Cigarettes, Multiple Wives, and Loving Jesus

by Angie Washington on March 4, 2014

Imagine a man native to the region where you live. He gets Jesus. Grows. Starts a church. It flourishes. The dozens become hundreds. Your little missionary heart bursts with pride to see this man so successful. The church secretary and the volunteers overlook his hot temper and his prejudice towards people of a certain skin tone because, well, the church is growing, right?

Now, put a lit cigarette in that pastor’s hand while he preaches on Sunday morning. He takes a few drags and taps off the ash in an ashtray on the pulpit. He lights up a couple more before the final benediction. How many elders, do you think, would have his butt and the butts in that ashtray kicked to the curb before the sun when down on that holy Sunday?

Do I endorse smoking? Not so much. But I also don’t endorse racism.

Which one gets overlooked and which one gets condemned?

A Subculture

Issues like smoking, alcohol, styles of dress, entertainment choices, and language define and divide. These things can keep us apart from the very people we would hope to help. They cause church splits and drive wedges in mission organizations.  They hold some people out of relationship with God and bind others in a fake one.

“Jesus consistently focused on people’s center: Are they oriented and moving toward the center of spiritual life (love of God and people), or are the moving away from it? … Jesus could say that the “tax collectors and the prostitutes” who were a million miles away from the religious subculture, but who had turned, converted, and oriented themselves towards God and love, were already in the kingdom. … The “righteous” were more damaged by their righteousness than the sinners by their sin.” – John Ortberg


Barriers and Bridges

Am I no longer a Christian because I occasionally have a beer or a glass of wine? Have I lost the faith because I consult with a counselor instead of only relying on the bible and prayer to solve problems? Does the tattoo inked on my arm separate me from the favor of God?

barrierIt may be time to redirect our energies. We can construct, reinforce, and repair our structures only to find we built a barrier instead of a bridge. We defend the standards we erect. We stay inside those high walls, unable to reach out to the people.  Then comes the sad part; others cannot get in because they lack the tricks to traverse its enormity.

Might we utilize our creativity and resources to construct bridges instead? Could we assure instead of shun? Can we accept rather than inspect?

Your Stance

Look down at your feet. Where do you stand? On a barrier or a bridge? The great thing about feet is that they move. We can modify our direction by an awareness of our motivations.

Would you support a national pastor who led well and loved Jesus, if he regularly smoked?

How about if he had tattoos? Or multiple wives? What sub-cultural barriers have we constructed, unwittingly or consciously, which may push people away from Christ? Or worse, keep us away from people?

 – Angie Washington, missionary living in Bolivia, South America

blog: twitter: @atangie  facebook: atangie

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About Angie Washington

Co-Founder, Editor of this collaborative blog site: A Life Overseas
  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Great post Angie, I love that quote about moving toward the center. Challenging questions to ponder, will think on them for a while.

    • Thanks Rachel! The quote is from his book on spiritual disciples called “The Life You’ve Always Wanted”. Highly recommended. Thanks for pondering along with me.

  • I like this post a lot. It resonates where I live in Alabama. We recently moved here and it is interesting to see what things the church condemns and what they ignore. Not what I was used to.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dan. I imagine this resonates with most people in most places around the world because we are talking about tendencies of humanity. I am glad to know the post resonated with you.

  • Good article! I think about the verse that says we aren’t to regard each other according to the flesh, but in Christ. His heart is for the lost, so ours should be to. I like the analogy of the cruise ship versus the rescue ship. Many of us have made our walk with God into a cruise ship, where we expect the drowning to swim to us. Rather, we should be the rescue ship that learns, adapts, and enters the culture to rescue those drowning about us. “I became all things to all people that I might win some for Christ.” It does get tricky though, establishing culturally relevant and biblically based boundaries. Some things are irrelevant, others are important to the grasping of Christ’s love and God’s character. Multiple wives, while covered in grace during the establishment of the church within a polygamist culture, is something that would need to be weeded over time to demonstrate the fidelity of Christ and his church and to give weight to the Paul’s words to Timothy and to the Corinthians. In all though, Christ and his love be our motive! Great work, looking forward to meeting you when we move down there next month!

    • Hi Seth. It will be nice to meet you when you come. I have only heard good things. I like the phrase “weeded over time”. I agree that there are practices in any culture to which this application would apply. Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts to the conversation. See you soon!

