Six weeks ago, Nicole Kalil wrote an article for the Florida Baptist Witness entitled "Tallahassee pastor tolerant when it comes to alcohol." Kalil profiled Tallahassee's City Church lead pastor, Dean Inserra, concerning his views on alcohol consumption. Kalil framed Inserra's view as him deciding to not make "moderate consumption of alcohol a big deal" leading him to reportedly affirm the Convention's position as unnecessary. "We lose credibility when we force culture issues as absolutes," Inserra reportedly concluded. Since moderately imbibing intoxicating beverages constitutes a "gray area of Scripture," Inserra desires "Southern Baptists to take a breath and not make alcohol an issue." For Inserra, apparently Southern Baptist abstentionists are "making a lesser-tiered issue a first-tier issue" which, according to the City Church pastor, is "bordering on legalism."
Consequently, while Inserra rightly preaches "firmly and clearly against drunkenness and under-age drinking," City Church leaders, including other pastors, are allowed to drink moderately (in public no more than one drink). Accordingly, Inserra insists he and his wife are not "big drinkers." And because drinking alcohol is not contrary to what the Bible teaches, "making alcohol abstinence a criteria for serving in leadership in the Convention is unacceptable."
According to Kalil, Inserra's vocal position on moderately imbibing intoxicating beverages hasn't been easy for him. In fact, upon learning of his moderation position on intoxicating drink, one Florida Baptist college rescinded Inserra's invitation as a chapel speaker. He believes he's lost opportunities to serve the convention because of his views on alcohol. Nonetheless, Inserra insists evangelicals across the globe would surely agree with him. "We are not the fringe."
Evidently, Florida Baptist Witness's social media became red hot concerning Inserra's candid view on imbibing alcohol not to mention the private emails, texting, and phone calls the state office received. The overwhelming public response to Inserra's moderation view precipitated an explanation about the article from Florida Baptist Witness Executive Editor, Kevin Bumgarner two weeks later.
We published the story as a way to generate conversation on the topic. To a large degree, we were successful. To a very large degree.
Since the July 31 issue came out, I have spent a lot of time talking, tweeting and emailing many of you on both sides of the issue. Inserra says he has received comments from around the state and across the country. Nicole Kalil, who wrote the story, also has had ample opportunity to interact with readers on the topic.
After rehearsing his personal faith experience in Jesus Christ, Bumgarner goes on not only to affirm his theological allegiance to The Baptist Faith and Message, but also to settle anyone's suspicion that he might also practice moderately consuming intoxicating beverages. Bumgarner was clear. "I have abided by a covenant I signed with the board of the Florida Baptist Witness when I was hired that said, among other things, I would refrain from the use of alcohol." For him, however, "that did not require a lifestyle adjustment because I did not drink prior to taking this job." Bumgarner's core point was simple: as with all news agencies, just because the Witness reports the views of others by no means implies the reported views necessarily reflect the views of the Witness. Apparently, some had jumped to those unnecessary conclusions.
A day later, the Florida Baptist Convention's Executive Director-Treasurer, Dr. John Sullivan, cast his vote on the matter with a powerful point of view article "I believe there's no place for use of alcohol for followers of Christ."1 Not only does Dr. Sullivan deny the moral liberty of moderately imbibing alcoholic beverages to church leaders, he extends total abstinence to all followers of Christ.
My conviction is there is no place in the Christian growth and walk that includes the use of wine or any other alcoholic beverage. In fact, after 59 years of ministry, there is not one time I recall the positive value of alcohol use.
For Sullivan, the world wants Christians to think imbibing alcoholic beverages even in a moderate sense is a sign of liberation. We're supposed to believe drinking is "sophisticated and cool" regardless of all the pain and destruction it causes. Even so, while Sullivan concedes it's not his responsibility to "straighten you out on moral values," because of his leadership position in the convention, he found it necessary to respond to such a candid view of moderation as the City Church lead pastor had expressed.
Letters to the editor continued to pour in. The obvious impression is far more were submitted than posted in the letters section (three representative letters to the editor on the alcohol issue by Florida Baptists are Brian Gilliland, Ralph Cole, Clifford L. Halford).
What is more, City Church lead pastor, Dean Inserra, felt he needed to clarify his moderation position on alcohol presented by Nicole Kalil and did so by a lengthy letter to the editor on September 13. Inserra suggests the issue of moderately imbibing intoxicating drink is particularly a cultural and regional controversy in the "Bible Belt among Southern Baptists" confessing he did not know it was "considered wrong for a Christian to drink an adult beverage until I became a Southern Baptist." His parents drank both wine and beer but they, like he, practiced moderation. 'By God's grace I have never been drunk or "tipsy," and I had my first drink after my 21st birthday.' For Inserra, he insists he is both intense and direct in his preaching about drunkenness and under-aged drinking, but nonetheless does not "speak against drinking in moderation, and do not require our staff and leaders to abstain."
