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Member question – A small Baptist church recently called me. They adhere to the church covenant written by J. Newton Brown in 1853. Part of that covenant mandates that no member of our church can sell or drink alcohol. I do not believe that drinking alcohol is a sin, but it would be a miracle if this church changed its belief on this matter. Still, yet, it is a hindrance to church growth—in the proper sense of that term, i.e., evangelism and a good witness to our community. What would you advise?
John Newton Brown wrote in 1853 the Baptist Church Covenant that most Baptist congregations have adopted. They base it in part on the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith of 1833. Here is the covenant.
Having been led, as we believe, by the Spirit of God to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior; and, on the profession of our faith, having been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, we do now, in the presence of God, angels, and this assembly, most solemnly and joyfully enter into covenant with one another, as one body in Christ.
We engage, therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this church, in knowledge, holiness, and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines; to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.
We also engage to maintain family and secret devotion; to religiously educate our children; to seek the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances; to walk circumspectly in the world; to be just in our dealings, faithful in our engagements, and exemplary in our deportment; to avoid all tattling, backbiting, and excessive anger; to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage, and to be zealous in our efforts to advance the kingdom of our Savior.
We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember each other in prayer; to aid each other in sickness and distress; to cultivate Christian sympathy in feeling and courtesy in speech; to be slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation, and mindful of the rules of our Savior, to secure it without delay.
We moreover engage, that when we remove from this place, we will as soon as possible unite with some other church, where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.
I thought it was interesting that the covenant does not condone excessive anger, but by implication, you could have other forms of sinful anger. It also seems instructive that of all the sins in the Bible, they mention two specifically—sins of the tongue and alcohol, while their interpretation of alcohol’s sinfulness is dubious at best.
It appears that the writers of this covenant were susceptible to presentism: mapping their experience over what the Bible writers meant when they wrote about alcohol (1 Timothy 5:23). I suspect that the abuse of alcohol was disproportionate to some of the other sins that were going on in Brown’s day. Therefore, the church’s response to the problem with alcohol was total abstinence.
This type of thing is also what gave rise to legalism in the early 1900s. Our society seemed to be cutting a wide swath to hell during the roaring twenties, and the religious culture over-corrected by creating standards for holiness that were only outdone by the Pharisees in the days of Jesus (Matthew 23:1-39).
It is hard for any of us to think outside of our personal experiences. It’s wise to hold our experiences loosely as we weigh them against the Word of God, in the context of a Spirit-illuminated community. Every era makes specific things bigger than previous cultures did or future cultures will. For example, in today’s culture, if you are racist, you can lose your company (Donald Sterling), but if you kill a baby, you receive praise for your personal choice.
The irony here is that during the day of the 1853 Baptist confession, you could not drink alcohol or kill a baby, but you could own slaves. Our times can dictate our morals. Regarding your church, here are six things I would propose for your consideration.
I would not recommend you create an artificial timeline on changing the worldview of the church culture concerning alcohol. Regardless of what may be going on in the community or church, there is a right time to make controversial changes, if at all.
You can turn a ship around on a dime, but throw most of the passengers overboard. But if you take a longer trajectory, you might be able to turn the boat around while “saving” most of the passengers. This issue is a passionate one for some, especially those who have been adversely affected by alcohol, i.e., the abusive alcoholic parent or personal addiction.
Let wisdom dictate when it is time to change, not any other issue or event, inside or outside of the church. While you want to encourage and teach people to move forward on concerns that the Bible frees you to move forward on, you don’t want to create the other error of moving too soon.
See this possibility of change as a kindness of the Lord rather than the curse of the flock. It would be so easy to lose focus (and patience) with your people because they have an improper interpretation of Scripture. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:14)
You don’t want to be sin-focused on this matter. Staying God-focused will serve you well. Your job, as you know, is to envision and equip with humility and gentleness (Ephesians 4:11-12; 1 Peter 5:1-3). You could think of it like parenting in that you’re not looking for the perfect seven-year-old.
