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2011-02-01 issue:

Mennonites and alcohol

From the editor

by Everett J. Thomas

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Catholics think the Communion wine turns into Christ's blood; Mennonites think the wine turns into grape juice.—Tony Campolo

Campolo's gentle gibe may have been relevant in the early 1990s. But imbibing wine and other alcoholic beverages is the latest form of assimilation for many Mennonites. Some see this as a loss of faithfulness; it need not be.

When I asked associate editor Anna Groff to write an article about a new winery opened by a Mennonite couple in Virginia, I expected reactions to it. While former Mennonites have started breweries and wineries and now operate bars/restaurants in places like Archbold, Ohio, and Goshen, Ind., this story was about members of a Mennonite Church USA congregation and their intent to make wine for profit (January).

After we posted the article on our Facebook page, several FB friends demonstrated the humor and differences among us:

Craig Frere: "Oh my lands. ... Next thing you know, Mennonites will be dancing and playing cards."

Pegge Houpt Tennant: "Do Mennonites drink wine? I am a Mennonite and would not think of it, but am curious if some do."

Craig Frere: "Yes, some Mennonites do drink wine. In fact I know Mennonite pastors who make their own wine."

Jerry Stanaway: "If Jesus turned water into wine, drinking wine must be OK. Those who claim this was just unfermented wine (grape juice) are wrong."

Changing attitudes toward alcohol have been traced by several studies, including The Mennonite Mosaic and Road Signs for the Journey. In 1972, 50 percent of Mennonites and other Anabaptists said drinking alcohol (moderately) was "always wrong," and in 1989, that percentage was still at 43 percent. But by 2007, only 26 percent considered it "always wrong."

Those who continue to believe abstention is a mark of faithfulness hold to a venerable tradition. But each generation must discern expressions of faithfulness prompted by God's Spirit.

In my lifetime, I have watched numerous such expressions disappear for many of us. I recall when my father stopped wearing his plain coat and mother stopped wearing cape dresses and prayer coverings. But some of my elderly relatives still wear these marks of faithfulness; I respect them for it.

When I was 13, our family left a theologically conservative congregation and began attending a more progressive Mennonite church in another conference. I was scandalized by the women with short hair, makeup and jewelry. It created something of a spiritual crisis for me; I was no longer sure of my salvation.

That may seem humorous. But it was not funny to me as an adolescent. I understand those for whom today's changes in our "marks of faithfulness" are traumatic.

Why, then, did I decide to publish the article about the Mennonite winery in Virginia?

Our Anabaptist tradition is nearly 475 years old. During the last 100 years, the church considered the consumption of alcohol to be a sin. But that "marker" is passing away.

While a large majority of us—probably 75 percent by now—accepts some use, we honor those for whom the consumption of alcohol continues to be "always wrong."

There are numerous issues that create divides among us. The legal and moderate use of alcohol need not be one of them.

Reader Comments

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  • Posted by revdj at Monday, January 24, 2011 at 01:45 PM

    I must say that I didn't understand the news value of the original article and I fail to see how this editorial helps. I don't see how this advances the values of the Kingdom. It disappoints me that you wasted a lot of space at the risk of further alienating a segment of the church that is already at risk in continuing to support MCUSA. Perhaps it was an intentional dig.

  • Posted by tamararae86 at Monday, January 24, 2011 at 02:05 PM

    After growing up in a rather conservative Mennonite congregation and recently moving to a more progressive Mennonite community in another state, I relate wholeheartedly with the confusion and guilt that can be associated with sorting out issues of alcohol use. Thank you for such a thoughtful article and editorial. This is an issue that young Mennonites everywhere struggle with and care deeply about.

  • Posted by joseph.penner at Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 01:58 PM

    I was intrigued when reading the book "Land, Piety, Peoplehood" (from "The Mennonite Experience in America" series) to learn that Mennonites on the east coast in the 18th century brewed their own beer and distilled their own liquor. The author (Richard K. MacMaster) includes excerpts from wills written by Mennonite farmers that detail what their children should provide to their widows. From page 96, for example, Michael Bachman directed that his son provide his wife each year with "four bushels of malt to make her beer." I think these articles have value because we ought to be talking more openly about the issue of alcohol consumption. It doesn't seem remotely tenable to act like alcohol has always been deemed wrong by faithful Christian or Mennonite communuties. Yet we seem to operate with that assumption and essentially squelch dialogue.