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  • Lynn

    great post! My friends and I were talking about the polygamy in the culture here last night. It is so easy to get legalistic and many churches and Christians do about many issues. The question becomes what happens when a polygamist is told they can’t be a Christian if they have more than one wife? How is that presenting the Gospel of Grace? Yes, we teach what Paul says and ask church leaders to not take any more wives once they become Christians. Then again, I wonder how people view serial polygamy – what we in the West call divorce. It used to be that if a pastor got divorced he would never preach again. These days, that isn’t the case. I guess the real question is do we believe that Jesus died for all sin or only some and who ever said one sin was better or worse than any other? All sin separates us from God except for His Grace!

    • Thanks Lynn! I am glad to know you are having real life face to face conservations about this kind of stuff. You make a solid point about “serial polygamy” (aka: divorce). What is the general response you receive from people who hear biblical marriage teachings for the first time? I am sure this requires a great level of finesse and wisdom. Also, have you found that the converted nationals are more legalistic than the outsiders, or vice versa?

      • Lynn

        The nationals tend to be more legalistic than the outsiders on some issues like polygamy and traditional weddings, but not all. Generally, when a polygamist first hears about the requirements for church leadership they just say, “really!” It took a long time for our church leaders to address the issue, but when they did, they wanted the “grace period” for church leaders to only be about 10 years. Which means that in 10 years, the church would be led by high school boys since almost all men over that age have more than one wife here. So, do you go for strict legalism or not much wisdom? My team advised them to give a little longer for the “grace period.” They finally agreed.

        • Richelle Wright

          polygamy was also an issue where we were working – and for the most part, missos stayed out of the question and had the church study decide. they were pretty much unanimous that for those initial generations of leadership, those in polygamous marriages could be in leadership— as long at that was their state prior to becoming a Christian – and in fact, not continuing to care for a second or additional wives would be unbiblical. Ideally, as the church grows in different areas, that would no longer be necessary.

          • Knowing when to speak up and when to step back requires a delicate sensitivity. Far too often in my early years I opted for the speaking up. Lately its been better to choose to step back more often.

        • A “grace period”. Nice idea. I have found that the Bolivian Christians tend to be more staunch and conservative regarding controversial issues. Maybe it is the pendulum theory? I think it is good to bring these things to the table, as your team did, to discuss and arrive at a gracious and peaceable solution. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • Richelle Wright

    Interesting discussion… hard questions, too… and I wish it was as simple as we try and make it in these discussions. could i support a national pastor who led well and loved Jesus if he regularly smoked? yes… i think… but i also think it would depend greatly upon his attitude about his smoking.

    clearly the Bible does not say, “thou shalt not smoke.” some do apply the verse that our bodies are a temple of God, so some believe, in that sense, some consider smoking to be a clear sin. regardless, smoking is clearly something that is not good for our bodies. it is clearly something that can harm those who are around us.

    i guess i’d want to know from this pastor: is his smoking an area where he’s saying, is it something he likes about himself or is proud of – or a continual battle he wages as he strives to become more like Jesus? is the pastor himself allowing that smoking habit to become a barrier – i.e has his right/liberty to smoke become more important than being all things to all people that some might be won (as Paul says)? or does he use it as a bridge, transparently showing his own continuing struggle to live in a way that is totally above reproach and a daily dependence on the sufficiency of Christ and a continual work in progress? frankly, it would be hard for me to welcome someone who smokes to be a pastor to my children because i would want to protect them from the physical risks as well as i’d want to place them under the leadership of someone they could emulate in all respects. on the other hand – no one is perfect, so i do recognize the limitations of that.

    but back to the idea of bridges or barriers…while i do believe we are called to build bridges… i also believe there are also times and places we are called to build barriers. a city without walls is easily destroyed. when my perspective is that of advancing the kingdom and taking new ground – i tend to think more along the theme of building bridges. when my focus is standing firm and protecting the present kingdom – i tend to lean towards building walls and protecting/preserving.

    maybe there is a place for both building bridges or barriers – as I believe there is for this discussion because iron sharpens iron…

    • Richelle, you do such a lovely job about bringing us back to a place of “and” rather than “either / or”. I love the way that you built upon the bridges and barriers example. Yes! When we know the focus of what we intend to accomplish we can then decide if we need to construct a barrier of safety or extend a bridge of hope. So true!

      You bring up a good point about the attitude of the one practicing what some may consider a sin. That’s what it all gets back to. The outward actions are an easy target. But discerning the heart is something that only God is skilled at.

      Thanks for adding your thoughts to this thread. I value your viewpoint.

