Bruce M Sabin
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Baptist theology is rooted in a deep conviction that men and women of faith have access to their God, through the Holy Spirit. These believers have an individual relationship with God. This view, known as the priesthood of believers, is a foundational issue for the Baptist faith. Since the beginnings of Baptist thought, this individual freedom has been a basis of doctrine.

Because of this insistence on individual conscience, Baptists have always rejected formal, binding creeds. Refusing to hold such creeds as infallible, Baptists have suffered persecution. Banishments, torture, and even executions fill Baptist history. However, despite tremendous opposition from ecclesiastical, and state authorities, Baptists held their beliefs.

Unfortunately, forsaking this historical freedom of conscience, legalism and creedalism have become part of Southern Baptist thought. One such example is the prohibition of alcohol. Many church leaders expect each individual's conscience to conform to the collective conscience. Individuals who do not fit the collective conscience face excommunication (Hailey, 1992).

Biblical exegesis shows that the choice to drink or not drink is a matter of conscience. In spite of this, Southern Baptists in the United States, almost universally, have strict rules requiring abstinence. Individual freedom is limited to the choice between church membership or not.

Southern Baptists clothed their legalism in the title of covenants. However, this insistence on abstinence is a direct contradiction to the individual liberty that Baptists have always claimed. Creating extrabiblical rules violates individual conscience.


In the history of Christianity, alcoholic prohibition is a relatively new idea. In fact, alcohol was a normal part of life. In Colonial America, the Puritans expected Christians to drink (Hearn, 1943). In the 1700s, a Baptist minister created the formula for bourbon whiskey (Hailey, 1992). During the 1800s, many Southern ministers operated stills, and sold alcohol (Hearn, 1943). Parishioners who owned stills would tithe their alcohol; and preachers' salaries often included whiskey. All this began to change, however, as the Temperance movement took shape (Hailey, 1992).

The idea that alcohol was dangerous was not new, though. In 600 B.C. Pathagoras noted, "drunkenness is an expression identical with ruin." In 44 B.C., Cicero wrote, "a sensual and intemperate youth hands over a worn-out body to old age," when he drinks to excess. Centuries later, Muhammed declared, "there is a devil in every berry of the grape" (Hearn, 1943). In fact, Islam has a total prohibition of alcohol, proclaiming drinking a sin (Parshall, 1989). Chaucer wrote in A.D. 1380, "character and shame depart when wine comes in." Clearly, for thousands of years, men have known of the dangers of alcohol. Knowledge about the dangers of alcohol stopped few from drinking, however. Jesus not only drank, his first miracle was turning water to wine; and he used wine as a symbol of the salvation through his blood (Hearn, 1943; Jn 2; Lk 22:20).

For Southern Baptists, too, alcohol was a part of life. That is until the Temperance movement began to infiltrate the religious denominations in America. Finally, in 1896, the Southern Baptist Convention officially denounced alcohol and asked that churches excommunicate anyone who sold or drank alcohol. For the first time in Southern Baptist history, drinking was considered immoral. The success of this measure is debatable. A Southern Baptist study has shown that in the 1990s, 46 percent of members drink alcohol (Hailey, 1992).

Investigation shows that although people knew of the danger in alcohol, throughout history, Christian prohibition is a new, and rather American, phenomenon. The decisions of churches to abstain came out of the American Temperance movement. David Hailey, though supporting the SBC's resolution, admits that biblical support for abstinence was an after-thought. Christians had decided, for social reasons, that alcohol was wrong. Only then, did they turn to the Bible to find support (Hailey, 1992).


Legitimate Reasons

There are legitimate reasons for Christians to abstain from alcohol. Many people, throughout history, have chosen to abstain. The reasons usually revolve around the anecdotal observations, noted in the previous section. People have always been able to see the ruined lives of those who abused alcohol. However, as science and modern life have grown, new reasons have also appeared.

