This is a guest post by Alex (Shao Kai) Tseng (PhD, Oxford), a professor of systematic theology at China Evangelical Seminary. He is the author of numerous articles and an upcoming book on Karl Barth. You can view a research profile of Dr. Tseng here.

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Recently I posted two photos on social media, one of a Japanese pastor with a full body of tattoos, and the other of good old Cornelius Van Til holding a cigarette in his hand. With these photos I issued an invitation, in Chinese, to begin a discussion. The forum was originally intended for students at my seminary, but these photos initiated heated debates in an overwhelming number of comments from Chinese Christians all over the world, some of whom barely knew anything about me or the men in the photos.

In Chinese churches, tobacco and tattoos have traditionally been two of the greatest moral taboos aside from acts and items that are clearly sinful by biblical standards (e.g. pornography). Some participants in the aforementioned debate simply—and simplistically for the most part—dismissed these taboos as “legalism” or “moralism.” Most, however, insisted that smoking and tattoos are absolutely sinful. Among those who held to the latter position, only one was able to articulate his opinion on solid theological grounding, appealing to Joel Beeke’s exposition of the Westminster Standards on the Sixth Commandment. The others would simply reiterate what most Chinese churches have traditionally taught: Leviticus 19:28 forbids tattooing and 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 condemns smoking because it destroys the “temple of the Holy Spirit.”

For many Chinese Christians, to say that the Bible does not directly forbid tobacco or tattoos is to hold to a liberal view of Scripture. I tried explaining to the participants of the debate that the acts forbidden in Leviticus 19:28 are not quite analogous to modern-day tattooing, and that 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 condemns immoral sexual unions in the context of the believer’s union with Christ, which cannot be applied directly, if at all, to smoking or other health-threatening acts. Unsurprisingly, some labeled me as a liberal because, to their minds, I rejected what they perceived as the “plain meaning” of these biblical texts.

The photo of Van Til smoking was displayed to little avail: even that provocative photo was unable to dissolve the absolute equation between smoking/tattoos and theological liberalism. Of course, those who knew anything about Van Til knew that he was anything but a liberal. So, some of them devised the explanation that back in Van Til’s days, tobacco was not yet proven harmful to health, and that had he known the physical detriments of smoking, he would have condemned the cigarette in his hand.

Actually, Van Til (1895-1987) did quit smoking towards the end of his life to stay healthy. However, it was not for moral or exegetical reasons. The fact is that tobacco was already known to be detrimental to health in the early part of the twentieth century. According to Iain Murray’s biography, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) quit smoking early on in his career when he found out that it put him in the bondage of addiction. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) gave up smoking upon his doctor’s advice, and would famously chew on his empty pipe. In 1939 Sigmund Freud died of cancer in his jaws, and everyone knew that excessive smoking was the cause of his illness. Freud’s horrifying death in London, known across intellectual circles in England, did not stop C. S. Lewis from finding inspirations through his pipe. Long story short, everyone in Van Til’s day had a good idea about how bad tobacco could be for one’s health, even though medical knowledge about the substance was limited at the time. It would be unreasonable to suppose that the great presuppositionalist apologist of Westminster Theological Seminary was unaware of the health detriments of tobacco. However, demonising or moral condemnation of smoking was never a part of any agenda in Van Til’s construal of the biblical worldview.

To be sure, I do not smoke. I do not have tattoos on my body either. I always advise people against smoking, and I do not encourage tattoos, as much as I appreciate their artistry and enjoy looking at people’s tattoos. Yet, there is a world of difference between judgments of wisdom and moral absolutes.

What I intended to challenge in my social media posts was precisely the habit or even tradition of conjuring up moral absolutes by flawed exegesis and unsound theological arguments.

Of course, many participants in the debate were of the opinion that smoking or getting tattoos are not necessarily sinful by biblical standards, but the majority of them would cite 1 Corinthians 8:13 to argue that if any person in one’s church thinks of tattoos or smoking as sinful, one should abstain from these, lest the person be offended and stumble.

Since this is a very popular way of using 1 Corinthians 8:13 not only among Chinese churches, but also Evangelical churches in the West, I think it would be helpful to offer the following five points of consideration with a brief exegesis of this passage by way of introduction.