  • Posted by marpeck at Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 06:25 PM

    I agree with revdj. This article really did not say anything helpful. At most upsets a lot of people.

  • Posted by kshelly at Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 09:32 AM

    "Those who continue to believe abstention is a mark of faithfulness hold to a venerable tradition. But each generation must discern expressions of faithfulness prompted by God's Spirit." It's interesting to me how those who enjoy alcohol can rather glibly wave good-bye to passing modes of faithfulness, but those who say similar things about standing with their excluded lgbt friends and family are pilloried.

  • Posted by joseph.penner at Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 02:38 PM

    To be clear, there are indeed many convincing arguments for abstaining from alcohol, but that doesn't diminish the "news value" of something that stands as a symbol of the changing attitudes towards alcohol in the church. If you don't like wine mixing with the Church, throw yourself into the dialogue but don't ask The Mennonite to hide what's happening in our Church. If the article upsets you, then it is probably all the more news worthy. I started sampling alcohol several years after I had reached legal drinking age and in time decided that beer and wine made a nice improvement to my quality of life and were a good way to enjoy the good gifts of the earth. I find it ironic that Hartman's pre-wine-making profession was selling cars. Not only do cars pollute the earth that God created and damage our own environment, but they also are the very thing that causes alcohol consumption to be so dangerous. If you ask me, Hartman made a very ethical switch by leaving the car industry and making wine instead. I appreciate that Thomas' editorial here paid due honor to the faithful people who believe firmly in abstention from alcohol, while also demonstrating that changing "expressions of faithfulness" can indeed be Spirit-led.

  • Posted by dhwert at Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 04:50 PM

    I agree strongly with Joseph. Not talking about responsible alcohol use is what has happened for many years, which just drives use underground and likely toward more irresponsible behavior. Besides the well-known Mennonite-owned wineries in Europe, there are MC USA congregations that have home brew clubs and weekly happy hours at local brew pubs, and some that use wine for communion. Alcohol abuse and dependence are serious issues, but abstinence isn't the only responsible option. In my opinion, the more we share openly with one another about this reality, the better.

  • Posted by menno5 at Monday, January 31, 2011 at 05:13 PM

    Be careful, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak . . as a Christian community have we lost our sense of responsibility to those around us? Do we print interesting thought provoking articles regardless of what they might to to those who might not be able to control their urges. Do we now celebrate how we can now eat meat offered to idols because it doesn't affect us? Perhaps we would be good to return to the approach of considering how my actions might affect those in the larger community. The consequences of a millstone in Matthew 18:6 might help us soberly consider the implications of pushing the fringes for purposes of discussion and "enlightened" thinking.

  • Posted by mwlcjs at Tuesday, February 01, 2011 at 03:00 PM

    Mennonites and alcohol Regarding "Mennonite Couple Opens Winery in Virginia" (January) and from the editor: "Mennonites and alcohol" (February): I was stunned and very angry. That's because I believed these type of articles - holding cheers for new found social freedoms and/or reliving earlier Mennonite ways before USA's prohibition days of 1919-1933 - could spark eruptions after the severe pain of losing more than 75 congregations within Lancaster Mennonite Conference 2000-2010. My first reaction was to share stories with friends (of MC-USA and international places) holding various personal connections with this subject. That effort was therapeutic and it did bring new resources; however, best of all, I suggest this: To gather around community tables for story telling and in that process that we invite fellow Mennonite physicians to talk about the current risks of alcohol. - wife to a Mennonite physician

  • Posted by Gary at Tuesday, February 01, 2011 at 05:49 PM

    I am glad that Joseph has included a longer historical outlook on Mennonite use of alcoholic beverages. I come from a different Christian tradition and was raised to think that moderate alcohol consumption was permissible. I have spent much of the last 30 years around Mennonites and have joined the Mennonite Church as a member. I used to think that Mennonites frowned upon alcohol consumption until I spent more time with them. Many of my classmates and some professors at AMBS imbibed on occasion. I discovered that there were General Conference Mennonites in southern Ontario Canada who were happy to live amidst vineyards and enjoy the fruit of the vine. I was rather surprised to learn of Dutch Mennonites including the consumption of alcoholic beverages in their church building, even with youth. Many European Mennonites consider beer and wine as normative parts of their dining experience. While alcohol abuse should always be considered and those who imbibe should be considerate of those who don't and may be harmed by being around alcoholic beverages. That being so, I recall taking a Gospel of John class from Howard Charles at AMBS. Howard, against imbibing alcohol himself, asked us what we learned from the story of the wedding feast at Cana. I said, "Jesus didn't make Ripple!" Ripple, a cheap bubbly wine popular among some in the 1970's. He encouraged me to read the track he had written on the subject. The next topic should be: The hazards of Mennonite cooking. Shoe-fly pie, hazardous to our health?