In the past, a town's citizens looked at drunks as a shame. However, drunks were little more than a nuisance to their community. This changed during the Industrial Age. Today, drunks pose a serious threat to all around them. Estimates are that half of all automobile fatalities are "alcohol-related." In addition, there are approximately 18 million Americans suffering from alcohol abuse (Koop, 1996). Of those 18 million, experts consider 10 million to be "alcoholics." Alcohol is a cause in 30 percent of all birth-defects, 67 percent of all homicides, and a significant factor in most other types of crime (Hailey, 1992). Clearly, alcohol is having many negative effects on American society.

One possible reason that alcohol abuse is so prevalent in America is the alcohol industry's use of mass media. One study found that in 1980 alone, alcohol producers spent more than $300 million on advertising. In 1991, the Anheuser-Busch Company spent $144,540,000 advertising during televised sports alone. This almost unimaginable advertising budget can only be justified if the advertising is creating greater product sales. Evidently, these advertisements succeed, not only because producers continue to spend this money, but also because Americans now spend more on alcohol than on their household electricity. Each year, Americans spend $70 billion on alcohol. That is $17 billion greater than electricity, and $28 billion more than on private education (Hailey, 1992).

For some Christians, a sense of love and justice leads them to abstain from alcohol. Seeing alcohol's devastating effects on society, these Christians feel compelled to act. Taking a strong stand against alcohol and its consequences is a tangible way that they can demonstrate their faith. These Christians believe that abstaining from alcohol is the best, possibly the only, solution to this societal problem. In addition, abstaining from alcohol guarantees that one will never fall prey to alcoholism (Hancock, 1999).

Illegitimate Reasons

As noted in earlier, biblical support for abstinence came after the public demand for abstinence. Once Christians decided to abstain, they looked to the Bible to support their views. This, of course, is a poor method of biblical exegesis, and usually leads to poor interpretation. Unfortunately, as Christians sought abstinence in the Bible, they often took verses out of context, or otherwise misled to support their views.

First, when one examines the text, he or she will notice that the Bible mentions alcohol quite often. In fact, the Bible mentions alcohol 240 times (Hailey, 1992). Many of those references are favorable toward wine. Verses such as Neh 2:1; Est 5:6; Job 1:13; Mt 9:17; 21:33; and 1 Tim 5:23 are all casual references to wine, showing it as normal part of Hebrew life. Further, Dt 14:26; Ps 4:7; 104:15; Hos 2:8; Pro 3:10; SS 1:2; 4:10; 7:9; and Is 25:6 are all positive aspects of wine. Wine is a symbol of joy (Ps 104:15), God's blessings (Pro 9:2,5), and a worship offering to God (Ex 29:40). Hailey goes on to note that considering Jesus drank, (Lk 7:33,34; Mt 26:26-29) and that he created wine (Jn 2:1-11), "we can derive no other conclusion except that our Lord assigned positive qualities to wine" (Hailey, 1992).

However, some Baptists have tried to claim that the Bible requires abstinence. Some even contest whether Jesus created alcohol at Cana. Aubrey Hearn writes, "the view that Jesus supernaturally provided a large amount of intoxicating wine for the wedding guests has against it the general character and spirit of Jesus..." (Hearn, 1943). However, Hearn fails to consider verse ten. "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now." The master could only be speaking about alcohol. If the wine were non-alcoholic, it would not matter how much the people had to drink. They would still be able to detect the cheaper wine. However, if the wine were alcoholic, the early wine would dull their senses, so that later, they would not notice the cheaper wine.

One Baptist writer, Glenn Knight, admits that Jesus created alcohol, but claims, "the object of the miracle was to show his power as the divine Son of God (verse 12) [sic, verse 11]" (Knight, 1955). Unfortunately, Knight, too, does not consider the whole story. Verse eleven states, "this, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed.... He thus revealed his glory." While it is true that this miracle showed his glory, that was not the purpose. Verses three and four state, "when the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.' ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me?' Jesus replied. ‘My time has not come'." Jesus' purpose in performing this miracle was to fulfill his mother's demand. Jesus had no desire to show his divine nature. He clearly stated that the time had not yet come to reveal himself.

