Many will say, "what's the big deal?" After all, heroes of the faith past and present smoke cigars and pipes recreationally. Charles Spurgeon's love of cigars is so well documented tobacco companies used his name and story to sell them! What's the difference between enjoying tobacco, which is an acceptable drug, and enjoying marijuana, which is on its way to being an acceptable drug? What about the other acceptable "drugs" consumed on a daily basis by faithful men and women across the globe: alcohol and caffeine. If you can consume wine and beer responsibly, can't you do the same with pot? Still others will say, the Bible doesn't say it is wrong or right, and is a decision for each individual to make on their own. Finally, others will respond to this by simply saying, "It's just wrong, you obviously shouldn't smoke pot!" These are honest responses to this question. They also fall short of examining closely the issue at hand and the breadth of scripture.
Before we get into an argument, it's important to clarify what we are pursuing. As believers and followers of Jesus, our goal is just that: to grow in trust and obedience to Jesus. Our actions should be the ones that help us know God more deeply and be conformed to his image. Our question should be, does smoking marijuana help us in our pursuit of holiness? Does marijuana grow our faith, our worship, or missional efforts? Does it hinder us? Or, is it simply neutral? I believe the Scriptures offer us four guiding principles that should influence our decision to "just say no" or smoke. While scripture does not explicitly mention marijuana, it certainly isn’t silent on this issue.
Christians are Called to Submission
The Christian life is synonymous with submission: to Christ as Lord, to one another, to church leadership, and to government authorities. One always wants to take great care to follow first and foremost the law of the Lord rather than manmade laws (cf. Col 2:20-21). However, it is clear from scripture that the Lord intends for man to live in a peaceful, ordered way. Governments and other structures of authority are a normative means through which order is achieved. Authority is not inherently evil. We even see evidence of this in the trinitarian nature of God himself (Mat 26:39). The first of our guiding principles is that the Christian is clearly called to obey the laws of the land in which he lives, the authority structure under which he find himself as a natural result of living in God’s world. When the law of the land explicitly proscribes use of marijuana, even if it is culturally acceptable, the only ethical choice for the follower of Jesus is to submit to the authorities. In this submission you are baring the image of Christ, who submitted fully to the Father and the authorities.
It is the Christian’s duty to obey those in authority over him (Westminster Larger Catechism, 124). In the church-state nexus of the ancient Israelite community, the connection was extremely easy to see between obedience to God and submission to state law. They were one and the same. However, we see similar commands also given in the New Testament, which was written during a time when the situation was quite different. Romans 13:1-7 calls Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities,” and that “those [that] exist have been instituted by God.” This is particularly remarkable considering Paul wrote this in a time when Nero, who was notoriously cruel to Christians, was in power. First Peter 2:13-14 similarly commands, “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Peter goes on to explain that an important part of the life and ministry of the Christian has to do with the way they submit to authority, even in harsh situations involving suffering.
For a Christian who finds himself in the situation in which he is living in a state where use of marijuana is illegal, it would be disobedient to Christ to disobey the law. Disregarding the authority of the local government is disregarding our Lord, Jesus. Most believers would agree with this. But what about the places where it is legal, we can indulge? Is it "to each his own" in Washington and Colorado?
Drunkenness is Unambiguously Prohibited in Scripture
Scientific data in regard to the effects of marijuana on the user are notoriously varied. At times it seems like advocates for marijuana are discussing an altogether different drug than those who oppose it (see Alison Mack and Janet Joy's work for the Institute of Medicine, Marijuana as Medicine? the Science Beyond the Controversy). For the sake of this discussion, we will assume that using marijuana produces an intoxicating effect in the user that is comparable to drunkenness. I acknowledge in advance that this statement is an unfortunate oversimplification, but for the purposes of this article it serves us well. The short scope of this article does not permit an in-depth look into the nuances and effects of various types of marijuana consumption. However, a clear link can be made between the overconsumption of alcohol and drug use. One large difference between the two is that one can consume alcohol without becoming drunk. Recreational marijuana, on the other hand, is used for the explicit purpose of getting “high.” So, we are not comparing marijuana to alcohol, but rather we are comparing marijuana to drunkenness.
