(This has been re-written, or at least edited... hopefully for the better).
For the nine years I've been in the field I've been watching the folks from the IMB (the Southern Baptist missions arm), among other organizations, send people overseas with strict No Alcohol and No Tobacco policies.* Apart from feeling bad for them and how often they're missing out on fellowship with other missionaries, I only occasionally gave the issue much thought. I do know that many abstain from both tobacco and alcohol and have good reasons for it, and I think I always assumed those would be the type of people who would join the IMB.
But now I've heard my organization is soon to pass similar policy. I suppose I've mentioned once, or a bunch of times, that I partake of both alcohol and tobacco products. Often this is with others and, increasingly I allow it to intersect with my ministry.
Creating or having policies which outright (or situationally) ban the use of tobacco, alcohol or other substances (besides those which are illegal) causes unnecessary difficulty in appropriate preaching of the gospel and is thus bad missiology.
Sometimes it looks better on paper that your missionaries don't smoke, drink, and chew, or go with boys who do. But I'm increasingly convinced it hinders the teaching of the gospel when it is universally applied.
Here I should say I will primarily be addressing the arguments about alcohol, because I cant think of any good arguments against the use of tobacco. Yes, it's not good for you, but neither is Coca-Cola and only the Mormons have proved theologically consistent enough to outlaw that. Yes addiction is bad, becoming dependent on something other than the Lord is a problem; but we blind our eyes to caffeine, video games, etc... Many partake of these things because the benefits outweigh the negatives. And because some can properly handle their substances and game playing, even enjoying them to the glory of the Lord (like the pipe I'm smoking while writing this), all without becoming addicted.
1. An argument from convictions
There are lots of good, even Biblical reasons not to drink. However, it's very very difficult (and bad exegesis) to make an argument that drinking is Biblically sinful.
That said, if you are convicted personally not to drink, then not drinking can be a great way to preach the gospel. You can talk about how you're abstaining because you have a personal conviction against drinking and the Bible tells us not to sin against our conscience. This is honoring to God. (Romans 14:23).
If you choose not to partake just because of a policy (rather than your convictions), this confirms in the mind of others that our religion is primarily about rules. When actually this is the precise point which makes belief in Jesus so different from the rest of the world's religions. Living our freedom in Christ is one of the most important things a Christian missionary can do. Not abusing that freedom, living it (Romans 14:13-23). Because openly living out our freedom in Christ is preaching the gospel.
When Peter shied away from his convictions in Antioch, Paul opposed him to his face. Submitting to a law when a law is not required for salvation is teaching religious weirdness in place of the gospel. (Galatians 2:11-14). Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't submit to a policy that asks you to not smoke and not drink—you should submit to your authority. We're called to and must. What I am saying is the policy itself is actually a detriment to the gospel being fully preached.
2. An argument regarding reputation
Sometimes the problem is simply that an organization is fearful of the reputation it would have should it's staff be seen drinking alcohol. If reputation is an issue, we need to remember we do not represent an organization, we represent Christ. This then begs the question why was Jesus not concerned with this reputation? (Matthew 11:19). Part of the reason is He wasn't actually drunk. We know He was drinking (John 2:10), but he wasn't drunk. If our organization has people getting drunk in it that is a problem (Ephesians 5:18), but if they're just drinking we need not be worried.
Followers of Christ were not called to be ascetics, or pharisees. Buddhism, Taoism, and even Islam (and just about every other religion in the world) are about following rules, and following them well enough to find salvation. The gospel of Christ is the opposite, this is something we must be boldly proclaiming with our lifestyle.
Another reason Jesus wasn't concerned about others seeing him or his disciples drinking is because wine (and I believe it's safe to extrapolate to other forms of alcohol) is a gift of God. Alcohol brings joy and makes the heart glad (Psalms 104:15, Eccl 10:19). Gifts from God are meant to be enjoyed for His glory. A missionary using alcohol in appropriate settings for building fellowship with others is a good and right thing to do. It is also important that missionaries, more perhaps than anyone else, proclaim there is a right and good place for alcohol. The same way we don't ban sex, we just teach it's made for certain situations and not all situations.
Not all missionaries are discerning. But a blanket policy means the discerning ones will no longer have opportunity to preach these things. It also means the discerning will not have opportunity to teach the undiscerning when and how to properly enjoy such things.
3. An argument from experience
About six years ago, I had an opportunity to take a crowd of about seven locals out to do some evangelism. That night we shared with a homeless man under a bridge. This man was obviously drunk and very excited to have people to talk to. He offered each of us all that he had—a cigarette. My friends, in order, each turned him down. I was second to last and I took the cigarette and let him light it for me. My friend's were shocked.
Now keep in mind, I hate cigarettes. I don't understand why anyone on earth smokes the things. But I do not believe cigarettes are inherently evil, or even sinful to smoke. I also believe this was a situation to be all things to all people (1 Cor 9:21). The same way I eat pig brain when offered to me, I often smoke a cigarette with people when I believe they will then give me their ear.
