As I Was Saying

A Theological Consideration of Cannabis

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

Recently Canada entered the brave new world of legal marijuana. It is now legal across Canada, along with a few American states, to purchase, possess, and consume cannabis for recreational use. What this new world requires is a practical, Proverbs-like theological wisdom and discernment. It’s a complex matter that isn’t served well by easy oversimplifications like coloring cannabis with starkly black-and-white moral categories or framing it around license. What, then, is a Christian’s relationship to legal weed?

The legal status of marijuana does not imply a holy permission. Gambling is legal, and so is pornography, along with a host of other things a Christian rightly avoids. While Christians honor the governments and laws of a given country, they don’t take those laws as the high-water mark of holy living or social righteousness. As citizens of God’s kingdom, Christians are called to another ethic.

This makes Christians alert for larger realities at play. It would be naive to ignore powers released in legalization, say, the economic forces behind the commercialization of cannabis or the market dynamics that seek to increase cannabis usage by current users and also increase the market of new users.

Therefore, Christians seek out various lines of sight into the matter of legal pot. For example, Christians care about matters of justice and might urge pardons for those with criminal records for previous marijuana possessions. Christians value science and take note when medical doctors and cannabis researchers urge a greater caution due to the significant physical and mental health risks, adverse effects associated with the use of cannabis, and evidentiary uncertainty. They also seek protection for the young and vulnerable and are troubled by data from other places of legalized marijuana where use among 12- to 17-year-olds has increased during legalization.

Of course this doesn’t mean Christians stand opposed to all things cannabis. For example, they are moved by compassion at the plight and needs of hurting people. Understanding that some individuals suffering from terminal illness or chronic disease may find relief with cannabis may lead them to favor regulated access to medicinal cannabis. Christians also affirm the goodness of all created things, including the marijuana plant. As stewards of creation we, therefore, remain open to researching and cultivating the benefits of cannabis. This remains a fraught matter of discernment because a created good can easily be distorted and misdirected in its use, as can happen, for instance, with alcohol.

Alcohol is often raised as an equivalent comparison to marijuana. Since many Christians accept alcohol use, would a Christian approach to legal pot be similar to alcohol? There are both similarities and dissimilarities to consider. The Bible has a “yes and no” perspective on alcohol, recognizing its capacity to “gladden the heart,” seeing in it a sign of God’s kingdom joy, with Jesus himself turning water into wine to extend a wedding party.

Yet while affirming alcohol, Scripture stands decidedly against drunkenness, acknowledging the harmful effects and decisions that flow from intoxication. Impairment through substances compromises our agency as image-bearers of God, inhibiting our responsibility and capacity to wisely steward and soberly reign over all creation. One of the benefits this current cannabis cultural moment provides the imbibing Christian is the opportunity to reconsider their relationship to alcohol. Have we overreacted to prior legalistic prohibitions towards alcohol by embracing happy hour and uncritically lifting up one too many glasses?

The biblical distinction between an affirmation of alcohol as a created good and its misuse in drunkenness as a moral wrong is where a dissimilarity from cannabis emerges. While most people can enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail and not get drunk, marijuana’s general efficacy is a psychotropic “high” of altered mental state and perception. At minimum, it’s significant to note that the cannabis culture surrounding marijuana in the West is one dedicated to attaining a high.

Such cultural and contextual discernment is part of the needed wisdom today. Biblical injunctions against drunkenness emerge from the context of ancient bacchanalian Roman cultural practices and behaviors that shaped a lifestyle out of sync with godly image-bearing. The gospel alternative was one of self-control and clear-headed sobriety. We should ask, then, how is pot understood and celebrated in our Western culture? Legalization is a culturally legitimating act, so what is being legitimized? Cannabis culture celebrates a disengaged tuning out of the difficulties of life and is often marked by an immature shiftlessness or idleness. The gospel certainly directs a Christian away from the life and practices of such a culture.

We also do well to ask why our culture is so vigorously embracing recreational marijuana. What is the enthusiasm behind gummy edibles or THC drinks that make the high of cannabis even more readily accessible and acceptable to wider audiences? What existential void or spiritual vacuum is our culture seeking to fill with the altered-state experiences of cannabis?

In this discernment, it is important to clearly declare that Christians are free to consume cannabis where it is legal. The gospel’s scandalous sweep of freedom declares that all things are permitted; yet the gospel’s accompanying wisdom asks insistently about the direction and use of that freedom, declaring that not all things are beneficial. Christian freedom is not unfettered liberty but always in service of God and neighbor. Serious reflection on a Christian’s relationship to cannabis consumption must ask: How does this benefit my neighbour, physically and spiritually?

This Christian call to neighbor love is an important rejoinder to the hazy notion that marijuana consumption is a harmless activity that affects no one else. We are created as social beings, with lives that are profoundly interconnected. Christians confess a countercultural truth: we are not our own but belong, body and soul, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has set us free from sin, restoring our humanity as image-bearers of God, and so sets us free to wholeheartedly live for him and our neighbor.

