Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Clergy holiness codes miss the point

Last week a study was released by economists called "No Booze? You May Lose." Researches found that people who drink alcohol make more money and may have an advantage in social settings. But does the same hold true for pastors? Author, professor, pastor, and regular contribut-Ur, David Fitch is back to discuss the popular restriction on clergy to abstain from alcohol and tobacco. Are such rules helpful, and could they possibly be making us fat?

On August 25th, Chicago Sun Times religion columnist Cathleen Falsani wrote a piece entitled "Weighty Matter: Is religion making us fat?" In the piece, she recited Adam Ant's lyrics in the 80's "Don't drink, don't smoke, what do ya do?" She raised the question whether those Christian denominations that prohibit drinking and smoking are abusing food as a substitute for these other prohibited pleasures. For support, Falsani quotes a Purdue University study that concluded (after accounting for several other factors) that some kinds of churches seem to encourage the problem of obesity. In fact, the study states that churches where drinking alcohol, smoking, and even dancing are prohibited, "overeating has become the accepted vice."

My denomination, along with others rooted in the old holiness movements, still hangs on to the holiness codes that prohibit alcohol and tobacco for its clergy. I consider this to be "an adventure in missing the point," to quote Brian McLaren, and I believe Falsani helps us see why. Let me explain.

If we prohibit certain behaviors for pastoral ministry, are we not really revealing the fear that we lack the mature character for ministry in the first place? If drunkenness and chemical addiction is what we fear, why not name drunkenness and addiction as the symptoms that require discernment? By totally prohibiting alcohol and tobacco we are not really dealing with the issue of whether our clergy has mature character. We are just providing conditions to displace the lack of character (if it exists) to some other object that is safer, i.e. from tobacco or alcohol to food.

I want to be careful here about painting a broad-brush stroke across all of us who have struggled with weight. That's not my point. I am someone who's had food and weight problems. And I've had my own recent crisis with diabetes as a result. Rather, what I am trying to show here is how the holiness codes of my denomination and others do not address the issue, they merely reveal the symptom of the "Real" underlying problem.

Slavoj Zizek, post postmodernist (if there is such a thing) cultural critic, is famous for helping us see the ways cultures can manifest symptoms of the "Real" in ways that surprise us. I might just suggest a Zizekian view of our denominational holiness codes - over eating is the symptom of the Real. The zeal of evangelicals to be different than culture by forbidding alcohol and tobacco, has in essence revealed that nothing is really different. Instead the "hard kernel of the Real" has erupted in the obesity epidemic in our holiness coded churches. As a result, the holiness codes reveal the Truth. In Zizek's words, "we overlook the way our act is already part of the state of things we are looking at, the way our error is part of the Truth itself.

Displaying 1–10 of 50 comments

LB Ford

October 03, 2006  1:54pm

Hey Greg: He says he doesn't CONDEMN overeating. Is there an exception in the gluttony clause that excludes food or did I miss that in the Bible? He also doesn't condemn the drinking problem. Read again. So, if we don't condemn gluttony, let's get a freebie on greed, envy, sloth, spite, lust and anger. And wipe away the 10 Commandments while we're at it. If that's the way someone is going to preach (half-truths) then we just need to toss out the Bible and start preaching our own versions of "truth." Sins are sins and held to no heirarchy although man tries to make "his" sin (say–gluttony) less than others (a money hoarder or anger issues or G-d's name in vain, or whatever speck you find in your neighbor's eye). And if G-d really approved of gluttony, why is there so much talk of fasting in the Bible?

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October 02, 2006  11:02pm

"The wise are cautious and turn away from evil, but the fool throws off restraint and is careless" (Proverbs 14:16). Why walk along the craggy edge of the cliff when you can walk in the safety of the middle of the plateau? We are warned that there are ways that seem right to us as humanbeings, but the end is death or destruction. The cleric is admonished to be an example for believers in all things. What does it mean to be holy? While we all stumble, we must be careful that we do not fall into the pit of unholiness. Grace catches all of us, but we are not to count on it as the basis of our living. Regardless, each of us is to be convinced in our own minds (Romans 14:5b). I'd just rather be safe than sorry when I stand before the judgment seat of God, to whom each of us will be accountable (Romans 14:12).

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October 02, 2006  3:54pm

Holiness is always a heart issue, our response to the Lord who loves us. As soon as we legislate a behavior, the fear of man comes in and the holiness we thought we were promoting becomes a wall or a mask to hide the real goings on of the heart. If the Lord does not condemn me for a glass of wine with dinner, I am not condemned. If my own heart condemns me as I drink it, then it is sin to me, the Scripture says. The laws we think will point us to a godly way serve as a hindrance, ultimately.

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September 28, 2006  1:07pm

Abstaining because of 5 kids needs to drink one or 2 glasses of wine a day since current research indicates 1 (or 2 for men) glasses of wine (especially red wine) tends to keep the heart attack away. A call for maturity is a call to liberty not legalism. In Galatians the mature believer is the one who lives in freedom, the immature is constrained by a law lifestyle. The immature is concerned with exactly what one eats or drinks.

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September 28, 2006  2:34am

It's interesting that so much of the discussion revolves around our 'rights' as to drinking. Would it not be better to focus this energy on a discussion of our responsibility to lead and set examples to even the 'least of these' that we pastor - including those with alcohol problems? I minister in Australia, and our nation has an epidemic of alcohol abuse (according to a Government report). It's less about our rights and more about modelling that a live can be lived without alcohol - a foreign concept to most in our society.

