Does Galatians 5:20 Condemn the Use of All Drugs?

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“In Galatians 5:20 Paul condems ‘sorcery’ as a work of the flesh. The Greek word, I understand, is pharmakeia, which is related to our modern word, ‘pharmacy.’ How would this passage relate to the use of drugs today?”

The Greek word, pharmakeia (Gal. 5:20) derives from the term pharmakon. The original term had to do with “medicine” (like an ointment), or “a potion,” whether for good (as used by a physician), or for “evil” (as in the administration of poison).

The term could signify a drug. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, tells of a man named Arcesilaus, who “fell sick,” and while “under the influence of a drug [pharmakon] which he had taken, was strangled” by one of his own brothers (IV.160).

With the passing of time, the term came to be associated with pagan ceremonies, sometimes in connection with the use of drugs. The term could simply take on the sense of charm, spell, incantation, or enchantment (Liddell & Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 1741).

Some scholars think that Ezekiel may have referred to such practices when he condemned those who “put the branch to their nose” (8:17), though the phrase is very ambiguous (cf. J. Stafford Wright, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976, II, 558).

What Paul condemns in the Galatian letter is not the legitimate use of drugs for medicinal purposes (see 1 Tim. 5:23); rather, it was the “magical,” drug-induced “spells” interwoven with paganism.

In principle, the term might well apply today to those who use drugs as mind-altering substances for recreational (or even religious) purposes.