  • Posted by mwlcjs at Wednesday, February 02, 2011 at 08:46 AM

    Whether in Africa, Europe, USA, or any other global region... let's focus first on Godly living rather than what was and/or is now socially acceptable. Let's come to the table to talk and to pray together.

  • Posted by revdj at Wednesday, February 02, 2011 at 07:20 PM

    Just to clarify - I never suggested in my previous post that drinking alcohol was wrong. I simply was saying that I thought it was not a newsworthy issue. However, in light of the developing conversation, let me just say that when I socially celebrate, imbibe or even over indulge with shoo-fly pie I will only be hurting myself. Parent's won't have to worry that I'll murder their child with my out of contol vehicle. Ten thousand (10,000) innocent people are killed every year in this country because of drunk drivers. That is so tragic. Pehaps an editorial is in order.

  • Posted by mwlcjs at Thursday, February 03, 2011 at 09:00 AM

    Revdj's bottom lines are well stated. While the socially acceptable hour may exist to use alcohol... and while one feels fully controlled in the use of alcohol... a prime point to remember is that we all are brother's/sister's keepers (protection persons). Our personal choices do influence other's choices. Side note: While I am still looking for the top med % with proper credit lines... for certain it is something like 1 in 10 persons become an alcoholic. For certain we know this: abstinence is the best prevention for the disease of alcoholism. Last of all, a closing factor to consider is this: no matter how high my income is, I choose to live a simple lifestyle thus to avoid $s for alcohol... and extra dollars for over consumption of shoe fly pie and smorgasbord eating.

  • Posted by mwlcjs at Thursday, February 03, 2011 at 09:39 AM

    I am hoping an upcoming issue of The Mennonite will hold features on the alcohol subject by 2-3 MMA physicians. While social historians historical/social review brings great insight... I personally would save those type of stories for coming to the table after some MMA physicians submit their papers. GOOD NEWS - In so many ways this 2 week journey was very helpful as I connected by e-mail to scores of MC-USA folks and international folks. That's because our wider community did contributed significant stories and coming to the table by personal 1-1 e-mails proved very helpful along this journey. Next I do hope more church folks join in this journey rather that having each do what they privately choose for this is not at private matter. Peace.

  • Posted by dhwert at Friday, February 04, 2011 at 05:11 PM

    Re: overindulging in "shoo-fly pie" only hurting oneself, let's consider:

    34% of U.S. adults are obese.

    Obesity leads to all manner of health problems (diabetes being possibly the most common).

    Health care costs are spiraling out of control.

    Health insurance rates are also excessively high.

    Overindulging in sugar consumption only affects oneself? Hardly possible in the interconnected word in which we live.

    I await the calls for abstinence in the use of sugar and empty calories with great anticipation.

  • Posted by revdj at Monday, February 07, 2011 at 10:20 AM

    Thank you dhwert. You are absolutely right. Two wrongs never make a right. I appreciate your thoughtful response. The connectedness of the world and the justice issues you point out are powerful and sobbering. My original point was simply to comment on the newsworthy dimensions of the story and how that helps us as a denomination to advance the kingdom. In my response I got carried away. Perhaps you are right. More important than the results of alcohol abuse - the 10,000+ annual deaths casued by impaired drivers, the spousal and child abuse, the broken homes, and financial disasters are the ethical choices effecting so many other people as you point out - not only the medical costs of treating the effects of alcohol abuse including the injuries and cost of hospitalization of all the injured, but the waste of natural resources (grain, water, etc.) which could be used to feed the nation's hungry children, or the unconscionable sum of money spent on advertising sporting events to make the use of alcohol (the #1 youth drug problem in America) seen so innocent and the excesses of celebrations fueled by alcohol so appealing.

