Is there room at the bar for evangelical Christians?

The Moody Bible Institute recently lifted its 127 year-old ban on alcohol for its faculty, though not yet for its of-age students.

I was surprised to read recently that the Moody Bible Institute had lifted its 127 year-old ban on alcohol for its faculty.

Fifty years ago my mother listened to Moody radio while she did housework, and I overheard the revival hymns and preaching that brought sinners down the “sawdust trail” for nineteenth-century evangelist D. L. Moody. It was a restrictive strain of religion: no drinking, dancing, cursing, smoking. By the time I came of age in the 60s, the bans included card-playing, movies, racy books, mini-skirts for women, long hair for men, and the early riffs and gyrations of rock ‘n roll.

Institutions like Moody Bible Institute were established as bulwarks against theological and social degeneration. Accordingly, they were highly regulated. Faculty and students were required to sign statements of belief, including the Virgin Birth and the inerrancy of the Bible. They also signed codes of conduct (see the above list of interdictions).

That’s why I did a double-take when I read that Moody had reversed its ban on alcohol. The newspaper article said the move signaled a “culture shift,” but I think Moody’s retreat signals a coming of age within all of evangelicalism. The center of authority is migrating from the honchos who define and enforce the faith, to the minds and hearts of evangelical followers.

In his classic book, Stages of Faith, James Fowler maps the phases of human faith development. The early stages of faith, Fowler demonstrates, are largely externalized. We start out believing what parents instill in us, what we hear in Sunday school, what the pastor declares as truth.

Then, inevitably, we reach a phase where we see through the leaders. We may sense a level of hypocrisy, or we may simply realize that—earnest and faithful as they are—the truth is bigger than mom or dad or the pastor can imagine. In a healthy progression, that early faith-crisis leads us to move the locus of authority from out there(the authority figures of our upbringing) to in here (the sanctity of our own soul) where it ultimately belongs.

These stages of faith that individuals traverse are remarkably correlated to the growth and development of churches and institutions like Moody Bible Institute. That is, the early stages of a faith community tend to be leader-centered. The pastor (or the college president) holds the truth and dispenses it to all the members. The inner councils establish standards of acceptable belief and practice. But as a community develops, the authority that used to rest at the top of the pyramid begins to flow downward, into the souls of key leaders, until finally everyone carries the truth within.

In the early stages of faith it’s important to understand authority and cleave to the rules in order to develop a grounded soul, and to avoid behavior harmful to others or ourselves. But eventually we are meant to find spiritual authority within. We may drink alcohol or not, but that decision is made not out there somewhere, but in here.

The old D.L. Moody version of faith was, in Fowler’s terms, highly externalized both for individuals and faith communities. But Evangelicalism, I believe, is growing into a new faith stage.

Young evangelicals are rejecting the top-down, rules-based spirituality they inherited. Their theological beliefs and convictions are not markedly different from their parents and grandparents—they just want to live those beliefs from the inside out, and not the other way around.

I know this first hand, because even though I left evangelicalism more than 30 years ago when I became an Episcopal priest, my 94 year-old father, most of my six brothers and sisters, our 23 children, and 35 grand- and great-grandchildren are still devoutly evangelical. When we gather for our annual family reunion, Dad leads us in a Sunday devotional and we sing old favorites like “Faith is the Victory,” written by D. L. Moody’s revival song leader, Ira Sankey. But when we sit at night and catch up on our lives, I notice that many of my sisters and brothers are having Manhattans and my nieces and nephews are having beer.

I shouldn’t have been terribly surprised when I read that Moody had lifted the alcohol ban on its faculty (though not yet for its of-age students—give it seven years, I’m guessing). Every summer I spend a long weekend with their core constituents, and if my family reunion is any indication, the Moody Bible Institute is finally professing a form of faith that its adherents are already living.

Image courtesy of Sam Howzit.

