Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Nazarenes and Alcohol

It shouldn't be any surprise that I am a member of the clergy in the Church of the Nazarene.
We are a relatively young denomination (110-130 years, depending on who's counting), but one that's always been a bit of a conglomeration.
Initially, we were founded by three diverse groups coming together around the idea of Holiness - which I typically sum up as "living the way God intends for you to live here and now." You might say Nazarene believe you don't need to wait for heaven to be holy. That's more than a bit simplistic, but if you dig down deeper, you'll find out even we don't really know how to explain it out to the end of every argument train.

One of the big issues, historically, for us has been alcohol. The West Coast faction was founded around ministry to the urban poor, where alcohol was a real problem. The Southern wing was pretty moralist and some looked on alcohol as inherently sinful. In any event, they agreed that drinking wasn't good - many participated heavily in the prohibitionist movement. It was a big deal.

As the years have gone on, context and culture changed (although maybe not as much as we tend to think) and our denomination has grown even more diverse, with 70% of the members living outside the US. You will find every, and I mean EVERY, possible position on alcohol both preached and practiced among Nazarenes around the world. It's an issue we've historically been unable to even speak functionally about at our quadrennial General Assemblies.

The next such assembly is set for June of 2017. As part of that, delegates will discuss dozens of amendments from the mundane to the densely theological. As a member, I have the ability to submit proposed changes to my district, where a committee (usually the elected delegates and a few others) determine if it will be submitted to the General Assembly.

I submitted a number of resolutions for consideration, one deals with alcohol. I want to give great credit to my district - the committee invited me to one of their meetings to discuss the resolution and hear my rationale. I am not sure what, if anything, was actually passed on (they have the ability to amend or change anything and the final resolutions haven't been released yet), but I feel like it would be good, with the Assembly coming up, to share my proposal more publicly.

I am not a drinker. Its never been something I've wanted to do. This isn't an issue that really affects me personally. It does, however, effect a lot of people I love and care about. I've known far too many families royally messed up with alcohol a big part of things. Further, I feel a real kinship with those urban founders with a real heart for the poor. It's a perspective that largely kept me a part of the Church of the Nazarene. I don't think we should drink, not because alcohol is inherently bad, but largely because our culture can't handle its collective alcohol. It's good to be a safe, dry place for people.

At the same time, it seems silly to make any sort of fanatical mandate on individual members of the denomination, especially since, in practice,
we have come a long way from a clapboard barn in 1800's Los Angeles. We look different in so many ways. Beyond that, our practice has always been grace - or at least mostly been grace. A few pastors will run people off for having champagne at a wedding, but most won't. We take people into membership who exhibit a lifestyle of holiness, even if it doesn't mesh with every little line in the Manual. We just do. That's reality.

In light of these seemingly contrary realities, I tried to write something that would both make a collective and theological statement and would also allow for individual and contextual freedom. I think both elements are infused with grace, which, I believe, should be at the core of all Christian politics (if you're a new reader, I define politics as "the way we deal with people.") I also strove to keep as much of the current language as possible so as to remind people that this is not a replacement, but an update on a longstanding position we've struggled to fully grasp.

Here is the proposal I submitted:

The Use of Intoxicants
Paragraphs 29.5 and 29.6

Resolved, that paragraph 29.5 be retitled, “The use of intoxicating liquors as a beverage,” and replaced with the following:

Acknowledging that consumption of alcohol, in moderation, is, in itself, not inherently sinful, we recognize the pain and trauma suffered by individuals and families as a result of alcohol abuse and addiction. Society often prefers to hide, ignore, or ostracize these problems.

From its earliest days, the Church of the Nazarene exhibited a special calling to ministry among the poor, lost, and forgotten as primary vocation. Because of this special calling, we ask our members to refrain from alcohol and other intoxicating substances as a symbol of solidarity with those who suffer.

We acknowledge this is not the calling of God for all people or the only way to faithfully respond to addiction, as such, abstinence from alcohol consumption cannot be considered an essential of the Christian faith. We make the choice to abstain from alcohol in response to the biblical mandate of self-giving love for our brothers and sisters. Our position must be embodied with grace and without judgment. In that spirit, we do not hold adherence to this position as required for fellowship, either in the body of Christ or in the Church of the Nazarene.

Further, we should seek to minimize the irresponsible use of alcohol and glorification of the same in society and culture. Effort and attention must be paid to the consequences of irresponsible alcohol use and its effect on people for whom Christ died. The widespread incidence of alcohol abuse in our world demands that we embody a position that stands as a witness to others.

(In light of this stance, only unfermented wine should be used in celebration of the Lord’s Supper.)

Further resolved, that paragraph 29.6 be retitled “The use of other intoxicants, stimulants, or hallucinogens, outside proper medical care and guidance,” and replaced with the following:

In light of medical evidence outlining the dangers of such substances, along with scriptural admonitions to remain in responsible control of mind and body, we choose to abstain from intoxicants, stimulants, and hallucinogens outside proper medical care and guidance, regardless of the legality and availability of such substances.


1. Our statement should reflect a broader directive on the use of intoxicating substances that will guide the practice of our denomination regardless of medical, scientific, and legal changes.

2. Our statement on alcohol should not simply be a condemnation of alcohol, but an understanding of our Christian responsibility to those who suffer from its abuse.

3. In light of the unfortunate judgementalism that has accompanied our interpretation of understanding of alcohol in the past, our statement should reflect grace strongly, in imitation of our savior, Jesus Christ.

I'd also point to a great podcast from In All Things Charity that discusses some aspects of the realities of our position on alcohol.


