How Have American Churches Responded to Marijuana Use?

Brandon C. Benziger is a recent graduate of Fresno Pacific University and Denver Seminary, currently serving as Biblical Integration and Curriculum Development Manager at Sevenstar Academy, LLC.

In this installment of our series on marijuana use, we survey the various responses of American Christians, churches, parachurch ministries, and denominations to the legalization of marijuana—both medical and recreational. How, for example, have churches in America dealt with marijuana use? What views have they espoused in the debate, and what political measures have they taken?

Most churches, especially most evangelical churches, I would venture to guess, have never officially or publically addressed the issue—or else have mentioned it only in passing in sermons, small groups, counseling sessions, and Sunday School lessons. As can be demonstrated in a brief google search, though, a few, at least, have addressed the issue in church-sponsored blog posts and e-publications (for example, Xenos Christian Fellowship of Columbus, OH; Life Bridge Church of Taylor, MI; and Mars Hill Church of Seattle, WA).[1] If the issue has been somewhat taboo in American culture at large, then it certainly has been in our churches—if not even more so.

Not surprisingly, the issue seems to have received more attention on blog sites and parachurch ministry platforms than in the pulpit. A search for “marijuana” on The Gospel Coalition’s website, for example, yields several articles, as it does for Patheos, Desiring God, and Evangelicals for Social Action.[2] Notably, many of these articles are written by influential church leaders, such as John Piper, Joe Carter, and Benjamin L. Corey.[3] While Piper and Carter are conservative evangelicals who oppose the legalization of recreational marijuana use, Corey identifies with the progressive Emerging Church movement and endorses the full legalization of marijuana use—both medicinal and recreational.[4]

Strikingly, according to Jonathan Merritt, evangelicals such as Piper and Carter have been “long considered to be among the country’s strongest anti-pot advocates.”[5] But it isn’t only evangelical leaders who have opposed decriminalization. Many evangelicals, Merritt says, “have opposed legalizing weed since at least the Reagan administration [1981–1989].” At the same time, however, “[t]he war on drugs, a cornerstone issue of the culture wars during the 1980s and 1990s, had all but flickered out in recent years. Americans, including religious ones, have been more focused on the economy, terrorism, and other social issues of late.” This suggests that opposition to legalization was dormant to some extent between the late 1990s and 2012, when the states of Washington and Colorado legalized the recreational use of cannabis.

In addition to individual church leaders and American evangelicals, the issue has received official attention at the denominational level as well. According to Lisa Jacks, in an article featured in Newsmax, specific denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church have all made statements in support of medical marijuana use.[6] In fact, the Episcopal Church may have been one of the first to do so, having officially supported medical marijuana use since 1982. In that year, “the Episcopalians passed a resolution regarding policy impacting the use of the substance that, in part, ‘urges the adoption by Congress and all states of statutes providing that the use of marijuana be permitted when deemed medically appropriate by duly licensed medical practitioners.’” However, as Jacks notes, such support does not imply a support of recreational use. “In fact, the Methodist Church considers it to be a gateway drug, and the Episcopal[ian]s say it can be disabling — the Presbyterians are not as strict, but do believe marijuana can lead to drug abuse.”

Other denominations and parachurch ministries, however, have rejected the use of the drug altogether, even for medical purposes. These include Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.[7] Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, for example, has been a major opponent against legalization.[8]

The Seventh-Day Adventist movement is less consensual. According to an article in Adventist Today,

The Adventist movement from its earliest days has taken a position against the use of alcohol and tobacco, which are common practices in many cultures. The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, in the chapter on church standards of behavior (page 140, 2010 edition) states, ‘we abstain from all forms of alcohol, tobacco, and addictive drugs.’ This is part of the commitment that each person makes when they are baptized into membership. In the chapter on ‘Discipline,’ among the 13 items for which a member may be kicked out or put under censure is ‘The use or manufacture of illicit drugs or the misuse of, or trafficking in, narcotics or other drugs.’[9]

While this statement was crafted in the 1930s, the recent legalization of medicinal marijuana in multiple U.S. states has challenged its aptness for the twenty-first century. A variety of Adventist pastors, for instance, have recently claimed that medical uses of marijuana do not warrant church discipline or even oversight. “‘There is basically no biblical reference to this issue,’ said one pastor from a state where medical marijuana is legal. ‘People make these things religious [issues], when in reality, they are not.’ It is ‘only the opinions of people who need to draw lines and make boxes.’”[10]

Still other churches, especially of a syncretistic nature, have embraced marijuana use, even using pot in their religious services and making it a central part of their identity. Two examples suffice: (1) Coachella Valley Church in San Jose, CA, which self-identifies with Rastafarianism (a political and religious movement combining elements of Christianity, pan-Africanism, and mysticism); and (2) the International Church of Cannabis in Denver, CO, which exists “to offer a home to adults everywhere who are looking to create the best version of themselves by way of the sacred plant.”[11] What is striking here is not only how audacious these “churches” are, but how many there are. According to Barbara Feder Ostrov, “As more states ease access to marijuana, churches that offer pot as a sacrament are proliferating, competing with medical marijuana dispensaries and pot shops in the few states that have legalized recreational weed. While some claim Rastafari affiliation, others link themselves to Native American religious traditions.”[12] Accordingly, she goes on to list a variety of other so-called “Marijuana churches” in Indiana, Michigan, and California. “Marijuana churches,” Feder Ostrov adds, “typically require people to purchase a membership, then give or sell them marijuana and related products. They may ask for ID such as a driver’s license but don’t require a doctor’s recommendation or medical marijuana identification card.”[13]

