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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 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. 

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).