Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. 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. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 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? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 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.1 Corinthians 8.1-13
It’s well known that the famous English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon smoked cigars regularly. When a visiting American preacher, George F. Pentecost, preached against smoking at his church, Spurgeon took to the pulpit and said,
Well, dear friends, you know that some men can do to the glory of God what to other men would be a sin. And, not withstanding what brother Pentecost has said, I intend to smoke a good cigar to the glory of God before I go to bed tonight… I wish to say that I am not ashamed of anything whatever that I do, and I don’t feel that smoking makes me ashamed, and therefore I mean to smoke to the glory of God.
For some time after, the phrase “smoking to the glory of God” became the talk of London. Concerned about being misunderstood, Spurgeon wrote to The Daily Telegraph to clarify his statements. He wrote,
I demur altogether and most positively to the statement that to smoke tobacco is in itself a sin. It may become so, as any other indifferent action may, but as an action it is no sin.
Together with hundreds of thousands of my follow-Christians I have smoked, and, with them, I am under the condemnation of living in habitual sin, if certain accusers are to be believed. As I would not knowingly live even in the smallest violation of the law of God, and sin in the transgression of the law, I will not own to sin when I am not conscious of it.
Whether or not smoking is a sin depends on how one does it, and Spurgeon believes that smoking isn’t a sin in and of itself, but it can become sinful if one smokes excessively to adversely affect his life. He had no scruples about smoking because he was moderate about it and found much physical and mental benefits from it.
However, the trouble lay in his influence and his vocal justification of smoking. Could his arguments have led other Christians who did not have the same robust conscience as he did to take up smoking? If they took up smoking with a weak conscience then, according to the Apostle Paul, they would’ve been stumbled. Or, they could’ve taken up smoking without good self-control and ended up in addiction. Either way, it seems that Spurgeon had tried to publicly justify his cigar smoking with a tad too much enthusiasm. His old friend James Clarke later remarked in The Christian World: “To ourselves this tobacco pest is a daily martyrdom, and we could earnestly wish that every Christian teacher, at all events, felt no desire to indulge in a habit… which is unquestionably most fearfully destructive both to the bodies and souls of tens of thousands of our young men.”
While I agree with Spurgeon where smoking is concerned (although I don’t smoke), I do believe he ought to have curtailed his freedom for the sake of love—if not to smoke then at least to publicly express his indignation. As Paul would later write in 1 Corinthians chapter 10, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” In Christ, we have freedom, not to do as we wish, but to live for the sake of our beloved brethren and to build them up. It’s out of love for others that we curtail our freedom, so that our actions may not stumble others and cause them to fall.