Some Say the Traditional Baptist Consensus on Alcohol Is Shifting

Amid a years-long battle with postpartum depression, anxiety and insomnia, a therapist gave Jenny Morrison what proved to be a life-altering suggestion: “Why don’t you try drinking a small glass of wine at night?”

When Morrison, a longtime follower of Jesus and Southern Baptist, tried it that night, “it made me sleepy and gave me almost immediate” relief “from the depression and anxiety,” she said.

So over the course of several years, she drank more, and more, and more — until she nearly lost her family and her life.

For well over a century, Southern Baptists have opposed drinking alcoholic beverages, in part over concern for the destruction alcohol has brought to people like Morrison. Amid national discussion this fall of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s youthful drinking and a mounting number of news reports on alcohol’s negative effects, the reasons for Baptist opposition to drinking have come to the fore.

Yet some cultural observers say the Baptist consensus on alcohol may be shifting.

‘I fell prey’

Morrison’s struggle with alcohol came to a head when her husband and 8-year-old daughter returned home from a walk one day to find her passed out in a bedroom.

Even though doctors had told Morrison she might die soon from kidney and liver failure if the alcohol abuse continued, “that switch had flipped on,” she said of her drinking, “and there was just no turning it off.”

But her husband Tim had reached a breaking point.

He removed her from the house temporarily, then found a treatment center in California that could help her through both the addiction and her struggle with mental illness. After 31 days there in 2013 — accompanied by a sense of God’s presence and the prayers of her friends — Morrison came home sober. Aside from one relapse a month later, she hasn’t had a drink since.

“When I hit the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life, I fell prey to” alcohol, said Morrison, currently a member of First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn. The therapist who recommended a drink at bedtime never knew what happened.

Morrison’s now-total abstinence from alcohol is representative of Southern Baptists’ historic practice.

According to a 2007 LifeWay Research survey, just 3 percent of Southern Baptist pastors and 29 percent of Southern Baptist laity said they drank alcohol. That compared with 25 percent of non-Southern Baptist, Protestant pastors and 42 percent of non-Southern Baptist, Protestant laity.

In 2006, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution expressing “our total opposition to the manufacturing, advertising, distributing, and consuming of alcoholic beverages.” Despite a lengthy floor debate in Greensboro, N.C., the resolution was adopted by what Baptist Press estimated as an 80-percent majority.

A public health study nearly a decade later seemed to underscore Baptists’ aversion to alcohol.

When the American Journal of Public Health published in 2015 a county-by-county breakdown of alcohol use in America, it caught the eye of Baptist historian Albert Wardin. He noticed that the journal’s color-coded map of alcohol use by county corresponded almost precisely to a color-coded map of the largest religious group in each U.S. county published in his 2007 book “The Twelve Baptist Tribes in the U.S.A.”

In majority-Baptist counties, the drinking rate was almost always lower than in surrounding non-Baptist regions — from an isolated county on the Nevada-California state line to a strip of counties in eastern New Mexico to a cluster of counties in north-central Florida.

“That’s my map!” Wardin told BP when the alcohol study was published.

Earlier this year, a flurry of tweets against alcohol use emerged from Southern Baptist pastors and SBC entity leaders, including Danny Akin, Steve Gaines, J.D. Greear, Johnny Hunt and Jeff Iorg.

Among the tweets, Hunt, the North American Mission Board’s senior vice president of evangelism and leadership, highlighted a study published Aug. 23 in the medical journal The Lancet claiming alcohol has no health benefits — contrary to the claims of previous studies.

In September, the World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health claimed one of every 20 deaths in the world results from “harmful use of alcohol.”

‘Quantifying drunkenness’

Evan Lenow, an ethics professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Baptists’ historic view of alcohol is based on Scripture, especially passages in Proverbs and Ephesians.

Ephesians 5:18 is the clearest and least controversial of the passages,” Lenow said in written comments. “In that verse, Paul clearly prohibits drunkenness. There is not a real debate on this prohibition in Christian circles. Paul considers this a vice. He also includes drunkenness in vice lists such as 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.”

Christians differ on how Scripture relates to alcohol consumption that stops short of drunkenness, Lenow said.

“The question for inerrantist evangelicals is how much alcohol is too much. Some say that any alcohol is too much” and reference passages like Proverbs 20:1 and Proverbs 23:29-35. “Some say that you must stop before drunkenness. The problem is quantifying drunkenness,” Lenow said.

“Personally, I fully abstain from the use of alcohol,” he said. “I have seen alcohol destroy people around me, and I have no desire to inflict that pain on myself or those I love.”

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Source: Baptist Press