With the recreational use of marijuana now legal in Colorado and Washington (and the Obama administration disinclined to enforce federal laws against it), it's only a matter of time before it is completely legal coast to coast to toke up. This is a great opportunity—not to use pot, but to reflect on the true nature of Christian freedom.
We at Christianity Today believe Christians are absolutely free to use marijuana (where legalized). And, when it comes to pot in our particular cultural context, we think it would be foolish to use that freedom.
Those who grew up with unhealthy legalism in their communities need to hear the apostle Paul's message: Strictures about what to consume or not consume are a sign that we are weak in faith, not that we are strong (Rom. 14:1–12). The one whom the Son sets free is free indeed.
So all things are permitted. But not all things are helpful (1 Cor. 6:12). The Christian's freedom is a gift that leads to serving others, with care, attention, skill, and singleness of heart. It's a freedom that willingly sacrifices easy pleasures in order to serve. And by that standard, it's hard to imagine that pot will be helpful any time soon.
Most ethical decisions, certainly those about food and our bodies, are made not in isolation but in the midst of culture and history—in a community of persons, and within a story. Consider alcohol, a toxic substance for which the human liver serves as a poison control center. Alcoholic beverages are part of many cultures, partly because before modern refrigeration, alcohol's toxicity to bacteria made such beverages far safer to drink.
But alcoholic drinks do not function the same way in every culture. If you are Jewish, you are part of a community with a low propensity to alcoholism. And you are blessed with a rich history into which is woven the gift of wine, one of the glories of human beings' cultivation of the world over millennia. If you are Russian, you are part of a community with a devastating, tragic history of addiction to vodka. What is permitted for a Christian in both cases may be the same. But what is helpful may be radically different.
In our North American context, what is the function of pot? It is associated with superficially pleasant disengagement from the world. It connotes a kind of indolence and "tuning out" that is not an option for people who want to become agents of compassion and neighbor love, not to mention its association with all kinds of immaturity. Are these the eternal truths of pot, the only possible way marijuana can be used? No. But these cultural realities are still relevant for the discerning Christian.
Then there is the question of how Christians' use of marijuana would affect those most susceptible to the idolatries of our culture. A great inequality of our time is between those whose affluence provides plentiful buffer zones for indulging in minor vices without major consequences, and those who are most vulnerable to consumer culture at its worst, tempted to depend on substances to numb the pain of lives robbed of dignity and meaningful work.
Why should Christians flaunt their freedom in matters of such grave consequence for the poor? It is hard to imagine a more direct application of Paul's admonition to the Corinthians: "Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak" (1 Cor. 8:9).
Christians despise no created thing. The marijuana plant is a part of a world that was declared good by its Maker every step along the way. But enjoying the world's delights, including its panoply of aromas, flavors, sights, and sounds, must always remain subordinate to image bearing lest it become idolatry. Image bearing involves relationship, so our use and enjoyment of creation should foster relationship. Image bearing invites us to deeper knowledge and mastery of the world, so our use and enjoyment should lead to deeper capacities and competence. Image bearing offers us gifts of attention and skill, the capacity to contribute to "the glory and honor of the nations" (Rev. 21:26).
Is marijuana a cultivated celebration of the created world, one that enhances and sharpens image bearing in all its dimensions? Or does it merely substitute for the consolations and comforts of life lived truly and honestly before God and other people? In our cultural context, the answer seems pretty clear, and the way to true freedom is clear as well.
Andy Crouch is CT executive editor.