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The Ol' Pharmakeia Situation

Submitted by Thinking CAP on Thu, May 13, 2010 - 1:59 am

Today I will take a look at a question sent in by a reader. It will go to the area of the website meant for these issues. But I must say the writer was not attacking me, or us. He, or she, was merely asking me to explain how I would address a particular verse in the Bible. A verse I've heard often before as an attack on the Christians Against Prohibition position. Again, the the writer was courteous, but this reply is included in this section of the website so people who have been less exposed to these issues can find it organized appropriately. That said, here's what was sent to me:

Hi. I wouldn't be surprised if you've gotten this question before, but I'm curious as to how you answer it.

To preface, I am on the fence about the legalization of marijuana, so I don't mean to seem attacking. But in Galations 5:20 there is a list of deeds of the flesh, one of which is sorcery translated from the Greek word, "pharmacea" meaning literally, "drug abuse." Verse 21 states that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. I believe this Greek word appears in other places in the New Testament as well.

What do you say to those who use this as a proof-text that your position is unbiblical and therefore wrong?

Hello __(name omitted)__ !

Tip of the Iceberg Explanation

Thanks for taking the time to write. I will do my best to address your questions, but before I get to your main question I must say that the reasons we wish to legalize marijuana, and all currently illegal drugs, is not because we want folks to run out and try them; but prohibition has made the U.S. the tail NOT the head, we borrow insane amounts of money so we can maintain our wars, as we build up unsustainable debts and legacy costs via law enforcement and incarceration; the planet is being stomped to death ala Daniel 7:7; and prohibition itself is an abysmal failure for a multitude of reasons. According to my own polling, and that of Zogby (read more), 99% of the population will not suddenly decide to run out and try drugs.

The reason for ending these prohibitions is because these prohibitions foment violence, death, destruction, disease, corruption, injustice, hypocrisy and exacerbate every ill the prohibitionists decry. They DO NOT keep drugs out of the hands of kids and teens, in fact it's the opposite; dealers use teens as proxies because if caught, the punishments are much less for kids; it also makes it easier to get other teens to dry drugs if there are teen dealers. And the myriad reasons to end prohibition go on and on, you can find them here at this website as well as many other drug policy reform websites which have far more expertise with facts and figures than I do. See the Explore More section (lower right sidebar).

Government Should Not Promote Specific Religions

The key reason you bring up, assuming the interpretation you have been given is correct (more on that below) is a "moral" reason. Our government should not be in the business of enforcing those kinds of morals on others (what a person chooses to consume); once our government gets in the business of pushing various interpretations of Christian beliefs on others, it opens the door to creating laws for other sects and other religions. And I don't know about you, but I've heard a little about "Sharia law" and I sure don't want it being crammed down my throat; and not only that, but like our own Old and New Testaments, individuals and groups have different interpretations of it. Who is right? I guess we'll find out in the end, but until then, I say we follow our Founding Documents which clearly state the government should not be endorsing, promoting, or preventing us from following our beliefs to the extent they do no physical damage to unwilling others.

More Detailed Analysis

Ok, now to the translation which some say means "drug abuse." Probably the first thing I would say is that not all drug use is drug abuse. Based on the numbers of tonnage of drugs estimated to come in to our country, clearly the majority of people who use drugs do not loose control of themselves and become street people. And that is not an insult to street people, while not all of them have chosen that life-style, some have, and a percentage probably doesn't even do drugs; some are merely outcasts, or victims of physical and/or emotional abuse, or people with psychiatric issues the system has attempted to flush from itself (while ironically more money continues to be spent in unmerciful ways).

It is also worth noting that not all illegal drugs are similar, or substitutable for one another. (You can read more about this in the excellent book published by Consumer Union, Licit and Illicit Drugs.)

We know that not all use is abuse through many passages in the scripture, including some attributed to Paul where he recommends wine, as did a Psalmist, and even Moses. Not everyone who drinks alcohol is a drunkard or drinks to get drunk.

To me, I take Jesus' words as more powerful than Paul's. And if you read Revelation 22:15 you will find his "short list" of who does not get in his city of gold, "outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood." I must admit that even though there is a very stern warning just a few verses away in 18 and 19:

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."

I have heard preachers add to the list Jesus gave; and what was added? "Drugs." So clearly these ministers are playing with fire, misleading others, and doing themselves an eternal disservice.