Knight goes on to twist the Bible. He writes, "the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants (Luke 12:25-49) illustrates exactly how drink destroys mental and moral alertness" (Knight, 1955). Knight seems to reverse the order of events here. In this parable, the moral failure comes first. Then, the unfaithful servant commits various sins, including drunkenness. The drunkenness was a result of the servant's moral failure, not the failure as a result of drunkenness.

Knight makes this same mistake in writing, "as early as the days of Moses, a provision was made for total abstainers to be set apart unto the Lord (Numbers 6:1-22)" (Knight, 1955). However, the Nazarite vow, cited here, states that those set apart, must abstain, not that abstainers were set apart. One could abstain and not be set apart. Knight simply does not pay attention to the text.

Knight further misrepresents scripture by claiming, "almost all the prophets.... Isaiah (5:11,12,13), Jeremiah, Hoseah, and Amos.... called for abstinence..." (Knight, 1955). The truth is that the prophets warned about alcohol, but did not call for abstinence. Isaiah wrote in 25:6, "on this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best meats and the finest wines." Amos declared God would rescue Israel and that, "new wine will drip from the mountains and flow from the hills.... They will plant vineyards and drink their wine..."(Amos 9:13-14 NIV). Jeremiah and Hosea wrote that a lack of wine was a sign of judgement from God (Jer 48:33; Hos 2:9), not a blessing. Hosea even wrote that having wine is a blessing from God (Hos 2:8). Knight is mistaken when he claims that the prophets called for abstinence.

As if these failures are not enough, Knight continues:

Wine is not specifically mentioned in the New Testament as a drink in connection with the Lord's Supper. The drink is referred to as ‘the fruit of the vine.' By stretching our imagination we may interpret this drink as wine in its fermented form. If the drink of the Lord's Supper was the same as the Passover drink, it cannot be argued that fermented wine was used by our Lord as an element in the Lord's Supper. In fact, according to Exodus 12:15 nothing fermented was to be eaten from the time the Passover meal was eaten to the end of the Passover week.... So, we conclude that the Lord's supper does not require nor permit the use of fermented wine for the ordinance nor for any other occasion. (Knight, 1995)

First, assuming that it was true that this drink was not fermented, there is no plausible reason why this would not "permit the use of fermented wine...for any other occasion." There simply would be no relationship between the Passover drink and other occasions. However, Knight's entire statement is utterly wrong.

Rabbi Abraham Bloch writes that there is a rabbinical teaching, dating back to the first century before Christ, which requires that Jews have four glasses of fermented wine as part of the Seder for Passover (Bloch, 1978). Traditionally, "Kosher for Passover" wine is used for the Seder. Only in recent decades have some Jews begun using "Kosher for Passover" grape juice, because they do not want to feel "tipsy" during the Passover (Strassfeld, 1985).

In fact, the verse that Knight cites, Ex 12:15, makes no mention of fermentation. The verse prohibits bread with yeast, known as ‘hametz' (Holidays on the Net). Secondly, the prohibition against ‘hametz' does not pertain to grain alcohols, such as whiskey (Jacobs, 1987).

Besides all this, Knight is wrong when he claims that "wine" is never mentioned "in connection with the Lord's Supper." Has Knight never read 1 Cor 11:20-22, where Paul specifically mentions that some were getting drunk at the Lord's Supper?

Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, claims that the Nazarite vow is proof that abstinence is God's ideal. He states that the vow was the holiest vow an Israelite could take. Since the vow required abstinence, Patterson believes that abstinence must be the holiest state (Patterson, 1999). Patterson's view is poorly reasoned, however.

