A Southern Baptist seminary president told students in October that drinking alcohol can get them expelled from school and destroy their ministry, but he doesn't believe the Bible teaches total abstinence.
President Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary told a forum on "alcohol and ministry" that the argument that Scripture makes total abstinence morally binding on all persons in all times and at all places is a "bad argument."
"I believe it is exegetically unsustainable," Mohler said at the forum, which was recorded and posted as an audio file on the seminary Web site. "You simply cannot make the argument that the Bible binds the Christian conscience and all Christians of all times everywhere for a total abstinence position."
Mohler recalled an issue of the fundamentalist Baptist newspaper Sword of the Lord that came out while he was a senior in college. "It was absolutely certain that Jesus did not turn water into wine, that Jesus instead turned water into non-fermented grape juice," he said.
Mohler said he was "troubled" by the article, "because it just appeared to me to be an example of a really, really bad Christian argument."
"Somehow I just didn't think that the Gospel writers were trying to lead us astray as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. So I looked into it," he said.
After a study on the history of wine, Mohler said he concluded, "No. 1, Jesus turned water into wine," but also that the word "wine," especially when found in the New Testament, "does not mean what we probably think it means."
Unlike today's "mass-produced alcohol that is intended to have an addicting effect," he said, fermentation was necessary to kill bacteria and prevent disease in an ancient world where safe drinking water could be hard to find.
Bible verses warn against stronger drinks that were fermented longer to produce higher alcohol content, he said, but those were luxuries out of reach to all but the wealthy.
Before about 200 years ago, Mohler said, Christians typically preached against drunkenness. A shift toward abstinence emerged about the time of the frontier revivals in the 19th century, and the view had become consensus for the Southern Baptist Convention by about 1900.
Mohler said it is important to talk about the issue, because it is creating controversy in some churches. "There will be a lot of people who will be offended that we are even having (the conversation)," Mohler said. For them, "It is settled law."
Mohler said the seminary's policy is clear and not a matter up for debate or revision. It requires anyone who is an employee or a student to abstain from use of beverage alcohol. That, he said, is because the seminary is bound by a covenant relationship with Southern Baptist churches to uphold certain moral standards.
"True believers in other denominations aren't bound to a total abstinence position, but the expectation in most Southern Baptist churches is that ministers should be teetotalers," Mohler said.
Mohler also rebutted another "bad argument" concerning alcohol, which confuses Christian liberty with license.
"We've all seen some of the Web sites and the Weblog conversation that has been had about this, among people that we know, that are close friends," he said. "Let me tell you I find a great deal of immaturity reflected there.
"It's all of a sudden like we have a younger generation trying to say: 'Hey, we are so much smarter than our parents. We are so much more mature and more liberated and can enjoy these things, and now I'm going to recommend my favorite beer and my favorite wine to all my friends.'
"And it's, frankly, I think, sad, immature and it's showy. It's the exact opposite of Paul's concern for unity in the church. This kind of ostentatious display of liberty is an adolescent display, and it's exactly what mature Christians should avoid."
Mohler didn't say to which Weblogs he referred, but one blogger who linked to the comments, commended him for addressing the issue so openly.
"When I was at SBTS, this discussion would not have occurred," blogger Michael Spencer wrote on InternetMonk.com. Spencer is among those arguing it is time for Baptists to rethink their position against social drinking.
"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," he said. "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."
Mohler said one his "main concerns" for this generation is "that you have fundamentalism--the restricted list of don'ts. And what we're seeing is a new kind of fundamentalism--a fundamentalism disguised as liberty, which has a new list of do's."
"I'm afraid it will wreck ministries in embryonic form," he said. "I can assure you of this. If you are associated with the use of beverage alcohol,… 99 percent of all doors of ministry in the Southern Baptist Convention will be closed to you. And I do not believe that is an exaggeration."
But Mohler was less emphatic on a question about ministerial students without church positions working in restaurants that serve liquor.
Mohler shared a personal experience involving his father, who for a time was forced to resign as a deacon in their church after a member protested because the Publix supermarket he managed sold beer and wine.
"I was 16 years old when my father was asked no longer to be a deacon in our church," he said. "And I will tell you it is one of the most painful things ever to happen to me."
"Are you saying that a Christian can't be a manager or an executive in the grocery business?" he asked. "If my father had been in the beer-distribution business, that would have been another thing entirely."
Mohler said that if a church member objects to a store manager selling alcohol, he or she should be consistent and refuse to shop there. By the same token, he said would be hypocritical for anyone who objects to a seminary student working at a particular restaurant to dine there.
Mohler said when he attends scholarly functions that include receptions where alcohol is served, he never goes alone and doesn't hold a drink in his hand. That is because he finds it easier to go thirsty than to have to respond to phone calls and convince callers that what he might have been seen drinking was in fact a Diet Coke.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.