Abstinence from alcohol | The Salvation Army

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Abstinence from alcohol

A condition of church membership?
Man offering alcohol
Posted April 7, 2010

The following article has been adapted for web.  To read the complete version, please download the following:

Abstinence from alcohol (PDF, 3.37MB)

When someone is enrolled as a senior soldier (adult church member) in The Salvation Army, one of the promises he or she makes is to ‘abstain from alcoholic drink, tobacco, the non-medical use of addictive drugs, gambling, pornography, the occult, and all else that could enslave the body or spirit’. Junior soldiers (child members) make a similar (age-appropriate) promise to not drink alcohol.

Is the Army out of step in maintaining its total abstinence stance as a condition of church membership? Is it still useful for what some describe as ‘an outdated temperance pledge’ to be part and parcel of The Salvation Army’s witness to the world?

Before we can answer these questions we need to return to the Army’s roots in 19th century England. When The Salvation Army began, in 1865, alcohol consumption in England was on the rise, reaching an all-time peak per head of population just 10 years later.

Imagine a place where …

  • the only available water for drinking was mixed with raw sewage and industrial waste causing such diseases as typhoid and cholera
  • alcohol was viewed as a safe and healthy option
  • the Public House was often the one oasis of recreational activity. It was also one place people could be warm and dry
  • living conditions for the poor were crowded and filthy
  • children began work in the mines at five years of age and were legally able to be served alcohol shortly thereafter
  • wages were low or irregular and unemployment was common
  • there was little in the way of social or health support

In such a time and place The Salvation Army began.

The Salvation Army’s early work, focused on the poor, began at a time when:

  • alcohol abuse and its detrimental effects were obvious
  • traditional churches were not prepared to work with and accept the poor as equal members of their congregations and of the Kingdom of God

Founding Salvationists chose to fight the physical and spiritual poverty they saw around them on a number of levels, including health and welfare services, lobbying for law changes for workers, advocating for women’s rights as well as calling people to live under the rule of Jesus Christ.

A counter-cultural choice

19th century Salvationists chose to stand in solidarity with those affected by abuse of alcohol by choosing not to drink themselves …

  • even though they stood in opposition to the predominant medical thinking of the day
  • even though they were reviled by alcohol retailers for their stance

They were guided by co-founder Catherine Booth’s personal experience of a parent affected by alcohol dependency and her choice to abstain from alcohol as part of her commitment to God. It was Catherine who persuaded husband-to-be William as to the merits of abstinence.

The word ‘temperance’ is associated with Christian virtues of moderation and self-control; a disciplined lifestyle. Although the Bible does not require all believers to leave alcohol completely alone, it does speak strongly against drunkenness:

Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly!  In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. Your eyes will see strange sights and your mind imagine confusing things. You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging. ‘They hit me,’ you will say, ‘but I’m not hurt! They beat me, but I don’t feel it! When will I wake up so I can find another drink?’  (Proverbs 23:3-35)

Early Salvationists did not want to ‘become a stumbling block to the weak’ (1 Corinthians 8: 7-12)—those they worked with who were affected by alcohol dependence. This influenced their choice to be alcohol free.

This choice has stood the test of time and continues to provide a safe haven for many in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse.

The cost of alcohol abuse

While most New Zealanders exercise moderation, the high social cost of alcohol misuse is well documented.

Alcohol is the drug that causes most problems for New Zealand. The busiest times for Police during the week are always 9 pm to 3 am on Friday and Saturday nights, when officers:

  • break up alcohol-fuelled fights
  • take intoxicated people to safety (over 21,000 people a year)
  • drive home under-aged drinkers as young as 12 
  • are regularly abused and assaulted by drunken youths

There are close links between alcohol abuse and serious offending, not just in the streets but in homes as well. At least one-third of all offenders apprehended by Police have consumed alcohol prior to their arrest. That rises to two-thirds during the weekend period.

According to the Police National Alcohol Assessment (April 2009), alcohol is a factor in:

  • around half of all homicides
  • one-third (over 20,000 a year) of violent offences
  • one-third (over 28,000 a year) of family violence offences
  • one-in-five road crashes.

‘Police have to actually deal with the violence, disorder and crashes caused by drunks. We are spending an increasing amount of time and energy dealing with alcohol, when we’d far rather be able to use those resources to combat serious crime.’ Police Association vice-president Chris Cahill (‘Light-Night Antics an Eye Opener’, NZ Herald, 3 July 2009)

A challenge for today’s Salvationists?

In 1889, Catherine Booth explained what led her to become ‘an abstainer’. ‘With all my trust in the promises of God, and blessings of the Holy Spirit, I felt that I must be able to say to the people not ‘Forward’ but ‘Follow’.’ Catherine was determined that she would not only point out a way for people to go that would reduce harm in their lives, the lives of their families and in wider society, but that she would lead the way as well. This thinking still motivates 21st century Salvationists.

Salvation Army General Shaw Clifton has said: ‘I have never met anyone who regretted being teetotal, but [I have met] many who wished desperately they had never started to drink.’

Imagine a faith community where …

  • we are proud to stand apart from the crowd in our choice to care for our bodies and minds as God would want (since we are made in his image)
  • we encourage our friends to join us in our choice (even when they are not considering soldiership within The Salvation Army)
  • our leaders regularly remind us of why we make this stand, as part of our spiritual teaching
  • people make their own counter-cultural choice rather than taking on inherited values (of parents, peers or wider society)
  • decision making is influenced by young people’s willingness to lead rather than by parents’ fear of harm from the world
  • we confidently have fun with clear minds
  • we see being alcohol-free as one of the choices in our commitment to live counter-culturally, refusing to be drawn into a culture of excess
  • we continue to provide an alternative, alcohol-free haven for those affected by the havoc of addiction

By taking a personal and corporate position of abstinence, Salvationists do not mean to imply that there is anything inherently ‘unChristian’ about drinking alcohol in moderation. However, the stark reality is that alcohol is causing great harm to families, communities and individuals.