  • Rongoklunk

    What you’re describing is religious indoctrination. I raised five nonbelievers by “not” mentioning a god at all.
    One of my boys did ask me one day whether there was a god. I told him that some folks say there is, and others say there isn’t. So he asked me what I thought, and I told him that I didn’t believe a god existed. And my youngest daughter asked me to drive her to a particular church one day, because a friend of hers went there. So I did. She went three times, and then stopped. We never discussed it. Though when she was in her twenties she told me she quit because it was boring. All my children are adults now, married with children of their own, and are raising their kids the way they were raised themselves – god free. As adults they’ve often thanked me for raising them without religion. I strongly recommend it. Religion is a lie to the un-indoctrinated.

  • Rongoklunk

    What you’re describing is religious indoctrination. I raised five nonbelievers by “not” mentioning a god at all.
    One of my boys did ask me one day whether there was a god. I told him that some folks say there is, and others say there isn’t. So he asked me what I thought, and I told him that I didn’t believe a god existed. And my youngest daughter asked me to drive her to a particular church one day, because a friend of hers went there. So I did. She went three times, and then stopped. We never discussed it. Though when she was in her twenties she told me she quit because it was boring. All my children are adults now, married with children of their own, and are raising their kids the way they were raised themselves – god free. As adults they’ve often thanked me for raising them without religion. I strongly recommend it. Religion is a lie to the un-indoctrinated.

  • David Robert Anderson 1

    What I’m trying to describe is not really a “religious” thing. It’s about personal faith development. Everyone has faith. Faith as a human phenomenon isn’t first of all a religious thing (though it can be)–it is simply being, as Paul Tillich expressed it, in “a state of ultimate concern.” That to which you totally and unreservedly surrender your life–that is what you have faith in (whether you call it God or The Good Life or Success or Happiness or the Yankees).

    The pattern is–in our early years, external authority figures establish for us what is of ultimate concern. Then a little later in life that kind of faith-imposed-from-without has to fail us–we discover that it isn’t all that ultimate. That is a necessary failure. It is what leads us to forge in our own souls an authentic faith that comes from within.

    If you can bracket for a moment what you don’t believe about religion (and I don’t blame you), then you can wrestle with what is of ultimate concern for you. Then you can ask yourself, What is it–to which I totally and unreservedly surrender my life? Because I believe that if we aren’t asking that question, we are not fully human, not fully alive. -David Robert Anderson

  • David Robert Anderson 1

    What I’m trying to describe is not really a “religious” thing. It’s about personal faith development. Everyone has faith. Faith as a human phenomenon isn’t first of all a religious thing (though it can be)–it is simply being, as Paul Tillich expressed it, in “a state of ultimate concern.” That to which you totally and unreservedly surrender your life–that is what you have faith in (whether you call it God or The Good Life or Success or Happiness or the Yankees).

    The pattern is–in our early years, external authority figures establish for us what is of ultimate concern. Then a little later in life that kind of faith-imposed-from-without has to fail us–we discover that it isn’t all that ultimate. That is a necessary failure. It is what leads us to forge in our own souls an authentic faith that comes from within.

    If you can bracket for a moment what you don’t believe about religion (and I don’t blame you), then you can wrestle with what is of ultimate concern for you. Then you can ask yourself, What is it–to which I totally and unreservedly surrender my life? Because I believe that if we aren’t asking that question, we are not fully human, not fully alive. -David Robert Anderson

  • lilactyme

    They allow alcohol, big whoop. Bet they still push bigotry against gays, misogyny, and creationism.

  • lilactyme

    They allow alcohol, big whoop. Bet they still push bigotry against gays, misogyny, and creationism.

  • Mark Osgatharp

    God’s word never condemned the use of alcoholic beverages in the first place. To the contrary, Scripture everywhere sanctifies it and Christ Himself both made and drank wine. It is drunkenness, not drinking alcoholic beverages, that the Scriptures condemn.

    Furthermore, the concept of teetotalism is a modernistic innovation in Christianity. It originated, not with the Scriptures, but with the rise of the incipient social gospel of the early 19th century, and culminated in prohibition in the early 20th. Ironically, this modernistic movement arrogated to itself the title of “Temperance” when in reality it advocated abstinence.

