A U.S. sociologist once teasingly shared that the difference between evangelicals in Europe and the United States is that the Europeans tend to be more relaxed about alcohol, while the Americans are more uptight about it.

While memorable, this observation does not always seem to be true. Consider this story.

The people of Estonia used to struggle with alcohol dependency after vodka was introduced into their society. The long, dark periods of autumn, winter and spring brought on depression that led people to drink.

The so-called Läänemaa revival at the end of 19th century was a powerful spiritual movement that spread from village to village. Hundreds repented and experienced genuine conversion, including deliverance from alcohol dependency. All the pubs on Estonia’s Vormsi Island closed because nobody patronized them.

The Baptist tradition in Estonia emerged from such an experience. Abstaining from alcohol was seen as a sign of God’s victory over it. In addition, in a culture that suppressed and marginalized them, Baptists developed a strong stand against alcohol, specifically as a counter-cultural witness to a power above and beyond the bondage of culture’s conventions.
In a sense, we can look at this story as paradigmatic of most, if not all, eastern and central European Baptist communities.

But consider another story. When I lived in Belgium, I was part of a friendly Baptist community that took the biblical mandate of fellowship seriously. After worship, we would gather around large tables to eat lunch together.
I was initially surprised when, along with the meal, several bottles of a good-quality wine were served. Responding to my amazement, the pastor told me that wine was integral to dining in Francophonic culture.

A month later, we visited a Flemish community in the North. The lunch there was served with beer—another cultural convention. For these two communities, alcohol abuse was not a serious problem. Churches in the communities, therefore, were “culture-friendly.” They tried to reach the culture on the culture’s terms.

Different attitudes toward the use of alcohol can be traced to the beginning of the Protestant movement in Europe. Calvin repudiated the use of alcohol while trying to purify culture. He did not succeed, but the agenda survived. On the other hand, Luther did not object to alcohol. He saw it as an attempt to socialize and be a part of an emerging national culture.

These different attitudes live on in today’s adherents to the tradition of the Radical Reformation. The revivalist and Holiness movements in 19th century Europe developed as a reaction to the culture’s abuse of alcohol. They created a taboo on the use of alcohol that was relevant, in their own time, as an evangelistic witness to the culture.

Later, however, the tradition lost its momentum, and the taboo seemed void of clear biblical roots. Today, young people and newcomers to the church question it. They can see, perhaps, the roots of the tradition, but not its biblical meaning and relevance.

As with many other practical issues in Baptist communities, alcohol use is not an issue of “right” or “wrong” interpretation of certain biblical passages. Rather, it is an issue of contextualization.

Modern culture’s challenge to Baptist communities is like that of the early 16th century: the relationship between church and culture. Should the church accept moderate alcohol use and try to transform the culture on the culture’s own terms? Or should the church reinforce the taboo as a confrontational means of challenging the culture on the church’s own terms?

Parush Parushev is director of applied theology at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic.

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