Your parenting goal is to lead a child to the point of adulthood, where he will be able to live in God’s world as a man or woman under God’s authority. Expecting the perfect child or pre-teen or teenager could be disheartening while tempting you to press for premature change.
Always keep the end in mind as you instruct about the process of change. Your church has a worldview that has been shaped in part by an old church covenant and culture that is not biblically mature. That is where they are. You will need a lot of patience as you lead them to a better way to think about God, life, themselves, and others.
To take the previous thought a little deeper, this is a faith issue for them. Many, if not most of your church members, believe it is a sin to drink alcohol. If they believe (faith) it is a sin, then it is a sin to them. Take Paul’s teaching in Corinthians to heart.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled (1 Corinthians 8:4-7).
It is a dangerous thing to push Christian liberty onto others who do not have that liberty due to their former associations (Ephesians 4:22), shaping influences, or insufficient teaching (2 Timothy 3:16-17) that has trained their consciences to believe things the Bible does not teach.
Though it is not a sin to drink alcohol, you or I could be in danger of sinning against our brothers and sisters by pushing our preferences too hard, too soon. Paul was teaching us that those believers believed it was a sin to eat meat offered to idols. The main point is not whether they are right or wrong, but the training of their consciences around this real-world problem of “meat and idols.”
A person’s conscience is their highest level of morality, even higher than the Bible as we see in the text referenced by Paul. Though he knew it was not a sin to eat meat offered to idols, he clearly taught that those new believers’ consciences trumped the teaching of God’s Word.
The point being, you cannot sin against your conscience even if your conscience is wrong. There will be many times and contexts to retrain the consciences of the people of your church, and you must know how to do “retrain” them. This is why you don’t want to create an artificial timeline, which will push them to sin against their consciences.
I used to believe it was a sin to wear shorts. I also accepted the teaching of “church clothes.” These were conscience issues for me, not biblical mandates. Even so, it would have been wrong for me to sin against my conscience by wearing whatever I wanted to wear to a church meeting.
It will take you a long time to lovingly guide and envision your church into biblical freedom that does not bind their consciences or for others to arrogantly look down on those who hold different secondary preferences.
Part of this discussion hangs on our understanding of worldliness. The old-time Gnostics believed and taught that the world was bad, harmful, and evil. So they abstained—as much as one could—from the things of the world.
This worldview is an unfortunate preferential stance to take because there is so much in God’s world to enjoy. The modern-day legalist has picked up on this Gnostic notion too. They teach that worldliness is in the world, a message that is contrary to the Word of God.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life —is not from the Father but is from the world (1 John 2:14-15)
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (James 1:14).
John and James see worldliness in the heart, not in our culture. It is when our evil desires take the good things in our world and use them for evil. Here are a few examples.
You can tie all of these things to the worldly heart. To abstain from them, as though they are the things that cause our sinfulness, is to miss the mark regarding where real sin abides. The worst outcome of this is isolating yourself from the things in our culture while incarcerating yourself by the idols of your heart. There are merit and wisdom in abstaining from things that tempt our sinful hearts, but it would be misguided to think those things were the causes of sin.
Paul talked about two ditches in 1 Corinthians 8 that we should steer clear. The first is knowledge, which can make people arrogant in their freedom, and the second is a weak conscience that can keep a person in bondage to fear. The first group looks down on the other group, while the second group lives in fear, which can lead to a life of secret-keeping and other forms of deception.
You have the privilege of leading your church through this opportunity for change. While you don’t want to be too quick to push for change, you also don’t want to let this go as though it does not matter. A gospel-centered life is a life of freedom in Jesus that unhooks us from the world in every way.
Your people have been called to freedom (Galatians 5:1), whether it is freedom from self-righteous arrogance or freedom from fear found in the bondage to secondary issues. As you lead your folks, remember this is an emotional issue that is tied to deeply rooted and enculturated thinking. Your task will not be easy.
It would serve you well to become a student of the conscience and how un- or sub-biblical rules can bind it. You can find some helpful articles on our website regarding conscience. Also, understanding fear and faith as it pertains to decision-making would be beneficial too.
Thank you for your question.