SBC On Alcohol Use Sounds Tipsy

I realize a number of Christian denominations prohibit the consumption of any alcohol; and that’s fine. If Christians freely choose to abstain from alcohol, I applaud them.  But what about a complete abstinence as a doctrinal position?  I’ve been doing some reading in order to get a solid understanding of the justification behind the abstinence of alcohol as a theological or denominational position. I want to understand the arguments of those who make the claims that any consumption of alcohol is a sin, that drinkers can’t or won't go to heaven, or that anybody consuming any alcohol should be removed from any leadership or ministry position.

In my reading, I came across a rather interesting article posted on the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty blog titled, “On Alcohol Consumption,” by Richard Land and Barrett Duke, dated July 25, 2006. (I accessed this web page on August 10, 2010).  As I was reading the article, I started to wonder if the authors were sharing a bottle of wine as they penned the article. Regardless their position, there seems to be some contradictions, extra-biblical or secular arguments, and odd understandings of the biblical narrative. As soon as I make known my potential biased notions, I'll address some of these examples.
My bias upfront: First and foremost, I must say that whether Christians consume alcohol or not should not be a matter worth splitting churches over.  Anybody who thinks otherwise should read Romans 14:13-23.  Second, I realize the Southern Baptist Convention places very few denominational positions upon their members, leaving these things up to the local congregation. However, I am learning that there is a very strong culture with the SBC, which is nearly authoritative.  Next, I attend a great local church that is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention (although neither of the senior pastors are actually SBC).  Also, I'm a graduate student at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, which is a SBC school with many (if not all) SBC professors.  I should also say that I enjoy the craft of beer brewing in my home, although two kids, a full-time job, and full-time seminary leave no time for this hobby at the moment.  I should also point out that after I returned from the war, I abused alcohol, which brought about many other problems in my life.  Now, when I do brew beer, I give most of it away.  I do occasionally consume alcohol (generally "Utah" beer or wine), typically during a meal in social settings, and always with a strict limit of "one and done."  I believe alcohol is no more evil or sinful than money.  It is the abuse of, or idolatrous attitude toward it that brings about sinful problems.  I remain open to changing my view on a alcohol based on a sound argument from the Bible. (If you feel compelled to make that argument, you can contact me here.)
Now that my bias and personal position are out of the way (to the extent that bias can be removed), I'll move to a discussion of the SBC article.  Rather than providing an overview, I ask that you read the article for the bigger picture. It's located here:

After moving through an introduction and a historical overview of the South Baptist resolutions over the years, Land and Duke write,
"When one considers the high cost of alcohol abuse to individuals, families, and society, it is surprising that some Southern Baptists insist on their right to drink. Alcohol problems cost American society more than $184 billion per year in health care, criminal justice, social services, property damage, and loss of productivity expenses. Alcohol is a factor in as many as 105,000 deaths annually in the United States and a primary contributor to a wide array of health problems and human suffering. These include various cancers, liver disease, alcoholism, brain disorders, motor vehicle crashes, violence, crime, spousal and child abuse, drownings, and suicides. Even those who are able to control their drinking should recognize that they are engaged in a behavior that is destroying millions of lives, and choose to abstain rather than encourage by their behavior someone to drink who will not be able to control his drinking."
This argument, although compelling, does not address the question at hand: What does the Bible say about drinking?  In addition, this particular argument is more than acceptable for individuals to adopt as a reason to avoid alcohol altogether; but when a denomination or church incorporates a no-drinking policy based on this argument, they still tend to create a perception that they are taking a position based on a biblical stand rather than a secular argument.  And if the Bible does not condone drinking, their stand runs of the risk of becoming a legalistic "Bible plus." In addition, an argument could be made that a lifestyle of fast food consumption and no physical activity costs American just as much of not more in health related problems.  Therefore (the argument could go), a denomination could declare members of their organization are prohibited from consuming fast food and they must exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes per day, four days a week.  But still, this would be an argument from a secular position. (And I'm not sure the SBC Messengers would ever adopt a policy like this one, no matter how fat an unhealthy America gets.)

The article continues with a lengthy secular argument.  At one point they write, "[. . .] and virtually all users of other drugs start with alcohol, that’s why it’s called the “gateway” drug." This is a risky argument because it verges on a spurious relationship and it's a bit slippery.  First, there's a good chance that many of these drug users that started with alcohol drank soda before that.  So based on this argument, soda could be the cause of heavy drug use.  In addition, this type of argument does not take into account all the people that consume alcohol and never engage in other types of drug use.  In fact, some only drink beer or wine and never even shift to stronger forms of alcohol.

