The Problem with Pietism

The Problem with Pietism September 13, 2012

Last night, I was at a public conversation between two evangelicals (more on that soon). After the the dialogue, there there was a private gathering for the interlocuters and some others, with a table of finger food and a few bottles of wine.

The evangelical leaders didn’t drink any wine. One looked at the wine in my hand and made a comment to the effect of, “Looks good; wish I could have some.” I took that as a challenge and spent the rest of the evening trying to ply him with wine or get him to join us at the Town Hall Brewery afterwards. He didn’t bite, nor did the supporters of his ministry who surrounded him.

At one point I exclaimed, “You know, you can love Jesus and drink wine!” to which he chuckled uncomfortably. He then told me a story about a very famous evangelical leader who sent the organization’s custodian to the store to buy his wine.

I didn’t grow up in cultural evangelicalism, nor in pietism, so I can’t quite say that I understand from an insider’s perspective. However, I’ve been told about it. The pietistic behavior among evangelicals is an attempt to maintain “holiness,” as exhorted in biblical passages like,

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Of course, I don’t repudiate those and similar verses. But I surely don’t think they mean that a Christian should abstain from alcohol, or should never swear.

When I encounter those who live within the evangelical holiness traditions — like, for instance, Nazarenes, who struggle with a doctrine of “entire sanctification” (see Article X) — I think of War Games, one of the treasured movies of my youth. Therein, W.O.P.R. is a computer that learns via tic-tac-toe and simulated nuclear war that both are unwinnable games. “The only winning move,” W.O.P.R. concludes, “Is not to play.”

Indeed, holiness through abstinence is, I think, an unwinnable game. A better move is self-control, moderation, and a life in community — thereby others will be able to speak truth into your life about your actions.

Who’s with me?!?

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  • Frank

    The real question is …. In what way were you demonstrating Christian love by manipulating and presuring people to do something they either did not want to do or felt it was inappropriate? Maybe they have an alcohol problem? Maybe they understand that even a little alcohol can affect a persons judgement. Maybe they choose to give up their freedom for a greater good.

    I am not sure what’s more shameful… What you did or the fact that you post about crticizing tem when the only gulity party here is you.

    • Good grief, the sanctimony never ends with you, Frank.

      • Frank

        Tell me where I am wrong. Seriously what did I post that was so offensive or untrue?

        I am happy to be a punching bag here if it makes you feel better but I would think you would want to do it with substance so you don’t look foolish and petty.

        • Good grief.

        • “What did I post that was so offensive?” Frank asks. His obtuseness isn’t at all surprising. Sharp as a bowling ball.

          In the game of constructive dialog, Frank might want to heed the W.O.P.R.’s conclusion: “The only winning move is not to play.”

          (By the way, Tony, nice reference to War Games. Great movie.)

          • Frank

            My fan club has arrived. I love it. I will call you the “Franklets.”

            Hi Franklets!

    • Another serving of old wineskin righteousness and judgment from “Death Rattles” Frank.

    • Evelyn

      I think Tony’s actions were an excellent example of “Christian” love. Love can take many forms including questioning a person in an attempt to help them know themselves better. This may be a form of playing the devil’s advocate but it is a very “Christian” thing to do. You see, the Christian religion is centered on worshiping a suffering man hanging on a cross and its adherents are told that this image connotes “salvation”. Most people can’t break the illusion and hence continue to worship the devil (the Satan who crucified Christ) for their entire lives. Unless you go to the cross yourself, experience it’s complete annihilation, but nevertheless will your own existence and forgive God for his trespasses, your worship of a man on a cross is hypocrisy. That is Christian love in community – the Temptation to act in self-destructive and hypocritical ways, falling into temptation, and then becoming convinced that you need Christ to save you from the inevitable suffering. It really is pure melodrama. Enjoy it!

    • toddh

      What a troll. Frank – play along. That’s kind of the purpose of blogs. When a question is asked in the post – answer it. Don’t just be an ass. It’s fine to be argumentative or a contrarian, but at least interact with the substance of the post.