Daniel Wallace writes, "If someone today wants to claim that believers do not have the right to drink alcohol on the analogy of a Nazarite vow (as some today are fond of doing), they also should say that believers ought not to eat Raisin Bran" (Wallace). After all, the Nazarite also vowed to abstain from raisins (Num 6:3). In addition, if someone believes that Christians should live up to the Nazarite vow, then Christians should also abstain from cutting their hair (Num 6:5) (Hailey, 1992). Since Patterson does cut his hair, it may be assumed that he does not believe that long hair is holier than short.

Patterson also states the proverb, "wine is a mocker; strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise" prohibits alcohol (Pro 20:1). He believes that this proverb says all alcohol is unwise. He writes, "I read nothing of ‘drunkenness' in the passage" (Patterson, 1999). Does this mean that Patterson believes Jesus was unwise, because Jesus drank? Certainly, most Christians would not accept such an interpretation. The logical interpretation is to realize that the term "led astray" implies "drunkenness."

This tendency to pick parts of the Bible and ignore others is inescapable when trying to fit the Bible with preconceived ideas. Another Baptist author, John Gillespie, cites Rom 14:21, "It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall." Gillespie claims that this verse demands that we abstain. His reasoning is that some will be offended or turned away from the gospel if they see Christians engaging in the sensual act of drinking. Consequently, Christians must abstain to prevent this (Gillespie, 1955). However, Gillespie makes no mention of a need for Christians to become vegetarians to avoid offending. Many people are offended by meat eating. Some, such as members of the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals directly call on Christians to quit eating meat (PETA, nd). However, the SBC has never called on Christians to abstain from meat. Perhaps the SBC would take notice if there were a larger vegetarian movement, more like the Temperance movement.

Gillespie goes on to state:

Included in the who's who of the [condemned] are those who make, advertise, sell, buy, and use intoxicating or alcoholic beverages. They range from moderate or limited users to excessive and unscrupulous abusers. Their distinction lies in the fact that they are the enemies of God.... (Gillespie, 1955)

Unfortunately, this attack on even moderate drinkers is not limited to Gillespie. Barret Duke, the Director of Denominational Relations for the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), wrote in a sermon:

The issue regarding alcohol and other drugs is clear. We can either give in to fleshly lusts and disgrace our heritage, afflict our souls, and shame our God, or we can abstain from every lust, including the use of alcohol and other drugs, and enjoy a life of fulfillment, happiness, and the approval of God. (Duke, 1997)

Duke's sermon has become the SBC's officially recommended sermon concerning alcohol. The SBC has taken the position that Christians who drink, even in moderation are a "shame" to God, and even "enemies of God." The true enemies of God are those who are not content to accept God's Word; but rather, they must add laws, twist scripture, and attack their brothers. When questioned by this author, though, Duke did admit that he cannot absolutely say drinking alcohol is a sin, despite the strong rhetoric of his sermon.

Because so many Baptists have been privately ignoring the SBC's prohibition, the Convention has begun a new campaign to promote abstinence. At the 1999 Convention meeting, in Atlanta, delegates were given "commitment cards." These cards, which delegates were asked to sign, called for alcoholic abstinence. Richard Land, president of the ERLC said the purpose of the cards was to call on Southern Baptists to reaffirm their position that abstinence is the only acceptable Christian position. Land added that abstinence is one of the SBC's "core beliefs." Land reasons that now, more than ever, Southern Baptists must demand abstinence (Hastings, 1999).

It would be tragic if Baptists gave forth an uncertain sound on this issue at precisely the moment in out nation's history when the trauma and human suffering caused by alcohol and other drugs has prompted a growing number of Americans to consider whether the Baptists' historic total abstinence stance is not the wisest choice after all. (Hastings, 1999)

