Wesleyans and Alcohol

1187307_summer_wineThere are many uses for the word Wesleyan. Often on this site, we mean Wesleyan in a broad sense: all of those committed to classic Wesleyan theology. At times though, we reference issues specific to The Wesleyan Church which sponsors this site. Wesleyans, in this denominational sense, have long been t-totallers, abstainers, a “dry” church.

This commitment is really rooted in our commitment to women and their well being one the one hand, and a life of freedom from intentional sin on the other. In the earliest days of our movement, Wesleyans were focused on the poor. We were focused on leading people to Christ, shaping people in Christ-like virtue and behavior, and freeing people from addictions and sinful habits. Alcoholism was a difficult disease to battle. Before the advent of alcoholics anonymous even many medical physicians believed it to be an incurable and fatal condition. It was also well known that alcoholic husbands were much more likely to abuse their wives. Wesleyans saw the bondage to the habitual sin of what we now call alcoholism and to the habitual sin of spousal abuse as a connected issue. When drunks were converted they were counseled to quit drinking. But eventually, if they lived life in close connection to Wesleyans who drank they fell back into drinking through socializing with faithful Christians. Easy solution? None of us will drink.

Other arguments also seemed to point in the same direction. Alcoholic drinks usually cost much more than other beverages. This meant that drinking socially on a regular basis reduced the amount that could be given to the church and to the poor. Also, it seemed impossible to tell whether members were drinking responsibly or on their way toward dissolution and enslavement to the drug. You don’t have to agree with these arguments, or the Wesleyan position, but it usually helps to understand how things began.

In the early 1900s in order for these arguments to stick through the storms of the fundamentalist movement the church felt the need for proof texts and arguments from those proof texts. Those texts though were never the founding reason for the Wesleyan commitment to not drink. The original commitment came from our social concern for the poor, our active concern for women, our concern for freedom from habitual sin, and our desire to not cause a weaker brother/sister to stumble.

Now Wesleyans are deeply divided on this issue. Many see any change in this commitment as a move away from our historic commitments to holy love, the poor, and to supporting one another in our pursuit of holy love. Other Wesleyans see it as a hangover (couldn’t resist) from fundamentalist legalism. The holiness codes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have died hard. Many of them had roots in social concern for the poor, yet eventually became legalistic requirements and sources for judgmental condescension toward those who don’t follow them.

Our current compromise, as you may know, is community membership. In order to serve in official leadership roles in a Wesleyan church you have to commit to avoiding alcoholic drinks (as well as giving to the poor, visiting those in prison, sharing your faith, and otherwise pursuing a life of active love). Community members are welcomed into our churches, listed on our roles, and involved in active service among us. They may even vote at a local church conference on anything except ratification of covenant members. They do not have to commit to avoid drinking. Obviously, this is a compromise.

What does this mean for our preaching? Do Wesleyans still preach “against the potential evils of alcohol?” Do Wesleyan pastors instead preach against the dangers of drunkenness, hiddenness, and self-medication using alcohol? Do you believe Wesleyan pastors should call people toward the “higher life” as it is outlined in the covenant members guidelines? How should we preach about alcohol in a way that is faithful to our church, loving toward others, and consistent with scripture?

What do you think?

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