    • Frank there will be virgins in hell. I think our communication a Jesus followers needs to make that point clear… and pietism does not help us out here.

      • *as* Jesus followers…

      • Frank

        Yes there will be. There will be people of every stripe there and there will be people of every stripe in heaven. Someone choosing for a greater good to abstain from something like alcohol is not about earning their way into heaven by passing a holiness test. There is wisdom in choosing piety but it’s not a requirement of salvation.

    • cory

      hi Frank,

      OK. So you object to Tony’s handling of the situation. That’s fair.

      But one issue I see here is that you begin with: “The real question is…” By starting this way, you have completely dismissed anything Tony had to say, switched the topic, and suggested that your topic was the only real issue on the table.

      I think this may have something to do with the way you’re perceived here. You didn’t actually engage the conversation. You attempted to hijack it. Have a real conversation and engage Tony’s points, and YES criticize him for his behavior if that’s the way you want to go with this. But please do not suggest, even implicitly, that his topic is unworthy of discussion simply because you found one part of it objectionable.

    • James

      I’m inclined to agree, in part, with Frank. What we don’t see, perhaps because the article is short and very focused on its topic, is any sense of whether Tony asked why the speakers did not partake of the wine and if so, what was their answer? Since we don’t see their reasons in their own words, we’re left wondering whether Tony has perhaps made an assumption about them based on his personal bias.

      Having worked closely with recovering alcoholics, I cringed when I saw that Tony’s reaction was to attempt to ply them with wine and invitations to a drinking house.

      All of that said, I don’t disagree with the premise of the article, that public piety is less important to Christianity than engaging with people to be a demonstration of God’s love. I’m just not sure that the anecdote provided as a lead in really serves as a good example.

  • Honestly, I’ve never seen the problem with engaging in communities AND refraining from public consumption. I was “that guy who didn’t drink beer” during my Ph.D program in a wildly diverse English department, and from what I could tell (though who knows what folks said when I left?), there wasn’t a sense that I was somehow “cloistered” any more than were the vegetarians who didn’t eat chicken wings, the health-nuts who wouldn’t eat sugar, or the Marxists who wouldn’t wear wedding bands despite being fiercely monogamous.

    Same goes now. Enjoy your beer, and I’ll enjoy my water, and all will be cool.

  • Jane Parker

    Yes, Frank is right. You did manipulate, but I probably would have done the same thing. The “holier than thou” attitude is hard to walk away from. I’ve never understood why having a few drinks is a “bad” thing — but then I’m an Episcopalian. I’ve asked many Southern Baptists why drinking is bad and have never received a good answer.

  • Pietism doesn’t actually work because righteousness is not something created through action it is a gift given.

    We Lutherans have no problem with Alcohol. I do admit it is a little odd seeing it at church functions though. But I think that’s the latent Pietism I hold from being in the Evangelical world.

    • Agreed. I grew up Lutheran; my church had kosher wine for communion. I went to a Baptist college and was amazed to find that there were Christians who wouldn’t even consume alcohol for a religious purpose, even though Jesus appears to have no problem with it in the Bible. Even at my wedding, my husband’s Baptist parents refused to take communion with wine (despite the fact that we did it intinction-style, so they would have consumed, what, a teaspoon of wine?!?) because they “didn’t want to turn into alcoholics.” Now, I understand why those who are at risk for alcoholism might choose not to drink, but for real, you get more alcohol gargling Listerine than you do taking communion. If someone wants to explain the logic behind this stance to me, please, I’d love to be enlightened.

      • Frank

        It’s simple really. Even a little alcohol affects someones judgement and personality. Some in wisdom, prefer to set up a boundary well ahead of any danger zone. Is the benefit worth the cost or potential cost? Many say no.

        Another thing to consider is that while you might not have a problem with alcohol someone near you may and you may not be aware of it. What is the most loving thing to do in that situation? Abstain yourself. Not because you have to but because you choose to for a greater good.

        Personally I drink occasionally but I don’t need to and I could be happy never having a drink again.