Which means that a Christian will regularly wonder: does cannabis help me to better love and serve God and my neighbor? How might cannabis use impact my teenage neighbor who struggles with a lousy self-image and the burden of peer pressure? How might my free use of cannabis harm those prone or vulnerable to substance dependencies, or those who feel stripped of dignity and already inclined to seek any form of solace to numb their pain? Wouldn’t they be better served by working hard to improve the poverty, unemployment, anxiety, dysfunction and loneliness that afflicts instead of offering a cheap substitute solace?

The big question for a Christian is, does cannabis use promote engaged responsible image-bearing and compassionate neighbour love? In that light, the decision to not use cannabis comes clear.

A Christian witness in this cultural moment—pushed further to the margins of post-Christian culture—will look very much like it has in previous eras and cultures: peculiar. It will be to live as a countercultural community of disciplined freedom, patient neighbor love for a broken world, and hopeful obedience to God. It will offer to all the substitute cannabis consolations a compelling reality of human flourishing in a disciplined and joyful alternative community under the Lord of all things—including cannabis—Jesus Christ.

About the Author

Phil Reinders is the senior minister at Knox Presbyterian Church in downtown Toronto, Ont. He is the author of the prayer book Seeking God's Face and blogs at squinch.net.

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Comments

Excellent article that's deals directly with the many nuances involved.  Thanks ...

Thanks, Phil, for giving Christians the legal basis for enjoying cannabis, but not the moral or spiritual basis.  In fact the moral and Christian teaching seems to be that Christians should avoid its use.  I don’t see anything unique to the use of cannabis for the Christian (according to your scenario) than engaging in any other sin.  You say, “Wouldn’t they (Christians) be better served by working hard to improve the poverty, unemployment, anxiety, dysfunction and loneliness that afflicts instead of offering a cheap substitute solace? The big question for a Christian is, does cannabis use promote engaged responsible image-bearing and compassionate neighbour love? In that light, the decision to not use cannabis comes clear.”  How is using cannabis any different than buying a Cadillac or a BMW instead of a used Ford so you can help those in poverty, or owning a cottage up north, or over indulging in eating.  The list can go on as to the ways a number of sins that Christians regularly commit do not “promote engaged responsible image bearing and compassionate neigbour love.”  Aren’t these simply a cheap substitute solice?
So if the Christian must ask how do my actions benefit my neighbor, physically and spiritually, then how does my BMW or Mercedes, my overeating, my materialism, my cottage, or garage full of toys benefit my neighbor.  It seems as though you could find more serious sins to go after than cannabis use.
So why not simply say that cannabis use that is not medicinal is sin.  Recreational use of cannibis, like recreational use of alcohol, is sin.  You’re just trying to justify the recreational use of alcohol by saying it is ok to gladden the heart with alcohol, but not with cannibis.  A moderate use of cannabis is no more dangerous than the moderate use of alcohol.  And if your heart is gladdened when using alcohol, be smart enough not to drive your car or there is a strong likelihood that you will get a ticket if stopped by a police officer. 
And, of course, none of this applies to the non Christian who does not see cannabis use any more of a sin than alcohol use.   But thanks Phil for your insight.

Another consideration is the effects of keeping marijuana illegal knowing that it will continue to be used illegally, as it is now. There are many factors that come in to play such as: the impacts of availability on a black market, which include increased violence and incarceration disproportionally affecting those who are already marginalized in our culture; the inability to protect users in any way or regulate the substance; and missing out on the tax revenue that could be appropriated for good purposes.

It's not an easy issue to decide - good to see some thoughtful domments - thanks for posting.

Mr. Renders,

The only answer is this:

A Christian, unless because of a known medical issue, should NEVER use marijane in ANY way. Marijuana is NOT like alcohol in any shape or form. There has been nobody I know or ask the question to who does NOT get buzzed off of 2 tokes minimum unless it's oregano. Therefore, any form of 'buzz-likeness' is NOT of sobermind. Therefore, a drunkard.

This isn't rocket science.

Phil, I have to comment further on your justification for the Christian use of alcohol.  It’s a very fine line between your “yes and no” to alcohol.  You say, “The Bible has a “yes and no” perspective on alcohol, recognizing its capacity to “gladden the heart,” seeing in it a sign of God’s kingdom joy, with Jesus himself turning water into wine to extend a wedding party.”  I think you are pushing Scripture to say more than what was intended.  Be that as it may, how do you determine a gladdened heart from stepping over into overindulgence - one, two, or three drinks?  It’s ok to be gladdened by alcohol, but what do you tell the cop who pulls you over for running a stop sign?  “It’s ok officer, I only had one or two drinks and we were just expressing our Christian joy.”   What do you tell your church when you get a ticket for DUI and possibly lose your driver’s license?
Also your distinction between alcohol and cannabis is faulty.  Both are intoxicants and psychoactive drugs and as such they alter reality. And the fact that the body is unable to metabolize alcohol as quickly as it is consumed leaves the user in a state of gladness before he actually becomes drunk.  So the user may have two glasses of wine and feel a joy in Christ before he actually loses complete control of himself/herself and is actually drunk.  I think you are using faulty reasoning in this article.  If alcohol use is permitted by Scripture, so would the use of cannabis be permitted.  All things in moderation.
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