      • Richelle Wright

        Totally agree with your statement that outward actions are easy targets and perhaps more often than not, wrongfully so. God’s clearly the best at discerning heart motivations. After all, we barely even grasp all that is in our own hearts, much less what’s in the heart of another. Yet, in John, Jesus exhorts us that WHEN we judge, to judge correctly – so I do believe judging and being on the receiving end of judgment are givens in this world. Therefore God must be able and willing to help… empower… us to do so in a God honoring way. I’ve often wondered if our tendency to be so critical and judgmental of others is directly linked to the Garden… a part of what happened when Adam and Eve tasted that fruit and could then see and know there was good and evil, but just weren’t always sure which was which and the same holds true today – and I’m not clearly saying what’s gymnasticking around in my head… Unfortunately we human critters tend to swing from one end of the pendulum to the other – with very little balance.

        But I’ve also worked with people long enough… lived in my own skin long enough… to know that sometimes I struggle not to sin and/or offend others. Other times I could care less because it is my right, my freedom in Christ… If I, by my own testimony, presume on the grace of God (i.e. take it for granted) and of others (insist that they should offer it to me when I’m not so ready to offer grace for criticism and judgment myself) – I hope (at least today, in this moment) that someone will confront me – lovingly or otherwise.

        So, in this example – if the pastor flagrantly smoked, if by his own testimony was proud of his freedom to do so even knowing the physical consequences for him and others, if he was unconcerned about the offensiveness of his choice to some and always interested in defending his right rather than laying down his rights to show love to a brother, if he overtly or just by attitudes and persona encourages others to smoke, etc., I’d have a hard time supporting him. But then I think those kinds of issues wouldn’t just appear around the subject of smoking and would beg the question of whether or not he was actually leading well…

        • Andy Stanley has a fabulous teaching series I listened to online (free at the time a few years ago) about judging. Really eye opening, freeing, and made a lot of sense. Yes, we do judge; but we need to be sensitive the Spirit of the Lord as we judge. For some of us, myself very much included, that judging comes very easily. Many times I have not tempered my keen discernment with empathetic love and ended up feeling I was too rash or harsh. When I return to apologize there have been times when the person I spoke firmly to thanked me and told me they needed to hear it put in a strong way because they were heading in a wrong direction. There have been others times the person was sincerely wounded by my words and their gratefulness came only after the apology. This all comes back to the attitude – both of the offender and the judge. May we all continue to grow into the full measure of the stature of Christ.

  • I loved the quote, too – so rich to remember. I also think of a big Christian org in Asia who has recently ‘Declared’ that tattoos are sinful. And I think about all the godly people I know that have tattoos – my husband and you included– and an official statement like that makes me sad for national believers- ESP in this generation of ink.

    Also, another angle …. Most missions orgs (like IMB- I think!) don’t let their missionaries drink. And while I get the danger, is the fact that no IMB missionaries drink underscoring the assumption that to be Christian you can’t drink alcohol? Just another question to toss out…

    Fantastic post!

    • Laura, thanks for all your editing help to make this post presentable. Your contributions were invaluable. Thank you, thank you.

      You bring up quite a squirrely point about the definition of Christianity communicated by standards upheld by mission organizations. Like you said, I get it. I understand the dangers. So when the moments arise that the decision must be communicated I feel it is vital that the heart behind the rule be shared as well. Dutiful obedience to the rules can only go so far. While that is an honorable place to start, unless you can give a deeper connection to God, or humanity, or another such reality then the rule brings condemnation rather than freedom.

    • I don’t have a problem with people drinking, Laura, but some of the cultures we minister do have a problem. I went to a wedding of a young Thai woman. I was the only westerner at the celebration, and the family asked me to please try the alcholol. I drank maybe three sips because I did not like it. The next day in Thai church, as the Thais always question people about their faith and their lists of “don’t dos” somebody asked me about, because you know, Christians don’t drink.

      On the other hand, those type of situations make me want to pull hairs. I knew a Thai lady who got kicked off the worship team at her Thai church because she had wine in her refriderator – it was her brothers wine! So when mission organizations tell their staff, don’t do this because . . . are we helping the community foster positive relations long term? I can think of other examples I’ve seen.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Great post Angie – thoughtful and thought provoking. You do that dance well which is not always easy. So here’s a funny story — at one point living in Pakistan my sister-in-law was leading a Bible Study. The women were from all over the world – Nigeria, Egypt, Canada, UK, U.S., Pakistan to name a few. One day one of the women was beside herself talking about how “These Pakistanis – are they real Christians?” She went on and on and also brought up Muslims — could they ever become Christians. My SIL realized there was something else agitating her – well, turned out she didn’t think they were real Christians because they didn’t use toilet paper… Pakistanis don’t use TP – they use water and think we have terrible hygiene when we use toilet paper. Funny story – but she was really upset. Somehow that silly cultural difference had emerged as far bigger and was used as a spiritual guage.Crazy, right? But….it brings me to the more serious aspect — when we develop these guages that are based on outward behavior we have to first off admit them, and then move forward in wisdom, being careful of what we’re communicating about the gospel. I feel like I’ve faced the same things parenting — what things are God’s ‘commands’ and what things are our house rules. Not smoking is a house rule…..taking care of your body is a God ‘command’; No R-rated movies unless we’ve talked about and approved them is a house rule….being careful what you watch and focus on what is good is a God thing. Maybe that doesn’t make sense but it did in my brain as I was typing so I will leave it and trust you to make sense of my rambles!!