        Some information to consider:

        “nearly 17.6 million adults in the United States are alcoholics or have alcohol problems.” NIH: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

  • “Indeed, holiness through abstinence is, I think, an unwinnable game. A better move is self-control, moderation, and a life in community — thereby others will be able to speak truth into your life about your actions.”

    Being apart of the linear evangelical paradigm where the peer pressure is to reason using false dilemmas for everything has probably done more to perpetuate alcoholism than a social drink exponentially. I am evangelical and I refuse to conform to the piety in it’s negative and false sense.

    If, holiness through abstinence is a winnable game. Than really Christianity is more about survival of the fittest than anything. Running the race that Paul talks about is probably more similar to the hunger games. I have been apart of this piety and a better move to survive is controlling others, abstinence around people who count, and a life in controlled community by forming alliances — thereby others won’t be able to speak truth into your life about your actions because they won’t know who you are or how to get to you.

    great post thank you

  • Definitely with you Tony.

  • I am not a tee-totaler. All moderate things in moderation has been my motto for longer than I care to remember. Until it wasn’t. I, like many people, found my bearings through excess and then watched as those around me suffered the consequences of my costly lessons. Today my moderation is far more moderate. I rarely touch alcohol, or other mind altering substances. Not because of a holier than thou attitude, but because I have seen it cloud my judgement, and effect my reasoning. Of course that’s not exactly what you’re talking about. Though, what is intriguingly similar is the mindset that allowed me to drink deeply from the well of Dionysius. Grace. Wasn’t I entitled to all things? Wasn’t I simply equally able to partake or to not? Didn’t I have the right? And of course from any legal, or theological standard I did have such a right. But it didn’t help me…in the end. For me, the rights based mentality that boils down to a “grace, community and me” mindset misses the point. The better questions are “Where is this coming from in me?” and “How is it working out?” For me its pragmatics.
    Interestingly there are parallel communities outside of Christianity that sneer at the crutch of alcohol and other mind altering substances—the human potential movement and the integral movements for an example. For them its not about theology, it’s about personal evolution; and a regressive rights based mentality is squarely locked into a six year old stage of human development. Generally speaking.

  • Evelyn

    Frank is funnier than John Calvin.

  • J

    I think you are dead on. What I’m learning is that when you set up a fence of pietism, what you really create is a barrier to authentic relationship. When we are all trying to follow the rules, it gets harder and harder to talk about the things we struggle with and it’s impossible to discuss topics that have been deemed untouchable. Recovery is a whole other story. I’m not sure I ever will.

  • I grew up in a conservative background and was taught to abstain from alcohol and such. I was around 30 before I had my first “adult” drink 🙂 What made me reconsider my position on stuff like that was that pietism simply made me feel like an ass… plain and simple. I wholeheartedly agree that moderation, self-control, and taking part in community are much better things to focus on.

  • Tony

    This really isn’t a question or a problem with pietism or the Nazarene (the church of my childhood) it appears to me that it is a problem of how one understands their participation within the cultural framework of America. You see yourself as part of that cultural framework– they see themselves as not a part of that cultural framework. Those are just major differences that are practiced out around certain particularities.

  • Brady B.

    Hey T,

    Thanks for the shout out. You may not have been thinking of me, but it felt like it. You’ve heard me talk about it. I don’t, neither does the Nazarene Church, presume there is anything inherently, “sinful” about drinking alcohol. It’s just a way to love others who have struggled with this addiction. I think your point about moderation is a good one, but for those who have had a history of not be able to use self-discipline to keep them from alcoholism, we’re a tribe of people where this particular vice ins’t as much of a challenge. Don’t get me wrong. We have our own challenges (materialism, legalism, gluttony, etc.), but because we don’t find ourselves “perfect” (so to speak) in everything else doesn’t mean we’re going to throw our hands up in the areas we have agreed to be sacrificial in love.

    • Frank

      Exactly! In their quest to prove “I am free to do anything I want” they become self-serving, they sacrifice discernment and behave like children.

