Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Is Smoking Sinful? Part II - A Response to R.A. Torrey

Last month, I commented on Tim Challies' reflections on whether or not smoking is sinful (he, and I, conclude it is not necessarily). Today, Challies linked to an article on The Scriptorium by R.A. Torrey that takes the opposing view, and I feel it does so with poor arguments. Torrey offers a clear, well-presented 5-point outline of his case, so I'd like to respond on a point-by-point basis.
First. Tobacco costs money and does the one who uses it no good and the money that belongs to God is squandered. Many professedly Christian men spend as much money every year on tobacco as would support several native workers in China or India or Africa.
Yes, tobacco costs money that could be used for other purposes. So does a piece of cheesecake, a ticket to a football game, a nice pen, and the bow tie Torrey wears in his (very cool) sketch picture. Like tobacco, none of those things produce any good, save for personal enjoyment. Yet, nobody is railing against the inherent evils of desserts, attending football games, collecting fountain pens and wearing ties. Unless one is going to advocate a strict asceticism (which seems to be contrary to a well-balanced view of Scripture, especially considering my recent study of Ecclesiastes), then this argument doesn't seem to hold up, as it's not applied with consistency across the spectrum of the Christian life.
Second. Tobacco is physically injurious to at least the overwhelming majority of those who use it. Some it hurts more than it does others. Many a minister’s life has been shortened by the use of tobacco. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost and we have no right to do anything that impairs their health or strength.
Replace tobacco with cheesecake or cheeseburgers and that statement holds equally true. I would wager good money that more ministers have their lives cut short from the effects of cholesterol and heart disease than lung or throat cancer. Yet no one is saying that a man with a fondness for Sara Lee or Hardee's isn't "going all-out" for God.

Third. The use of tobacco is a filthy habit. It cannot be made anything but filthy. Some are not so filthy as others in their use of tobacco but every tobacco user sooner or later becomes more or less a filthy person, and we are specifically commanded in the Word of God to “Cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh.”
This one makes little sense to me. Define filthy. Is Torrey talking here about the smell of cigarette smoke (which I dislike as well)? What is his criteria for saying that "every tobacco user sooner or later becomes more or less a filthy person?" When Paul said to "cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh," I don't think that's quite what he had in mind.

Fourth. No person can use tobacco without infringing on the rights of other people. A man who smokes pollutes the air about him for at least 20 feet in every direction and forces others to breathe this polluted air. The man who chews, disgustingly defiles walks and floors and streets with his tobacco juice. Many a husband poisons his wife and his children with the fumes of his tobacco. The head of an institution for the care of sickly children in a British city told me that the overwhelming majority of the children that came to them for care came there because they had been poisoned by the fumes of the tobacco with which their fathers had polluted the air in the rooms in which they slept. The use of tobacco is one of the most selfish of all habits. The tobacco user, even the most careful, seems to become more or less oblivious to the rights and feelings of others.
I can sympathize with his points here, having worked for four years of my life in a restaurant before Louisville's smoking ban. I've never smoked a cigarette in my life, but I'm sure that I smoked countless packs secondhand while waiting tables. However, one isn't necessarily infringing on the rights of others when one smokes. I enjoy one or two cigars a year. I smoke them outside, on my porch, in the company of friends who are also smoking them. Sure, many smokers show no consideration to others - but that is a fault of the smoker, and not a necessary consequence of smoking.

Fifth. No man in our day can use tobacco with out losing his influence with somebody. We could give specific instances of men who in many respects are men of extraordinary power who have lost their influence, and who have done positive harm to the cause of Christ, by their use of tobacco. Every out and out Christian desires his life to count to the uttermost for God and will not do anything, no matter how innocent in itself, which he has reason to think will rob him of an ounce of influence for God with anybody. If one will stop to candidly think of it, he must know that the use of tobacco will rob him of the influence with some whom he might and ought to reach and help.
To this, I give two points in response. First, I believe that Torrey grossly exaggerates this concern. I know many Christian men who smoke (in moderation), and I can say emphatically that none of them have lost their gospel influence because of it. If anything, I've found that lost people are more apt to listen to a man who calls sin what Scripture calls sin and nothing more than a man who harps on a pet list of sins that are foriegn to God's Word. Secondly, who are we going to lose influence with? The most likely group would be Christians who believe that smoking is a sin. Does their disapproval necessarily mean that we should stop what they disapprove of? Many professing Christians would tune me out because I don't use the King James Bible or may not wear a suit and tie on Sunday morning. Should I change my convictions to placate them and avoid losing my influence? Does their disapproval make my behavior sinful?

In all, I think that Torrey's argument falls flat on every point. Scripture nowhere condemns smoking as sinful. If you feel that it is unwise to smoke, then that is a perfectly commendable personal conviction - but it is a personal conviction, not a Biblical mandate. Do you have concerns with Torrey's thoughts? With mine? Join the discussion in the comments.


Stephen said...

"it is a personal conviction, not a Biblical mandate"

An excellent response, especially the above quote. It's far too easy to turn personal preferences into Biblical mandates. Enjoyed reading.

Fillip said...

Thanks for inviting me to this discussion.

In your 2nd point you basically stated that burgers and cake are causing more pastors to get sick than cigarettes, and that no one is speaking up about that. I just wanted to point out (and I'm sure you'll probably agree) that just because no on is pointing it out doesn't mean that those things are okay either. What makes something okay or not okay is if it is done to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)

In your 5th point you asked a rhetorical question about whether or not you should change your convictions just to placate someone else; and my answer is no, but there is a difference between convictions and liberties. I believe smoking is a liberty that we have in Christ, and yes, we should give up our liberties for the sake of a brother as Paul states in Romans 14 and in 1 Corinthians 10.

D.J. Williams said...


I'm with you on gluttony. I'm not saying that overeating is okay, but simply making the point that it is the excess that is the sin, not the thing itself, whether it be a cigarette or a piece of cheesecake.

Per #5, I see your point, and it is valid. The application of that principle is situational, I feel. If one's sphere of ministry were among people very sensitive to smoking, then abstaining would be wise and commendable. We certainly shouldn't parade our liberty (as Paul says in Romans 14, "The faith you have, keep between yourself and God."). I think it is left to personal discretion and wisdom to determine what action is best in a given situation.

Thanks for your input!

Eloquorius said...

D.J.: Greetings from a first time reader and new blogger. I was JUST about to respond to the flawed logic in the R.A. Torrey article when I saw your follow-up on Challies. Well done, brother. Thanks for taking the time to write all this out.

Darius said...

Any discussion of Matthew 15:11?

D.J. Williams said...

That one actually came up in a discussion I was having yesterday with a few friends - very applicable. A friend of mine also brought up 1 Timothy 4:1-5, which has something to say as well. Both passages must be interpreted in light of other Scriptures, so they can't be taken as blanket statements of permissiveness, but I think they both establish the basic principle that we have no buisness forbidding that which God has not forbidden.

Andrew Faris said...


I'm later to the punch than you, but here's my take on Dr. Torrey's article.

I also posted a couple times (both linked in my Torrey response) on the issue sort of in response to Challies.