    • Oh wow! Wow. Wow. Marilyn, that is quite a story. The old adage does state: cleanliness is next to godliness. Ha! Building on the bathroom business… Here in Bolivia some people told us they felt uncomfortable coming to church because the bathrooms were TOO nice. They felt undignified to use them. My Western eyes saw the trash cans for the toilet paper, the towels tied to hooks on the wall to dry your hands, and soapless sinks through a very different lens.

      You are right that before any change can take place the behavior must be acknowledged and admitted. Great point.

      Your final example of “house rules” brings up a valid side of this discussion. I know of many instructions myself and others have received from the Lord regarding lifestyle which needn’t be turned into gospel dogma. Not everyone needs to get married. Not everyone needs to live overseas. Not everyone needs to take up a microphone and preach. Yet, in our blessed passion, it might be communicated that the directives God gives us personally for our lives are applicable to ALL people. As has been mentioned in the other comments, the trick is knowing which hill to die on, so to speak.

      I love to ramble along with you! Thanks for adding to this little talk. Peace.

  • Jeff J. Johnston

    Great topic. Had a discussion with my 19 year old this morning about tattoos & Christians, what’s right and wrong. We need to lean toward grace as Christ did with us and as many have said, depends on the attitude. We often approach Christianity with a check list mentality of right and wrong. Jesus was relationship driven and we should be as well.

    • So true, Jeff. We can follow Jesus’ relational example. And that is exactly what you did by having a discussion with your son. I think that is the best way to help anyone to grow. Thanks for the positive comment.

  • Frannie

    Very good question! I remember that when I was in France, I found most missionaries had decided that being 100% non-alcohol was not at all practical and could even be an obstacle to getting to know people better. So they stuck with gracefully accepting a glass of wine with a meal out of politeness and to appreciate French culture.
    On the smoking issue, that’s interesting because my husband, who is not a pastor but is often called on to preach, has never completely managed to give up smoking, although he smokes much less than he did before becoming a Christian. However, he is careful not to smoke in public where it could encourage others to smoke if they saw him, and not inside the house. He struggles with trying to stop, and has recently discovered electric cigarettes that are helping to wean himself off real ones.
    As a militant non-smoker myself, I had a big problem with this for many years, thinking that the smoking habit was incompatible with his being asked to preach. But then I realized that I have my own weakness when I’m stressed, just that mine is over-eating, which doesn’t pollute the air or affect anyone else… except maybe my family, when I get so unfit I can’t take part in the sporty activities they enjoy. In fact several missionaries I have known have been dreadfully obese. I remember, years ago, one of them eating 2 huge ice-cream sundaes in a row, even though the price of one was the same as a day’s pay for a national. But then, that was in an area where there was not much scope for fun things to do during leisure time.
    I think I would expect a pastor who smoked to at least refrain from smoking during church services and when he was with others, the same as any smokers do when they ask people if they mind them lighting up.
    Very interesting to hear about how churches work out the consequences of cultural polygamy. I’m never sure how much our “church” attitude to marriage is cultural and how much is really Biblical. I have known young couples rush into marriage because they couldn’t cope with the physical temptation of being together, only to split up a few years down the line.
    Thanks for the interesting topic!

    • Fascinating, Frannie! Thank you so much for sharing such a personal and poignant story. It is encouraging to hear about an honest struggle from a person who is not trying to pretend to have it all together. You admit your own struggles and therefore are able to have compassion for the people in your life who smoke, overeat, drink, etc. I find it very comforting to know that Jesus was also a man who suffered temptation just as we do. He gets it. I need to spend more time with Him, putting it all out before Him (because He knows it all already) and allow that same empathy to flood my heart so that I can love those around me more deeply.

  • Tatoos? I’m totally fine with those. Smoking is bad for the body, but so is diet coke, but we let preachers drink diet coke.

    Multiple wives is more tricky, but the short answer is no, I would not tell a man he should divorce his wives when he becomes a Christian. I knew some villages where this was initially an issue. If there is no Christians in the village with just one spouse, then naturally someone has to be the leader anyway. I’m not happy with polgamy, but we can work with the situation.

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