    • Brady, I actually wasn’t thinking about you at all. But I don’t think your history is quite right — the holiness tradition didn’t begin abstaining from alcohol because of other people’s addictions. It is rooted in theology and biblical interpretation — at least that’s my read.

      • Brady B.

        Hey T,

        Come on man! I was hoping I made the blog today! Oh well. You may be right about the holiness tradition. I was speaking to the Nazarene tradition. Here is a portion of the Wikipedia article about social stance against alcohol, along with a number of other issues.

        Throughout its history, the Church of the Nazarene has maintained a stance supporting total abstinence from alcohol and any other intoxicant, including cigarettes. Primary Nazarene founder Bresee was active in the Prohibition cause. Although this continues to be debated, the position remains in the church. While the church does not consider alcohol itself to be the cause of sin, it recognizes that intoxication and the like are a ‘danger’ to many people, both physically and spiritually. Historically, the Nazarene Church was founded in order to help the poor. Alcohol, gambling and the like, and their addictions, were cited as things that kept people poor. So in order to help the poor, as well as everyone else, Nazarenes have traditionally abstained from those things. Also, a person who is meant to serve an example to others should avoid the use of them, in order not to cause others to stray from their ‘walk with God,’ as that is considered a sin for both parties.

        Hope you’re doing well.

  • Tim

    I tend to agree with Frank concerning your attempts to “ply” them with wine. I am a very happy oenophile and beer connoisseur now, but during my high school and college days I wasn’t, and I never enjoyed being pressured to do something I didn’t want to do. You’re not going to change an evangelical’s mind on the subject anyway, so why try?

    That being said, I do agree with your conclusion that trying to find “holiness” through these means is “unwinnable”. Richard Beck has a great deal to say about this in his book “Unclean”, which I just finished. I’ve had evangelical friends try to explain to me when I tell them that some potential converts won’t be able to get past the “drinkin’, dancin’, and card playin'” issue that Christianity isn’t about that. Well, yea, it is because you’ve made it so.

  • Tony, you have my sword.

    I think it’s possible to be loving toward and considerate of folks who abstain for whatever reason without totally abstaining oneself. I also think being the tempter sometimes isn’t a terrible sin, if the abstainer’s reasons are theological or philosophical rather than health-related. Just remember the immortal words of our Lord (slightly paraphrased): Don’t be a dick. 🙂

  • Moderation in excess! Wait ….

  • James

    I guess I would be under the “evangelical” side of the house, but I do enjoy a good beer or wine here and there. I go to an SBC church and there are a lot of people there that do partake in adult beverages (usually at gatherings at my house). The pastor doesn’t really care either way as long as you don’t get drunk or you have a problem with getting drunk.

    I did grow up with the notion that alcohol was bad and don’t touch but over the years my position changed and that is what I teach my children. I just tell them that in moderation it is ok. I don’t hide the beverages at my house and they are not a mystery. My wife and I have a nice chunk of land in VT and have actually thought of doing a small vineyard and making some wine.

    So overall, do what you want with alcohol as long as you don’t violate your conscience.

  • Luke Allison

    Two thoughts:

    1. As long as a person recognizes that Jesus drank wine and that fermented beverage has been a natural part of every culture going back into antiquity, I could care less if they choose to be teetotallers. Particularly, if they’ve signed some sort of covenant on behalf of their denomination (AoG for example) I think it would show a real lack of integrity to violate that agreement. I have two friends who choose to abstain: one does so because he used to be an addict, but he doesn’t mind if other people have a beer around him. The other does so for the same reason, but is less comfortable with other people drinking. In his case, I choose to abstain for the purpose of being “for” and “with” him.

    2. As soon as a person attempts to make alcohol consumption some sort of gospel issue, I will attempt to drink in front of them. Because it’s no longer about their weakness, it’s about their self-righteousness. And that deserves to be rebutted with a nice swig of Cab.

  • ME

    Agree on the alcohol, I’m not sure about the swearing. I swear (curse words) a good bit and feel bad about it. How much is too much?

  • jay

    Anybody here for a few joints of marijuana?

