Barnabas who encouraged John Mark along the way. I happen to think he did and was better for it. In a letter to Philemon, he makes an affectionate and bold appeal to him on behalf of Onesimus (which means “useful”) whom he called “my child” which he fathered while in prison. Onesimus was at one time useless to Philemon, maybe as Paul at one time thought John Mark was useless. But he is now making this appeal on behalf of Onesimus as “a beloved brother.” Paul expressed that his sending of Onesimus was the “sending of my heart” and Philemon should “receive him as you would receive me.” Paul, in his last days while imprisoned, was laboring as a spiritual father to raise up a generation after him who would partner for the gospel of Jesus Christ. He knew that his life was being “poured out as a drink offering” and that his time of departure had come. Where he at one time was divisive to the exclusion of John Mark, he is now cooperative to the inclusion and promotion of Onesimus.

This past Sunday, Dr. Danny Akin preached a very encouraging message about running the race and mentioned a hilarious story about him running as clean as possible, which included him running with no underwear. He mentioned that if we are going to run with endurance for the prize before us, we must focus on Jesus and follow his lead. Dr. Akin’s words are timely for the SBC. Let us lay aside the alcohol resolution like we did with the Disney Boycott, because this one will in the end prove to be as fictional as the latter. My friends, this is the underwear of the SBC, the weight that is hindering us from moving forward. To a very divided Corinthian church that faced far greater issues than we are facing today, Paul concludes with these words:

Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor. 13:11).

Let us, dear brothers, whether you are for or against this resolution take to heart these loving words of admonition from one who experienced them in his own life. The resolution is a pseudo-demarcation in the shifting sands of the SBC. We need to get back the solid rock of Christ and take our stand, hand in hand, lest we face the sobering reality that we have failed to finish the race.

My articles on the alcohol resolution

  1. SBC Priorities: Alcohol over Integrity in Church Membership
  2. A Confession from Drinking Too Much Welch’s Grape Juice
  3. Breaking News In Greensboro . . . Gluttons Don’t Drink Alcohol
  4. Conservatism ≠ Legalism? Seeking for Definition and a Defense for Conservatism
  5. The ‘Uneasy Conscience’ of a Modern Southern Baptist
  6. Speaking of Christian Liberty
  7. Samuel Bolton on Maintaining Christian Liberty
  8. Dr. Danny Akin on Alcohol . . . and a Response from Joe Thorn