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Church Attitudes Toward Alcohol Changing
Restrictions on alcohol use have become more lenient among evangelical churches, though abuse is still frowned upon.

It appears the stigma of alcohol consumption among evangelicals is on the wane. Drunkenness, a vice condemned throughout the Bible, is still universally forbidden. But social drinking is falling further into the grey zone, and more social drinks are falling into Christian cups, according to impressions offered by Gideons, Mennonite Brethren, Salvationists, Pentecostals and Christian Reformed.

… between 75 and 80 percent of our nation's teenagers regularly or occasionally drink alcohol. And their parents drink almost as much.

To use biblical terms, more evangelicals are willing to see God as the one who "made wine to gladden the hearts of men" (Psalm 104:15). And fewer seem to think that verses like Proverbs 20:1—"Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise"—commend total abstinence.

Sociologist Reg Bibby says in Canada's Teens that between 75 and 80 percent of our nation's teenagers regularly or occasionally drink alcohol. Their parents drink almost as much. At the same time, most conservative Protestant churches have rules and regulations that prohibit any kind of drinking—a carry over from the days of Prohibition and the Christian temperance movement of early 1900s.

Is tee-totaling still the mark of a good evangelical Christian, or has the stance softened? It depends on whom you talk to. Consider for example the Gideons, the evangelistic society known for placing Bibles in hotels. A few years ago they noticed a number of people would stop short of becoming members because of the policy of total abstinence. So, after seven years of debate, in 1998 they changed the prohibition of the use of alcohol to the prohibition of the abuse of alcohol, and their membership shot up 500, from 3,300 to 3,800 today.

Another example: an outspoken Mennonite Brethren leader says the incidence of social drinking in his churches has risen, yet church leaders are failing to address the issue. John Redekop first made his point a year and a half ago; he tried to spark a debate with his opinion column in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, but aside from some affirming remarks, no one took the bait.

"There is social drinking; I've been in homes when it happens, and I'm not aware of the church taking action on social drinking for many years," said Redekop in an interview. His solution? For the sake of consistency, change the rules to allow for the odd drink. While abstinence may be better than imbibing, drinking is not biblically forbidden, so they may as well come clean with that recognition, he said.

Bill Griffin, public relations director of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC), has also noticed an increasing tolerance of social drinking among some Pentecostal churches. But that doesn't mean they would reconsider their policy of total abstention. "The topic is so far off the PAOC radar that it would not have seen the light of day at a conference debate."

The Pentecostal church grew tremendously in the 1960s and 1970s, and with that growth came new people with differing views. Members from different backgrounds, together with societal changes, have admittedly led to some shifts in Christian lifestyles and practices. For example, Pentecostals and many other evangelicals used to preach against Hollywood morality and movie-going. But then television entered every home, and the discussion shifted to discerning good from bad and avoiding the bad. Griffin, speaking personally, wondered if the social drink was destined to go the way of the Hollywood movie—become increasingly permitted until it's normal for Christians to drink without getting drunk.

The Salvation Army has held a tough stance against alcohol consumption since its founding. A person can't become a member (or "soldier" in Salvationist language) without a pledge to live a dry life—and there's almost no chance that will ever change. But there are many fine Salvationists who sign up as "adherents" because they won't make that pledge. This doesn't make them less Christian, said media relations director George Patterson, because he's seen too many solid Christian characters who still take the occasional drink. But, for the sake of their ministry to people with drinking problems, it doesn't make sense to permit soldiers and others in the Army to drink.

So, in the face of increasing social drinking among members, how does a Christian organization maintain its integrity? One route is permissiveness; such as is the case with the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Their official policy allows for drinking in moderation, recognizing the gift of alcoholic spirits, but also warning of the evils of excess.

Bill Veenstra, the director of the CRC's Canadian programs, has also noticed more wine in Christian homes. It's imperative, he said, that when the scales tip from moderate to immoderate levels of alcohol consumption, we need vigilance in speaking against it. "It's not enough to just pour the wine down the sink," said Veenstra. We need to provide care for those who have difficulties, he said.

One way to help Christians who struggle with alcohol is to substitute grape juice for wine during communion. Jeanet Sybenga, the director of the CRC's Indian Family Centre in Winnipeg, introduced grape juice at her centre and has seen positive results. "Now I feel as though I can take part," one community member said to Sybenga. It's important to communicate a message of acceptance in spite of one's drinking habits, she said. An abstinence policy can send out the message that you have to stop drinking in order to go to church or to be a Christian. She emphasizes that all people are welcome at the centre. "Someone with addictions needs to feel accepted in spite of those problems."

Trinity Western University in Langley, B. C., deals with the issue using a campus-wide ban on use or possession of alcohol. Faculty and staff commit to the same restrictions as the students, said executive vice president Guy Saffold. Actually, the community policy applies whether or not you live on campus. It's more than saying they're a dry campus; it's a lifestyle standard, said Saffold.

"We don't have police out there checking up on people," said DeVonne Friesen, head of press relations for Trinity Western. It's more of an honour system, he says. Each year people have difficulty keeping their pledge to abstain, and their cases are brought before the Student Life committee for disciplinary action. When students break their commitment to abstain, it becomes a question of their integrity, which becomes a moral issue, even if social drinking per se is not, said Saffold.

How to explain a rise in social drinking? Some, like Don Higgins, national president of the Gideons, point to carnality, plain and simple—a lack of intimacy with Christ. His point is that if people would experience a greater satisfaction from life in the Spirit, they wouldn't need to turn to things like alcohol. Others, like Veenstra, point to upward social mobility: as immigrants become more established, they can afford the luxuries of wine and drink. Statistics indicate that drinking levels increase with higher education, which is often associated with the upper socio-economic classes as well. Redekop said today's social pressure to drink is "tremendous." Weddings, work functions, birthday parties and other celebrations all become occasions to lift a glass. In the face of such pressure, he sees a lack of spine among church leaders to confront the habit to drink. "I would guess that 80 percent of our younger members don't even know we have a policy of prohibition," said Redekop. Church members need moral instruction from their leaders, and they are largely silent on this issue, he said.

Perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way. The 100-year-old Woman's Christian Temperance Union is still kicking in Toronto. In fact, their numbers are growing. In their heyday in the 1920s and '30s they carried banners that read, "Every Drunkard Was Once a Moderate Drinker," and "Liquor Enslaves, Prohibition Sets Free." Due in large part to their efforts, they watched Parliament enact Prohibition legislation in 1916. It's unimaginable to expect any such thing today, given the current lack of debate over the use of alcohol in evangelical churches.

Aiden Schlichting Enns is a freelance writer and magazine editor living in Vancouver.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2003.




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