Substance Abuse in the Church

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Over the years, the conservative churches in general have taken a stand against various forms of substance abuse. Section 4 in Article VI, Christian and Self Denial, in our Decrees for to Keep is titled "Tobacco, Alcohol, & Substance Abuse." It opens with 1 Corinthians 6.19: "What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost " and continues on to prohibit the use of tobacco and alcohol due to their harmful effects on the body. Also included in the rational is the fact that the use of these substances has a negative impact on others and is a poor testimony for a child of God. The section closes with this sentence. "All other substance abuse is also forbidden."

Substance abuse is the use of a substance with an overall negative impact on the body. People who fall into the category of substance abusers typically start using the substance for the short-term pleasure it produces. These substances are often addictive either physically, psychologically or both. Thus, by the time the user realizes the negative impact the substance is having on his body, it is no longer a simple task to stop its use.

Usually, our minds go immediately to such things as smoking or chewing tobacco, various types of alcoholic beverages, or a variety of illegal drugs when we think of substance abuse. While we need to continue to teach against these things, I believe it is time we wake up to the fact that a serious form of substance abuse is prevalent in our churches; a form of substance abuse spoken about more directly in the Scriptures than is smoking or the use of illicit drugs. Specifically, I am referring to the abuse of food by eating too much.

We speak or at least think disparagingly of a smoker racked by coughing and whose lungs are being consumed by cancer when we see him light up another cigarette. We cannot imagine that a person who destroys his health in such a way could ever legitimately claim to be a child of God. But really, how is what a smoker is doing any different than what so many people are doing when they overeat? They enjoy smoking; we enjoy eating. They ruin their lungs; we ruin our heart. They cough; we pant. They are at risk for emphysema; we are at risk for diabetes. They die of cancer; we die of heart attacks and strokes. Neither have the self-denial necessary to change their situation. Yet somehow, we think they will go to hell because of their habit but ours will not keep us out of heaven.

God has designed our bodies in ways that are very complex and yet at the same time very simple. In relation to food, in general, the equation is rather simple. For each person there is a certain amount of food sufficient to maintain his weight. If we eat more food than we need, our body stores the extra energy as fat, and we gain weight. If we eat less food than necessary to provide the energy we need, our body will consume itself, and we lose weight. No overweight person ever starved to death.

We attempt to mollify our conscience and put some distance between smokers and ourselves by pointing out the cost of cigarettes and the effects of second hand smoke. At least overeating does not harm others. Really? Children of overweight parents are much more likely to develop the same poor eating habits and be overweight themselves. Furthermore, while the cost of overeating tends to disappear in the food bill, the extra food is not free. More importantly, the Bible condemns gluttony (greedily eating to excess) in Deut 21:20, Proverbs 23:1-2 and verse 23.

A limited amount of stored fat is healthy, but medical science has documented without doubt the health hazards of excess body weight. Clogged arteries, high blood pres sure, diabetes, cirrhosis, appendicitis, and back troubles are more common in overweight people along with a greater risk for falls and other accidents. Can we continue to remain silent about this form of substance abuse and still experience the blessing of God on our lives and churches? Are we serious when we say, "All other substance abuse is also forbidden"? "What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's" (1Cor 6:19-20). "For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ; whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things" (Php 3:19-20).

It is time we wake up to the fact that a serious form of substance abuse is prevalent in our churches.