Thursday, October 16, 2014

Renew the Table: Foundations of Unfermented Worship

Renew the Table is a series of thoughts and opinions concerning the renewal of the Lord's Supper. For more information please see Goals and Disclaimers

Ironically, I think more than anything else, it has been my Baptist background that has fueled and supported my belief that we should be using wine in communion. Baptists mostly (and at least on paper) take the Bible seriously. And because of this they take that which is found in the Bible seriously. The reason that there is a group called “Baptist” in the first place is because they seek to emulate and live out what the Bible teaches. The most obvious and distinguishing mark of a Baptist is their mode of baptism, this being the full water immersion of confessing believers. Oddly enough, this one belief has been strong enough and distinguishing enough that two (or twenty!) churches can virtually disagree on nearly everything from methodology to theology, and yet if they only agree on this one thing, they will identify themselves as “Baptist”.

So, these two Baptist standards—Biblical fidelity and an iron grip on the mode of baptism—were the two lights that led me to that sweet (or dry) gift that God was pleased to give to man: wine. I said it was ironic because (if you've been living under a rock) Baptists are like, woah, hey, no alcohol! They've been making resolutions and creating church member covenants prohibiting the consumption or sale of alcoholic beverages for the last 180 years or so! It might not be too far off the mark to say that a third distinguishing mark of a Baptist is the requirement of abstaining from wine (and other potentially intoxicating beverages).

To begin with, I think it would be helpful to at least take a look at the historical reasons why most evangelicals use grape juice instead of wine. These historical reasons are all intertwined with the theological and philosophical views that we have already been discussing. Frankly, we could spend a great amount of time exploring this. We could get pretty deep into the history, the Spirit of the Age, the philosophy, the science, the hermeneutics, and on and on, but I really want to stay on topic. My hope is that this summary will suffice to give a picture of what has happened.

A Brief History
As we’ve seen in this series, Memorialism has removed the presence of Christ from the Supper, and when Christ is absent from the table, another seeks to fill his place. To sit in the seat of Christ is to sit in a seat of authority (usurped). I also showed how Memorialism not only leaves the door open for Pragmatism, but encourages Pragmatism to have a say. So it’s not too hard to see how the stage was set for outside influences to impact not only the Church’s historical position on drinking, but specifically the Lord’s Supper.


In the early to mid-1800’s The Second Great Awakening and the Temperance Movement along with it dealt a heavy blow to the Church’s traditional understanding of wine and alcoholic beverages, and specifically for our purposes, the Lord’s Supper. As Memorialism tossed the baby out with the bathwater seeking to correct an error in the Lord’s Supper, Revivalism and the Temperance Movement tossed the baby out with the beer as it sought to correct drunkenness. There is nothing wrong about preaching against drunkenness, but there is much wrong when that preaching denies or goes beyond what Scripture reveals. The problem (as it always is) was the allure of success that feeds pragmatism. The revival preaching during this time leaned heavily on pragmatic methods to produce converts. Taverns and saloons were being closed whenever the revival swept into town, and this became one of the many indicators of success.

In the wake of the Second Great Awakening and the drive towards national Prohibition in the United States, pastors and theologians were producing books and sermons that sought to reinterpret the Scriptures to fit the prevailing belief, that the Bible prohibits the consumption of alcohol in any way. All of a sudden wine in the Bible, at least when found on the lips of holy men, was no longer wine, it was unfermented wine. Apparently, no one, for 1900 years had really understood the Hebrew and Greek words which we translate as wine or strong drink. These writings famously influenced Thomas Bramwell Welch, a Methodist, to develop a method to stop grape juice from fermenting, allowing unfermented grape juice to be distributed on a larger scale. Now it was easier than ever before for a congregation with abstinence scruples to go alcohol free. 


Whether the Temperance Movement was born out of the Second Great Awakening, or whether they both were born out of the progressive, pragmatic, Spirit of the Age, it’s hard to say. The one thing that we know for sure, and the thing that concerns us now, is that the Church pre-19th century drank wine in communion while the Evangelical Church post-19th century drank grape juice. Where Memorialism or Pragmatism prevailed, there was no resistance to the removal of wine and the innovation of unfermented grape juice for the Supper. Where Memorialism prevailed, the removal of wine was embraced.

Grape juice became the staple for evangelicals like the Methodists and the Baptists. The Methodists straight up wrote that unfermented wine was a requirement. In 1916 the Methodists mandated:

…let none but the pure juice of the grape be used in administering the Lord's Supper.

They were more honest than their Baptist brethren. In 1925, almost smack dab in the middle of Prohibition we find this in the Baptist Faith and Message:

…and to the Lord's Supper, in which the members of the church, by the use of bread and wine...

