Of all the things public theology could encompass I never thought I’d feel necessary to address, marijuana is certainly one of them. I always believed it was a rather straightforward issue which would never be challenged. And yet now we live in an age where the recreational use of marijuana is legal in some states in America and some entire countries elsewhere. If culture has shifted to permit it, do Christians need to reassess our perspective?
Yes and no. Culture shifts are always good opportunities to do some theological digging. It’s far easier to engage in dialogue with those around you (and the culture at large) if you know what you’re talking about, if you actually have something to say beyond simply stating your private opinion. That’s one reason I’m writing this today. At the same time, though, I don’t believe the Christian ethic around drug use needs to change. We still say no, and I think that’s the right response, hence the other reason I’m writing: to affirm our position. But let’s consider both sides.
One of my favorite pro-marijuana arguments runs something like this: “God made it and called it good (Genesis 1:11-12). He wouldn’t ban us from using His own plant.” First of all, “Don’t touch that plant” is literally one of the first things God ever said to human beings (Genesis 2:16-17). Second, we can look at other dangerous plants (poison ivy, toxic berries, etc.) as well as those which can be misused (making opium from poppy seeds, etc.) and see that even the plant world was impacted by the Fall. All of creation groans for redemption (Romans 8:19-23). The entire cosmos is marred by sin and the power of Satan. What once was good no longer is.
Another argument is an adaptation of those used in favor of medical marijuana. Medical science has declared it to be beneficial in certain ways, or at least not as generally harmful as typically believed. If that’s true, there’s no scientific reason to prohibit it, people say. I find two key problems here. First is the limited nature of the medical studies themselves, presented by the average person with confirmation bias. Most (not all, but most) using this argument are already in favor of recreational marijuana, so they become quick to point out only those studies supporting their position. Second, and far more troubling to me as a pastor, is the obvious confusion here about the nature of morality. Unpopular Truth Time (UTT ™): morality isn’t relative. It is absolute. That means it doesn’t depend on emerging scientific knowledge to tell it right from wrong. Quite the opposite is true, in fact: morality tells science what it can and cannot do. (As the joke goes, “What do you get when you cross a spider and a duck? Suspension of your grant funding and an investigation by the Ethics Committee.”) Moral absolutes derive from the nature and character of God, which never change; science simply doesn’t get a say in right and wrong.
Next comes an argument from comparison. More people die each year from alcohol-related causes than do people from causes stemming from marijuana usage; ergo, it’s not that bad, and since we accept the greater of two evils, we should accept the lesser one as well. You know what happens when we do that, though? You suddenly have two evils instead of just one. I find that unacceptable. I’d prefer zero of them; none is better than two, but so is one. We failed once in getting rid of the one; let’s not invite in the other as well simply because of that failure.
Finally, there’s the matter of the rule of law. If it’s legal, is must be OK. Here Paul is instructive: “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up” (1 Corinthians 10:23, ESV). Yes, it’s legal in some places — as are a great many many other evils. Much like science, law doesn’t set morality. As John Wesley said concerning slavery, “The grand plea is, ‘They are authorized by law.’ But can law, human law, change the nature of things? Can it turn darkness into light, evil into good? By no means. Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong still.”
What remains to be proven, then, is if in fact using recreational marijuana is morally wrong. It’s not like “Thou shalt not smoke pot” is in the Decalogue. There isn’t a chapter and verse to quote here. So what’s the Christian basis for prohibiting it?
An obvious reason is the physiological impact. “Stoner movies” sell precisely because they showcase (and exaggerate) what happens when you use — how ridiculous you become. You lose touch with a lot of mental faculties (I can personally vouch for a friend who got high and forgot which direction was clockwise). Motor skills go as well, which is why you can get a DUI for driving while stoned and why employers screen for it in drug tests. You are mentally and physically impaired. Anything that has such a deleterious affect is ruled out just by common sense. And in a religion where self-control is a virtue, evidence of God at work in one’s life, it’s unfathomable to imagine something designed to strip that away could ever be considered good.
Christians in particular need to keep a few other things in mind. As a people called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16), we cannot look like the rest of the world. That means both doing things the world would never do (sacrificially loving a neighbor, believing in the authority of the Bible, etc.) and abstaining from things the world considers normal or acceptable (pre-marital sex, recreational marijuana use, etc.). Moreover, we are explicitly commanded to avoid things which might even be merely questionable (Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:22). We preserve our witness for Jesus by avoiding such things. And it’s far more important to reach a soul for Christ than to get high.
Out of love for each other and our God, let us avoid even the appearance of evil. Out of respect for our bodies and God’s absolute morality, let us refrain from recreational marijuana use. Be holy, for He is holy.