While checking my Facebook feed this morning I came across a link posted by my friend Sam Spatola that, quite frankly, shocked me in a nice way. You see, his alma mater, Moody Bible Institute (also the school where my mother and father met), has just reversed its longstanding policy of banning all alcohol and tobacco consumption by its faculty and staff. In the article posted on 19 September in the Religion News Service, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports as follows:
(RNS) The Chicago-based evangelical Moody Bible Institute has dropped its ban on alcohol and tobacco consumption by its 600-some faculty and staff, including for those who work in its radio and publishing arms.
The change in August reflected a desire to create a “high trust environment that emphasizes values, not rules,” said spokeswoman Christine Gorz. Employees must adhere to all “biblical absolutes,” Gorz said, but on issues where the Bible is not clear, Moody leaves it to employees’ conscience.
Employees may not drink on the job or with Moody students, who are not allowed to drink while in school.On the other hand, rules for students have not changed much:
Students must abstain from tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs and “sexual promiscuity” for at least one year before they enroll and during their time at Moody.
“In addition, students are to refrain from gambling, viewing obscene or pornographic literature, and patronizing pubs, bars, nightclubs, comedy clubs, and similar establishments,” the catalog says. “There will be no on- or off-campus dances sponsored or organized by Moody Bible Institute students or personnel.”Evangelical attitudes towards what were once considered "worldly amusements" have been changing for some time (though old-line and neo-fundamentalists appear to be holding the line). The reasoning for such an attitudinal adjustment is debated. In Bailey's report she quotes Jennifer Woodruff Tait, managing editor of Christian History Magazine, who opines that the change is one of expediency and accommodation:
“It’s part of a larger trend of wanting cultural acceptance,” said Tait, who noted that professors would go to academic conferences and be embarrassed when they couldn’t drink with friends. “A lot of people saw attitudes to alcohol as a witness. Many people are saying there are other ways to witness and this is a way to fit in.”Well, as one who formerly taught at an institution where alcohol proscription was part of a detailed legalistic code of conduct, I can attest to the frustration caused by such a rule when I attended academic conferences with colleagues from other, more moderate institutions. But really, aren't Christian professors able to be bigger boys and girls than Tait suggests? Is "cultural acceptance" that big of a deal? In other words, aren't more significant, biblically fundamental (word chosen deliberately) principles at work here?
Indeed, there was always something peculiar about these so-called "standards" of conduct. Their origin in 19th century American pietistic, revivalistic Protestantism is well known (indeed, older, more confessional traditional Protestants like the Dutch Reformed, Anglicans, and Missouri Synod Lutherans are almost entirely free from such strictures). Even as a child growing up in these circles, and later as a student at Moody's sister institution, Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University) in the '70s, I couldn't quite "get" the rationale for some of these rules. Particularly silly (so I thought at the time, and still do) was the lumping together of such "vices" as cinema attendance, dancing, card playing, and listening to rock music (that was always the kicker for me), with such sins as sexual promiscuity and illicit use of narcotics. More fundamentally—and ironically, considering these fundamentalists' stated love of Jesus—these rules did nothing more than to externalize and quantify both sin and acceptable Christian behavior, just like the Pharisees of old who, despite their good intentions, were excoriated by Jesus for their pathetic misunderstanding of what obedience truly entailed.
Most fundamental of all, however, is the patent disconnect between rule-based "standards of conduct" and St. Paul's teaching on Christian liberty in Romans 14. If a given practice is not condemned, either explicitly or by necessary implication, in Scripture, we have no right to make such judgments today. With his usual perspicacity, the great Reformed theologian John Murray once said (to paraphrase from memory, since the book in which it is found is tucked away in a box in my daughter's attic!), "Those who disallow what the Bible allows are prone to allow what the Bible disallows." There is no real dispute—even my teetotaler father scoffed at those who suggested that the "wine" of the Bible, when spoken of positively, was nothing more than what we today would call "grape juice"—that the Bible allows the moderate drinking of alcohol. Yet, in my experience, those Christian groups who most stridently condemn alcohol use and even dining in pubs—the Britisher in me particularly finds that offensive—are the most blind to those patterns of thinking and behavior, be they pride, lust for power and control, and careerism, that truly embody what Paul considered the "world." In Romans 12:1 the apostle, in the elegant paraphrase of J. B. Phillips, wrote "Don't let the world squeeze you into its mold." Well, many of the 20th century's (and some of the 21st century's) Christians unwittingly have let the world mold their thinking and behavior even as they fancy that, by their external "standards" of behavior, they are keeping it at bay.
My guess is that most old guard evangelicals, and even some fundamentalists, understand this. Yet, because of constituency matters or latent pietistic sensibilities, many have attempted to justify their rules in other ways. "It's about testimony," some say, neglecting to consider that, say, the moderate and responsible use of alcohol is a more powerful witness than self-righteous, even if only in appearance, total abstinence. "Alcohol can lead to drunkenness," others have said. But, to use that logic, doesn't food lead to gluttony, which in today's world is one of western society's most despised vices? Or, as Martin Luther graphically put it when criticised for his love of wine and beer, by that logic we should ban women, seeing that they can lead to fornication! As Paul would have it, the truly free Christian should limit his or her liberty in such matters only on a voluntary basis, and then only in the interests of another brother or sister with a "weak conscience" who otherwise would be tempted to act against conscience on the matter when witnessing the exercise of that liberty. And such "weak" brothers and sisters do not include convinced legalists who never would consider tainting themselves by such "worldly" actions.
Unfortunately, in my experience as a student and professor at institutions holding to such "standards"—indeed, I once pointed out to the President of one of these schools that the very language of "standards" implicitly placed an illegitimate moral evaluation on such activities; he was not amused—these rules in actuality serve a darker purpose, viz., as a means to exert control and power over faculty and students alike. As a former student once complained, these "standards" are "oppressive." My reply was not wholly satisfactory: "they are small price to pay for the privilege of studying or teaching the Bible." Maybe so, but he was right, as I knew at the time from experience (for example, while sitting on a bench on the Ocean City, New Jersey boardwalk in the summer of 1975 for three hours while my brother and a friend watched "Jaws" in the Strand Theater, all because of PCB's stance on movies). Failure to treat adult Christians as truly free agents no longer under the "pedagogue" of man-made rules is oppressive, both treating them as the children they are not and, even worse, manifesting a lack of trust in them. Hence I applaud Moody's reconsideration of its rules for faculty and staff. Now, if only they could tweak those rules for their students ...