In my reading I’ve noticed the church seems to go through stages in its outrage against evil. Mostly I’ve been studying the history of alcohol. I can’t forget other issues completely, but the stages in the alcohol outrage seem to provide the most accessible template for examining this issue. Here are the five stages history offers over the church’s outrage against alcohol:
1. Alcohol is EVIL and it needs to be prohibited for everyone.
The first stage is outrage over the evil of a thing—in this case “demon alcohol.” Stories were told of how it ruined families, promoted other evil and society would be a better if there was no alcohol at all—not a single drink. The church was not satisfied that “we Christians don’t drink,” they wanted nobody in the country to drink…which of course led to prohibition. If the church is successful in this first stage it leads to laws which prohibit the behavior—not just because it is sin…but because it is evil and needs to be banished from society—even from the lives of unbelievers.
2. Alcohol is SIN and no Christian should do it.
When the church’s attempt to ban a thing for all people fails (as it did when prohibition was repealed) we then default to stage two—agreeing that “Christians don’t do it.” The vast majority of “evangelicals” of the post-prohibition were unanimous—“Christians don’t drink.” At this stage like-minded denominations united to reject the “so-called Christians” who practiced the thing. In the case of alcohol, the tee-totalers were Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, and the Disciples of Christ who scolded the Episcopalians and Roman Catholics for allowing alcohol. At this stage there is a subtle shift in terminology—the thing is called “sin” more than “evil.”
3. Abstinence is our TRADITION and we don’t drink.
Over time prohibitions break down. Methodists met Presbyterians and Congregationalists who had started using alcohol. Nazarenes went to Europe and met Nazarenes who happily visited the local pub—and not just to witness. At this stage a denomination quits calling the thing “sin” because they know there are Christians who do it—after all their own kids do it! Yet they hold on to the notion that for us “we prohibit using alcohol—it’s our rich tradition.” At this the discussion moves beyond the question of evil or sin and is more about “keeping your promise” or “submitting to the Christian community.” Abstaining may be more of a protest or test of submission as anything to do with God.
4. Alcohol is UNWISE for leaders.
Churches go through stage rapidly often simultaneously with the above stage. At this stage the thing becomes acceptable at one level but unacceptable at another “higher” level. “Community Members” are permitted to drink but “Full Members” are expected to be tee-totalers. Or, maybe the laity are permitted to drink while the denomination insists that ministers won’t (e.g. today’s Methodists).
5. Alcohol is QUESTIONABLE and we urge members to avoid it.
At stage five the behavior is still suspect, but not enough to make it a rule. Members are “urged” toward a higher level of living by totally abstaining as a matter of witness or as a means of self-denial. At this stage the rule becomes advice; the decree melts into recommendation. In my denomination at this stage a thing is moved from “Membership Commitments” to “Special Directions.” A denomination at this stage still prefers total abstinence, but they no longer insist on it.
6. Alcohol is NOT AN ISSUE to us.
At the sixth stage the thing is taken off the table altogether. Ask a Congregationalist church member today what they believe about total abstinence and you’ll get a perplexed look as if you’ve asked them what their stance on wearing jewelry is. Denominations who once were at the forefront of trying to banish a behavior from the entire nation often eventually are not even able to banish it from their midst—indeed they don’t even imagine the thing is an issue.
The history of alcohol is at it later stages in the USA among evangelicals so that’s not the only issues I’ll be thinking about this week. I’m more interested in the recent movements for social reform—things like prohibiting abortions or homosexual marriage. Will denominations go through these six stages on these issues too?
Now, I can hear it already—some are being tempted to say, “But these things are biblical and those things they fussed about in the past weren’t.” I don’t want to get into a Bible wrestling match, but I need to say that all these denominations 100 years ago were just as sure about prohibition as evangelicals are today about abortion and homosexual marriage. In fact, a close reading of the documents shows they were more sure. So saying, “But the Bible is clear,” won’t guarantee these stages won’t happen. What will?
That’s what I’m pondering this week: What would keep the church from not going through the same stages when it comes to abortion or homosexual marriage? At what stage is your denomination already? Are these stages inevitable? Are they bad or good?