    In light of that, we could see Moody’s move as a move backward toward a more Biblically grounded code of ethics rather than a compromise of the faith. Only those involved in the change know their real motives.

    On the other hand, the acceptance of Mr. Anderson’s church of gross debauchery, and that in the name of God, can be seen as nothing less than a tumbling descent into Sodom and Gomorrah and blasphemy of the Almighty. And then he has the gall to presume to “coming of age” of others.

    Shame on you Mr. Anderson! Shame on you!

  • Mark Osgatharp

    God’s word never condemned the use of alcoholic beverages in the first place. To the contrary, Scripture everywhere sanctifies it and Christ Himself both made and drank wine. It is drunkenness, not drinking alcoholic beverages, that the Scriptures condemn.

    Furthermore, the concept of teetotalism is a modernistic innovation in Christianity. It originated, not with the Scriptures, but with the rise of the incipient social gospel of the early 19th century, and culminated in prohibition in the early 20th. Ironically, this modernistic movement arrogated to itself the title of “Temperance” when in reality it advocated abstinence.

    In light of that, we could see Moody’s move as a move backward toward a more Biblically grounded code of ethics rather than a compromise of the faith. Only those involved in the change know their real motives.

    On the other hand, the acceptance of Mr. Anderson’s church of gross debauchery, and that in the name of God, can be seen as nothing less than a tumbling descent into Sodom and Gomorrah and blasphemy of the Almighty. And then he has the gall to presume to “coming of age” of others.

    Shame on you Mr. Anderson! Shame on you!

  • jeremiahmje

    Dear Mr. Anderson: Your analogy to“Stages of Faith,” makes a point we are affected by our upbringing (good, bad, religious…) but it is a flawed analogy & non sequitur argument to Moody’s change. Your comment that Moody is “growing into a new faith stage” misrepresents them. Moody remains solidly evangelical holding to doctrines, not because a pastor or parent said so, but because of their commitment to Scripture. Your claim faith is “in here” is specious. Evangelical faith not “in here,” it is faith, belief, trust placed in the person & work of Christ & Christ alone. Moody has admirably & courageously moved away from legalistic “do’s & don’ts” to liberty. Rom. 14 explains boundaries. To illustrate envision a pendulum of: license (sin) – liberty (freedom) – legalism (sin). Some Roman believers parsed behaviors & perhaps began debating “do’s & don’ts.” Most reader miss the weaker brother is the problem. The stronger enjoys liberty in Christ yet not to flaunt or injure others. To exercise liberty is not measured by “stages of faith,” or moral relativism, but a mature understanding of what is & is not sin & how to live in community. Legalists (Pharisees) impose their lists, adding to the weight of the law they themselves violated. The Pharisees were the legalists & weaker. As to your prediction, 7 years until they grant students similar freedoms, perhaps. But most students are under 21 & it is illegal to purchase or possess alcohol. At 18 one can use tobacco, yet most of us work & live in smoke free environments. (By the way, don’t use too much salt, drink large carbonated drinks, use artificial sweeteners, eat processed food, or eat fried foods. How about we all “weigh in” each morning?) What I hope Moody continues to do – & perhaps more refinement will come – is to call their faculty, staff, students, & the Christian community to a much higher standard than measured by do’s & don’ts: to call us to represent Jesus Christ wherever we live.

