By Rev. Mark Creech
Christian Action League
May 20, 2022
I stopped at an old country store many years ago to purchase some gas and a snack. While there, I took the occasion to share the Gospel with a man. I didn’t realize it when our conversation began, but he had been drinking. As I explained God’s plan of salvation, his understanding was drowned in his inebriation. What I took away from that experience was hearts and minds dulled by alcohol are less able to decide for Christ.
As a preacher, I often feel like a John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness when advocating for abstinence from alcohol. Among my fellow clergy, even conservative ministers, you will hardly find one who has done an entire sermon on alcohol. Most haven’t even referenced it as a subpoint. The subject of alcohol has largely been abandoned in the pulpit.
Some pastors will defend their silence by saying the Bible doesn’t teach abstinence from alcohol; it only prohibits drunkenness. Others contend it’s too divisive a subject that can cause conflict and offenses. They say they want to keep the Gospel front and center. Some religious leaders drink and are proud of it. They parade their so-called Christian liberty to imbibe.
This way of addressing the issue of alcohol by Christian leaders today is so far removed from the leadership of the great denominations of America’s past.
In his classic work, Christianity in the United States, published in 1888, Daniel Dorchester says the temperance movement was never just a humanitarian movement but sprung up out of the churches. Dorchester writes:
“In the beginning, it grew out of the life of the churches. The first conspicuous efforts were put forth by clergymen: clergymen were leading advocates and actors in the first organizations; the first and most complete organizations were effected pursuant to formal action by ecclesiastical bodies and through committees appointed by them; and, moreover, through all the struggles in the first half of this century [19th century], as well as in more recent years, the reform received its best impulse, its surest support, and its chief pecuniary supplies from the Christian churches.”
In a tremendous work by Peter Lumpkins, Alcohol Today: Abstinence in an Age of Indulgence, Lumpkins notes the impressive scholarship of spiritual giants who called for abstinence. Men such as Charles Spurgeon, John L. Dagg, John Broadus, William Ritchie, Francis Wayland, Moses Stuart, Taylor Lewis, and Lyman Beecher. The list is very long.
Lumpkins also mentions Richard Lees, British theologian, philosopher, and Old Testament scholar, whom Lumpkins argues “literally shook England with his sophisticated understanding of abstinence.”
Lees “was widely and derisively known as the ‘Ghost of Temperance’ because of his frail, thin physique. Yet he was feared all England over for his forceful, merciless bouts in debates with liquor advocates,” writes Lumpkins. “Lees’ astute scholarship is most visible with his mammoth production, The Temperance Bible Commentary…a single but exhaustive volume for the study of wine in the Bible and a virtual masterpiece that thoroughly explores every biblical passage which mentioned wine.”
Please forgive the further quoting of Lumpkins at length, but what he says is genuinely worth reading. He concludes:
“Given such a great cloud of witnesses, we are not surprised that entire Christian denominations were convinced of biblical abstinence. In fact, virtually every Protestant denomination offered public pro-abstinent statements. Yet today people commonly argue that adhering to abstinence is mostly, if not entirely, indicative of uneducated preachers who possess an eerie, obsessive focus on a few moral taboos such as drinking, dancing, dealing cards, and smoking cigarettes. The facts say otherwise.
“Most evangelical denominations were solidly behind temperance reform. Many denominations gave large sums of money for temperance education. Furthermore, [even] liberal Christianity strongly advocated temperance reform.
“Notable liberal Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch, who, more than anyone else, fathered what ultimately was called the ‘Social Gospel,’ fully embraced the temperance movement. He wrote, ‘Alcohol is a spirit born of hell [but it is] merely a satellite and tool of a greater devil, and that devil is Mammon [money].'”
Admittedly, I have not explained from the Scriptures how abstinence is taught. Not because it isn’t in the Bible, but because it’s a subject that requires extensive study and not just a cursory look at verses which appear at face value to support moderation. It would require more than an editorial, but a series of articles to do it justice.
However, doesn’t it seem plausible that if the position of every mainline Protestant denomination in the past – the scholarship of the highest and brightest theologians of yesteryear – were essentially on the same page and argued for abstinence from alcohol – something among our clergy and churches today has gone awry.
What? Did everyone suddenly get smarter or more spiritual than our predecessors on this subject? Do we actually believe we know the Bible better than they did? Has our scholarship been superior? Were all of their efforts to save souls and spare lives somehow ridiculously misguided? That just doesn’t seem probable, especially in this age of apostasy and dumbed-down education.
Our churches have moved from abstinence on alcohol to arguing in favor of same-sex marriage. I’m not saying there is causation between our abandonment of abstinence from alcohol and other moral and doctrinal compromises of the church. I’m just pointing out how far we’ve fallen.
Moreover, I am convinced the more alcohol makes its inroads into our churches and society without stiff resistance, the more people will be impaired, to a lesser or greater degree, and likely unable to respond with clear and sober minds to the Gospel and be saved.