While some may be convinced that the abuse of alcohol makes abstinence the best choice, the medical research shows that moderation may actually be the best choice. The American Medical Association, American Heart Association, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. C. Everett Koop, former US Surgeon General, and numerous other researchers, have all stated that moderate drinkers live longer than abstainers. These drinkers live longer because alcohol significantly helps to prevent both heart disease and stroke. The largest study ever performed concerning alcohol and heart disease found that moderate use of alcohol could reduce the chance of sudden cardiac death (SCD) by up to 79 percent. A quarter of a million Americans die of SCD, every year (Manson, et al, 1999). According to the American Heart Association, "any prohibition of alcohol would then deny such persons a potentially sizable health benefit" (Pearson, 1996). The Southern Baptists claim that "Christian love and justice" demand abstinence, and twist the Bible to support that view. Is the SBC then displaying love for the thousands of men and women, at risk of death, whose doctors advise them to have a glass of wine with dinner?

Richard Land, and the SBC, have begun this new abstinence campaign because they have lost ground with their radical prohibitonist stance. Land admits that today, more Southern Baptists are "social drinkers," but he insists that most Baptists still find this behavior unacceptable (Hastings, 1999).

Most of the Southern Baptists' claims for abstinence are taken out of context, show poor scholarship, or are simply ‘ad hominem' arguments. The SBC, and some of its writers, show no shame in falsifying scripture, and attacking moderate drinkers. While there are valid reasons for a Christian to choose not to drink, many Southern Baptists are not content with giving Christians the choice.


The Definition and History

The priesthood of believers is the scriptural belief that all believers are priests able to deal directly with God. The Baptist theologian, J. L. Dagg, defined the priesthood as, "individual responsibility," where, "every man feels that the cause of Christ is in some measure committed to him." Dagg goes on to write, "Immense mischief has resulted from the ambition of the clergy.... To counteract its influence, Christ commanded his disciples, ‘Be ye not called Rabbi, for one is your Master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren'" (Young, 1998). For Baptists, the priesthood of believers is the idea that every individual has the right and responsibility to read and interpret the Bible for his or herself.

Walter T. Conner, one of the most respected Southern Baptist theologians wrote, "Let no man dare come between the individual believer and his Lord. Every one of us shall give an account of himself to the Lord (Rom 14:9-12), not to pastor, the priest, nor the bishop. Before the Judge of all the earth, men stand on a common level" (Young, 1998). This belief goes back to the beginnings of Baptist theology.

Baptists in England wrote the First London Confession of Faith. This confession stated that men should "follow their conscience under God, not human authorities...." Later, the Standard Confession of 1660 affirmed this liberty of conscience. The Second London Confession of 1667 and 1668 contained the words that later were used in the SBC's Baptist Faith and Message. "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath let it free from the Doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to his Word, or not contained in it." The Philadelphia Confession of 1742 was the first Baptist confession in America. It reiterated the statement on liberty found in the Second London Confession (Young, 1998).

Baptist theologians have always believed that liberty of conscience was an individual right. William Tuck, in his book Our Baptist Heritage wrote that the priesthood is "the right of each person to interpret scriptures for him or herself." E. Y. Mullins believed that this individual interpretation was the greatest contribution Baptists had made to the world. George W. Truett said that this individual interpretation is the "cardinal, bedrock principle from which all our Baptist principles emerge" (Tuck, 1993). Truett wrote, "The right to private judgment is the crown jewel of humanity, and for any person or institution to dare to come between the soul and God is blasphemous impertinence and a defamation of the crown rights of the Son of God" (Young, 1998).

A founder of the Southern Baptist Convention, W. B. Johnson, defined the priesthood as "the right of each individual to judge for himself in his views of the truth as taught in the scriptures" (Shurden, 1993). One of the earliest Baptist in America, John Leland, fought for the right to individual interpretation of the Bible. He wrote:

Each individual must judge for himself, and be fully convinced in his own mind, and act accordingly, as each must give an account of himself to God.... Religion is at all times and places, a matter between God and individuals.... God does not force all to believe alike, nor should we attempt it.... The New Testament churches were formed by the laws of Jesus, and the acts of the apostles only, and so shall it be with us. (Greene, 1969)

Herschel Hobbs wrote that the priesthood meant, "each individual...can read and interpret the Scriptures as he is guided by the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:12-15)" (Hobbs, 1964). However, Hobbs saw responsibility in this right.