Both the Old Testament and New Testament strictly forbid drinking too much or intoxication. Wine is first mentioned in Genesis when Noah produces it after the great flood subsides. In Genesis 9:21 we see Noah’s abuse of alcohol leading to a shameful incident with his son, Ham. Noah then curses Ham, whose son is Canaan, leading to the Canaanite people whose existence is a perpetual burden to the people of God throughout the Old Testament. No explicit imperative against drunkenness is given here, but the arch of the story teaches the powerful lesson that drunkenness leads to profound disobedience and curses. Additionally, throughout the Old Testament, drunkenness is associated with men of ungodly character (Lev 10:1-11; Sam 25:36; 1Kgs 16:9; 20:16). Proverbs 20:1 clearly explains, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.”
In the New Testament Paul repeatedly teaches against drunkenness (1Cor 11:21; Eph 5:18; 1Tim 3:8). In Revelation, drunkenness is typical of the nations that are far from God (Rev 17:2; 18:3). In Galatians 5:19-21, one of the “deeds of the flesh” listed by Paul is sorcery. The Greek word is φαρμακεία, the etymological root of our English word, “pharmacy.” Drugs were often used as part of the spells of those who practiced this kind of sorcery. This sorcery, and drug use, is presented in direct opposition to living according to the fruit of the Spirit.
Apart from merely forbidding drunkenness, the word of God lifts up a certain type of life that is hard to achieve if you are drunk or high. We are called to be “sober-minded” (2Tim 4:5) and able to take care of our families (1Tim 5:8). Marijuana has been shown to stunt brain development, hinder social ambition, and commonly leads to depression and schizophrenia. Living in a fallen world is hard enough. Submitting ourselves to the effects of marijuana make it extremely difficult to simply do good. To contrast this, the Christian is to, “not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it” (Prov 3:27). Submitting oneself to the effects of drunkenness and marijuana make this impossible.
Ultimately we see that, no matter what our situation, the Christian is to live life by walking in the Spirit, controlled by no other substance (Eph 5:18). This is how we are to become the kind of people God has called us to be and you can't do that while being drunk or high.
Physical Health is Connected to Proper Worship
God has called humanity to be stewards of his creation. This includes our bodies. The Christian’s world is not one that is strictly spiritual. Howard A. Snyder explains, “Spirit and matter are not two different worlds...They are interlaced dimensions of the one world God created in its entirely and intends to redeem, save, liberate and heal in its entirety.” Christ came in the flesh in part to rescue and redeem our bodies (Rom 8:23). The Lord is intimately concerned with not only our souls but also with our physical bodies. Therefore, the choices we make with our bodies either honor and worship the Lord, or they do not.
Smoking marijuana leads to thousands of hospitalizations in the US every year. It has been known to cause cancer, cognitive and behavioral impairment, and increased risk of psychosis, among other harmful effects. (You can read more about these studies here). It additionally leads to fatal “drunk” driving car accidents and countless deaths caused by the black market system that is often used to deliver the drugs to users. Thousands of deaths a year are caused globally due to the criminal market for narcotics. While marijuana may not be as addictive as other substances, it has still been shown that 9% of people who try it do in fact become addicted. It has been argued that addiction can divide the self of the Christian and increase the difficulty in the battle against sin in daily life (see Christopher C. H. Cook, Alcohol, Addiction and Christian Ethics). The addictive nature of the drug should raise a red flag for us, especially in light of Paul’s words, “I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Cor 6:12). The Lord, lover and creator of all life, is grieved when any of his people would make decisions that may harm the physical life of himself or others.
In addition to introducing physical harm to the body, smoking marijuana can lead one to idolatry. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own.” In the context of sexual immorality here, he explains that when one sins with his body he commits an act of false worship. He explains the same can be said of the misuse of food in Philippians 3:19 where for some enemies of Christ, “their god is their belly.” Here worship of what one eats is directly opposed to worship of Christ. It is clear that the Lord considers what we do with our bodies an act of worship. This truth, should give the Christian even further cause to abstain.