  • A lot of the time, we tend to mistakenly equate “causing one to stumble” with “offending someone.” The idea is that if getting a tattoo would offend someone in the church who thinks that God hates tattoos, I should not get one; if someone at my church thinks that smoking is sinful, I should never touch a cigarette or show them Van Til’s smoking photo. The proof text here would of course be 1 Corinthians 8:13: “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”However, such proof-texting is obviously based on flawed exegesis. If we put this verse in context, we would discover that “the weak” of whom Paul speaks in this entire passage refers not to self-righteous individuals who conjure up moral absolutes by arbitrary standards and impose them upon others. Rather, by “the weak” Paul is referring to those who do not possess the knowledge that idols are powerless and cannot possibly defile the food that God gave us. To their minds, consuming food sacrificed to idols is tantamount to participating in idolatry, and when they, being weak in conscience as in knowledge, see church leaders and mature Christians eating in a temple of idols, they follow the lead and eat the food, with the misunderstanding that as Christians they are allowed to retain the idolatrous practices to which they have been accustomed. In other words, they would eat the food that they think has been defiled by idols, and as a result, their conscience is defiled with the food. So they stumble.This plain meaning of the text is clear in verses 7 and 10: “Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled… For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?”
  • In his treatment of the concept of Christian liberty, John Calvin provides an incisive explanation of 1 Corinthians 8. He puts it well when he distinguishes between offenses given and received: “If you do anything… so as to cause the ignorant and the simple to stumble, such will be called an offense given by you… An offense is spoken of as received when something, otherwise not wickedly or unseasonably committed, is by ill will or malicious intent of mind wrenched into occasion for offense” (Institutes 19. 11).“Accordingly,” writes Calvin in the same section, “we shall call the one of the offense of the weak, the other that of the Pharisees. Thus we shall so temper the use of our freedom as to allow for the ignorance of our weak brothers, but for the rigor of the Pharisees, not at all!”Calvin emphasises that we must ignore the accusations and complaints from the self-righteous ones who conjure up arbitrary moral standards and impose them upon others. Thus he concludes the section: “We learn from the Lord’s words how much we ought to regard the offense of the Pharisees: He bids us let them alone because they are blind leaders of the blind (Matt. 15:14). His disciplines had warned him that the Pharisees had been offended by his talk (Matt. 15:12). He answered that they were to be ignored and their offense disregarded.”
  • True unity of the church, in both the universal and local aspects, can never be attained by the attempt to avoid making what Calvin calls “received” offenses—those “of the Pharisees.” Rather, the pastor has the duty to teach members of the church never to “receive” offenses. That is, do not impose arbitrary moral standards upon others. The ethical issues surrounding smoking and tattoos are debatable, and so even a Joel Beeke, who has every sound theological reason to perceive smoking as immoral, would not condemn a Mark Jones for lighting a cigar with me in the backyard. (Ok, cigars and cigarettes are different—but let’s not go into that petty issue).Of course, it is usually unwise for pastors to intentionally provoke prejudiced people in the church. However, sometimes such provocation might be pedagogically desirable—the photos I displayed on social media were surely provocative to many Chinese Christians. In any case, we should never mind the offense taken by the Pharisees—they are “to be ignored and their offense disregarded.”
  • Drinking is generally less of an issue than smoking—this has become so in Chinese churches as well. However, I would use the example of drinking to carry the conversation in a different direction.The Bible forbids alcoholism, but not alcohol itself. However, a missionary to Cambodia, whom my former church had supported for a long time, once explained that absolute prohibition of alcoholic drinks was necessary in her church. Anyone caught possessing alcohol, consumed or not, would be excommunicated.This is not legalism. This is good exercise of pastoral wisdom. In Cambodia, alcohol addiction has been a chief cause of many serious social problems. Former alcoholics now united to the body of Christ are easily tempted upon the sight of even an empty beer bottle. Possession of alcohol in this context is clearly an immense stumbling block for the weaker members of the body of Christ.

    The Church is called to be consecrated and sanctified, and to that end, sometimes local churches would find it necessary to impose arbitrary rules upon their members. Paul, for instance, imposed strict rules of head-covering upon male and female members of the Corinthian churches (1 Corinthians 11:1-16). The implementation of these rules does not constitute an imposition of arbitrarily devised moral absolutes, but rather an exercise of pastoral wisdom.

    We often err in labeling every arbitrary rule as legalism. Such errors reflect as much theological and exegetical mindlessness as acts of arbitrarily conjuring up extra-biblical moral absolutes.

