On the morning after the crazy November 2020 election here in the States, several cultural commentators observed that amid all the confusion over who won the presidency, there was no mistaking who won the night: marijuana. Four additional states passed ballot measures to legalize recreational use of pot for adults, and none of the votes were close. Those states included Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota, bringing the total to fifteen. And many remaining states have decriminalized it, showing where the cultural trajectory is headed. Thirty-seven states have legalized medical-use marijuana — something you support, Pastor John, if governed by appropriate physician oversight and prescriptions (as you explained way back in episode 77). But just a decade ago, I believe recreational cannabis was illegal in all fifty states. That is being overturned quickly. And each year this is growing as a bigger and bigger issue for Christians and pastors and parents and churches. Do you have anything new to say as recreational use gains widespread support in red and blue states across our country?
It’s not exactly new, but I do have something I want to say in regard to the fact that ten years ago, recreational cannabis was illegal in all fifty states, whereas this is increasingly not the case today.
And what I want to draw attention to, by way of exhortation and encouragement, even though it may sound pessimistic to some, is that this fact, the legalization of pot, draws attention to something that we need to be aware of and we need to adjust our thinking about — namely, that the church for a long time has leaned too heavily on the overlap between the state and the church for the strength of our conviction concerning what is right and wrong.
“The church leaned, you could say, on the culture for its catechism, its teaching, its inspiration, its conviction.”
In other words, if the state has regarded something as wrong or illegal, then the church hasn’t had to work very hard to teach any deep roots for the conviction or any thorough biblical argumentation or any conviction-strengthening inspiration, because everybody just assumes that the behavior is out of bounds. The state expectations and the cultural mores overlap with Christian ways, and so we can just coast.
Now stop and think of the number of behaviors that were once illegal and are no more.
- Divorce was once illegal.
- Adultery and fornication were illegal.
- Homosexual practices were illegal.
- Indecency was illegal, in such a way that what’s considered acceptable in movies and on beaches today would have been forbidden.
- Sabbath-breaking was illegal.
- Abortion was illegal in every state.
And the list could go on and on.
Catechized by Culture
Now, the point is not that these things should or shouldn’t be illegal. The point is that because they were illegal, the church didn’t have to think very hard or work very hard or teach very deeply or inspire very effectively to inculcate convictions and attitudes and behaviors in our young people or in new converts. We simply could assume that our people wouldn’t do these things because they were taboo and illegal in the culture.
The church leaned, you could say, on the culture for its catechism, its teaching, its inspiration, its conviction. So the church assumed so much overlap between cultural convictions and Christian convictions that you didn’t often hear teaching or preaching that taught the church how to be alien or strange or weird or maligned. And I used the word maligned because that’s the word Peter uses in 1 Peter 4:3–4, when he says,
The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised you do not join them . . . and they malign you.
In other words, for most of American history, there has been so much overlap between cultural mores and outward Christian behaviors that this text in 1 Peter 4 seemed designed for another world — like, “What does that text have to do with anything in America?” For centuries, many Americans would go to church, not in spite of being maligned, but because not to go would be maligned.
Deep Moral Roots
So the so-called Judeo-Christian ethic shaped laws and churches to such an extent that the culture, as much as the church, discipled our young people. I grew up in that world, anyway, when I was a kid. And little effort went into cultivating a mindset that Christians are not of this world but are sojourners and exiles and will be maligned if they walk in step with Jesus. Little effort went into helping Christians sink their moral roots deep into Christ and the gospel and his word and his way, such that we would be able to take a stand for some truth or some attitude or some behavior when no one else is standing with us.
That’s a biblical, spiritual, parental church responsibility that has been significantly neglected. And that neglect is now being exposed by the speed and flagrancy of the cultural normalization of sin. So, the destigmatization and legalization of attitudes and behaviors that are out of step with Christ can be, I think, a roundabout way of something good for the church. We should not have been leaning so heavily on the culture for support of what we held to be right and wrong.
America tried — Christians included — to use the legislature to banish the misuse of alcohol by making alcohol illegal. Prohibition lasted from 1920–1933. It failed. My guess is that a better case could be made today to outlaw alcohol than to outlaw cannabis. Forty percent of all violent crimes involve alcohol, and forty percent of all fatal motor-vehicle accidents involve alcohol. We may find that the legalization of pot puts it in that category, but maybe not. In fact, from what I read, it’s probably not going to work that way. It doesn’t have those same kinds of effects.
My point is this: the focus and the moral energy of the church, the great majority of our effort, should not be on pursuing political and legal and cultural support for behaviors and attitudes we want to see in our children and in our churches. That is a misplaced focus. I’m not saying there’s no role for Christians in politics or legislatures where they can make their case for what they consider to be healthy for society. But I am saying that effort should never, never even come close to being the primary focus of pastors and parents.
“Our primary focus should be to do what only the Bible and only the gospel and only the Holy Spirit can do.”
The primary focus should be to do what only the Bible and only the gospel and only the Holy Spirit and the truth and Jesus can do in transforming human beings into the kind of Christ-exalting, Spirit-dependent, God-glorifying people who freely choose not to use drugs — whether caffeine or alcohol or cannabis or cocaine or meth or heroin — to escape into a world where Christ is less clearly perceived, and the Scriptures are less understood and precious, and the Spirit is less personal, and the glory of God is less satisfying, and the way of righteousness is less defined, and the path of obedience is less compelling. We want Christians who freely reject anything that would put them in that kind of mindset.
To be a Christian, a true Christian, is a very radical thing. It’s a miraculous thing. It’s a supernatural thing. It requires not a little bit of effort while we try to get the world on our side — which, by definition, is never going to happen. It requires the whole focus of the pastoral ministry — evangelizing and preaching and worshiping and counseling and teaching and setting radical examples for the people. It requires focus — Spirit-dependent, Bible-saturated efforts of parents to call down the miracle, through their parenting and through the church, of the creation of young people who are joyfully willing to be out of step with the world.
That’s the message, I think, God is sending us in the destigmatization and normalization and legalization of behaviors and attitudes and drugs that we think are out of step with the gospel. It’s a call to be the church and to be the home.