  • jeremiahmje

    Dear Mr. Anderson: Your analogy to“Stages of Faith,” makes a point we are affected by our upbringing (good, bad, religious…) but it is a flawed analogy & non sequitur argument to Moody’s change. Your comment that Moody is “growing into a new faith stage” misrepresents them. Moody remains solidly evangelical holding to doctrines, not because a pastor or parent said so, but because of their commitment to Scripture. Your claim faith is “in here” is specious. Evangelical faith not “in here,” it is faith, belief, trust placed in the person & work of Christ & Christ alone. Moody has admirably & courageously moved away from legalistic “do’s & don’ts” to liberty. Rom. 14 explains boundaries. To illustrate envision a pendulum of: license (sin) – liberty (freedom) – legalism (sin). Some Roman believers parsed behaviors & perhaps began debating “do’s & don’ts.” Most reader miss the weaker brother is the problem. The stronger enjoys liberty in Christ yet not to flaunt or injure others. To exercise liberty is not measured by “stages of faith,” or moral relativism, but a mature understanding of what is & is not sin & how to live in community. Legalists (Pharisees) impose their lists, adding to the weight of the law they themselves violated. The Pharisees were the legalists & weaker. As to your prediction, 7 years until they grant students similar freedoms, perhaps. But most students are under 21 & it is illegal to purchase or possess alcohol. At 18 one can use tobacco, yet most of us work & live in smoke free environments. (By the way, don’t use too much salt, drink large carbonated drinks, use artificial sweeteners, eat processed food, or eat fried foods. How about we all “weigh in” each morning?) What I hope Moody continues to do – & perhaps more refinement will come – is to call their faculty, staff, students, & the Christian community to a much higher standard than measured by do’s & don’ts: to call us to represent Jesus Christ wherever we live.

  • Counterww

    Your post is painted like you are altruistic. I doubt that you did not influence your kids with your non belief and YOUR OPINION is that God does not exist. I tell my kids the truth. God exists and he loves us more than you can know, and apparently want to know. I guess there is nothing like an old fool, like they say.

  • Counterww

    Your post is painted like you are altruistic. I doubt that you did not influence your kids with your non belief and YOUR OPINION is that God does not exist. I tell my kids the truth. God exists and he loves us more than you can know, and apparently want to know. I guess there is nothing like an old fool, like they say.

  • MichaelEddie

    Having gone to a Moody-like school (Prairie Bible College in southern Alberta) I’m aware of the seismic shift this new, liberalizing action signals. Those in mainstream America may be amazed that the decision to allow Moody faculty to drink is a big deal, but it is. For many years, in the Evangelical subculture, it wasn’t just frowned on or discouraged, it was forbidden. Drunkenness was a sin; but for many Evangelicals drinking also was a sin.

    However, Anderson’s purpose here is not to address that question. As I read his post, he’s using it to illustrate a larger point: that just as individuals go through stages of faith development, so do institutions. Furthermore, these stages follow patterns social scientists have identified in other areas of human behavior. That’s exciting to me, but what’s even more exciting is that, using this template, we can begin to predict or at least project what future faith developments might look like.

    I’ve read Anderson’s book and I really liked it because it took me from where I am right now and gave me a map of the changes that may lie ahead. These changes are not inevitable, of course; I have to make choices all along the way as my I adjust to my new experience. But it’s good to know that I’m not alone on this journey. Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul is a great vade mecum and Anderson is a wise and entertaining guide.

  • MichaelEddie

    Having gone to a Moody-like school (Prairie Bible College in southern Alberta) I’m aware of the seismic shift this new, liberalizing action signals. Those in mainstream America may be amazed that the decision to allow Moody faculty to drink is a big deal, but it is. For many years, in the Evangelical subculture, it wasn’t just frowned on or discouraged, it was forbidden. Drunkenness was a sin; but for many Evangelicals drinking also was a sin.

    However, Anderson’s purpose here is not to address that question. As I read his post, he’s using it to illustrate a larger point: that just as individuals go through stages of faith development, so do institutions. Furthermore, these stages follow patterns social scientists have identified in other areas of human behavior. That’s exciting to me, but what’s even more exciting is that, using this template, we can begin to predict or at least project what future faith developments might look like.

    I’ve read Anderson’s book and I really liked it because it took me from where I am right now and gave me a map of the changes that may lie ahead. These changes are not inevitable, of course; I have to make choices all along the way as my I adjust to my new experience. But it’s good to know that I’m not alone on this journey. Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul is a great vade mecum and Anderson is a wise and entertaining guide.