A denominational leader chairing a new pastor's ordination council noted that the young man had failed to sign the abstinence pledge on his paperwork. He hadn't forgotten to sign the pledge. He didn't want to sign it. Why be a hypocrite?
"You do know it is our policy that clergy abstain from alcohol," the elder minister said to the candidate.
"Yes, I'm aware of the policy," the young pastor replied, and the discussion ended. Neither one seemed interested in pressing the issue. The young pastor never signed the pledge. Now, other pastoral candidates have named the newfound loophole in the man's honor.
Their search for a workaround demonstrates a shift in attitudes among Christian leaders, especially younger leaders, toward alcohol. Even in denominations and traditions that championed prohibition and railed against those who drink, smoke, or chew (or go with those who do) many leaders see such restrictions as inappropriate today.
"The doctrines that get nailed down in one generation become the next generation's 'What?'—like a dog turning its head when it hears a strange sound," said Matt Russell, founding pastor of Mercy Street Church in Houston, Texas, a United Methodist ministry that reaches many people with addiction issues. "The emerging church is raising its own generational issues—poverty, illness, disparity of resources. In our time, these are the issues of holiness just as abstinence from alcohol was for our grandparents.
"Sometimes a beer is just a beer," Russell said with a chuckle, alluding to Freud's famous quote about his cigar. But oftentimes "just a beer" is enough to cause a row.
And in the argument we risk the larger questions of contextualization of the gospel in a society of drinkers, spiritual liberty and pastoral responsibility, and the hermeneutics of demon rum.
When Darrin Patrick agreed to have an NBC News crew visit his church's discussion group, he probably had no idea the stir that would result. Patrick is pastor of The Journey, an emerging congregation in St. Louis. The meeting place was The Bottleworks.
"Followers say they may come for the beer, but they stay for the Bible," the reporter said. "At the brew pub, it's about saving souls, one beer at a time."
She was right. It was about saving souls. The Journey's outreach to unchurched people met in a place where unchurched people gather—a bar.
Who could object to reaching young adults?
The Journey, which grew from 30 to 2,000 attenders in five years under Patrick's ministry, was started with funds loaned by the traditionally prohibitionist denomination. The statewide debate that ensued revealed The Journey is part of Acts 29, a church-planting network that includes congregations from many denominations. It is headed by Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.
Driscoll—called "the cussing pastor" until a friend called him on it and he stopped and apologized—is now called by some "the drinking pastor." In his book Radical Reformission, Driscoll says he reached his conclusion that abstinence is unbiblical while he was preparing a sermon on John 2, where Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana. (The chapter is called "The Sin of Light Beer.")