Should a Christian use medicinal drugs that may affect the mind?
The Bible teaches Christians to be sound of mind. "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (I Peter 5:8). The Greek word translated as "sober" is nepho, which literally means "drink no wine." From this, it derived a broader meaning being self-controlled, free of confusion, clear-headed, sound of mind, or keeping your head.
Because of this, Christians are to avoid intoxicants that cloud clear thinking. For example, alcohol is a depressant, which can lower a person's inhibitions. Hosea links the use of alcohol with fornication. "Their drink is rebellion, they commit harlotry continually. Her rulers dearly love dishonor" (Hosea 4:18). Habakkuk warns, "Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, who mix in your venom even to make them drunk so as to look on their nakedness!" (Habakkuk 2:15). The reference to "mix in your venom" is the ancient practice of adding herbs (or drugs) to wine to make its intoxicating effects more potent. Christians have a hard enough time battling temptations with making Satan's job easier by taking drugs that alter one's judgment and self-control.
Drug abuse was also closely associated with witchcraft and sorcery. The Greek word pharmakeia literally means "to administer drugs." As with our English word "drugs," the context must be considered to determine the meaning. If I say, "He is using drugs to control his cancer" we understand that it is for medicinal purposes. However, if I say, "He is using drugs at parties" we understand that it is recreational usage or drug abuse that is being considered. According to Vine, pharmakeia "primarily signified 'the use of medicine, drugs, spells'; then 'poisoning'; then, 'sorcery.' In other words, pharmakeia has a range of meanings depending on the context. Strong indicates the same thing: "medication, by extension magic, literally or figuratively, sorcery, witchcraft."
Many drugs give the user highs and hallucinations so that reality is muffled and confused. Without the knowledge of what was involved, magical things would appear to happen. In more current times, the voodooism of the West Indies is one where the use of drugs is strongly tied to supposed magical practices. Since witchcraft is clearly condemned (see Deuteronomy 18:9-12), the paraphernalia supporting this industry is also condemned. Each use of the word pharmakeia in the New Testament is used in a negative sense (Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 9:20-21; 21:8; 22:15). Hence, the translators chose "sorcery" as the meaning, though it could just as easily have been translated as "drug abuse."
Because pharmakeia can also be used to refer to medicinal drugs, some incorrectly jump to the conclusion that condemnation of pharmakeia condemns all its various meanings, including medicine. One man wrote that the "assessment of sorcery being any form of magic arts is correct, but to dismiss the use of drugs and not include them as being a form of magic arts is not correct. Legally prescribed pharmaceutical drugs must be a form of pharmakeia (sorcery), or else word definitions are meaningless."
The flaw in the man's reasoning is the assumption that if a word can have a particular meaning, then it must include that meaning in all uses. To disprove this, let's consider the word zelos, which is defined by Thayer as:
- Excitement of mind, ardor, fervor of spirit
- zeal, ardor in embracing, pursuing, defending anything
- zeal in behalf of, for a person or thing
- the fierceness of indignation, punitive zeal
- An envious and contentious rivalry, jealousy
Now when Paul used this word in II Corinthians 9:2 saying, "for I know your willingness, about which I boast of you to the Macedonians, that Achaia was ready a year ago; and your zeal has stirred up the majority," is it proper to conclude that Paul meant all meanings of zelos when he praised the Corinthian's zeal? Or when we read "But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul" in Acts 13:45 that the primary meaning, which includes "defending anything" is meant in this passage? Of course not! A word can have different meanings due to its usage. Some words can even have contradictory meanings, such as the English word "cleave." We understand this to be true in our everyday conversations.
Therefore, we cannot jump to the conclusion that condemnation of pharmakeia includes its meaning of medicinal drugs without further research in the Scriptures.
As we look through the Bible, we do find references to medicinal products. People were employed as physicians or healers (Exodus 21:19; II Kings 8:29; Ecclesiastes 3:3; Jeremiah 8:22; Ezekiel 34:4; Matthew 9:12; Colossians 4:14). Oils and ointments were used to treat wounds (Isaiah 1:6; Jeremiah 8:22; 51:8; Luke 10:33-34; James 5:14). Binding, bandaging and splinting were practiced (Isaiah 1:6; Ezekiel 30:21). Herbs were used to encourage healing (Proverbs 17:22; Jeremiah 30:12-13; 51:8; Ezekiel 47:12). They used painkillers (Mark 15:23). Wine was used for wounds and stomach ailments (Luke 10:34; I Timothy 5:23). All these verses show that doctors and medicines are not necessarily viewed negatively; they could not be included in the consistently negative reference to pharmakeia.
The question, though, specifically deals with medicinal products designed to affect the mind. There are diseases whose symptoms cause mental incapacity. For example, thyroid hormone imbalance can cause nervousness, insomnia, depression, or irritability. Correcting the imbalance causes mental symptoms to disappear. In a real sense, I could argue that the disease is causing a lack of soberness in the person. They are not operating to the best of their ability and for some problems, the impact causes their mind to give them a false sense of what is real. Since a Christian is to be sober-minded and of sound judgment, medicines which correct problems that hinder in these areas are useful in a Christian's life.