  • Posted by joseph.penner at Tuesday, February 08, 2011 at 04:23 PM

    The problems caused by alcohol are real and sobering: particularly drunk driving accidents and domestic abuse. The “culture” of alcohol (or beer-drinking in particular), as projected by advertisements from the major national beer-makers, is not so charming and seems to celebrate a certain anti-intellectualism that is not in line with Biblical values of critical moral discernment. Personally, I was never tempted to be a consumer of alcohol until I moved to an area where I witnessed a culture of beer and wine consumption that piqued my excitement and didn’t offend my morals. That “culture” seemed to celebrate relationships, community, intellectualism, and sophistication, rather than crudeness and rowdiness; furthermore it eschewed national brands in favor of unique local beers and wines that are not guilty of crude advertising. So I put my foot in the door and eventually through personal experience and research have decided that alcohol in moderation is a healthy part of my life. In my personal life I resolve the drunk driving issue by not owning a car. Because I bike everywhere I am never in a situation of asking myself, “am I sober enough to drive?” In my opinion, the culture of automobiles is a bigger culprit of drunk driving than the culture of drinking. Domestic abuse is a SERIOUS problem in our country that seems to be badly aggravated by alcoholism. Is it possible though that both alcoholism and abuse have more to do with our culture than with alcohol itself or the individual? In the context of a committed church community, I believe that we have the ability to monitor each other’s behavior enough to see early warning signs of potential abuse and to address them. Even more, we have the ability to teach each other how to consume alcohol conscientiously. In my opinion, in all things (including shoo-fly pie consumption, fossil fuel use, appropriate dress, and more) we need to be teaching “conscientiousness” rather than teaching rules. Personally, I would rather see our children learn a model of conscientious alcohol consumption from their church than see them rebel against an environment of strict rules and turn to the broader society’s model of consumption. I do continue to feel challenged by the argument that one person’s conscientious consumption of alcohol can lead another person into a situation of alcohol dependence. Certainly recovering alcoholics need a community of friends who will not put them in a situation of temptation. So I am not fully resolved on all the issues here, but I am convinced alcohol can play a positive role in our enjoyment of life, that we are capable of building a culture of alcohol-consumption that is far more safe, responsible, and life-giving than the mainstream consumption culture, and especially that the issue of alcohol should be open for conversation in the Church. Furthermore, I am convinced that the original article about the Mennonite wine-makers was newsworthy and that the follow-up editorial has provoked meaningful dialogue.

  • Posted by DaveS at Wednesday, February 09, 2011 at 09:28 PM

    Actually, I thought the original news story was OK as a matter of news. The editorial is another matter entirely, giving the blessing of the magazine to alcohol use. According to WHO, a total of 1.8 million people a year die due to alcohol. How does that compare to warfare? Probably depends on the year. But 1.8 million is a lot of people. Sorry, Everett, this IS an issue that does and will create division among us, and your editorial's stance is not helpful. Is there anything the MCUSA stands for at all?

  • Posted by sandyoyer at Sunday, March 20, 2011 at 09:38 PM

    I am disappointed and saddened to realize the slippery slide that our Christian brotherhood is on. Paul told Timothy to teach the church to live lives that are above reproach. When we live like the world about us we have lost our salt and light. It is a known fact that alcohol is America's No. 1 drug problem. Why do we flirt with sin like Israel did? They always lost and we will also. Death on American hiways caused by drunk drivers is far greater than death by our wars. We cannot know when a social drinker will become an alcoholic. Are we as a missional church faithful to the great commission to make disciples for Jesus or are we basking in luxury and debauchery. God pity us, it is no wonder that our churches do not grow. 40 or 50 years ago we had temperence lessons every quarter in our Adult Sunday School classes. Recently our senior class wrote to the publishers and asked for a repeat of those lessons. We are waiting. For the sake of our childern and future generations we beg the church to wake up. For the sake of our witness to the world about us we beg the church to wake up. For the sake of our obedience to God and Jesus Christ we beg the church to wake up. God reaches a hand to us in love through Jesus. Never forget that God has another hand that brings judgement to those who disobey. The Anabaptists had a good approach to the teaching of scripture. Salvation by Grace alone. BELIEVE. The churh is a community of fellowship. BELONG. And live like a christian ought to. BEHAVE. If the editors of the Mennonite want to advertize for the membership, let them advertize for legitiment businesses which contribute to the good of our society.

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