Whether the framers of this confession couldn't bring themselves to part with the Scriptural and historical church practice, or because it was simply an oversight, I don’t know. What we do know however is that, in spite of the confession, most (if not all) Baptists were drinking grape juice. If it was an oversight, the updated 1963 and 2000 versions caught it. They removed the word wine and replaced it with the phrase fruit of the vine. A biblical phrase, to be sure, but a notable change nonetheless. But lest one think that Southern Baptists are friendly to those who use real wine, rest assured; a little Google-Fu revealed that the Southern Baptists have passed over 60 anti-alcohol resolutions in the past 120 years. But this actually highlights the Baptists’ biblical fidelity. They reject alcohol, but couldn't bring themselves to go as far as changing the words found in Scripture, regardless of how they have been interpreted. Noble, but still flawed (as we shall see).

A Bad Foundation
But now that our history lesson is over, I hope we can clearly see what led the Baptists and other evangelicals to abandon wine in the Supper; Memorialism, Pragmatism, Popular Opinion, Revisionism. We need to look this ugly foundation square in the face. All of these factors—look at them for what they are: denying Christ’s presence, denying Christ’s command, usurping Christ’s authority, reinterpreting Christ’s words—have been the fundamental reasons for removing wine from worship. I’m just asking that we take an honest look at it. These are the fundamental reasons wine was removed from worship. This is important to remember because only after the wine was removed did anyone begin to appeal to Scripture (at least the parts that weren't reinterpreted) to keep it out.

Do you have a problem with how all this has come to be? I do. And I question how others, knowing this to be the case, don’t have a problem with it. Wine can be dangerous, but the historic foundations for removing wine from worship are even more dangerous. Nadab and Abihu were killed by God for less! They brought strange fire once; we bring strange wine over and over and over again. (I can’t help but wonder if this might, in some deep way, contribute to infrequent communion.)

So the damage is done. Consciences have been seared. Generations upon generations have swallowed this strange wine. It runs deep like a trench in our national and spiritual history. So it leads one to think; Is it even worth the trouble to try to re-institute it? Is it worth dropping this bomb that has the potential to break up the unity of a church? Shouldn't we just steer clear of such a volatile subject that doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things?

First, the simple fact that it is volatile at all should at least be enough to reveal that it does matter in the grand scheme of things on some scale, no? In regards to whether or not it is worth the trouble, I think we should at least weigh whether or not obeying a direct command of Christ is worth the trouble. And in regards to Church unity, before we dip deeper into that, shouldn't we at least be aware that the onus of division actually rests on those who have steered away from the Christ-given command? Can the majority in the wrong blame the minority in the right for dissolving unity? This isn't an evasion of questions; it is framing the questions in the right way. In some ways, wine really isn't a big deal. There’s not a ton of historical ink spilled about the necessity of wine because no one was in disagreement. The early Church didn't write much about the Trinity until someone tried to mess with it. The Reformers emphasized Faith Alone because it was being rejected. Truth has a funny way of slipping into the background unnoticed when all is well. Only when it is rejected does it make a scene. So in this way, wine is a big deal, not because it’ll get you drunk, but because Christ has had a say in it. My aim in upcoming posts is to try to provide reasons why we ought to return to using wine in the Supper.

Last Call 
For many I realize there are a few roadblocks to overcome before they can accept what I’m saying. For many, alcohol in any amount is sinful. They've been fed this since they were children (and since their grandparents were children) and have the Scriptures to prove it, and even have the “true” Greek interpretations and translations. I know because I've been there. I used to hold those beliefs in an elementary way. I've been to Baptist Bible College and have the teacher’s notes “proving” that Jesus never touched the stuff. I don’t want to turn this into an alcohol debate, but I don’t want anyone to think I’m just writing them off either. I just want to say I've been there and I've studied and wrestled with this on both sides. 

Instead of a lengthy diversion, I’ll simply just offer a resource. It is a fantastic book called God Gave Wine by Kenneth L. Gentry that, in my opinion, simply shuts the door on what Scripture has to say about wine and alcoholic drink. It tackles the real (and weird) arguments offered by those who hold a total abstinence position and uses Scripture to answer and reveal that wine really is a good gift given to us by a good God.

At the end of the day, I don't want to convince anyone that the position I hold is the right one (myself included). What I want is for us to take what Christ said seriously, even if that challenges or overthrows those things we once believed to be solid. If I convince you with a crafty argument, despite your misgivings, then you are still bound. But if the Son sets us free then we are free indeed. Pray with me that He will shake our beliefs about things both small and great, about wine, about the Supper, until nothing but truth is left.

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