Have a cocktail with your Leviticus?
That’s the new option for faculty and hangers-on at Chicago’s storied Moody Bible Institute.
It represents only the newest iteration of an age-old story for conservative evangelical institutions: How much to embrace and how much to eschew contemporary cultural norms.
According to a story in Religion News Service, the downtown Bible institute will now allow faculty and staff to drink. This is new.
The question asked by Sarah Pulliam Bailey is whether this represents a trend among leading evangelical institutions. As Bailey points out, evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family and Wheaton College have made similar changes to their lifestyle policies.
Bailey might also have mentioned recent changes at the more conservative Liberty University.
Such questions of cultural relevance and theological fidelity are nothing new at Moody Bible Institute. As I argued in my 1920s book, President James M. Gray wondered at that time whether the new fundamentalist movement was a boon or a threat to the MBI’s evangelical mission.
In the end, President Gray and the 1920s MBI generation took a skittery position on fundamentalism. Insofar as fundamentalism supported a firm insistence on the inerrancy and primacy of Scripture, it was all to the good. But if the new fundamentalist movement took attention away from the primary goals of Bible knowledge and evangelical effectiveness, it was a threat.
Nor is the weightiness of the MBI’s internal debates about this issue unique among conservative educational institutions. Many evangelical schools have a long history of struggle with questions of change and cultural consonance. At Wheaton College, for example, President Charles Blanchard fretted throughout the 1920s about the meanings of modernism. At that time, “modernism” among evangelical Protestants referred, first and foremost, to a theological movement. Modernists in the 1920s hoped to bring church doctrine more in line with changing cultural norms. Fundamentalists and their conservative allies, on the other hand, insisted on keeping true to traditional theological norms.
Blanchard, as did other evangelical educational leaders in the 1920s and since, experienced a good deal of anguish as he worked to guide his school through this cultural Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, Blanchard, like Gray, did not want to truckle to fads. On the other hand, neither leader wanted to insist on tradition merely for the sake of fuddy-duddy-ness.
The recent decision to allow drinking among MBI faculty represents a similar wrangling with contemporary cultural issues. How much does a trenchant cultural Amishness contribute to true Biblical understanding? And how much does it distract from MBI’s central goals of Biblical missiology?