That night this man refused to hear from anyone other than the one guy who accepted a cigarette. I was the only foreigner and my gospel presentation was, without question, the least clear that could have been offered that night. Yet this man heard us. He believed. And I have good reason to think that cigarette was essential to the transaction.
This is one very black and white situation, but there are many like it regarding alcohol. When those who are comfortable having a drink have the freedom to drink with non-believers it can open the door to talk about the gospel. Again because of rules; people believe all religions can be boiled down to rules. And it is true. For everyone except us. Our God fulfilled our rules, so we don't have to. Because we can't. This IS the heart of the gospel message.
This kind of policy doesn't reflect the gospel. The gospel is about freedom and when we're with a disciple we can't preach freedom and yet live our lives following a rule we don't have conviction in. This confuses those we're discipling. Policies like this also close the door on the (admittedly) occasional opportunity we have to open doors through clear-conscience partaking with non-believers.
Rules which are not Biblical rules cause us to live in a manner conforming to things which we cant back up with doctrine—for missions this is foolishness. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying abstaining will ruin all missions work. The gospel and our God are bigger than these rules. But it is our job to preach the gospel. Period. Even as it relates to enjoying alcohol and tobacco.
4. An argument from culture
Just about anywhere in the world that has any issue with drinking or smoking learned it from Americans. Not from their reading of the Bible. But from American missionaries.
South Korea is a nation which learned of Jesus, but every South Korean I've ever met never learned how to enjoy alcohol appropriately because the missionaries we sent there didn't teach it. And to this day many Koreans live as though this one thing is a special sin. They know the gospel, but also kind of think in their hearts they might be in some special trouble with God if they have wine at their friend's wedding reception.
I spent some time recently with a small people group who have a similar culture. They believe Christians cannot under any circumstances smoke or drink. Sadly many believe this what makes them a Christian. They think you call Jesus your God, and then stop smoking or drinking and you'll go to heaven. That's a bummer, but it is what happens over time when hardline rules— instead of gospel freedom—are taught. Our hearts like rules because they are black and white and we can try our best to follow them. Naturally we will revert to such thinking, and naturally we will forget the gospel, unless the gospel is consistently taught in the face of rules. A policy makes this difficult to do.
The missionary who went to this minority people a hundred years ago taught them not to drink because their culture was one which only drank to get drunk. He did not model that drinking does not have to lead to drunkenness. He simply made a rule. But a rule has no power over fleshly desire (Col 2:21-23). A man who models submitting his desires to the Lord is far more powerful in the long run, and is lot a less likely to lead to false teaching—because alcohol consumption does not send you to hell.
There will always be people, even in the mission field, who abuse substances. But the solution is never a policy against them. If staff are handling these things incorrectly, refusing them alcohol or tobacco will not solve the problem. It may help the "reputation of the organization" for a brief period of time, but we should be more concerned with the reputation of Christ (and he wasn't worried about these things). We also should be concerned with helping those who are abusing these things to figure out how to use them appropriately. Otherwise we get immature staff who never learn how to properly handle alcohol and tobacco, they return home from the field and go and use them foolishly.
If you want to model appropriate use, do not make a policy against using such things, make a policy encouraging younger staff to learn from older staff. It might be a better idea to make a policy which says your new staff can only partake of these things around seasoned staff for their first year or two until they learn when and how to drink and smoke appropriately. If addiction is the issue you have bigger problems than a policy will solve, and it should begin with a conversation with leadership rather than a set of rules.
If people have messed up, while not fun, it's not the end of the world. One of the best things we can do as missionaries is respond appropriately to our sin. We can demonstrate to locals how we confess our sins, repent, and lean on Jesus.
I always wondered if I would choose to stick around should my organization pass such a policy, and I've heard this is about to happen. I believe too much in what we're doing to give it up just for the freedom to use alcohol and tobacco. But that’s not all that's at stake here. What’s at stake is the preaching of the gospel (and man's ability to misunderstand it), and I’m not sure I’m okay with being subject to such a policy for very long.
I will mourn the loss of the fellowship I have with other missionaries and local pastors over beer and tobacco. I will mourn the loss of opportunity to speak the truth and talk about why a drink will not condemn me, and how I can partake freely because of what Christ did. And I fear the future and our disciples forsaking the gospel for a law they believe we followed. I'm afraid they might end up like a friend of mine who believes the Lord might never forgive him for the tattoo he got on his arm before he became a believer.
But as locals take over our ministries, I realize I want to stick around long enough to help them understand why such policies are not only unhelpful, but actually detrimental to the preaching of the gospel. I want to be there as they run in to this issue, when they wrestle with policy for ministers and missionaries. I want to help them learn what kinds of things are worth spending their time worrying about. And I hope I can convince them that there is an appropriate response to missionary use of alcohol and tobacco.
But new policy isn't it.
*There are lots of organizations I could pick on, but the International Missions Board is the easiest just because of how big they are.`