A seminary president said there is nothing new or surprising about a recently passed Southern Baptist Convention resolution opposing the sale or use of beverage alcohol, but he doesn't believe the Bible teaches that all drinking is a sin.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said on a Wednesday radio program a resolution approved by the SBC in June advocating total abstinence from alcohol is "not a new policy, just a reaffirmation."
The SBC has adopted more than 50 statements against alcohol use since 1886, but this year's is thought to be the first that received much serious debate. A number of speakers argued the total abstinence position is more restrictive than what is taught in Scripture.
Former SBC president Bobby Welch, whose term ended after the June 13-14 convention in Greensboro, N.C., reportedly told SBC Life the biggest surprise for him from the convention was "that several Southern Baptist pastors actually came to a microphone and publicly promoted the drinking of alcoholic beverages and wanted the SBC to do the same."
"Actually, I never thought I would see that take place, and it is not only a surprise but an outrage," Welch said.
Several SBC bloggers complained that Welch mischaracterized the discussion, contending it was not about the morality of drinking but instead over following the Bible instead of social custom.
Responding to a caller on Wednesday's "Albert Mohler Program," an hour-long program heard every weekday on a number of radio stations and the Internet, Mohler said "intellectual honesty" demands him to say there is no single proof text that says, "Thou shalt not ever drink an alcoholic beverage."
Mohler said he holds to the total-abstinence position "without feeling constrained or repressed in any way," because it is the policy of the denomination and institution he serves.
"And yet I will tell you up front that I know there are believing, faithful Christians who enjoy a glass of wine or do drink some beverage alcohol," he said. "And I cannot say in all persons in all circumstances it is sin for them as Christians to do that."
Mohler said there are also practical reasons why he believes total abstinence is the best and safest position. The Bible warns against drunkenness, Mohler said, and a teetotaler doesn't have to worry about whether he or she is drinking in excess. He also said many credible Bible scholars believe wine mentioned in the Bible was far less intoxicating and addictive than high-alcohol wine, beer and hard liquor produced today.
"Now there are those who are going to come back and say, 'Now my Christian liberty means that I have the right to drink,'" Mohler said. "Well if you're part of a church that holds to that understanding, and you are very careful, monitored in mutual accountability, that you do not drink into drunkenness or into excess, then I'm not going to say that you're not a Christian and you're not faithful.
"I'm going to say I couldn't be in that circumstance, and I belong to a church and denomination, and I serve as president of an institution that before God believes that the best position to hold is a total-abstinence position, in accountability to other Christians, and in accountability to the churches."
The most recent SBC alcohol resolution denounced "religious leaders who are now advocating the consumption of alcoholic beverages based on a misinterpretation of the doctrine of 'our freedom in Christ'" and urged support of "biblically based" ministries and programs that promote abstinence from alcohol.
At a student forum last fall, Mohler admonished seminarians that seminary policy prohibits use of alcohol and warned that most SBC churches would not hire a pastor who drinks. But he said "it is exegetically unsustainable" to say the Bible makes total abstinence morally binding on all persons in all times and at all places.
A long-time SBC observer and critic of fundamentalism said he would never have imagined "that the so-called conservative resurgence would have birthed widespread drinking among SBC seminarians and pastors based upon their literal interpretation of the Bible."
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, said such intense debate over alcohol "would never have taken place when moderate Baptists had stewardship of the SBC."
That, he said, is because moderates read the Bible differently than fundamentalists. Moderates viewed Jesus as "the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted," he said, and "used that principle with spiritual discernment to determine moral behavior within a respected faith tradition."
That contrasted with fundamentalists, who trotted out the claim, "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." One seminary president stated it: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is what it all comes down to. The issue is whether the Bible is the word of God or merely a record of God's word."
"That kind of simplistic absolutism has now bred a literalistic generation which says drinking is okay, while disregarding the clear, albeit non-literalistic, biblical admonition that not everything that is right is the right thing to do," Parham said.
"On a practical note, perhaps both warring factions could come together to advocate for an increase in the federal excise tax on alcohol, one of the best ways to curb alcohol-related problems, for which many of us in the pro-health community have pushed for decades."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Bible Doesn't Ban All Drinking, Seminary President Says
Southern Baptists Oppose Use of Alcohol
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7 Virtues & Vices: Family Bible Study Lessons