Things start to seem contradictory as the argument shifts to the Bible.  Statements made  to make one point only later become a contradiction for another point.  (I've taken out the material in between for clarity; however, please read the article in its entirety to see what I've left out.)  Take for example this line of reasoning,
"Because alcohol is such a dangerous substance [. . .] However, it appears that the negative aspect is principally related to the debilitating effects on people, not on the alcoholic beverage in itself. Alcohol as a substance is not evil. For example, Psalm 104:14-15 speaks of wine, “which makes man’s heart glad,” as one of God’s provisions for man."
Alcohol is a dangerous substance but not an evil one.  The problem is the debilitating effects of a glad heart, which is a provision for man from God.  Okay?  How about this next example? Pay special attention to the sweet or new wine "is grape juice" argument,  
"Even sweet wine, which is thought by many to be mere grape juice, can debilitate (see Hos. 4:11) [. . .] When used in its non-metaphorical sense, it appears to run the full gamut of meanings, from grape juice, usually qualified by the adjective “new,” to the fully fermented alcoholic beverage. [. . .] In Acts 2:13 the observers supposed that the apostles were full of “sweet wine” because of their behavior when the Holy Spirit had filled them."
It's not every day you see completely irregular or unexplainable behavior like that in Acts 2 and attribute it to mere grape juice.  And I'm not sure how or why non-alcoholic grape juice takes away understanding like Hosea 4:11 claims.  Could it be that maybe that new or sweet wine was not exactly grape juice?

How about the "it's not the same alcohol" argument?
"While the use by some biblical characters of alcoholic beverages is undeniable, it is important to note that the beverages these men and women consumed were not the kinds of alcoholic beverages people consume today. The alcohol content of beverages referred to in the Bible was considerably lower than many of today’s alcoholic beverages." 
The alcoholic content of wine is determined by the amount of natural sugars in the juice that are consumed by yeast.  The byproduct of this consumption is alcohol and gas.  Wine is still naturally produced this way; so is beer. So for this argument to hold true, either grapes contained less sugars or the yeast was prevented from consuming all of the sugar (a complicated process that involves a reduction of temperature, typically with refrigeration, or complex fine filtering of the yeast).  The problem is that this argument is attempting to compare alcohol like vodka (80-120 proof) with wine (20-40 proof).  In that case, the argument works.  But how does this argument stand up if the biblical characters were drinking wine (even at 20 proof) and someone today is drinking beer at 7 to 16 proof)?  It would seem than, based on this argument, that beer today is okay? But again, is this what the Bible is teaching or does this come from a secular style argument?

But what if all the conditions then were the same as today, say for example, missionaries in a third-world country, making their own wine in similar physical conditions as the first century Near East? Then is drinking okay?  In regard to sanitation, the authors write,  
"Additionally, we must keep in mind that sanitary conditions were not what they are today. Alcohol provided an ideal way to maintain the potability of beverages. Without it, people would have suffered even more from common parasites and other health threatening ailments resulting from ingesting contaminated water (see 1 Tim. 5:23)." 
And how about Jesus?  Lots of people will point out that it appears that on occasion Jesus drank wine.  To this the authors argue,
"Jesus wasn’t engaged in drinking alcoholic beverages because He felt it was His right to do so, He was doing this to make a point—that the unbelieving just looked for excuses not to believe."
Ah, what? How about providing some Scripture references to support this statement? They continue,
"Considering the Bible’s very negative attitude toward drunkenness and Jesus’ dedication to God, it is inconceivable to us that Jesus ever drank alcohol recreationally or that He was ever drunk."
Okay?  But how are they defining "recreationally"?  If Christians were to sit down to dinner with Jesus today and they rule out getting drunk or drinking as a recreation, can they have a sanitary, basic glass of wine with their dinner and conversation, or would Jesus call this behavior a sin?  (What if Jesus made the wine?)  Again, what does the Bible say about drinking alcohol in a social setting without any intent to get drunk.  This, I think, is the question most people want answered.

The article continues to plead with the reader not to drink any alcohol in any way.  More arguments are offered.  It's about Christian witness, they say, but what then of drinking one beer alone while watching spots on TV; or what about a single glass of wine with a group of believers during dinner?  There is the argument that alcohol abuse can cause sin so it should be avoided all together; but again, this argument could also be applied to having a little money.  They make many secular arguments, but this still does not answer what the Bible says.

The article also eats some space arguing against drunkenness.  I think there is much less ambiguity in this area.  I don't find that Christians disagree as much here.  Therefore, the question most Christians want answers for is the question of what the Bible says about one glass of wine with dinner, or a glass of champagne at a wedding, or a beer with hot wings over a theological discussion with a friend.  What does the Bible say about this use of alcohol? 

Where the struggle comes is when we think the answer must be an either/or proposition.  Think about it.  Is it possible that the answer requires context?  Is drinking okay within proper limits and settings?  Is this something that lives in a gray area?  I believe it does (not unlike a number of other things the Bible teaches), which is why strong teaching on what the Bible does say is a must, while also avoiding the temptation to create a legalistic approach to alcohol.     

*Photo by Sonja Pieper and is registered under a Creative Commons license.