(No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) 1 Tim 5:23, ESV

First things first: This article isn’t an argument for or against Christians drinking alcohol. In part, it’s making a case that the morality of Christians drinking alcohol isn’t what the text is about in the first place.

This verse has been bandied about as the go-to text for understanding the Christian’s relationship to alcohol. Drink a little wine, it’s good for you. You may have heard it argued thusly: “See? The Bible not only allows a little consumption now and again, it commands it, for health reasons.” On the other hand, “The Bible isn’t condoning drinking of alcohol, it’s just saying that when you’re sick you need some medicine. Timothy didn’t have aspirin or Nyquil, what was Paul supposed to say?” I’ve heard them all, so have you. I won’t add to the din of that racket here.

We could look at it this way: “Such practical advice here. Take care of yourself, Preacher. You won’t be of any use if you’re always sick. You need your body to minister to the souls of your people. Paul knows that. So get your rest; take your meds.”

Here’s my issue with these interpretations: They make no use of context, either before or after the verse. Frankly, the verse seems so awkwardly placed, that some have completely given up trying to fit it in the context whatsoever. The ESV puts it in parentheses, that’s how awkward the translators found it. The NASB sets it as its own tiny paragraph. Calvin said this about it in his commentary: “Paul was not so anxious about keeping up the close connection of a discourse, and… it was very customary with him to intermingle a variety of statements without any arrangement.” Typical Paul. Just randomly plopping things together. Really? I mean I love ya Calvin, but I think we could at least try to see it in context and interpret it that way.

What is the context? Here it is in one big paragraph:

Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin. No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after. Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed.
1Tim 5:19-25, NASB

Here’s my attempt at getting all The Message-ey with it: “Timothy, your fellow elders are being accused of sin. Unless those accusations are verifiable with multiple witnesses, ignore them. When the accusations are true, deal with them publicly. Deal with them in such a way that the people of the church, including the other elders, will be absolutely terrified of falling into sin and getting the same kind of treatment from you. And don’t play favorites; don’t cut your friends slack. And don’t put young believers in positions of authority, because if they turn out to be duds, you’re going to carry some responsibility for the damage they cause. Don’t risk soiling your reputation by endorsing bad men, even if they hadn’t gone bad when you did. Drink some wine to ease your stomachaches. Certain men sin in obvious ways, but others in a way you can’t see it, or perhaps you can’t quite put a finger on it. The truth of a man’s deeds will be known.”

The context is dealing with problems, specifically relating to the eldership. Some problems stem from those in the congregation making various accusations against the elders. This happens all the time: He’s too harsh, too unloving, not compassionate enough, too hard, too soft. He’s too deep, he’s too shallow. And apparently, anonymous letters of accusation are apparently not just a contemporary American phenomenon. Somehow, that’s strangely comforting. I’d like to compare the ones that have been addressed to me to some of those handed to Timothy; I hope they were similar.

But elders aren’t perfect, either. Some accusations against them have merit. Some elders fall into sin. And when they do, they need to be rebuked. Severely. Because if they’re not, the other elders will get the idea that it’s not that critical for them to fight against sin. They won’t feel the need to be desperately mortifying the flesh. Timothy, if you just paper these sins over, they’re just going to get worse. As Barney Fife once famously said, “You gotta nip it in the bud!

But the problems don’t end there, as you know, Timothy. Some of these sinning elders are your friends. Maybe even childhood friends. Maybe your brother-in-law, or your cousin. You’re going to want to be extra gracious. You’re going to want to go easy on them. Don’t you dare. Unload both barrels, just like you’d have to do to anyone else. Don’t let it be said that your buddies get special treatment. Don’t forget Jesus saying, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?” When you’re done dealing with the sinning elder, everyone needs to be shaking in their boots saying, “Oh man, there’s no way I want to fall into sin because I don’t want to endure that kind of shame!”

There’s even potential problems to avoid. You’ve got young believers, full of passion and energy. They’re leadership types, and they’re strong. They’re immature, but they’re motivated. They’re a breath of fresh air; their charisma is infectious. They want to be involved. They’re committed, even to the point of being a bit restless. They’re itching for a fight against the devil. They’re studying doctrine like crazy, and eating it up. They’re dreaming of being defenders of the truth. They want to be on the front lines. But Timothy, don’t you dare put them in positions of authority. Not yet. Give it time. I know, Timothy, leaders are hard to come by, and these young men seem perfect for it. There’s a demand for elders, and they’re the ready supply. But don’t do it yet. Don’t put your name on their ordination certificate. Don’t lay your hands on their shoulders and call them your fellow elders, not yet.