Even More Rolling-Up-the-Sleeves Analysis

I am not a Greek scholar, so I turn to others for such matters. As part of life I must trust others. So let's take a look at that passage in a number of English translations. For people who would like to read the whole chapter: Galatians 5. Here is a larger section of Galatians, 5:14-26:

New International Version (NIV)

The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Now let's see how other versions translate verse 20:
King James Version (KJV)

Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,

New King James Version (NKJV)

idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies,

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions,

Young's Literal Translation (YLT)

idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, strifes, emulations, wraths, rivalries, dissensions, sects,

Wycliffe New Testament (YWC)

service of false gods [serving to idols, or false gods], witchcrafts, enmities, strivings [strives], indignations, wraths, chidings, dissensions, sects [sects, or heresies],

Worldwide English (WE)

They worship idols. They use witch-power. They hate. They quarrel. They are jealous. They get angry. They want their own way. They do not agree together and they join different groups against each other.

So clearly, in the above sampling of scripture — some of them held in high regard and not just the work of one translator but dozens of scholars — do not interpret the word you (um, others ;-) refer to as "drug abuse" or even "drug use." In fact I have yet to see any version of the Bible which does not use either "witchcraft" or "sorcery," none of them refer to drugs. And for over 15 years I've heard people bring up the issue you raise.

Digging Down to Rock

Why do people claim pharmakeia is "drug abuse?" My first sense is, as often happens, people who disliked some aspect of others, searched the Bible for any hint to condemn them or trap them*, and finding nothing, they turned to older texts with foreign words which have multiple meanings.

* We see this happened to Jesus on a number of occasions. And of course he also warned us, "if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." [John 15:20]

Speaking of multiple meanings, Wikipedia has an entry for "Pharmakeia"

Pharmakeia is a Greek word that appears several times in the New Testament, including the Epistle to the Galatians and the Book of Revelation. It is frequently translated as "witchcraft" or "sorcery."

There is one footnote which takes us to a website called "Blue Letter Bible" which has a lexicon of Greek words in the Bible. I know of two lexicons and they both agree (same root source perhaps):

There are 4 possible definitions which the translators could have chosen from:

  1. the use or the administering of drugs
  2. poisoning
  3. sorcery, magical arts, often found in connection with idolatry and fostered by it
  4. metaphor- the deceptions and seductions of idolatry

As noted above, the multitude of scholars over the years have chosen the definition they understood to be the most accurate. They did not choose the others.

I too could try to pull a stunt and go with a definition of a word which the speaker did not intend, and I do at times, or I will make up a pun of my own, but it's for laughs, NOT to assign shame.

Again, as noted above, Paul (among other Bible notables) recommends wine. As a gentle gladdener of the heart, or even, as Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:23, "Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses." Which is obviously a pharmacological recommendation.

I hope that clears things up for you! :-)

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Jesus Ain't No Thug Addict

Keep in mind that Jesus was not into forcing his will on others, and he did not instruct his disciples to either. In fact Jesus left the Decapolis because the people there didn't want him there. [Mark 5:1-20] He turned the other cheek. Two of his disciples were angry once and asked if they should call down fire on the "bad" town. Jesus became quite upset at them for thinking they should punish them. [Luke 9:51-56] And last, for now, but not least, Jesus gave us clear instructions on how we're to handle people who do not worship and believe like we do, or otherwise sin against us. 1) approach them in private and explain the matter to them 2) if they still won't change, then you can bring one or two others, and have another conversation 3) finally, bring the matter up for the whole church to hear, if the person still refuses to change, then simply ignore them; no stoning, no incarceration. [Matthew 18:15-17]

Now to feed you something which I hope you are ready for. You are right that people point to that one passage and use that to say the Christians Against Prohibition, and other drug policy reform organizations', stance is unbiblical; but I just disproved that. And, I say there are hundreds of other pieces of scripture which support our stance as biblical. For a growing list of passages from the Bible see the section under Quotes: "Biblical." There is also a decent gathering of scripture in the strongly titled analysis, The Evil Lie Purporting That Marijuana is "Devil's Weed."

On that page it's important to note the "last but not least" section, the parable of the servants entrusted with the wealth of the master. Specifically in Matthew 25:24-26, Jesus teaches us that God harvests where he did not sew and gathers where he has not scattered seed. So even if God did not make the marijuana plant, God has redeemed it and given it to those of us who worship God.

Over the years I myself have known more than a few Bible-reading, God-loving, church-going, suit-wearing Christians who smoked marijuana. I mean them no insult, but I would call them just average folks. To some it was not so much a sacred event, more like having a beer and BBQ with friends, compared to drinking wine during communion. But to others it very much was a religious experience and used to facilitate prayer, writing, reading, good acts, etc… and general communion with God.

Am I saying every Christian should grow plants and partake? No. The world is a big place, many Christians already do, perhaps some should start, perhaps some never should, it is not my decision, it's theirs. The worst "withdrawal symptom" I've ever witnessed is the cursing of the government and politicians for making and keeping it illegal.

