Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Black History Month, William Wilberforce and the SBC Alcohol Controversy

It is right and proper to acknowledge the role of William Wilberforce in his tireless effort to end the English slave trade. This year marks the 200th Anniversary of its abolishment and an upcoming movie, Amazing Grace, chronicles his story in this noble crusade.

I’ve been asking around for some feedback on the issue of slavery and its parallels to the alcohol controversy within the SBC. I haven’t gotten much from the few sources that I’ve queried. No one who adheres to a “moderate drinking” persuasion either in theory or practice has quieted my objections that the same thing that can be said of alcohol can be said of slavery. So, I’ll boldly publish these queries and see what wisdom the blogging world might shed on my thinking.

Of course, Southern Baptists have a dark history with this dark and evil institution. When our Baptist mission board refused to appoint slaveholders as missionaries, key leaders gathered in Augusta, Georgia in 1845 and formed the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Southern Baptists repented of their ties to slavery in a formal resolution adopted in 1995.

I suppose there remain a few racist SBCers lurking under a few rocks here and there. But our denomination has transcended the South and is now present in all 50 states and is America’s largest Protestant denomination. There are no voices crying for the return of slavery. Thankfully, we universally acknowledge the sin of slavery.

However, I’ve noticed a few parallels with a debate currently being waged on our most recent resolution, this one centering on alcohol.

Advocates of moderate drinking allege two major tenets to justify their position: 1) the Bible nowhere gives an outright prohibition of consuming alcohol; 2) the Bible sometimes portrays alcohol in a positive way. I will not here, at this time, delineate those arguments fully, since most have a good grasp on our controversy. Neither will I put forth the overwhelming textual evidence that portrays alcohol in a negative light. But, may I daringly say, those were the same arguments made by our Baptist forebears to justify slavery.

“Wine is sometimes portrayed positively in the Bible!” sounds mighty close to Richard Furman’s (pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina) pronouncement back in 1838: "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example."

And factually, Furman wasn’t lying. There are Bible passages that portray slavery in a positive way, most notably Leviticus 25:44: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life.”

Regarding slavery we’d say, that isn’t the full counsel of God. So why can’t we say that regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages?

“But Jesus turned water into wine!” Yes, and he also healed a Roman centurian’s slave (Matthew 8:5ff) with nary a word of rebuke against slavery. So, if we are to conclude that Jesus’ making of wine in the first century is an endorsement of 21st century distilled alcohol, then can we relax about the enslavement of people in our world today?

“But Paul told Timothy to drink wine!” Yes, for medicinal purposes. And he also told the runaway slave Onesimus to return to his Christian slave-holding master Philemon. If Paul was endorsing beer drinking, why wouldn’t we consistently argue he was endorsing slavery?

“But we drink in moderation, there is no abuse of alcohol!” Baptist pastor Basil Manly encouraged his slave holding colleagues with the same logic. In his 1836 “Lecture on Ants” to the Charleston Literary and Philosophical Society, he said: “It surely ought to comfort the abolitionists to know that although the ants do hold slaves, the masters are humane and gentle, and the slaves are contented, industrious, and happy.” Ah, yes, no abuses there.

No one within the SBC is arguing slavery or racial bigotry. Fortunately, the counsel of God has thunderously invaded our hearts and minds on this issue. In fact, I imagine this post will be highly offensive to many who hold to “moderate drinking.” But I believe the parallels are significant. I can only say that our pilgrimage to resist slavery and view it as ungodly and unbiblical was not based on any singular ‘smoking gun’ verse; but on the Holy Spirit implanting the mind of God in our hearts. We saw the whole counsel of God. Knowing Scripture never contradicts itself, we saw the “pro-slavery” passages in their proper view. I hope we will soon do the same regarding alcohol.


Jim Shaver said...

Early Baptists in the South owned slaves, drank wine and believed in predestination.

Now if we could just get rid of the Calvinists we'd be pure!

Rod said...


Slow down a bit. Calvinism was their strength and reclamation. Doctrinal truth finally prevailed in their racist views and brought them to the Biblical truth of abolition. I'm hopeful Biblical truth will conquer modern libertinism and bring others to abstinence.

bryan riley said...

“Wine is sometimes portrayed positively in the Bible!” doesn't sound at all like "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." MOreover, one doesn't have to cite to Leviticus to demonstrate a celebration of alcohol.

I understand the concern about abuse of 21st century, inexpensive alcohol, but let's not try to prohibit it biblically except to say that its abuse is wrong and that it is very easy to abuse given its ready availability and inexpensive nature. We can also say that a spirit filled Christian absolutely should not need to rely on anything to be complete.

Of course, given today's quick to turn to drugs society...

I really don't see the analogue, but I understand that it is your opinion.

Rod said...


The parallels I see are that advocates of slavery and advocates of moderate drinking share a common denominator: both believe(d)the Scriptures spoke favorably of their issue while ignoring the overwhelming Biblical evidence of prohibition for their contemporary application.

Was it spiritually acceptable to God for Israelites to hold slaves? Apparently so. Was it spiritually acceptable to God for 19th century Christians to hold slaves? No. Was it spiritually acceptable to God for Israelites to use wine? Apparently so. Is it spiritually acceptable to God for 21st century Christians to use wine? I don't think so.

bryan riley said...

How can it be spiritually acceptable to God one moment and not the next? God doesn't change. But we do.

Also, will you use outside cultural factors guide you in your understanding of the appropriateness of women in ministry? Homosexuality? You pick. I think that we should look at cultural contexts, but how do you determine when?

Look, I agree with you that there is widsom in realizing that alcohol can be dangerous, particularly with the numbers of cars on the road, its availability in cheap forms, and the lack of education around what real moderation is. But I cannot see the analogy you are trying to draw and I cannot say that God is against alcohol. He is against its use to escape reality and other unwise uses, yes, but not as a part of the enjoyment of the world He has given us.

Rod said...


Thanks for your continued visits. I need all the help I can get in thinking Biblically.

Also, I appreciate your view about the lack of wisdom relating to alcohol. That's a concession many in this controversy won't make.

I agree that God doesn't change...pertaining to His character. His "immutability" is one of my favorite of His attributes. But I do believe in progressive revelation and progressive responsibility (law/grace, blood of lambs/blood of Jesus, etc.).

I don't know how to state my view any more clearly. Do you disagree with my premise...that slavery is spoken of positively in some Biblical passages?

Bryan Riley said...

Yes. I don't think any of the passages you cite puts a positive spin on slavery.