Hence, while Inserra claims he's well aware of every argument for teetotalism, respecting and affirming each one, still, for him, "it is a cultural vestige of the geographic South, ahistorical to Christian tradition, and an unbiblical position to promote abstinence as the final position."
Unfortunately, Inserra represents a fundamental ignorance toward a well-rounded historical, biblical, and ethical position on the personal consumption of intoxicating substances for pleasurable purposes, an ignorance widely disseminated among the young, restless, and reformed today. The stark irony resulting from their ceaseless appeal to the theology of "old dead guys" to energize their strict Calvinism while, without the slightest blush, ridiculing total abstinence from intoxicating beverages as a sad relic of a thinly veiled traditionalism remains stunning. The truth is, vast numbers of pre-prohibition Calvinists were champions of total abstinence, including the overwhelming majority of Calvinists in the Southern Baptist Convention. Beginning with the very first resolution on drink in 1886 at Montgomery, Alabama, Southern Baptists logged their social, moral, and religious objection to both sale and use of alcoholic beverages for pleasurable purposes. What is more, virtually every Christian denomination—evangelical and mainline found in all geographic regions of the United States—stood then on alcohol where Southern Baptists stood on alcohol—total abstinence.
To then read Inserra's claim that total abstinence is nothing more than a cultural vestige of the geographic South that is entrenched in unbiblical tradition nicely demonstrates the vast divide—and perhaps, if we continue in the same direction, the insurmountable divide--we have between those whom Inserra suggests are, like him, young pastors leading churches in more urban settings or in towns with large numbers of college students and young professionals and those like me who are total abstainers. Inserra insists he will not make intoxicating drink divisive. 'If we are going to be a church "for the city," I refuse to make alcohol a dividing wall between our church and Tallahassee culture. In my context, it matters.'
Granted my brother Dean.
But you must realize that while you refuse to make alcohol a dividing wall between you and your culture, your refusal may very well create a dividing wall between you and your convention.
To therefore suggest as does Inserra the unacceptability of making alcohol abstinence a criteria for serving in convention leadership makes a very good start toward a sturdy wall between us. And please remember. It's moderationists like Inserra who are challenging the rich historic moral precedent among Southern Baptists, a precedent that categorically prohibits the pleasurable use of intoxicating beverage by its public figures. Hence, it's definitively not traditionalists who are setting the woods on fire on the alcohol issue. Rather it's those who are challenging the precedent. Incidentally, I'm not sure how such an incorrigible working principle fits Inserra's repeated assurance he views alcohol a nonissue. I think this only shows how moderationists are many times blinded to their own views being every bit as rigid and inflexible as claim for the views of the abstentionists they criticize.
For Southern Baptists, the use or nonuse of intoxicating substances for pleasurable purposes is going to be around for a good long while. Increasingly, the arguments will become more complex not less. And, with marijuana consumption for pleasurable purposes on the threshold of not only being culturally accepted but legally permissible all over the United States, including the Bible-belt south Inserra cites, I'm afraid moderationists like Inserra have their moral work cut out for them. As I argued in Alcohol Today in 2009:
For example, since, for the moderationist, the intoxicating substance in wine is morally acceptable and socially approved —in moderate amounts, of course—would the recreational smoking of marijuana, in moderate amounts, not also be morally acceptable and socially approved? And even though cocaine is highly toxic to the central nervous system, theoretically at least small enough amounts possibly could be consumed so as to fit the criteria "moderation." If so, what moral reservation does the moderationist raise against recreational cocaine use, since the only intoxicant about which we know in Scripture has been happily validated on the moderationist's own terms? Countless other intoxicating substances could be mentioned but would only serve redundancy.
Therefore, if we are correct, we may sum up and rightly draw this conclusion about the "drink but don't get drunk" position: if the case can be made that consuming moderate amounts of intoxicating substances in beverage drinks for recreational use is morally and biblically acceptable, we can presume that the case for consuming moderate amounts of intoxicating substances in non-beverage means for recreational use also is morally and biblically acceptable. The moderationist cannot have it both ways. Either intoxicating substances in moderate amounts are morally acceptable in both wine and non-wine means or else intoxicating substances in moderate amounts are morally acceptable in neither. (Kindle, location 1045).
1for the record, I greatly sympathize with Dr. Sullivan's article because he and I hold very similar views on imbibing intoxicating substances. Know also Dr. Sullivan warmly recommended my book Alcohol Today: Abstinence in an Age of Indulgence in his article, a recommendation for which I am humbly grateful.