Anonymous said...

Very well written. When I was younger, I chose the Nazarene denomination because of holiness. Over the years we have watched it change. The change has been sad for us to see. When I was a teen, we didn't eat and drink in the sancuary. It was a place of holiness and respect. Today, people bring their coffee in.... It feels so disrespectfu. We have heard cursing from the pulpit on more than one occasion. We have seen its facilities be used for ballroom dancing lessons. Coffee and pastries sold right outside sanctuary doors... These changes are things I never thought I'd see. I'm in my 40s. I feel like so much of what I was taught to stand for/against is gone. Our denomination was different because of holiness. Now, in so many ways, we see it as no different from the others. It makes us sad. People who helped raise me in the church post photos of them with drinks. Please don't get me wrong. I don't condemn them for that. I still love these folks. It's just hard to see it change. I know all districts are different. I'm just speaking from my own personal experience and my own church. As far as alcohol goes, my whole family/life has been destroyed because of it. My dad left us at age 5. He chose his drinking over us. Alcohol was the cause of abuse, neglect, abandonment, divorce and early death for my dad and brother. Does each person who takes a drink end up like that? Of course not. I know the difference. But while social drinking, do you know if that person has a past? Do you know if one drink for them will send them into relapse? I wouldn't want to be responsible for that. Please do not post things that bash me. (That's what we are use to.) If you do not agree, it's ok. Agree to disagree. I'm just sharing my experience. My opinion. My view. My heart.

Ryan said...

Thanks for the honest response. I think you bring up many of the issues we've had with holiness over the years - namely, what does it mean? I suspect many would not put dancing or coffee in the sanctuary in the same category as alcohol, still others would - both positively and negatively. Perhaps what we loss is not the actions themselves, the dos and don'ts, but the motivation and spirit behind them. That's the trouble, too, with alcohol, which is often a symptom of other issues more pervasive and harmful than itself, but the dangers of alcohol are no less real.

I'm hoping, with this proposal, to both make a strong statement and also practice grace. I don't think it's easy and it doesn't entirely make sense, but it seems the only thing to do given our current diversity and practice.

Jeff said...

Alcohol consumption is a complex issue. It's too easy to (a) shut the doors altogether by passing a law against it, or (b) swing the doors wide open by putting no restrictions on it whatsoever. But clearly, alcohol is not in and of itself sinful... abuse of it is. As is often the case, it seems the answer lies between two polar extremes. To me, the challenge Nazarenes face as they move away from current prohibitive law is, how do we go about (re)-forming a culture of freedom in the Spirit on one hand, and moderation on the other? Not an eas question to answer, but necessary and long overdue in my opinion.

I do drink, and I do not abuse. I am sensitive to other peoples' weakness toward it, but I don't hide it in the name of protection. I just wish the Church would address this issue in a way that honors freedom and wisdom, rather than promotes condemnation.

Ryan said...

That's the rub, really. I think there are many who feel the Church of the Nazarene should be those with a special calling to the poor and marginalized and see abstinence from alcohol as a key part of that. I know one friend who said, "Perhaps the denomination should just be a collection of community centers and rescue missions;" I think that sums up the idea pretty well.

At the same time, we've got a real changing context that we've created and cultivated for decades - one that tends to avoid the margins and does real ministry amongst the suffering privileged, that can't just be scrapped.

It's a tough challenge, especially given how different culture and context is around the world. We see this through an already difficult US lens, but the US now makes up less than a third of the denomination's membership.

I tend to think our best bet is sticking with the Covenant of Christian Character and doing away with the Covenant of Christian Conduct - there's just no way to establish "Christian Conduct" that's uniform around the world.

Anonymous said...

Ryan, I really wasn't putting dancing, coffee and alcohol in the same category. I'm sorry if that's how it came off. I guess I was just saying I have seen so many compromises I never thought I would. Including cursing from the pulpit but clergy and a lay person. We have even gotten away from ministry to the poor. Well put Ryan.

Anonymous said...

People suffer from sexual additions and the Nazarene Church says sex is OK in the context of marriage. People suffer from alcohol additions and the Nazarene Church says because of that everyone should abstain from alcohol, even a glass of wine at dinner is taboo. How does that make sense to anyone? signed... a happily "former" Nazarene.

Ryan said...

I don't think that's a one to one analogy, but I don't think I have to tell you that. What I hear you saying is that Christian should be able to demonstrate proper use of things like alcohol (or sex) without damaging their witness or harming those who suffer.

I don't disagree, quite honestly. I'd hope, under the proposal I outlined here, people with that perspective would feel welcome in the Church of the Nazarene. I also know that the historic stance of abstention is quite important to the lives and ministry of many Nazarenes, who would feel pretty left out if it were simply abandoned. We've long lived with holy, committed Nazarenes of both opinions AND practices. I don't think there's any reason we shouldn't be able to continue doing so.

Even though I don't think it's a proper one to one analogy, I do think it's close enough to make some good points. Alcohol is not just a problem of addiction; it's a societal problem where drinking culture (even outside addiction) enables habits that aren't super healthy; of course, you can absolutely say the same thing about sex.

It's one of the reasons I don't think anyone's conscience should be violated. I think the Church of the Nazarene would've been better off with a healthy abstinence stance from the beginning - seeking to be a small group of people committed to a specific ministry in a specific way - of course, it never was that and certainly can't be going forward - so we've got to do the best we can to honor our history and deal graciously with our reality.

Anonymous said...

The problem I have is you are opening the door for members and leadership to consume booze in moderation. That moderation could lead to many problems. Why encourage the use of it at all?