Smoking

Question
My question is concerning smoking cigarettes. I quit for five years, and during that time I always wanted a cigarette. So, I started smoking once more. Most people of faith quote to me 1 Corinthians 3:16,17 telling me that I am defiling the temple of God when I smoke. However, when I read Mark 7:14-23, Jesus tells me that there is "nothing" entering into me can defile me. I gather that He meant that it's the spiritual things that defile a man, not the physical. However, He has made it clear in the bible that certain physical things, other than spiritual things, are a sin. Drinking alcohol to excess is a sin because the Bible says no drunkard will enter the kingdom of heaven. Mind-altering substances would enter into this catagory also. Could you please shed some light on this subject?
Answer
Smoking is one of those things that the Bible doesn't address directly, so we have to figure out what God would have us do based on principles we draw from other teachings.

In my opinion, the passages about our bodies being temples (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19) are not terribly applicable in this case. 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 has nothing to do with our bodies -- in this passage it is the church, the community of the people of God, that is called the temple of God. The sins against the temple in the context of this passage have to do with the divisions in the Corinthian church caused by some Christians who thought themselves superior to other Christians (the main subject of 1 Cor. 1-4).

While 1 Cor. 6:19 does relate to believers and their individual bodies, the sins Paul wrote about here had nothing to do with harming or mistreating the body, but rather with involving the body in sexual sin. The "temple" aspect enters in this case because they are united to Christ in body and soul (1 Cor. 6:15) and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Thus, when believers sin, the include their Lord and Spirit in sinful relationships. To defile the temple in this case has to do with engaging the body in sexual sins that defile the people to whom God is united. We can infer from this passage that our bodies are essential parts of who were are, and that it is important to avoid sins of the body -- but this passage does not teach that exposing the body to physical harm is a sin.

Even in the case of drinking alcohol, it is not entirely clear that drunkenness is always a sin. Scripture certainly deprecates severe and/or habitual drunkenness for most people (Rom. 13:13; Gal. 5:21; 1 Pet. 4:3; but contrast Prov. 31:6-7 and its advice for those whose lives are bitter), but does not have the same harsh words for drinking enough to "make the heart merry." It teaches that we should not drink for the purpose of getting drunk (Eccl. 10:17), but not that we should avoid lightening our spirits and moods with alcohol when the context is appropriate (Eccl. 10:19; John 2:1-10). The application of these passages to cigarettes and other tobacco products is somewhat difficult to draw -- wine was an explicit covenant blessing (Deut. 7:12-13), but tobacco was not. Still, for many people tobacco is similarly pleasurable and lightens the mood.

An added complication with the issue of tobacco is nicotine, a known addictive substance. Nicotine seems to create some physical dependency (stronger in some than in others), and many would argue that this brings it under the umbrella of 1 Corinthians 6:12. Now, 1 Corinthians 6:12 is a difficult passage to unpack. Was Paul quoting a Corinthian slogan and perhaps refuting their application of it? Was he offering the slogan to counter the Corinthians' views? The verse itself is proverbial wisdom -- more or less applicable to any given situation, and sometimes totally inapplicable. It is simply untrue that it is always sinful to be "mastered." For example, Christians are to be mastered by the Lord (Jude 4), even though they are not to be mastered by sin. But is it any more sinful to crave a cigarette than to need a cup of coffee in the morning before you are ready to face the world?

Mark 7:1-23 (cf. Matt. 1-11), in turn, does not really address this issue either. In this passage, Jesus refuted Jewish tradition (Mark 7:1-5) regarding ritual impurity. Those who were ritually impure (ceremonial unclean) could not approach God before they first purified themselves. This particular tradition seems to have held that failure to wash appropriately before eating made one ritually unclean. Jesus responded with two main points: 1) the Jews were hypocrits for worrying about traditional ritual impurity while neglecting the heavier moral teachings of the Law; and 2) it is moral sin that prevents man from approaching God, not traditional ritual impurity. In the context, Jesus' statement regarding "nothing" (Mark 7:15) was limited to food (cf. Mark 7:19). He did not teach that it is never sinful for anything to "enter" you (consider, for example, the entrance of a demon into your body at your invitation). I would suggest, however, that tobacco is much closer to food than it is to a demon! In any event, the Bible does not teach that tobacco ever made anyone ceremonially unclean. Further, tobacco is a health issue, and this passage is not about health. It is about ritual purity and impurity, and the ability of man to approach God.

All this being said, I would suggest that there are legitimate arguments against smoking in many cases. These arguments fall into two categories: morality and wisdom. Insofar as smoking is a wisdom issue, one must weigh its benefits against its liabilities. On the one hand, cigarettes are evidently pleasurable to many smokers. They also seem to increase metabolism in some people (and thus in some cases to fight weight gain). It would seem, though, that the liabilities attached to cigarette smoking are much greater. It is certainly a health hazard to almost all smokers, and it is generally offensive to those who do not smoke (e.g., it smells bad, and it makes breathing difficult). While it is not always sinful to do what is not wise, it is by definition foolish. However, each individual case is different, and it may be that in your case smoking is not foolish. The benefits may outweigh the risks.

On a moral level, one must consider one's responsibilities to others. For example, if smoking puts your health and/or life at risk, and your ability to care for yourself and your family depends upon your continued health/life, then smoking may be an unwarranted risk that puts your family in financial jeopardy. Your untimely demise or incapacitation may also prevent you from fulfilling other moral obligations (raising your children, etc.). Depending on your smoking habits, your smoking may also jeopardize the health and/or lives of others. For example, if you smoke in the house, those who live with you will end up breathing the second-hand smoke. If the studies are accurate that indicate second-hand smoke poses a health threat, then you are risking and perhaps damaging the health of others unnecessarily (unless for some reason it is morally necessary for you to smoke in the house), which by all accounts is sinful (though one must also weigh into the equation the possibility that these others are agreeable to breathing second-hand smoke).

Finally, in all of this one must consider the level of risks versus rewards. For example, the risks involved with one cigarette a day are far lower than the risks associated with two packs a day. In fact, smoking infrequently may not be any more unhealthful than living in a smoggy city. We must also be careful not to pick on smoking as a stand-out issue. There are other things that we do that equally risk damaging ourselves (skydiving, eating a poor diet, failure to exercise, etc.), and/or that put others at risk or discomfort (driving poorly, working slothfully, failing to proclaim the gospel, etc.). In this regard, we would all do well to remember Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7:3-5. I would suggest that the potential ramifications of smoking are great enough that one should rightly assess the risks before smoking. But I would also suggest that insofar as smoking does not adversely affect others, it is a matter best left to informed, private judgment.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.