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A parable of moral change on alcohol

Wine is a Mocker, by Jan Steen

Increasingly, evangelical Christians are abandoning abstentionist and prohibitionist positions on alcohol. This is true among many conservative Baptist churches. It is increasingly common for pastors to lead their churches to take a more moderationist position with respect alcohol.

Back in 1981, John Piper led Bethlehem Baptist Church to change its church covenant with respect to beverage alcohol. The church covenant Piper inherited read,

We engage . . . to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage.

You can read Piper’s original statement proposing the change here. He advocated a more general statement to replace the previous one:

We engage . . . to seek God’s help in abstaining from all drugs, food, drink, and practices which harm the body or jeopardize our own or another’s faith.

Piper was quite clear as he proposed the change in covenant. He was concerned that the existing statement was too specific. He was concerned about excluding moderationists from membership (“[T]the New Testament allows for a difference of conviction and practice on this issue in the church, and, therefore, it is wrong not to allow for that same difference in the church today.”) He also argued that the prohibitionist language was divisive and had relegated the covenant to the periphery of the church’s corporate life.

At the same time, what is probably most striking in our day in Piper’s original remarks is Piper’s commendation of total abstinence. Piper took the occasion of the removal to make an ardent appeal for abstention from alcoholic beverages. In today’s evangelical climate, Piper’s position and reasoning almost seems quaint. “I am a very happy teetotaler, and I think you should be too.”

Whatever we might think of Piper’s position and leadership on this issue, the results nearly four decades later are worth considering. Church leaders might wonder, “What could happen if I lead my church to change our church covenant on alcohol?” Piper gives us a lesson here, for recently at desiringGod.org David Mathis posted an article on alcohol, “Does Drinking Disqualify a Pastor?” Mathis’s answer to the question in the article’s title is an unambiguous No. 

David Mathis himself is quite aware of the moral change within evangelicalism on the question of beverage alcohol. He recalls his own believing grandmother, for whom “it was imponderable that the same lips could touch a drink and still make a credible profession of faith.”

Mathis assumes that church leaders drink. It is not for them to stand against drunkenness. It is for them merely not to “fall victim” themselves to drunkenness. Such pastors should not abstain from alcohol, but only “be ready” to do so. He even urges pastors to “model glad-hearted moderation.” While Mathis does warn pastors against being incapacitated by drink (!), pastors can drink to good effect: “In certain settings, pastors can set an example for the flock, as in other areas, of wise, loving, glad-hearted celebration in the use of alcohol.”

The real evidence of moral change, however, is when Mathis brazenly asserts: “Those who stand against the ancient attempts to teetotalize the church stand on the side of the angels, and against the teaching of demons (1 Timothy 4:1–5).” It almost seems that Piper’s old advocacy as a teetotaler is tantamount to the “teaching of demons.” Might as well lump him in many other pastors, such as John Macarthur and Peter Masters.

While Mathis is not a member at Bethlehem, he is the executive editor for Desiring God, the parachurch organization founded by Piper. The change between Piper and Mathis is striking if not alarming. What leaders permit, followers embrace. Both Mathis’s assertions and assumptions are worth noting, especially if we want to avoid unintended consequences of our choices. As I look around the landscape of American evangelicalism, I know which of these positions on alcohol is better.

I am not arguing that Piper’s example will happen in every organization or church. Nor is this an argument in itself for not drinking beverage alcohol. Yet those of us who have the people of God under our care should at least mark the moral change that happened over time. One other thing is certain: this change has not occurred only at Bethlehem Baptist Church and Desiring God.

Note: this article has been corrected the current title of David Mathis within Desiring God ministries. 

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

7 Responses to A parable of moral change on alcohol

  1. Would the argument have more logical teeth in it if the one quoted would have been a member and even leader at Bethlehem?

  2. I appreciate this post overall, but after reading Mathis article, which I agree is problematic, I didn’t find anywhere where he stated or even implied “It is not for them to stand against drunkenness.” I thought Mathis was pretty clear drunkenness was wrong and understood that a pastor should call it out.

  3. Having been a long time abstentionist, I am sympathetic to your remarks, but you seem to disown even your tacit slippery slope argument. To what end was your article written? Maybe another paragraph on that would be helpful.

    A few years ago a mutual professor and friend of yours and mine – a upright brother in every respect – made an abstinence argument that smacked of begging the question. He argued that we should abstain from alcohol because it is worldly. That is like appealing to a higher court in which the outcome of the debate is even less certain.

    In view of the Bible’s lack of universal prohibition, it’s obvious examples of alcohol used by our Lord and others without remark, and it’s numerous warnings against drunkenness and the deceptiveness of alcohol, I have relegated practices of abstention to the realm of discipleship. If you want to be a good follower of Jesus, alcohol may get in the way. So, offer it up as a libation (In the OT sense, not the corner bar sense), and get on with it. Maybe all Christians need to be Nazarites, a vow taken voluntarily (yes, you can keep that beard).

  4. Sam, perhaps. I do note that Mathis is not at Bethlehem. At the same time, the fact that he is the executive editor of Desiring God is nevertheless a position closely aligned with Piper. The bigger principle of moral change is worth noting. I don’t think anyone can deny that within evangelicalism as a whole, and that’s exactly what I want us to see.

    Ben, I didn’t quote him as saying that. If he is allowing for pastors to be intoxicated to some extent (which he clearly does), I believe that to be the case. I concede, however, that that sentence is less than artful, especially given the current evangelical definitions of drunkenness, which are all over the map. My operating assumption in that sentence is that a person is drunk when they are intoxicated to any extent from intoxicating drink. I refuse to yield that point to the current zeitgeist that sees it is permissible for a person to be intoxicated as long as they’re not useless or totally hammered. The Christian must be sober. But literally and metaphorically. Period. Not going to debate that any more here.

    Van, I back off the slippery slope argument to avoid misunderstanding. I still think wise pastors ought to note it.

  5. As the father of an adult son who has traversed detox twice, I find some of the nuance either funny or gut-wrenching. True, my son is not walking God, but the current evangelical zeitgeist seems to be that enjoyment of alcohol is only commended to the godly man who is encouraged to the “wise…celebration” of imbibing.

    Methinks the missing element in this ongoing discussion is the totally whacked view of our culture re; drinking. To compartmentalize the joys of substance indulgence and the joyous glory of God’s affections is beyond my comprehension. But my antiquated generation doesn’t have to tussle with that one.

    But I would love to see my blue collar, ex-drunk, friend from 50+ years ago eat the dear brother’s lunch. It would not be an exercise in sanctification, but then Larry’s sanctification is extended enough that I know he would not waste a moment in bitter retorts. He would just walk away shaking his head like he had encountered a freshman partier at a ubiquitous frat beer bust.

    Maybe the eschatological hope is that wise celebrants will rise up across the good earth to drive out the hordes of clinical abusers and the greater hordes of binge drinkers. My old longtime in heaven friend, George Mensik, who was a Capone mobster, would really rock their orbit. George was the first missionary of the Baptist World Mission. Times are a changin baby…

  6. Well written, Ryan. Drawing lines in areas of personal separation are an anathema to today’s evangelical culture. Some of the old standards were wise and good. Any student of the Bible has to come to the conclusion that the tenor of the whole on drinking alcohol is negative. So why would a New Testament priest want to mess with it?

  7. Wise, pastoral words, Dan. Sure glad there are guys like you around to encourage and cheer clear thinking young men in the ministry. May their tribe increase. I personaly see the pendelum ever so slightly back in the right direction. From an old guy — keep it up!

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