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rose mwai

September 28, 2006  1:31am

i think the christian standard must be based on the word of God. if we compromise inoder to have people in the church fine but the main issue is leading people inorder to inherite the kingdom of God. HOw can a blind man lead a blind man? they will both fall in to the ditch. Thnks. gOD BLESS YOUR. I AM HOPING TO HEAR MORE FROM YOU.

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September 27, 2006  5:59pm

I am a pastor of 35 years. I am a person of 57 years, and a pain in many people's necks for the same. I have many faults and frailties. One look in the mirror of God's Word and I am reminded that I'm a sinner saved by grace (emphasis on grace). Like Qoheleth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, I've gone down the proverbial roads of excessiveness in just about everything (smoking, drugs, alcohol, violence, sexual immorality, exercise, work, coarse jesting, play, surfing, cussing, day-dreaming, pleasure seeking, television, web-surfing, eating, and even ministry. But notice that "excessiveness" even includes wisdom, knowledge, science, stupidity, and folly. (1:17-18). Read the book. The end of every road of excessiveness is less than what God intended for us. He wants us to experience His blessings in place of "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life." Sure the church struggles with all these things. Who's the church? You and me. 1 Corinthians 6:12 (NASB) "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything." I, for one, have had too many masters over the years. I've struggled with the hypocrisy of trying to serve both the eternal Christ and the temporal things of this world. Although we try, the abundant life Jesus promises in John 10:10 cannot be substituted with any of these temporal things. Philippians 2:12b-13 (NKJV) " out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure." Get back on the surgery table and let Him work.

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September 27, 2006  11:31am

Great reflection on a cultural issue that the church loss to extremism bequeath by the temperance movement. Real tragedy has to do with the number of folks that I encounter who come from Baptistic/Holiness backgrounds and avoid church due to their use (not overuse) of either tobacco or alcohol. The other tragedy is the unbiblical use of "grape juice" in the place of biblical and traditional use of "wine" at communion. Just as well use "water" like the Latter Day Saints! All of these abberations of biblical practice came to us by way of the "temperance movement," not the Spirit of the LORD."

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Ted Kalivoda

September 27, 2006  10:49am

The central issue on alcohol is that of inventing a rule that attributes drinking to sin or to indiscreet behavior which adds to the barrage of man-made rules that sour people on Christianity. Attaching man-made prohibitions creates a burdensome religion, one contrary to the joyous life Jesus preached. We tend to regard drinking with suspicion. By our dogmatism one would think that Jesus went to the wedding at Cana to turn the wine into water. Total abstinence has its roots in American Christianity; it's a tradition that has a way of controlling our thinking on right and wrong. We need to ask whether abstinence from alcohol is a people-made rule or a biblical one. I had to come to grip with that question during my years of residence in several different countries. Why were evangelicals abroad drinking wine with their dinner? Don't they know it's sinful? I mused. I quickly learned that their culture viewed wine as a beverage that complemented and enhanced the meal; it was looked upon more as a food, not something to get drunk on.They were simply living in accord with their cultural norms. There was no question on connecting it to sin. We tend to disregard this cultural phenomenon. An attitude toward wine on one side of the ocean is not necessarily the same on the other side. Or to put it more bluntly, can it be sin here and not there? Go back to Jesus' time and ask yourself if you would disgustedly get up and leave the wedding celebration at Cana upon seeing Jesus graciously providing more wine for the festivities, and doing so by means of a divine miracle at that. Might you have entertained such thoughts as, "Jesus, are you out of your mind? Miracles are for healing the sick, not for making wine, of all things" What if you were a participant at the Last Supper? When the cup of wine (no, it wasn't grape juice)reached you, would you say, "No way! I'm not drinking that stuff!" Or maybe you'd react more subtly by simply passing the cup without taking a sip. I went to Greece with some American colleagues on a short term missions program. I know that during communion some of them were shocked out of their socks when they lifted the cups to their lips that contained wine It seems important, given biblical instruction on liberty in Christ, that we protect that feedom privilege while at the same time heed biblical admonition about overindulgence (lack of self-control) or perhaps misusing liberty to cause a brother ot sister to fall. In that latter sense, who that person might be is left for each of us to decide. Setting up a rule for all to obey imposes a law of our own making.And I think we've seen enough of that kind of "Christianity." Some Christians are similarly guilty with rule making on abstinence. They are so concerned about the possibility of someone's weakness that they condemn drinking altogether as well as judge the drinker as sinful or at best as insensitive and spiritually out of touch. I would certainly not offer a glass of wine to an alcoholic or to a recovering addict, or even drink in his presence. I recognize the temptation and danger for him or her. However, the Bible doesn't allow us to establish a rule on it to apply to everyone (except on drunkenness, of course). Some people make such rules, and in all fairness I understand their good intent. Excssive use of alcohol can be ravaging. But we must view it in the context of Christian liberty and avoid trying to make robots out of fellow believers regarding a human rule. Judging one's spirituality should never be suggested in this respect. A prohibition on alcoholic consumption exemplifies the subtleties of people-made requirements to govern the Christin life. I hope you won't interpret this discussion as intended to encourage drinking. I am aware of the dangers of alcoholic consumption. Some people can't handle it, just as they show weakness by excessively consuming other kinds of liquids, such as caffeine-laden sodas or coffee. They even us

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September 27, 2006  8:21am

not just for pastors, for all believers. avoiding the vices of alcohol and tobacco are not good for you, period. too much salt, too much red meat, over-eating, its all bad. Not making an excuse. Peter talks about excercising self-control. It's also about my personal witness, its hard to explain as a pastor if i'm at out eating dinner and someone from the community sees me drinking. Alcohol abuse is destroying urban inner cities, along with drugs, and the abuse of sex. what's wrong with avoiding these things as a way of promoting better life?

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