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Southern Baptists: Losing Their Zeal for Temperance?

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Although many Southern Baptists still follow church teachings by abstaining from alcohol, indications reveal that more are okay with some drinking.

“I believe we are seeing a change from total abstinence to a trend of acceptance of alcohol among Southern Baptists,” says Evan Lenow, ethics professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The emphasis has moved from warnings about alcohol to highlighting Christian freedom.”

Lenow notes that Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute, two schools with Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) ties, recently lifted bans on alcohol consumption.

After the SBC’s annual meeting in 2016, church worker Anna Rankin left with this takeaway: “Baptists welcome the occasional drink with biblical resound in mind, yet they don’t broadcast it for the sake of being too much like the world and hindering their witness.”

How Much Is Too Much?

Regarding biblical guidance, Lenow says Scripture prohibits drunkenness (see Ephesians 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). “The question for inerrantist evangelicals is how much alcohol is too much. Some say that any alcohol is too much, [while] some say that you must stop before drunkenness. The problem is quantifying drunkenness.” Lenow abstains because he’s “seen alcohol destroy people around me.”

Robby Gallaty, a Baptist pastor in Tennessee, is a recovered alcoholic who now abstains. He talks about alcohol in sermons “all the time,” warning about the “blurry line” between being buzzed and drunk. “I’ve never met a person drinking who becomes more holy as a result of it,” Gallaty says. “I have seen people destroy their lives because of it, though.”

Alcohol use and abuse have derailed the ministries and careers of several prominent pastors.

In a 2016 Barna survey, 67 percent of all Americans, 60 percent of practicing Christians, and 46 percent of evangelicals reported drinking alcohol. And in a 2007 LifeWay Research survey, 3 percent of Southern Baptist pastors and 29 percent of Southern Baptist churchgoers said they drank. By comparison, 25 of non-Southern Baptist Protestant pastors and 42 percent of non-Southern Baptist Protestant churchgoers said they drank.

Baptist Temperance: Is It Losing Steam?

A 2006 SBC resolution affirms the denomination’s “total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing and consuming of alcoholic beverages.” Throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Southern Baptists were active in American temperance efforts. Historian Gregory Wills writes that since at least the mid-1800s, Baptist ministers who drank alcohol were “disqualified to preach.”

On Twitter earlier this year, several Baptist pastors and leaders spoke out against drinking. Johnny Hunt, senior VP of evangelism and leadership for the North American Mission Board, pointed to a study debunking alcohol’s purported health benefits.

Trend-observers, however, note that younger Southern Baptists are less likely to practice total abstinence. Pastor Trevin Wax, for example, writes that younger Southern Baptists tend to “see no problem with drinking in moderation.” He adds: “A generation ago, teetotalism was assumed as the faithful position. When I talk with older Southern Baptists about this issue, they see it as self-evident: Christian leaders do not drink. Younger Southern Baptists tend to see the issue as a legalistic throwback to another time.”

Drinking alcohol may not be a sin, but it has caused many people—including many Christians—to stumble. What’s your take on the issue?