Paul Again, A Prophecy for Our Time

Last but not least, these prohibitions were prophesied by Paul in one of his letters to Timothy. He very clearly stated that everything God made is good, there are certain foods God made which benefit believers, and they are not to be rejected. In that same passage he also states that hypocritical lairs with nary a conscience would forbid us access to them, and worse! (Yes, deceiving spirits and things taught by demons, like imprisonment, shaming, death, etc… many of the fruits of the Drug War Tree.)

Thanks again for taking the time to write!

I did receive a reply from the person who asked the question. However, it kind of seems like what I wrote was ignored. More questions were asked; however, I have a number of other pressing matters on my mind. I will get around to addressing them in the same manner as above. Perhaps that will give the questioner more time to become acquainted with the multitude of reasons to end prohibition.

As a gospel Pastor I have experienced a turnaround in my view of prohibition. I used to preach pharmekia as the use of recreational drugs. However this interpretation is faulty. Strongs Greek dictionary says that pharmakeia was the administering of drugs for the specific purpose of engaging in occult practices, also the art of poison making.

The best way to understand the definition of ancient greek words is to study them in the extra biblical literature which was contemporary to the holy scriptures. No where has any ancient text been uncovered that uses the term pharmakeia to represent the recreational use of drugs especially naturally occurring herbs. On the contrary there are several writings of secular sources as well as the early church fathers who use the word pharmakeia strictly in the context of the sorcerers who mixed poisons for the purpose of inducing abortion for women who so desired.

See the following link

Now there is an argument to made about extending the biblical command of sobriety to include not only alcohol but also any substance that produces an altered mind. Especially those things which tend towards addiction. For instance, The British Journal of medicine, Lancet established that wine is more addictive than marijuana. Yet the bible does not prohibit wine. Our laws do not prohibit wine. They once did, with disastrous effect. Do men need to be delivered from alcohol addiction? Many do. And for them we must focus on a cure. Are there those who are able to responsibly use alcohol without sinning? Many more do. Have we learned as a society that alcohol prohibition makes a problem better or worse?

One of the great overarching themes of the bible is that no man is justified before God through the law, i.e. the law cannot save us from sin and bondage. If the law of the all wise Creator was found to be weak in that sin taking occasion by the law springs up and produces death in us, how then can we meager and foolish humans ever expect to devise a law effective in cleansing drug addiction from our land? If the very law of God had to be put aside so that we could be saved by the healing grace of Jesus Christ, should we not concede that our current prohibition is far more deleterious. (Romans 7:8-11) It proves the scripture right in that the opportunity afforded by the law has only exacerbated the problem. Drug gangs, violence, the corruption of the legal system through false accusation, false imprisonment in corporate correctional warehouses, violation of civil rights, racial disparity in sentencing and an ever growing police state can all be laid at the feet of the war on drugs.

Over 60% of the prison population are there on drug possession alone. Imagine letting them all go and focusing the tax dollars used to incarcerate millions every year and instead solve the 6000 uncleared murders every year as well as educating the public on the health risks and treatment options available free of charge thanks to a drastically lower police and prison budget. The war on drugs is a device of Satan and he has been running it successfully for 70 years.
If the Church wants to bring healing to the drug addicts we need to advocate the end of prohibition.

The key problem, as I see it (and I think you allude to) is people who think they are right, so right that they must force their personal views about personal choices on others. And if those others do not agree with them, then they take the law in to their own hands, creating laws as a means to force their wills on others.

If the Church wants to bring healing to the drug addicts we need to advocate the end of prohibition.
So true. And due to this, "The war on drugs is a device of Satan…" the church needs to realize it's been lied to ad-nauseam about drugs. (The Analyzing Drugs section is an attempt to shatter a few myths.)

But to address your plea for help for alcoholics, I've been told that various people in Alcoholics Anonymous have found marijuana to be the proverbial godsend. In fact, marijuana and even another "Schedule 1" drug (ibogaine) have been used to help people off opioids (think heroin, Oxycontin, etc…).

I have a new comment for this after re-reading Revelation 21.

The people who attack us “legalizers” and attack those who use drugs and say it’s a practice of witchcraft are wrong.

Do some people who take drugs practice witchcraft? Probably. But clearly “taking drugs” does not cause one to practice witchcraft.

No, the condemnation of “Pharmakeia” or “witchcraft” merely requires a little bit of thought as to what it’s about.

And what are witches famous for? Mostly it’s about controlling others! Either forcing their own personal will on others, or taking money from some jerk who demands to control someone else!

Of course this all relates to everything I’ve written before, including my earliest publication here, “We Love Religion, But Not Forcing It On Others!”