  • Tony,

    I agreed with you up to the moment you said, “holiness through abstinence is, I think, an unwinnable game. A better move is self-control, moderation, and a life in community — thereby others will be able to speak truth into your life about your actions.”

    I think you are missing out on the fact that there are other forms of abstinence in Christian spiritual formation that are actually helpful.

    A better example of abstinence is the Greek Orthodox fast through Lent that forbids wine on most days and forbids the consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs through most of the season. It’s an abstinence that is anchored in the shared rhythms of the church year, not in the individualism of pietism. It is an expression of life in community.

    This year when I observed the Orthodox fast with a local congregation, one of my favorite experiences was descending the stairs into the church basement at 2 a.m. after the Easter worship service and being served chunks of roasted lamb and ice-cold Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. The practice of mostly refraining from drinking alcohol followed by the feast led to a more embodied, sensory experience of the resurrection. It was also a powerful experience of bonding in community to share that with others who had been on a similar journey.

    I followed the Ramadan fast recently and hung out with Muslim friends to learn from their tradition. One of the lessons I learned is the way it binds them together as a community. Heck, I even felt a strong connection to them as we all showed up for the evening meal with bad breath and dry mouths. Shared abstinence for an intentional season of spiritual reflection can be a powerful way of sharing life in community and I came away from it disappointed that our Christian communities are mostly lacking these kinds of shared experiences of abstinence.

    Another obvious example of the power of abstinence for spiritual formation is Alcoholics Anonymous. An ethic of abstinence is at the heart of this community’s identity, and those in that program mostly agree that abstinence is the only game in town when it comes to people who struggle with addiction. The founder of Moderation Management, a supposed alternative to AA that allows for moderate consumption of alcohol, famously went to jail for tragically killing someone when she was drunk driving. Moderation and self-control aren’t enough for them.

    Historic expressions of fasting and feasting offer an alternative, and I think provocative, understanding of the value of abstinence for Christians. Pietists may be caught up in a dead-end game, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to play. In fact, I would say most of us are missing out on playing the game at all when it comes to food and spiritual formation.

  • Jeff

    What is the difference between abstinence (you’re anti) and self-control (you’re pro)?

  • My tribe is the Salvation Army, which is pretty similar to the Nazarenes in theology, history and patterns of abstinence.

    I just don’t get what this post is about. I feel like I’m being accused of thinking of myself as holier than lesser Christians because my flavour of Christianity chooses not to drink alcohol, smoke or gamble. If it were that simple I would probably become Seventh-Day Adventist, because they’re also vegetarian. Or Mormon, because they also eschew caffeine. However, my reasons for being a Salvationist are far more nuanced than that.

    I do have a problem with the legalism in my church. I mean, if I got caught drinking an ale down at the local I’d potentially be out of a job. I don’t like the fact that my job potentially includes standing people down from membership if they start doing these things. I certainly don’t teach that drinking or smoking are wrong in themselves. (In practice, we deal with these things pastorally rather than punitively. We value the person above the law.)

    Let me be clear: I have no problem with anyone enjoying a glass of wine or smoking a cigar. Or two, or three. If that’s not a problem for your conscience, have at it! Going out of your way to make people feel uncomfortable when they have chosen (for reasons that may be none of your business) not to partake is just dickishness. (Oops! Does using that word desanctify me?)

    And importantly for this post, I’m not aware of anyone teaching about these activities in direct connection with entire sanctification, at least in the last fifty years. If there is any connection there, it’s more to do with a ‘social holiness’ that suggests that it’s not a great idea to do things that might cause your brother or sister to stumble.

    In fact, I’m not sure that Tony has any idea about what the Salvation Army or the Nazarenes actually mean when they talk about ‘entire sanctification.’ I would expect he’d do a little bit of research before throwing this sort of post around.

    • cory

      Hi Cameron, what corps do you attend?

      Another Sally here – 5th generation. I have my own personal history with this issue. While I currently attend another church (for reasons that have nothing to do with this issue), I cherish my faith tradition.

