Beyond the Black Letter Rules
"Don't cuss, spit, drink, or chew/and do not go with girls that do." This was one of the moral axioms that Seth Haines grew up with. In this article from our Clear Conscience series, he wrestles with the proper place of alcohol in the life of a Christian.
I was a do-right child, the kind raised among the good gospel people of the local First Baptist Church. We were the Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night sort, and we feasted on a steady diet of John 3:16, hymns, and sing-songy sermon points. Among these sermon points, I remember precisely two, the first of which was "don't cuss, spit, drink, or chew/and do not go with girls that do," and the second of which was "Baptist born, Baptist bred/ and when I die I'll be Baptist dead."
Make no mistake about it, our congregation examined the red letters of Christ and the black letters of the prophets. We learned the gospel message and the plan of salvation. Tuesday nights were for visitation of the sick, and Wednesday nights for scripture study. But despite all these very good things—and they’re all very good things—more than anything, I remember our axiomatic reduction of Christianity to two things: rules of holiness and denominational fidelity.
Like any youngster, I grew out of boyish skin and into more adult faith-questions. In my twenties, I climbed from the Baptist cradle of my youth and crawled into a less-Baptist world. Here, the reductionist axioms on which I'd been nursed did not apply, and I met other Christ-bearers who applied different rules of holiness. I remember my first jarring encounter with this notion. It came in a bar.
The Wichita Woman
I played the role of singer-songwriter, traveling from small church to small church with a guitar and a box of compact discs. I’d written nary a famous song—not even a moderately familiar one—but in a turn of good fortune, I was invited to play with a performance painter at a festival commemorating the life of Christian artist Rich Mullins.
I arrived in Wichita, Kansas, early one Friday evening. A group of Mullins’ closest friends welcomed me. We mixed, mingled, and prayed blessings on the weekend gathering. And when the organized events of the evening were all wrapped up, a small group approached and asked whether I'd like to retire for a drink. "We're going to one of Rich's favorite old dives," the woman said. "You have to come."
We found our way to a bar in the heart of Wichita, a place that smelled of beer and bleach. The woman across from the table ordered a beer. I ordered soda water with a lime.
"You don't go to the bars much, do you?" she asked with a smile.
She smiled, propped a cardboard coaster up on its corner, and gave it a lazy spin. "I met Rich in a bar," she said. “I was a waitress, and while I served him, he told me of Jesus. It was a place not unlike this. That night, I believed in Rich's Jesus, and my life's been different ever since. I'm thankful Rich came to visit me in that bar."
Black Letter Rules
These days, I consider the story of the Wichita woman, play it against my own.
In my thirties, I'd left my singer-songwriter ways behind, traded in the endless travel and uncertain income for a desk job and steady pay. No longer a member of a teetotaling church, I took up my own habit of drinking. Finding that my tolerance was quite high, I proceeded to excel at the practice. It was, as they say, all fun and games in the name of Christian liberty. That is, until the day it was not.
In 2012, my youngest son, Titus, became ill. He lost weight and stopped eating. He was checked into a specialty hospital, and we feared the worst. And as his health spiraled downward, my drinking spun out of control.
In truth, I was already over-drinking before Titus' illness. Capable as I was at maintaining appearances, I avoided the truth of my addiction and hid it from others. But in the year following his hospital stay, the truth became evident—I had a problem, and I needed help.
I've been bone-dry for over a year and a half now. And as Christian attitudes about imbibing have shifted over this last handful of years, I’ve become the go-to source for my drinking Christian friends.
"How many drinks a day did you used to put back?"
"Do you miss it?"
"What do you do about communion wine?"
For the most part, the questions are the same, and they're easy enough to answer. But a few months ago, a friend asked me an earnest question—should Christians be bartenders?
It was a stumbling block of a question. My initial instinct was to quip, "no way, never, uh-uh!" But then I thought back to the Wichita woman, to her meeting with Rich and Jesus in a Wichita beer dive. I considered our conversation, considered her life change and the joy she carried with her. If one Christian hadn't dared to frequent the bar, her life would have looked much different.
It's human nature to hope for black-letter rules, I think. After all, isn’t life easier when reduced to do-not-do-this axioms? But in wrestling with the question, I've come to believe this—the Christian life is a lot less about the shoulds and shouldn'ts and a lot more about individual obedience to the work of Christ in the individual heart. Perhaps this is why Peter gives us our conscience as our guide. "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have," he wrote, " … keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Pet. 3:15b-16).
The truth is, it would be poor form for me to take up occupation as a bartender, at least these days. The temptation would be too great, and I would be ever at odds with my own conscience. But what about the one who carries out the mission of Jesus in the bar? What about the one who patrons, knowing that the barkeeps need hope, too? What if they drink in moderation, but love lavishly?
I admit, the days of easy answers and black-and-white rules were easier, less nuanced. But the good news isn't only the good news for the rule followers, for those parked in the Sunday morning pews. The good news is salvation for the life of the world—bartenders, bar patrons, and me.