Monday, June 06, 2005

Why has the Church gone silent on tobacco?

A sign posted permanently above the patio entrance to my church continually catches me off guard. It reads: "Please do not smoke in this area."

I am simultaneously humored and horrified everytime I read it because of my legalistic Pentacostal Fundie upbringing and the overreaction I had in a rebellion against legalism as an adult.

I'm humored because it still is strange to me (based on previous experience) that a church would not condemn someone for partaking of tobacco. The language on the sign is so passive. I haven't checked, but I suspect there's a collection of huddled smokers behind the dumpsters, just like high school. If it were a church of my youth, the sign might glibly read: "Smoke here now, burn for eternity." Church sure has changed in my short life.

I'm horrified because, as a result of my rebellion of said legalism, I developed a very strong addiction to chew tobacco I desperately wish I could give up; I don't wish for any Christian to condone this behavior (either passively or in silence) even though it is not directly related to spiritual growth.

The old Southern rallying cry, "Don't drink, don't chew, don't run with fast girls that do," was etched into my brain at an early age. I came out of an old-school Pentacostal church that, as John McArthur would say, wrongly defined spiritual maturity by the things they didn't do. The oft-quoted scripture in 1 Cor 6:19-20 was thrown in our faces as a proof-text against all kinds of things, but especially against drinking and drugs:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.
When I turned 18 and was given the freedom to attend any church I wanted to, I stumbled into a friend's new church plant and heard a message of real freedom. He preached out of Romans 8, and the message helped lift off my shoulders a huge burden I had been carrying for my entire life. I joined this church where I was regularly encouraged to toss that legal baggage and embrace the "Spirit-led" life. It was truly a fresh breath of the Spirit for me and I was allowed to grow up in Christ. However, no longer bound by fundamentalism dogma, I began to take advantage of my newfound unrestraint.

Although I flirted with a drinking problem (left over from my secret life in high school), thankfully I was preserved from that kind of plight. The one thing that stuck was my chewing tobacco habit. With my new understanding that consumption of such things did not affect my salvation, I began a life of unabashed consumption. It never dawned on me I should also consider the physical dangers. I was just happy I was going to heaven in spite of it!

I'm 35 now and I've been chewing tobacco for about 15 years. I'm entering a phase of my life where there are some real health concerns related to this, and I feel foolish for not taking this into account before. While I blame no one but myself, I wonder why no one in my circles of Christian fellowship bothered to get into my ear about this. Did they fear a negative response? If something is not neccesarily spiritually harmful, but is categorically physically harmful, does that excuse our silence on the subject?

My old church never considered their poor exegesis of that passage in 1 Cor. 6:19-20. It is very clearly Paul's warnings of the spiritual implications of sexual immorality, which he is defining as seperate and not included in the other freedoms from the law Christ gave us. The context of 1 Cor. 6:19 is so specific to sexual sin, I don't see how you could extrapolate anything else out of it.

However, Paul makes a much broader statement at the beginning of the passage in 1 Cor. 6:12 that speaks with more authority on the subject:
"Everything is permissible for me"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible for me"—but I will not be mastered by anything.
Paul leads into his teaching against sexual immorality by pointing that there are some liberties we are allowed that still aren't good for us. This is a much broader banner under which you could put a whole host of indulgences that plague (and in some cases, bind) the Church. He doesn't do it by putting legal restraints on the behavior. Instead, he points out these liberties may harm us. This is the kind of maturity and wisdom that has alluded me in my rebellion. While I took the liberty of permission to chew tobacco, in no way can I say it is beneficial to me, and I am most surely mastered by it.

I can look back now and at least see the wisdom of my old church, even if I still have great disdain for the over-bearing package in which it was delivered. What they taught was bondage, which prevented me from hearing the truth of their message. I think this stigma is why so many pulpits have gone silent on the subject. Perhaps my over-reaction simply mirrored the larger Evangelical community's reaction to fundamentalism, and we've somehow misstepped a responsibility in fear of making those old mistakes (or offending those in our congreations who smoke and chew).

Can we not speak against this issue without the kind condemnation associated with our early 20th century forefathers? Can we not speak plainly, in love, that tobacco is an addictive poison that is not beneficial and can become a master of us?

I will be taking this up with church leadership. My suggestion will be removing the sign in favor of something more familiar -- a "no smoking" sign.

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