      Growing up in the Salvation Army, I experienced many of the pressures you alluded to regarding the link between alcohol consumption and the penalties that would be levied. While you may not feel holier than other Christian due to the Army’s stance, that does not mean that all Salvationists behave similarly. I experienced too many who did express a sense of superiority.

      I also saw some alcohol abuse because anyone who wanted to partake, had to do so on the sly. The penalties were too high, as you suggest, to get caught, and it led to unhealthy behaviors.

      You note that you’re not aware of anyone teaching about these activities in direction connection with entire sanctification. Ok. But the reaction from laypeople is often behind the academic curve. I have heard from Salvationists, too many times to count, that abstaining from alcohol had something to do with holiness and sanctification, and not for the ‘social holiness’ aspect to which you refer. And I’ve attended larger corps in major cities my whole life.

      My difficulty with this issue was the presumption (at least on the popular level) that abstaining from alcohol was a key element in holiness, and that this was a denominational standard. I believe that the way we behave vis-à-vis the issue of holiness is a personal one. It appears to me that many of the soldiers and officers of The Salvation Army have elevated what was once a very practical decision to help others get saved and stay on the straight and narrow, to a shibboleth of holiness.

      I’d also give Tony the benefit of the doubt on the issue of research.


      • Hi Cory!

        My wife and I are the COs at the Mount Gambier Corps in South Australia. And you?

        You bring up some good points, but I think they all point to the fact that the unfortunate side effect of tribalism is that it makes people think they are better than everyone else, simply by virtue of belonging to their tribe. We don’t drink (or smoke, or officially marry gay people), so the subtle temptation is to think that we’re better than those who do. We’re able to justify it to ourselves with a naive interpretation of Wesley (and Brengle) and off we go.

        Tribalism has a lot to answer for. Truth be told, it’s why I replied the way I did: someone not of my tribe was having a crack at us, and I responded. The really interesting thing is this is one of the things I have a big problem with in the Army. I struggle to see how the strict insistence on teetotalism is useful now. As you say, it probably gets in the way of holiness (and thus has shades of some of the issues surrounding sacramental observance in the early days.)

        Hmm… you’ve got me thinking now. I have had complaints from corps folk that I’m not teaching holiness on Sundays. As I look back over what I’ve been teaching, it’s all holiness. The word doesn’t come up that often, but it’s central (I actually renamed the Holiness Table as the ‘No-Backsies Table.’ That had a mixed response!) What I haven’t done is preach fiery sermons about the evils of alcohol, gambling and all the sins everyone else is committing. Of course, the antidote there isn’t necessarily to give them what they think they want, but to make the doctrine and theology a little clearer.

        Back to Tony’s post. I still think he’s inveighing against a caricature of pietism, although one that admittedly exists in the flesh in my corps. In that sense this is a problem of pietism. So it’s probably unfair of me to say that he needs to do his research a little better. After all, he can’t be expected to understand it any better than people who profess to have followed it for thirty years.

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  • Pat

    I’m with you, Tony. Although I am an evangelical and grew up with the rules-based form of Christianity, I abused alcohol in college and so I decided to stop drinking for that reason. I don’t look down on those who do drink; I just made a personal decision for me, not to drink anymore. The last church I was in had an elder who believed in entire sanctification, yet, he stormed out of a meeting one night because he didn’t like the way things were organized. He slandered me in an e-mail to another member because he felt I wasn’t handling the pastoral search properly, he berated his son who had a clear drinking problem and even berated other elders who he felt were “weak links”. Yeah, if that’s entire sanctification at work, I’ll pass.

  • Keith Johnston

    In 2006 I attended a conference at the University of Southern California on the topic of Pentecostalism. The event was sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation and opened with a cocktail party (wine only as I remember). Since I am Pentecostal-friendly and not actually a Pentecostal, I felt it was my Christian duty to drink as much wine as posible to make up for those Pentecostals in attendance who did not drink any alcohol. This behavior was in keeping with my own version of a ‘holiness code’ which is that if you can still walk and talk and you do not try to commit adultery, then drinking wine is okay and may even be beneficial (1 Timothy 5:23).

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