But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery (φαρμακεία), enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. -- (Gal 5:18-26 ESV)
Is Galatians 5:20 a good Scripture to use to advocate Christians not to use illegal drugs?Edited: The basic answer is no. If you only want to read a bit, go to the end where you will find the conclusion and application. If you want the detail go ahead and read from here.
Galatians 5:20 is a continuation of the list of works of the flesh which began in the previous verse. The word generally translated as witchcraft or sorcery comes from the root work where we English speakers get the word pharmacy, transliteration is pharmakeia of the Greek φαρμακεία. Some do say that Galatians 3:20 teaches against the recreational use of drugs. (While the IBT Ministries article uses the moralistic approaching Scripture, there are a lot of good points made as to why to avoid illegal drug use.) The Bible teaches against drunkenness and therefore is against getting high. Passages such as Proverbs 20:1 teach us that it is unwise to let alcohol cloud our judgment, and by deduction it is unwise to take any sort of mind altering substance that causes addiction.
Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise. (Pro 20:1 ESV)Addictions, especially harsh drug addictions can destroy lives. This post is about the exegesis of Galatians 5:20. So does this mean that pharmakeia (φαρμακεία) is witchcraft or is it drug use? At least in modern culture these could be two very different practices. Although in modern culture those who use drugs are sometimes those who practice witchcraft, it is not a given that they are the same. Are both practices of illegal drug use and witchcraft to be avoided based on this one word?
How Is the Word Used in the Bible?The word is used twice in the New Testament, besides in Galatians 5:20. It is also used in Revelation 9:21 and 18:23.
and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more, for your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery. (Rev 18:23 ESV)Notice that in Revelation 18:23 the sorcery has a victim. The nations are deceived by the sorcery. The passage in Rev 9:21 groups sorcery with sexual immorality and theft. Both sexual immorality and theft have victims.
What Do Reliable Biblical Greek Dictionaries Say?It is also helpful to look at the Biblical Greek dictionaries. Louw and Nida in their dictionary say the word means "the use of magic, often involving drugs and casting spells upon people." James H. Moulton and George Milligan in their Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament say, " in its general sense 'practice of drugging.' " Thayer writes, "a. the use or the administering of drugs... b. poisoning." While not exclusively so, the emphasis shows someone practicing pharmakeia (φαρμακεία) on someone else.
What Was the Ancient Cultural Practices?The ancient and present use of magic can be distinguished from religion in general. They are not mutually exclusive categories, but religions pray to persuade the deities while magic through incantations and spells command the supernatural entities. Edwin M. Yamauchi in his 1983 Tyndale Bulletin Article called "Magic In The Biblical World" says, "The element of ‘coercion’, ‘control’, or ‘manipulation’ has been regarded as an essential element of magic in many definitions." There is an element of technical control to produce outcomes. Magic or sorcery in the ancient world did not only include incantations and spells, but the use of potions and poisons. As sons and daughters of the Enlightenment we would see the use of these concoctions as effective because of their bio-chemical properties, but the ancients who used them may not have separated any physical cause from a spiritual cause. This is why pharmakeia (φαρμακεία) would be both magic and administering a potion. Both would be a part of a category that would be messy by today's way of thinking. As Roy Zuck notes in his 1971 BibSac article called "The Practice of Witchcraft in the Scriptures", Paul sees the work of the Jewish sorcerer Bar-Jesus who was also called Elymas as deceiving. While surely a sorcerer could turn his so-called art on himself, the techniques would be aimed at circumstances and individuals. In individuals it would cause deception, a clouding of judgement. There would be victims of the spells, incantations and potions. Sometimes the desired effect was to induce romantic love if an aphrodisiac was administered, but other times the result would be sickness or death if a poison was administered. A part of the tool kit of the sorcerer or magician was drugs to control the situation.
Conclusion and ApplicationWhile certainly illegal or recreational drug use is to be avoided, it is probably better to look to Galatians 5:21 which calls drunkenness, methai (μέθαι), a work of the flesh. Galatians 5:20 use of pharmakeia (φαρμακεία) is not as strong a defense against illegal drug use from a Bible interpretation point of view. The word for drunkenness, methai (μέθαι), is also used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in Proverbs 20:1. These Scriptures warning against drunkenness or intoxication are better as one interprets Scripture. It is better to understand that pharmakeia (φαρμακεία) includes controlling situations and other people through drugging them.
So Galatians 5:20 would apply to a drug dealer who gets people hooked on their products in order to gain wealth or power. It includes pimps who get their victims hooked on heroin so that the women desire the drug so much they are easily forced to prostitute themselves. This would also include enabling spouses who ensure the liquor is available and used by the alcoholic spouse in order for the enabler to maintain control in a relationship. It would include these connections to addiction culture, but it would also include manipulative religious practices where people are controlled through threat of supernatural consequences. A promise of relief of suffering if a cash gift is given to a ministry at times fits the pattern of control of the supernatural rather than an honest prayer for the person seeking relief. Arousing sexual passions via images or words can also be used to manipulate someone by intensifying his or her sexual desire. Once passion is aroused to unusual levels the victim may be easily persuaded to engage in that which would normally be against his or her will. So not only would control over people via drug fit pharmakeia (φαρμακεία) as a work of the flesh, but so would other ungodly manipulation of people.