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.
David Robert Anderson is a writer and an Episcopal priest. His book Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul: The Passage to New Life When Old Beliefs Die has just been published by Convergent Books.