Christian Liberty, Alcohol, & Tobacco - Terry Johnson

As I progressed through my seminary education (ca. 1977-81), I began to notice an interesting phenomenon. As men became more reformed in their doctrine, they tended to become more demonstrative in the exercise of Christian liberty. This was particularly true of those who were reared in conservative Protestant traditions which tended to be careful or legalistic (depending upon your perspective) regarding cultural issues such as dance, movies, music, alcoholic beverages, and tobacco products. Hair on the face and a pipe or cigar in the mouth became a cliché sign that one had become Reformed and was celebrating one's new-found Christian liberty. Some of those fellows remained temperate in their exuberance for the doctrines of grace. Yet others went overboard. Foolishness was widespread. Celebrating Christian liberty became the imperative: the context, impact, and influence of the exercise of that liberty were distantly secondary issues.

Is there a problem with this? Indeed there is. There is a problem when either tobacco or alcohol are treated as ordinary consumer products if they are not also acknowledged to be destructive and dangerous. Alcohol is not just another beverage, say, like Snapple® or Coke®. One might, one supposes, "O.D." on Coca-Cola. But if this is a social problem of consequence it has not yet registered as such. However, the human wreckage that lies in the wake of alcohol across the millenia, from the sons of Noah to Alexander the Great to Hemingway and others too numerous to count, is fearful to behold. Its consumption must always be accompanied with discretion. A wise consumer of alcohol, for example, would not partake casually in the presence of alcoholics or young people or in a manner that says "this is a harmless beverage." It is not for kings to partake of this stuff, Lemuel warned his son (Proverbs 31:4-5). No, kings were guarded about their beverages because they were aware of alcohol's distorting and destructive potential (Proverbs 23:29-35).

Similarly, moderate to heavy consumption of cigarettes will take 10-15 years off of the lifespan of the average person. It is known to lead to a number of fatal diseases, Consequently, one could not partake of tobacco in any form in a way which was destructive to the body or which said to one's neighbor that this is a harmless pleasure. Theoretically, one lawfully could enjoy a cigarette a day, or a cigar a week, or the occasional chew. No command of Scripture forbids it. However, because of the addictive and destructive properties of tobacco, one would be wise to partake only in private, in moderation, and when hidden from impressionable young minds. Yet I have known of ministers and spiritual leaders who have encouraged flippant attitudes about tobacco products only to see that half of their disciples follow in their train, chewing, puffing, and inhaling with an attitude. This is a shame. It is also foolish. I would coin this phenomenon "reactionary antinomianism." Ironically, the unwise and immature, in the name of maturity and freedom, fail to leap from the pendulum as it swings from legalism to libertinism, from one excess to the next.

If "all things are lawful," still, not all things are edifying or profitable (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23). It is a great day when we cease to be in reaction against overly restrictive or legalistic childhood or adolescent influences and can live moderate and discerning lives. It is also a sign that we have finally matured beyond our own post-adolescent posturing when we can say "no" to our favorite pleasures (or vices) for the sake of what others might misunderstand even though theoretically they may be permitted.