Teetotal

Or, the half-Nazarite.

So. my seminary application process has hit a snag.

I left Gordon Conwell some six years ago, half-way through my seminary degree, due to finances, and a lack of focus.  The finance issue you can figure out.  The focus was more subtle.  Gordon Conwell didn’t have the best advising program in the world, so there was a partial issue of me taking classes that didn’t actually apply all that well toward degree completion.  But there was also the issue that, when you get out, you have to get a job somewhere, and churches tend to come in flavors.  Where does a Charismatic-Calvinist-Congregationalist go to become a pastor?  Answer me that, and I know what tradition to study, and maybe I’ve got some guide rails to a shorter answer to those big open-ended questions.

So then I joined the Army, which has helped tremendously with the finance issue, and I really dug in to parsing out different theological traditions in modern Evangelicalism.  Best I can figure, I’m a sorry excuse for a Baptist.  I’m not much of a modern Baptist, but go back 200-300 years and I think I can make a decent defense for myself.

I decided to apply to Southern Baptist Seminary.  It has the reputation for academic intensity that I’m looking for, and they certainly can’t get any more Southern Baptist.  The firm denominational footing will be useful to me in thinking through how well I really fit into that tradition, and the name on the degree should be helpful in calming people’s fears when I confess to unusual doctrines, such as my belief in the third person of the Trinity.

But I’ve hit a snag. I really should have seen it coming.  SBTS requires its students to sign an oath not to touch a drop of alcohol.

Now I’m not a heavy drinker.  In fact, I’m hardly a drinker at all.  I had to force myself some years ago to stop being teetotal, because my study of scripture led me to the conclusion that Jesus drank.  The servant is not greater than his master, so if I don’t drink it had better be for some reason other than an ethical one.  Otherwise I’m saying Jesus was a sinner, which rather defeats the whole purpose of being a Christian.  I have never even come remotely close to being drunk.  If I buy a six-pack of beer, it will take me the better part of six months to drink it.  But if a guest to my house offers me a bottle of wine (as happened just last night), I will accept it with a thankful heart.

I won’t give a grand theology of alcohol right here.  It’s not the sort of thing you can persuade somebody to in the space of five minutes.  But it is my conviction.  Jesus and his disciples drank alcohol for the same reason they didn’t fast.  The bridegroom was with his friends, and it wasn’t time for mourning.  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they called him a glutton and a drunk.  He wasn’t either, but he laid himself open to the accusation by not being an ascetic like his cousin John.

But here’s the thing:  drink or don’t drink to the glory of the God.  There’s a dozen reasons why a fellow might abstain in good conscience, but a blanket “it’s wrong to drink” isn’t one of them.  That’s a dietary law, and it isn’t even found in the Old Testament.  When the council at Jerusalem met, the only restriction they thought fit to put on people was to avoid meat that had been strangled.  For 1900 years that’s the way it was.

Tee-total is not a Biblical standard.  In modern western culture, it goes all the way back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when there was a great social push to eliminate drinking.  You may recall prohibition and the 18th amendment. That was the last joint effort between the conservative and liberal church traditions in America.  The liberal churches pushed for it by working for a law to be passed.  The conservatives did it by adding temperance to the moral code, right next to chastity.

In fact, I’d say that abstaining from alcohol isn’t really a Christian standard at all.  It’s closer to Mormonism or Islam than anything else. And yet, here’s this oath in the middle of my seminary application.  What do I do with it?

There’s a line of reasoning I got from DA Carson (though for the life of me I can’t find a reference in print) where he says that if somebody asks him to abstain from drink because they have an alcoholic background, of course he won’t drink.  Or if someone asks him not to drink because it’s an unacceptable practice in the local culture, and it will confuse the non-believers, of course he won’t drink.  But if someone tells him not to drink because it’s a sin, he’ll say, “pass the port!”  I’m wondering if this should be that sort of thing for me.

There is, of course, another way to look at it.  There was one condition in the Old Testament that allowed for abstaining from alcohol:  the nazarite vow.  For a set period of time (or occasionally a person’s whole life), a man would dedicate himself to the Lord, and the sign for this would be that he would abstain from alcohol, all the fruit of the vine, and from getting his hair cut.  Samson is the famous example, but there’s reason to believe that John the Baptist was also a Nazarite.  Paul apparently took a Nazarite vow on his final return to Jerusalem.

So, it’s possible to consider a requirement by a seminary not to drink alcohol as a kind of Nazarite vow.  Seminary makes sense as a kind of temporary period of religious fervor.  And they make you sign an oath, that is to say, a vow.  Of course, as a Soldier, I couldn’t make it a fully Nazarite vow – failing to get a haircut is grounds for disciplinary action in the Army.  But could I consider this oath as a kind of half-nazarite vow.

Of course it’s a rather transparent mendacity to commit to something “for purpose of evasion,”  that is, affirming something with a certain meaning, knowing that it is taken by the other party as having a completely different meaning.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter what sort of mental gymnastics I put myself through in order to sign an oath.  What really matters is what it means to the person requiring the oath.  Does Southern Seminary, and whatever board they fall under, think of their temperance oath as sort of temporary vow that you can reaffirm or rescind later, or do they think of it as a commitment to adhere to an already established moral standard?

Because if it’s the one, sure I could do it.  But if it’s the other, how can I submit to a moral standard that violates my conviction?  What sort of convictions are those?  I may have to take my studies elsewhere.

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