  • Back to the issues of tobacco and tattoos. In Christian normative ethics (the ‘ought and ought not’) these issues are clearly controversial. However, we should understand that the Bible in its overarching redemptive history is never intended as a textbook of normative ethics. The normative-ethical aspect of Scripture, namely, the Law, is so clear as touching upon moral absolutes that it renders all immoralities inexcusable. Yet, the Law is there to convict us of our guilt and convince us that we need a Saviour. Only after we receive the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ does the Law begin to be a guideline for us to learn to please the Father (the so-called ‘third use of the Law’). Even then, our ethics should be primarily guided by the Gospel, and not the Law.To be sure, normative ethics is important in the areas of apologetics and public theology. For practical Christian living, it is also important in the initial stages of spiritual formation: it sets the limits of Christian liberty for us. Normative ethics would help the weaker ones in the Corinthian churches to understand that God hates idolatry, and yet Christians are free to consume food once sacrificed to idols. However, in 1 Corinthians 8, which we treated earlier, Paul describes Christians lacking in the knowledge of biblical normative ethics (and more importantly its theological grounding—‘meta-ethics’ if you will) as “the weak.” No Christian should stay weak, and no pastor should leave his flock weak and unfed. After initial stages of spiritual formation, the “ought and ought not” should not be an issue for the believer anymore.That is to say, the life of the mature Christian is no longer to be guided by the “ought and ought not”—this normative aspect should be self-evident for the most part in the Christian life. And when there are grey areas, we ought to respect these as grey areas, because for the most part they are clearly grey.

    Instead of the “ought and ought not,” the Christian life is much better guided by the “now what” and the “how to”: I’m a born-again Christian and yet I’m still a sinner, and I break the Ten Commandments every day—now what? This is basically the question that Paul sets forth in Romans 7, and he answers it in Romans 8, the final part of which John Owen in the conclusion to his Death of Death urges his reader to peruse every day. In his three treatises on sin and temptation, Owen focuses not on the “ought and ought not,” but rather on the “how to.” Threats of the Law are of course necessary, says Owen, but they are far from sufficient in assisting us to overcome temptation. The only way to overcome temptation is to focus on—but certainly not abuse—the grace of Christ. As Jonathan Edwards puts it, when we are drawn to the excellencies of Christ, the idols that tempt us and bind us become lacklustre. The author of Hebrews puts it best when he teaches us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” not by threatening ourselves with the Law, but by “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” who was glorified through humiliation on the cross (Hebrews 12:1-2).

    If we apply this Christ-centred principle of grace to our discussion of tobacco and tattoos, the issues becomes pastoral (the ‘how to’) rather than normative-ethical (the ‘ought and ought not’). This is first because it is difficult to find clear-cut answers to the “ought and ought not” questions regarding tobacco and tattoos that will convince every Evangelical Christian—even within the confessional boundaries of the Westminster Standards there is hardly a consensus. Second, even if we were able to find such clear-cut answers, telling your congregation “thou shall not smoke” or “thou shall not get a tattoo” is not going to help those who are tempted to do what they think they ought not do. Romans 7 and Galatians 5 make this point clear.

    A pastoral approach to the problems of smoking and tattoos is much more helpful than a normative-ethical one. Stop debating over this obviously grey area of Christian normative ethics. Instead, try to find out why that young woman at your church wants to get a tattoo. What is she trying to express? Is she just trying to be cool? Is she trying to fit in among her peers? Or is she using the physical pain to express or even alleviate her emotional brokenness? How can I as a pastor attend to her—supposing she does require pastoral attention with regard to the tattoo issue?

    And why does that man smoke two boxes of cigarettes every day? Is it simply a bad habit that he picked up somewhere? Or is it associated with some inward pressure that he doesn’t know how to deal with? Isn’t there anyone whom he loves deeply enough, for whose sake he would quit smoking to stay healthy?

    These might sound too practical to be likely questions from a young systematic theology professor, but to my mind, these are exactly the kind of questions that our theology of grace (our biblical theology of the covenant of grace, if I may) leads to. When it comes to controversial yet in fact quite minor issues such as tobacco and tattoos, I think that focusing on pastoral questions—when necessary (sometimes pastors freak out too easily over peccadillos among the flock)—is theologically and exegetically far sounder than debating over the “ought and ought not.”

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