[1] See Jim Leffel, “What about Medical Marijuana?,” Xenos Christian Fellowship, https://www.xenos.org/essays/what-about-medical-marijuana; Grant Agler, “A Biblical Perspective on Legalizing Weed,” Life Bridge Church, https://thelifebridgechurch.com/bible-weed/; Mark Driscoll, Puff or Pass: Should Christians Smoke Pot or Not? (N.p.: Mars Hill Church, 2012), accessible at http://s3.amazonaws.com/churchplantmedia-cms/bethany_baptist_church/puff-or-pass_marijuana.pdf. All access dates for websites in this post are as of February 13, 2018.

[2] See, e.g., Joe Carter, “Is Recreational Marijuana Use a Sin?,” The Gospel Coalition, January 6, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/is-recreational-marijuana-use-a-sin/; John Piper, “Don’t Let Your Mind Go to Pot,” Desiring God, January 9, 2014, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/don-t-let-your-mind-go-to-pot; Roger Dowis, “The Legalization of Marijuana: What Christians Should Know,” Evangelicals for Social Action, October 15, 2014, http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/the-legalization-of-marijuana-what-christians-should-know/.

[3] Note also Can I Smoke Pot? Marijuana in Light of Scripture (Minneapolis: Cruciform Press, 2016), which is coauthored by Tom Breeden, Assistant Pastor at Grace Community Church of Charlottesville, VA, and Mark L. Ward Jr., a Logos Bible Software Pro at Faithlife in Bellingham, WA.

[4] Benjamin L. Corey, “Jesus Created Marijuana, and It Should Be Legal,” Patheos, September 8, 2016, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/jesus-created-marijuana-and-it-should-be-legal/.

[5] Jonathan Merritt, “What Evangelicals Miss in the Marijuana Debate,” Religion News Service, January 27, 2014, http://religionnews.com/2014/01/27/evangelicals-missing-marijuana-debate/. All quotes in this paragraph are from Merritt’s article here.

[6] Lisa Jacks, “Christian Denominations with Most Conservative Stance on Legalizing Marijuana,” Newsmax, May 6, 2015, https://www.newsmax.com/FastFeatures/christian-legalizing-marijuana/2015/05/06/id/643072/. All quotes in this paragraph are from Jacks’s article.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alexander Griswold, “Moore on Marijuana: Southern Baptist Thinker Rejects Legalization,” Juicy Ecumenism, January 25, 2014, https://juicyecumenism.com/2014/01/25/moore-on-medical-marijuana-southern-baptist-thinker-rejects-legalization/.

[9] Monte Sahlin, “How Adventists Are Responding to Legalization of Marijuana in the U.S.,” Adventist Today, January 22, 2014, https://atoday.org/how-adventists-are-responding-to-legalization-of-marijuana-in-the-u-s/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] International Church of Cannabis, “About Us,” Elevationists, https://www.elevationists.org/about, s.v. “Our Mission.” Cf. Jacey Fortin, “Marijuana on Religious Grounds? A Cannabis Church Opens in Denver,” New York Times, April 20, 2017,
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/20/us/international-church-cannabis.html.

[12] See Barbara Feder Ostrov, “At ‘Pot Churches,’ Marijuana Is the Sacrament,” USA Today, December 22, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/12/22/high-praise-pot-churches-proliferate-states-ease-access-marijuana/971871001/.

[13] Ibid.

For Further Reading

Galanter, Marc, and Linda Glickman. “Substance Use Disorders and Spirituality.” In Religious and Spiritual Issues in Psychiatric Diagnosis: A Research Agenda for DSM-V, edited by John R. Peteet, Francis G. Lu, and William E. Narrow, 61–72. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association, 2011.

Geiger, Abigail. “About Six-in-Ten Americans Support Marijuana Legalization.” Pew Research Center, January 5, 2018. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/05/americans-support-marijuana-legalization/.

Jacks, Lisa. “Christian Denominations with Most Conservative Stance on Legalizing Marijuana.” Newsmax, May 6, 2015. https://www.newsmax.com/FastFeatures/christian-legalizing-marijuana/2015/05/06/id/643072/.

Jones, Robert P., Daniel Cox, and Juhem Navarro-Rivera. “General Public, Christian Young Adults Divided on Marijuana Legalization.” Public Religion Research Institute, April 25, 2013. http://www.prri.org/research/april-2013-prri-rns-survey/.

Thomas, Charles. “Detailed Analyses of Religious Groups’ Divergent Positions on Marijuana.” In Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition, edited by Mitch Earleywine, 247–80. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

———. “How in God’s Name Do We Reform Our Marijuana Laws?” In Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition, edited by Mitch Earleywine, 228–46. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

About the Author
Brandon C. Benziger is a recent graduate of Fresno Pacific University and Denver Seminary, currently serving as Biblical Integration and Curriculum Development Manager at Sevenstar Academy, LLC.

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