[Individualism in religion] is not to be interpreted apart from the person's obligation to society. But it does declare that primarily the religious relationship is one between God and the individual person.... On the social side of the religious life there is nothing which can properly claim the right to destroy the freedom of direct access which all people have to God.... This is true whether the hindrance to direct access is a system of political government or an authoritative church. (Hobbs, 1964)

J. Terry Young, wrote that "each person has the right of personal interpretation of the Scriptures.... The priesthood of believers means that the Bible is open to all people, not just a few who tell the rest what to believe" (Young, 1998). Similarly, Walter Shurden wrote, "Baptists have no formal or informal teaching office that hands down correct biblical interpretation. Freedom of interpretation by each individual believer is fundamental to Baptist thought.... If believers are to be guided by the Holy Scripture, believers must be free to interpret the Bible" (Shurden, 1993).

Baptists have done more than just write about freedom, though. Baptists have fought for freedom. In 1612, Thomas Helwys book The Mystery of Iniquity was the first English declaration of religious freedom. Helwys wrote this book to King James I, demanding freedom. Instead, King James sentenced Helwys to prison, where Helwys died (Woodfin, 1995). Two years later, in 1614, Leonard Busher wrote, Religious Peace: Or a Plea for Liberty of Conscience. This book was also a petition to James I; and Busher too spent the rest of his life in prison (Handy, 1986).

Roger Williams advocated religious liberty in Massachusetts. In 1635, officials in the colony arrested Williams and planned to deport him. He did not give up, though. Williams escaped and went on to found the state of Rhode Island where he established the first Baptist church in America. Some time after Williams established his church, the judge who sentenced Williams, Governor Haines, traveled to Rhode Island. Haines told Williams, "I must confess to you that the Most Wise God hath provided and cut out of this part of the world, for a refuge and receptacle for all sorts of consciences." Unfortunately, this insight did not stop the Massachusetts colony from a systematic persecution of Baptists (Greene, 1996). John Smyth, William Carey and Baptists throughout the world faced ridicule and persecution for their individual consciences (Young, 1998).

Not only did the persecution not stop Baptists, but by 1800, Baptists had grown to be the largest denomination in the United States (Handy, 1986). The perseverance and success of the Baptists only proves the truth in Tertullian's observation, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Gospel."

The priesthood of believers is unquestionably a foundation for Baptist theology. For more than three and a half centuries, Baptists have fought for the right of individual conscience. The Baptists base their belief in the Bible. Verses like 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:4-6; 1 Tim 2:5; and Eph 3:11-12, all speak of our free access to God (Young, 1998). According to Robert Handy, there are 127 Baptists conventions, in 142 countries, and religious liberty is a stated principle of every one (Handy, 1986).

The Contradiction with Prohibition

Once one understands that the priesthood of believers gives every Christian the right to interpret the Bible for him or herself, that person must wonder why the Southern Baptists demand abstinence. All of the legitimate reasons for abstinence evolve from personal convictions and personal biblical application. The Bible never demands abstinence. Yet, Southern Baptists do demand it. At the same time, they claim that they will make no rule that is not contained it the Bible. The Baptist Faith and Message states:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it. ("Religious Liberty," 1998)

A required abstinence from alcohol is not contained in God's Word. In fact, the Bible directly gives Christians a choice. The Apostle Paul was very clear.

For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced for something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:29b-32 NIV)

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are just a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Col 2:16,17 NIV)

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.... The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord will make him stand. (Ro 14:1-4 NIV)

When Barret Duke calls moderate drinkers a "shame" to God, is he not judging God's servants? When John Gillespie refers refers to moderate drinkers as the "enemies of God," is he not judging? Paul wrote that the abstainer must not condemn the drinker. Paul wrote that Christians must not judge each other "on disputable matters." Are Southern Baptists not passing judgment?

