Wednesday, April 22, 2009

SBC: Vice Squad?

The Alabama Baptist and other media outlets associated with the Southern Baptist Convention are frequently dominated by stories of efforts to curtail gambling and alcohol use. Any why not? Wasting the family’s grocery money at the slot machines and driving drunk hurt everyone. But should those things dominate both our discussions and our energies and become what the SBC is known for?

Who among us would not be able to recount the efforts of our own church, or that of people we know, to keep liquor stores a suitable distance away from church property and retain a ‘sanctified zone’ for our pious goings-on? Otherwise ambivalent Christians can be counted on to mount the proverbial holy crusade to keep the pool hall across the street from getting a liquor license.

Why does sanctimony seem so appealing?

“Sanctimony” is a bit strong, you say? The April 2 issue of The Alabama Baptist carries the story of a Prattville church that successfully ‘halted’ the lease of state property – located down the street from the church and its school – to a liquor store (click here for a blog article about it). The Minister of Administration for East Memorial Baptist Church, Bryan Easley, gave the rather revealing reason the congregation was so interested in maintaining its ‘sanctified zone’: “None of us wanted to drive by a liquor store on our way to church and school and home.”


The church was not faced with an issue of its congregants needing to navigate through besotted heathen stumbling around the streets, spilling alcohol and obscenities all over children innocently skipping their way to Vacation Bible School. It was not faced with the problem of drunken revelers sleeping off their partying in church doorways, vomiting on the lawn, or engaging in promiscuity behind the church sign emblazoned with the message “Sign Broken – Message Inside.” (What if our hypothetical hung-over drunkards wanted to hear that message, and proceeded inside to partake?)

Instead, the minister did not want to drive by the store.

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the minister and his congregation wanted to avoid other things:

“None of us wanted to drive by a prostitute on our way to church and school and home.”

“None of us wanted to drive by a drug addict on our way to church and school and home.”

“None of us wanted to drive by a mugging on our way to church and school and home.”

“None of us wanted to drive by a gambler on our way to church and school and home.”

“None of us wanted to drive by a homeless man on our way to church and school and home.”

Besides – none of us? On the way to church, school and home? What if they merely saw a liquor store ad in the Yellow Pages as they looked for a fried chicken place that delivers? (See the link to the Sam Rainer article below for the not-so-inside joke.)

Several thoughts come to mind, most of which I am not able to transcribe verbatim, for I would imagine that many who deem themselves followers of Christ and don’t want to drive by a liquor store would also proudly proclaim that neither do they want to “internet surf by someone speaking sternly to fellow believers."

First, let us be clear about the biblical teaching on alcohol. It is NOT forbidden. The biblical prohibition is against drunkenness. The biblical prohibition against causing others to stumble is NOT an absolute mandate to avoid drinking – or anything else, for that matter – but an indication that when a believer KNOWS that his behavior causes another to stumble, he should be willing to lay aside that otherwise permissible behavior for the sake of his stumbling brother. Sinful behavior, by contrast, is always wrong, whether or not it causes another to stumble. It is perfectly acceptable for believers to choose not to drink at all, either for personal preference or to avoid the possibility that another might be caused to stumble. It is NOT permissible for that believer, having so decided, to consider others of different opinions as less pious or less faithful.

D.A. Carson has reportedly quipped “If I'm called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotalers, I'll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, ‘You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,’ I'll reply, ‘Pass the port’.”

Second, this sentiment reveals a disturbing mindset about which sins we choose to rail against. We have no problem railing against VICES – those things that all those unrepentant heathen or backslidden believers are doing to degrade society. But poll those congregations that spend enormous energy mounting petition drives against gambling and alcohol, and count how many of their sermons in the past twelve months have railed against gluttony, greed, anger, envy, divorce or lust. We rail against the behavior of others while molly-coddling the sin that corrupts the heart.

Third, this sentiment reveals a disturbing mindset about corporate worship. Not only do we want to be left alone to worship God together, but we also want everyone who doesn’t to quit reminding us that they aren’t, and about the condition from which God called each and every one of us. We create a ‘sanctified zone’ around our church buildings to keep the ‘sinners’ – and any evidence that there are any – a safe distance away. Does the very sight of someone sinning – viewed from the protective cocoon of our late-model automobiles – keep us from worship? Does the very knowledge that someone remains lost outside the church walls keep us from worship? Perhaps our true discomfort comes when we consider that perhaps that knowledge should compel us to do something other than roll up our car window or sign a petition.

It should come as no surprise to members of Southern Baptist congregations that we are known as being ‘legalists,’ and hypocrites, to boot. (Sam Rainer talks about an informal poll on this subject taken by his dad, Thom Rainer, on his blog.)

Last, there is inherent in this attitude a presumption that to be Christian you cannot be even close proximity to certain types of sin (I’m still pondering how the mere existence of liquor, sitting in unopened bottles on shelves in a closed store, constitutes sin to be so studiously avoided…or how Jesus himself would have passed current ministerial muster). There is no thought at all given to why it is only gambling and alcohol that must be safely quarantined, and not all those other sins that stem from our creaturely pride.

Instead of faithfully doing our part as believers to herald the kingdom of Christ – characterized by humility, forgiveness, grace and redemption – we are instead engaging in the ancient lie that we can create our own tee-totaling, electronic-bingo-boycotting, man-made empire.

So, for those who maintain that we can’t drive by a liquor store and remain Christian: ‘Pass the port’.

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