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Wheaton changes alcohol policy; others not ready to follow its lead

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Wheaton College may be a leader in the evangelical world, but a number of other schools — including a few Baptist ones — aren’t ready to follow its lead concerning changes in alcohol policy.

The Illinois college — Billy Graham’s alma mater — released a new “Community Covenant” in February, easing the restrictions on alcohol. Alcohol is still prohibited on campus, and undergraduates must abstain at all times, but faculty, staff and graduate students are now allowed to drink in private, when not in the presence of other undergraduates.

Wheaton’s role in the evangelical world is a big reason the news has sparked so much discussion. Union University President David Dockery told Baptist Press that Wheaton has a longstanding reputation for setting the standard “for Christian worldview thinking … for the rest of the Christian higher education community.”

The document, which can be read on the college’s website, maintains its strong conservative stances on such issues as homosexuality and pre-marital sex. It also condemns drunkenness.

But while the old document prohibited alcohol consumption by its employees at all times, the new statements reads, “Other adult members of the College community will use careful and loving discretion in any use of alcohol. They will avoid the serving or consumption of alcohol in any situation in which undergraduate members of the Wheaton College family are or are likely to be present.”

The document details the seminary’s stance on alcohol, saying that “the Bible requires moderation in the use of alcohol, not abstinence.” But because of the dangers posed by its abuse — which the document calls “society’s greatest substance abuse problem” — Christians should “exercise their freedom responsibly, carefully, and in Christ-like love.”

The school gave two reasons for the change: a lack of scriptural evidence requiring abstinence and a 12-year-old Illinois law — the Illinois Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act — prohibiting employment discrimination if an “individual uses lawful products off the premises of the employer during non-working hours.”

Wheaton may have kept the prohibition on alcohol had it been able to give a religious reason, Litfin said in a letter on the seminary’s website.

“Legal authorities believe IRPWA probably exempts religious employers in cases where they can argue that the ‘lawful products’ under consideration are prohibited as a matter of clear and consistent religious requirement. For example, a Muslim organization might successfully argue that the consumption of alcohol is ‘against our religion.’ But short of such an ironclad argument, no such prohibition appears to be legal under Illinois law.”

But Dockery and two other college presidents contacted by Baptist Press said their respective policies are needed. Cedarville University in Ohio, Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri and Union University in Tennessee all have written policies prohibiting faculty members from drinking.

“We believe it’s important for the sacred Christian testimony for our entire university family not to participate in the use of alcoholic beverages or tobacco,” Cedarville President Paul Dixon said.

Liftin has spoken in Cedarville’s chapel before, and Dixon said he has “a great deal of respect for Wheaton and for Duane Litfin. … He’s a wonderful man of God.”

But Dixon said there are biblical reasons behind his school’s policy. “I have strong feelings about alcohol,” he told Baptist Press. “I believe it’s one of the greatest social problems in America. I agree with [pastor, author and radio personality] John McArthur that the Bible prohibits strong drinking, and that all alcoholic beverages in America can be defined as strong drink.

“Even though I respect many wonderful men and women of God who would not agree that the Scriptures speak against the issue of alcohol, I believe the Scriptures do forbid it. I do believe it’s a biblical issue.”

Like Dixon, Hannibal-LaGrange President Woodrow Burt said there are scriptural reasons behind his school’s policy.

“We simply go back to the teaching of the Scripture,” he said. “Our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and it’s our hope that our employees are under the control of the Holy Spirit rather than under the control of some other substance.”

Some prospective employees have received the application form and told the administration they couldn’t sign it, Burt said, adding that others have gladly signed it.

“One of the other benefits of having it on our application is to weed people out who simply don’t fit that particular profile,” he said.

Burt and Dockery said the rule prevents their schools from having two sets of standards for the campus community.

“We do ask our fulltime students to abstain, and therefore we think that administration, faculty and staff should model those standards,” Dockery said.

Union also is modeling what Tennessee Baptists believe, he added.

“We recognize that this is a value widely held across the churches of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and we view it as our responsibility to faithfully reflect the beliefs and practices of the churches,” said Dockery, who added that he considers Liftin a good friend.

Wheaton College’s new covenant loosens other restrictions as well. It maintains its campus prohibition on tobacco and forbids undergraduates from using the substance, but it removes an off-campus prohibition on tobacco for faculty, staff and graduate students. It also removes a rule prohibiting “most forms of social dancing,” although it does set parameters for dances, saying they will not be “immodest, sinfully erotic or harmfully violent.” Before, only square dances were allowed.

Wheaton’s previous document was known as the “statement of responsibilities” and had two sections: one on biblical principles, the other on the Christian lifestyle. In fact, the old document made it clear that its alcohol prohibition wasn’t biblically based.

“In addition to the moral standards prescribed in the Bible, the college has chosen to adopt rules that foster the kind of campus atmosphere that Wheaton College desires,” the old document read. It then said that gambling, illegal drug use, “most forms of social dancing” and the use of alcohol and tobacco were prohibited.

Southern Baptist pastor Mark Coppenger, who taught at Wheaton in the 1970s, said the policy was clearly spelled out.

“Our philosophy chairman, Arthur Holmes, was particularly helpful in spelling out the difference between clear biblical prohibitions and matters of prudence,” said Coppenger, who is now an adjunct professor and serves as pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. “College teetotalism regarding alcohol fell under that latter category. After working with alcohol enthusiasts in the Army and at Vanderbilt, it was a pleasure to serve with folks who held alcoholic drink at arms length.”

The new covenant has been well received, Wheaton’s Liftin said.

“A few here and there raised this or that issue, and many offered suggestions which have sharpened the document,” he wrote. “But overall it’s not too much to say that this new community covenant was received with enthusiasm. No such document will ever be perfect, and in a community as diverse as Wheaton College we will never attain complete unanimity. But this covenant has brought us as close as we are likely to get.”

The issue is a reflection of similar biblical arguments within the church, Cedarville’s Dixon told Baptist Press.

“As with churches and families, Christian colleges and universities don’t see everything the same,” he said.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust