Baptists have long viewed drinking as a sin–publicly if not always in private. But a new study suggests ministers of the denomination are not of one mind when it comes to moderate consumption of alcohol.
Fifty-three percent of North Carolina Baptist pastors surveyed said they believe the Bible teaches that any use of alcohol is wrong, while 44 percent disagreed.
About a third (32.8 percent) said they believe moderate alcohol use is acceptable, while 62.7 percent disagreed.
Three ministers in four (74.6 percent) said they have had a drink of alcohol at least once, and 11 percent had consumed a drink in the last year. Fifteen percent said they had experienced some problems due to alcohol use.
Baptists once were known for winning elections in dry counties and church covenants eschewing alcohol’s use or sale. Today they are the butt of a myriad of jokes about beer drinking and not recognizing each other in liquor stores. This suggests the professed view that Baptists are teetotalers doesn’t match up with the actual behavior of many people in the pews, a thesis supported by research.
But less is known about how Baptist ministers view the topic of moderate drinking. Chris Austin, an alcohol educator and Baptist, had listened to anecdotal evidence for years before setting out to quantify habits, attitudes and beliefs concerning alcohol use in a sampling of Baptist ministers from North Carolina.
A Baptist seminary graduate who works as a substance-abuse health educator for North Carolina State University, Austin mailed a survey to 304 pastors of churches affiliated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, and 134 responded.
Austin’s study, titled “Baptist Ministers’ Habits, Attitudes and Beliefs Concerning Alcohol Use,” found no one view of alcohol among the ministers, but ministers who were theologically moderate, more educated and grew up in homes where drinking was not condemned were less likely to believe the Bible says that all drinking is wrong.
Austin also found that ministers often misperceive their colleagues’ views on the subject. While barely half of respondents said their biblical understanding was that any use of alcohol is wrong, nearly 80 percent thought their peers would feel that way. Similarly, while 33 percent said they believe moderate use of alcohol is acceptable, only 16 percent thought other pastors would accept that view.
He also found that most alcohol education being offered through churches begins with sixth-graders and up, meaning that many churches are neglecting alcohol education for younger children. Studies suggest that many drug and alcohol behaviors begin in childhood and early adolescence.
A majority of the ministers were unaware that their Baptist state convention offers technical support for substance-abuse issues. Just 41 percent knew the services exist, and only 3 percent had taken advantage of them.
“Perhaps the most relevant implication of this study, as well as a guide for further research, is the need to discuss the issue of substance abuse out in the open,” Austin wrote. “This study showed evidence that there is a disconnect between what is seen as a tacit scriptural belief about alcohol and actual belief among many of its pastors.”
He suggested Baptist organizations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and local Baptist associations, take up the issue and that Baptist seminaries take a closer look at how they educate future ministers to address substance abuse.
“Much of what a minister does is pastoral care, and he or she statistically speaking, will probably cross paths with the effects of substance abuse in his or her congregation,” he concluded.
A majority of ministers (54 percent) said they believe the use of fermented wine was a normal, accepted activity among the Israelites and New Testament Christians. But 41 percent thought the Bible speaks of two different kinds of wine: fermented and unfermented. “Do I think Jesus condoned fermented wine? No I don’t,” wrote one respondent.
About 69 percent reported that while the Bible does not forbid the use of alcohol, the biblical ideal is to abstain.
Abstinence is the official view of the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1999, thousands of messengers to the SBC annual meeting signed pledge cards to abstain from using any substance having a negative impact on personal behavior distributed by North Carolina Baptist Ted Stone.
The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, which encouraged abstention from the “sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage,” can still be found in some Southern Baptist churches.
But Austin says Baptists weren’t always monolithically an “abstinent people.”
The Bible contains more than 240 references to wine, and the Puritans loaded more beer than water on the Mayflower when they left for the New World.
Virtually all Protestants in colonial America saw alcohol as a gift from God and intemperance as a sin. It is widely believed that bourbon whiskey was invented by a Baptist preacher, though the story can’t be confirmed.
Temperance groups began to form in late 1700s, Austin said, as Quakers and then other groups opposed the use of distilled spirits. Alcohol consumption increased dramatically in the late 18th and early 19th century, and alcohol increasingly became viewed as a scapegoat for society’s ills.
The Southern Baptist Convention didn’t make its first pronouncement on alcohol until 1886. A “Report on Temperance and Prohibition” protested the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors and pledged to work for the “speedy overthrow” of their use.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.