Is marijuana God’s best design for our bodies? At best, marijuana may harm one’s health, and at worst its use could lead to death and idolatry. We want our existence to be one that honors the Lord our God to the fullest extent. In regard to how we treat our physical bodies, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which it would be normative to needlessly introduce harmful practices and habits like recreational marijuana smoking.
Our Relationships with Others
As worshipers of Jesus, we follow in his example to lay down our lives for the sake of others (John 15:13; Eph 5:25). So, it should not surprise us that scripture recommends we exercise great care and caution in regard to the consumption of all things controversial. This is especially true when relationships with other believers are in view. In such scenarios, the unity of the community and the health of relationships is stressed over and above the personal pleasure of the individual. In Paul’s discourse in Romans 14 we see that we should undoubtedly consider how our consumption of these controversial items might cause a fellow Christian to sin. While one person may be able to smoke in a non-sinful way, seeing him may cause a weaker brother to fall into using marijuana in a sinful way. Consideration of the effect on others must play a role in what a Christian decides to eat, drink, and smoke.
Christians are also called to consider the views and opinions of those who don't believe. We are to love everyone as a neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). As worshipers of the Lord, we are called to represent him to the world. Both the Old and New Testament refers to the people of God as a kingdom of priests (Ex 19; Rev 1:6). This is a high calling and demands a certain amount of examination of our public life. Christ tells us, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mat 5:16). I make no attempt to argue the validity of these associations, but the fact that they exist in the perception of many North Americans is undeniable: marijuana is commonly associated with laziness, lack of ambition, and the shirking of responsibility. We are called to attract people to Christ, not repel them. As a people, we are to “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]” (1Pet 3:15). It is hard to believe that someone would be attracted to our hope while we are under the influence of marijuana. It is perhaps even harder to imagine that while under this influence a Christian would truly be able to make a winsome, compelling defense of this hope. The opinions of others is not the sole factor in our ethical decision-making process, but it is clear, from scripture, that one’s neighbor should be an important element in the equation. Does smoking marijuana, in any meaningful sense, advance the mission of making disciples?
Just Say No
Is anything in the life of the Christian to be lost by, “just saying no?” What does a Christian lose by abstaining from this recreational drug? After taking a genuine look at these four principles, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the Christian could ethically make recreational use of marijuana. If you are still not convinced, I would ask: why is it important to you? If you cannot answer
Using marijuana raises a complex variety of familial, legal, medical, religious, societal, and ethical issues, and this article is far from comprehensive. Certainly more work needs to be done to answer the flow of fresh questions that continues to rush in from those inside and outside the church. For the time being, marijuana is still illegal in most areas in the Unites States, and the Christian is called to fidelity to this governmental authority. The abuse of alcohol, and the ensuing effects, are treated as a great hindrance to the life of the believer throughout Scripture, and it is safe to place marijuana use in this same category. As stewards of our bodies and protectors of life, we should refrain from using any drug that clearly leads to bad health and addiction. And finally, we must remember to consider others greater than ourselves (Phil 2:3). In many cases smoking marijuana will cause the Christian to fall short in his calling to love his neighbors, both inside and outside the church.
The goal of the Christian life is to know, love, and worship our Lord and Savior. As an extension of his own good character, the Lord has graciously given us the Bible so that we would know how to love and worship him. The many questions surrounding marijuana use in the life of the Christian can be boiled down into one simpler issue: “Does doing this help me worship the Lord?” According to the principles listed here, it simply does not.
Joe Congdon is part of a church planting being sent to Tokyo, Japan with Mission to the World. He is finishing his MDiv at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, where he lives with his wife and two kids. When he is not thinking through issues of art, missiology, and theology, he loves spending time at home with his family. Follow their efforts at RestoreJapan.com and on Twitter @JoeToTheWorld