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Up in Christian Smoke

If fat people aren’t required to give up KrispyKremes before baptism, should smokers be kept out of church membership?

I started my anti-smoking campaign when I was about four or five years old. The proprietor of the small general store in the village closest to our farm was one Earl Smith, a scrawny old man with a gravelly voice and sour face. He smoked constantly, a cigarette pinched in his thin, creased lips even when he was waiting on customers. One day I looked up at him and said, “If you smoke cigarettes, you won’t go to heaven.” He said to my mother, “Will you shut your kid up?” turned and went upstairs to his balcony office.

I hate tobacco and tobacco smoke. I think those who push tobacco products are slime, and my opinion was reinforced in 1994 when seven tobacco company execs testified to congress under oath that tobacco was not addictive. How stupid did they think we are? Now that smoking has become socially unacceptable here, they’ve shifted their marketing overseas, killing the Chinese as surely as they killed Americans. (An ironic twist: the demand for thin paper for billions of cigarettes in China has drive up the price of printing Bibles!)

My attitude toward smokers has shifted, though. I used to just be disgusted with them; now I feel a little sorry for them. It is a detestable habit. My mother said when she was a teenager in the 40’s, she thought a woman with painted nails holding a cigarette between index and middle finger was temptingly glamorous. Now it seems to me that nothing makes a pretty girl as ugly as a cigarette.

One of the first people I prepared for baptism when I was an intern pastor couldn’t quit smoking. Bill told me that his greatest joy was to sit down with his Bible and a pack of Marlboroughs and just study God’s Word all evening.

The rule, though, is that you quit smoking before you are baptized. Period. Bill said he’d tried, but couldn’t. My supervising pastor stepped in. He said that if Bill would have his last cigarette before the baptism, God would take away the craving when he went under the water. That didn’t happen, and although Bill loved the church and accepted our teachings, he eventually drifted away. (I was pleased to learn that many years later he came back, and is now active in a congregation — having, presumably, finally kicked the habit.)

I’m wondering whether smoking, as much as I dislike it, really qualifies as a membership-excluding sin. C.S. Lewis, the darling of the evangelical set, liked nothing better than talking about God over pints of ale and pipes of tobacco. He was said to have smoked as much as three packs a day, plus pipes. (His favorite pipe tobacco was Bell’s Three Nuns.) He didn’t defend smoking, though: “I’d like to give it up” he wrote a friend. “But I’d find this very hard, i.e. I can abstain, but I can’t concentrate on anything else while abstaining—not smoking is a whole time job.”[1] He smoked until he died at age 64, of renal failure.

Lewis’s smoking troubles some Christians, who note that not only did he smoke, but the characters in his children’s books smoked, too. One journalist claimed that “…when Walter Hooper [Lewis’s last personal secretary] toured the United States to answer questions about Lewis, he found to his surprise that his heavily evangelical audiences were not much interested in Lewis’s life and beliefs, but wanted to know instead about his smoking and drinking habits.”[2]

Lewis’s being a smoker doesn’t make it good, though it does tell me that a smoker can love God deeply and genuinely. (Other Christian smokers include G.K. Chesterton, Karl Barth, J.S. Bach, and Charles Spurgeon, who once said to Billy Sunday after Sunday had preached an anti-smoking sermon in Spurgeon’s own London church, “Be that as it may, sir. I will go home to tonight and smoke a cigar to the greater glory of God!”[3])

God wants us to have good health. Self-destruction isn’t part of his more abundant life[4]. Though the Bible says nothing about tobacco, it advises us to regard treatment of one’s physical body in a moral light[5]. Tobacco is an addictive practice, and Christians ought to demonstrate victory over bad habits[6]. Making the church smoke-free provides a huge incentive for people to quit smoking, undoubtedly improving their health. (Though if it is really about health, we’re not consistent: I’ve never seen an overweight baptizee required to give up Krispy Kremes.)

But does that mean that tobacco users can’t be saved? You’d have a hard time making that case biblically.

This might be an example of something we conservative Christians have long struggled with: not being very good at setting priorities for the Christian life. Sometimes stopping smoking looms so large in one’s preparation for baptism that the more important matters, such as a relationship with Jesus, rather get submerged. And I’ve seen people like Bill who need the church leave it because they couldn’t abstain. C.S. Lewis’s stepson, Douglas Gresham, when asked about this said, “The problem with evangelical Christianity in America today, a large majority of you have sacrificed the essential for the sake of the trivial. You concentrate on the trivialities—not smoking, not drinking, not using bad language, not dressing inappropriately in church, and so on.”[7]

A church can set whatever requirements for membership it wishes to. Not using tobacco has been a beneficial standard for us. I’m grateful I was never seriously tempted by it. Joining the church has undoubtedly provided incentive for hundreds of thousands to quit.

It becomes a troublesome, though, should you say that membership in our church provides the best (some people say the only) path into God’s kingdom. The implication then is that God relies upon the same requirements for eternal salvation that the church sets for membership — a notion we don’t accept when Roman Catholics say it.

So if smoking wouldn’t keep one out of heaven, should it keep one out of church membership?

1 C. S. Lewis, Letter to Mrs. Ashton [13 March 1956]

H.N. Kelley, quoted in Kathryn Ann Lindskoog, Sleuthing C.S. Lewis. Lindskoog disputes the charge.
3 Theophiliacs blog, by James Stambaugh.
4 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10 NIV
5 “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” 1 Corinthians 6:19 NIV
6 “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24 NIV
7 Christianity Today blog, 10/31/2005
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