First, we should clarify that this issue is one of wisdom. God has not declared cigarettes sinful and therefore neither should we. And in principle this also means that cigarettes may be smoked to the glory of God.
But the question is should Christian young people smoke cigarettes? Is it a good idea? Is it wise?
There are at least two biblical principles that we ought to consider when we ask this question, and they come under the headings of authority and love.
First, it must be recognized that for better or worse the symbol of smoking cigarettes has become a fairly universal symbol in North America of rebellion. This does not mean that everyone who smokes cigarettes is in rebellion, but it is a fairly wide spread symbol of rebellion. From the hippies to the rock stars to the frat boys, the symbol is a slightly more subtle version of the middle finger to authority.
Now there was a time when smoking cigarettes was far more culturally acceptable. And I can imagine a time in which Christian families gathered around after dinner for post meal smokes somewhat like how many of us will have coffee or tea after dinner today. Maybe my perception of that era is distorted, but the point still stands. I can imagine a Christian culture where smoking (in moderation) is an acceptable social pastime. In such a culture, kids could grow up and share an occasional smoke with their parents and grandparents and neighbors and everyone was in fellowship and could do it all to the glory of God.
And maybe, just maybe, postmillenially speaking such a culture will emerge in a thousand years. But the way to building such a Christian culture is not through Christian teenagers and college students telling their parents where to stick it.
And that brings us to the point about authority. One of the most helpful questions to ask when deciding whether it is a good idea to smoke cigarettes is the question: what do your parents think? I suppose there are probably a few Christian families here and there and various subcultures where smoking is still relatively acceptable. Well, good for them. But for lots of us who have grown up over the last few decades, the frowns and grimaces and sideways glances are not, I can assure you, repressed feelings of approval.
The entire weight of the Scriptures is not, “Children, just don’t make your parents really mad.” But we read it that way sometimes, and as long as mom isn’t hyperventilating and dad hasn’t exploded and called the elders, we shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves it must not be a big deal. They’re only a little mad, we assure ourselves piously.
But honoring parents is not merely passive. Disobedience does not merely come in the form of sins of commission (doing what they have expressly forbidden). Dishonor and disobedience also come in the form of sins of omission. We can dishonor our parents by not actively bestowing honor, for not looking for ways to bless them, for not looking for ways to please them. If you asked them, “Is there anything that I’m doing, that you wish I would stop?” — would smoking be on the list? Then drop it. Even if they’re wrong, it should be an easy, black and white decision. Our job as young people is to honor our parents, to pile up honor and blessing for them.
And related to this would be the fact that our “father and mother” include all those in authority over us. If 9 out of 10 of your elders, pastors, and teachers would frown at it, why do it? Aren’t we called to love? And love not only covers multitudes of sins, it looks for ways to die for others. Ordinarily, in our culture, cigarettes are self-serving and the only other people thankful for your indulgence are your friends who also know deep down (or not so deep down) that dad would really not be pleased with this. Is that love?
And so moving right into the second principle, the principle of love, Paul said that meat offered to idols is clean, and Christians were free to eat it but if he knew his doing so would cause a brother to stumble he would rather be a vegetarian than eat prime rib offered to Athena. The principle is that we should be willing to give up lots and lots for the unity of the body.
So you confess that you believe in the communion of saints? But which communion are you talking about? If you’re talking about the body that you gather with week after week to worship with, how do they like those smokes? And shrugging your shoulders and saying that no one has ever said anything to you about it, doesn’t mean it’s not a problem, it just means that you have brothers and sisters who are more polite than you.
Two last thoughts: I write all of this somewhat autobiographically. These are convictions that I have come to over time, but which I did not always recognize or practice. And in the grand scheme of things, I really don’t think this is a hill to die on in either direction. I don’t think elders and pastors ought to have campaigns to eliminate all the twenty year old cigarette smokers from their congregations. And I know good, upstanding Christians who smoke. God bless them. But neither do I think that young people should make this their own pet campaign either, even if privately with their close friends back behind Bucers or Starbucks. I do believe that the next generation of Christians ought to look for ways to improve upon their elders, but do we really want to claim that the next great reformation will be in the form of Camels and Marlboros?
My advice: Don’t be a crank or a whiner, but look for ways to love and bless the body of Christ. Ask your parents what they think, and look forward to listening to them, following their example, and be hungry to find ways to die to yourself in order to love and honor them. And my guess is that there are many people who already know what their parents think and have some repenting to do.