There is a clear hypocrisy when Southern Baptists claim to believe in individual interpretation, and yet they call for the excommunication of anyone who disagrees with their interpretation (Hailey). Paige Patterson claims that Baptists violate no one's conscience because Christians have the choice whether or not to join the church (Patterson, 1999). However, by choosing to join, Christians subject themselves to the established rules of the church. Is that what Paul meant when he wrote, "do not pass judgment," or what the Baptist Faith and Message means in stating churches will not make any rule not found in the Bible? Paul did not say to leave your freedom at the church door. The question is clear. Do Southern Baptists have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves, or is their choice limited to whether or not to be Southern Baptists?

Redefining the Priesthood

Jeff Pool states that there is a "contradiction generated in Baptist life by the clash between the almost fanatical Southern Baptist insistence on the principle of religious liberty and the corresponding failure to observe consistently and actualize the principle in practice" (Pool, 1990). Many Baptists have begun to realize that the stated belief in liberty and the practice of the SBC do not always agree. The contradiction poses a difficult dilemma for those who admit to it. In order to address the issue, some have begun to redefine the priesthood. These Baptists maintain the traditional view of individualism is unbiblical. Instead, they propose, the Christian church must interpret the Bible congregationally (Freeman, 1997).

Several of the Baptists who subscribe to the congregational view wrote a "Manifesto for Baptists." This manifesto, titled, "Re-envisioning Baptist Identity," states:

We reject all accounts of following Jesus that construe faith as a private matter between God and the individual or as an activity of competent souls who inherently enjoy unmediated, unassailable, and disembodied experience with God. We further reject all identifications of the priesthood of believers with autonomous individualism that says we may do and believe what we want regardless of the counsel and confession of the church. (Freeman, 1997)

The Manifesto, denying soul competency, is a far departure from "Baptist" theology. According to Pool, "soul competency in religion is rightly understood as the distinctive belief of Baptists." Pool writes that included in soul competency is "the notion of freedom of conscience and expression within the Baptist communities of faith themselves." Throughout history, "Baptists have regarded their confessions as statements of consensus, but never as documents completely or infallibly stating the faith of Baptists. Certainly, Baptists have not regarded their confessions of faith as creeds..." (Pool, 1990). Those who accept the Manifesto forsake this history of Baptist thought. The Manifesto's writers seek to use church confessions as creeds.

The Manifesto states that private interpretation is an "accommodation to the individualism and rationalism of modernity [which] weakens the church by transforming the living and embodied Christian faith into an abstract and mythic gnosis (1 Tim 1:3-7)." Further, the writers submit, "Scripture wisely forbids and we reject every form of private interpretation... (2 Pet 1:20-21)" (Freeman, 1997).

Certainly, the biblical interpretations of the Manifesto writers are open to dispute. However, there is a simpler and more definitive way to examine their case. If Christians, throughout history, had accepted the congregational view, Baptists would still be Catholics. It was the individual interpretations of men, led by the Holy Spirit, which brought about most church advancements. Would these Manifesto writers say that Martin Luther had no right to come to his own conclusions and disagree with the confession of his Roman Church? Should Roger Williams not have fought his Congregationalist Church for the separation of church and state? Was William Tyndale indeed a heretic for translating the Holy Bible? If it were not for the individual interpretations of the Reformers, Protestant theology may never have developed.

There are dangers in individualism. Individuals created many doctrines that were truly heresy. Arius used individual rationale to deny the deity of Jesus, and Pelagius denied original sin (Barry, nd; Pohle, nd). However, a doctrine espoused by the majority is no less fallible. There was a time when virtually every Christian believed that the Bible supported slavery. The majority opinion did not make their interpretation correct (Woodfin).

According to J. Terry Young, the recent shift by some to redefine the priesthood is "a result of the concern for conformity of belief and practice among Baptists, and is partly due to the emerging issue of the authority of the pastor. The priesthood of the believer is a threat, if not a roadblock, to an enforced conformity in belief and an authoritarian position for the pastor" (Young). This idea of forced conformity is not new. John Leland noted that once people gain freedom from forced conformity, it becomes obvious that many had always disagreed with church creed. The difference being that they were finally free to disagree, whereas before, they kept their disagreements private. According to Leland, forced conformity is futile. Leland wrote that conscience and truth will win out, over established beliefs. In the following quote, Leland refers to any deviation from established belief as an error (Greene).

It is certain that the establishment of paganism, as truth, did not prevent the error of Christianity; nor did the establishment of Rome prevent the error of the reformation, in the sixteenth century, nor the late revolution in papal countries, in the close of the eighteenth century. The establishment of the English church did not hinder the error of nonconformity, nor has the establishment of Massachusetts stopped the rise of a number of errors and sects in the state. (Greene)

There have always been some who believed that individualism is depraved, and that the majority mentality is sound. However, history is driven by those who dared to think for themselves. Leland proposed, "the right of private judgment and free debate, and the liberty of conscience, are inalienable. These are not surrendered up to the general will, by individuals, when they enter into society; but each retains them in his own sovereign breast" (Greene). Every person can benefit from the knowledge of others; but each has the responsibility to decide for him or herself, what the Truth is according to scripture.


Throughout church history, Christians have been well aware of the potential dangers of alcohol. The Bible warns about abusing alcohol. Many famous characters in history have cautioned about the seduction of alcohol. Most people had observed the effects of drunkenness. Despite these facts, most Christians still saw alcohol as an enjoyable part of life.

The Bible, though warning about alcohol, also praises alcohol. It is a gift from God, given to man for our enjoyment. God blessed men with a bountiful harvest of grapes. Those whose vineyards were bare, were being judged. Alcohol was as an offering to God in the Old Testament, and a symbol of salvation in the New Testament. Biblical writers recorded that wine brought joy, and was used in celebrations.

This was true in America, until the social Temperance movement gained power. During the nineteenth century, Americans were convinced that alcohol was a scourge to the earth. Surely, God was opposed to this evil, people insisted. Eventually, people sought to prove their view, using the Bible.

Some people found good reason to abstain. The Bible was clear that alcohol could be dangerous. Some biblical characters chose to abstain, or even received commands, by God, to abstain. Finally, peoples' consciences led them to believe that abstinence was best. Unfortunately, some others were not content with these reasons, alone. These Christians took their exegesis farther. Many insisted that the Bible demanded abstinence, not merely allowed it. Some teetotalers made wild and unsubstantiated claims, which their followers gladly accepted.

Within time, prohibition took over the country. Many churches and denominations led the way in prohibition. Churches passed resolutions, and signed covenants requiring abstinence. Churches excommunicated, as sinners, those who dared to disagree. So ingrained was the idea that alcohol was sinful, that it survived long after the prohibition laws were repealed.

In the Southern Baptist Convention, the frenzy over prohibition became so powerful that it swept aside the doctrine of liberty. Churches no longer permitted men to interpret the Bible for themselves. While Baptist churches still claimed individual freedom, in practice, members either accepted church teachings, disobeyed in secret, or left their church.

This situation pervaded for almost a century, with little question. However, some began to dispute the church's right to demand abstinence. They pointed out the inherent discrepancy between liberty and forced conformity. Thus, a controversy developed in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Baptists have always been set apart for their strong belief in the competency of the soul. Baptists are free to seek God's direction for their individual lives. Each believer, led by the Holy Spirit, is capable and released to seek God's will. However, for the past century, the Southern Baptist Convention has been violating this basic belief.

The demand for abstinence is not only an intrusion into soul competency, it is biblically wrong. The Bible gives Christians the responsibility to choose whether to drink, or not. There is no legitimate claim that the Bible demands abstinence. The Bible gives the choice. It is time that the Southern Baptist Convention, and its churches, gave that choice back to members.

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