Why? Some of them are going to go bad. Some of them are seeds planted in rocky ground. They grow up fast and wither away just as fast. You don’t know yet which are wheat and which are tares. And Timothy, if you call a tare a stalk of wheat, and tell the rest of the wheat to line up under the authority of the tare, you need to know that you’re responsible for the mess he makes. If he turns out to be a wolf-shepherd in sheep’s clothing, and you signed his security clearance, you’ve got some explaining to do to the Chief Shepherd for the bite marks all over his sheep. Don’t succumb to the pressure to fill leadership positions or encourage the growing young ones before you figure out what you are really working with.

So Timothy, it’s not going to be easy. Beat back the false accusations. Deal with the true ones. Rebuke this elder; don’t make that young man an elder.

Then comes the verse about the wine. Let me walk through that a little slower.

“No longer drink only water.” Water is good. Water is basic. Of all the things a person drinks, it’s assumed here the normal, default drink is water. That’s not so far-fetched. It’s the baseline. But that’s not to say that water is the only thing a person can drink. There are, after all, other beverages!

“But use a little wine.” Use, like a tool. Wine is a wrench that can turn a bolt that water cannot. Wine has a medicinal effect that water doesn’t. But only use a little. Don’t get puking drunk, that’s kind of like giving yourself the same problem a different way.

“For the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” Timothy, you keep getting sick. Water isn’t making your sicknesses go away. Water isn’t fixing anything. Wine will make your stomach feel better and your ailments won’t be so frequent. If you keep drinking water, nothing will change, and you’ll continue in a state of illness.

Now on to verse 24… There’s one more problem to deal with: Timothy, some men will be obvious in their sin. Everyone will see it right away. Deal with them. But some men are sneaky sinners. Their sins are going to be harder to pinpoint. You’ll know the sin is there, but it’ll be almost impossible to quantify it, or present it in such a way that everyone else can see it. Deal with them too, as you are able. The judgment day will reveal those kinds of men for who they really are. Either suddenly or eventually, all deeds, good or evil, will be seen for what they really are. Evil deeds that look good, and good deeds that look evil, like harsh, public rebukes, will be seen in the light of truth.

That’s how I see this passage unfolding; Timothy has problems, and he has to deal with them. And frankly, this is a daunting list of issues. In regards to v.23, I suppose it’s possible that Paul is indicating that the stress of dealing with these kinds of problems could be giving Timothy acid reflux and ulcers. Stress is brutal to the body, particularly the stomach, and especially to a timid personality. So Paul could be suggesting that Timothy needs to care for his physical needs in the midst of the spiritual battle. That could fit.

But I would suggest that Paul is saying something different.

Don’t drink just water anymore. Drink some wine. Just a little. Timothy, you’ve got problems in the eldership. Big ones. They’re not going to go away by themselves any more than a stomachache goes away by drinking water. Drinking water is great, and it’s normal. But it doesn’t fix big problems. Water isn’t medicinal. Alcohol is. If you’re drinking water and you get a stomachache, don’t expect water to fix it. Instead, drink something with a kick to it. Water is for healthy people. Sick people need wine. Just a little. Too much just causes another, bigger problem, but a little is good; a little is necessary if you want the problem to actually go away.

Deal with your problems and make them go away, Timothy. Don’t pretend they’re not there. Don’t think they’re going to just go away by themselves. Don’t think that you can go about ministry as usual and things will get better. You’ve got to go outside the bounds of “normal” into the realm of the medicinal. You can’t expect the problems to go away if you don’t meet them with something that will cure them.  And the normal fare of pastoral ministry won’t kill the problems. Wine cures; water only maintains.

I suspect Timothy was a “water” guy. He was a maintenance man, not an astronaut. He seems non-confrontational. He wasn’t Paul, ever prepared and willing to get in Peter’s face or separate from Barnabas. He was likeable, but not someone to be feared. You didn’t have to worry if he was going to go off the handle at the drop of a hat. Paul seemed to worry that Timothy would never “go off.” He was predictably gentle, perhaps to a fault. He was intentionally and carefully unoffensive. Patience may have been his greatest strength; but then perhaps his timidity simply clothed itself in a spiritual robe, brandname “Gentleness.”

Some problems don’t go away just by being patient enough with the flow of normal ministry. Some issues will only increase in frequency, despite one’s doing everything “right.” We preach the text, expositorily, one verse at a time, week to week, we trust the Spirit to apply it to the hearts of the congregation, and we pray with and for them. This has been the same in all ages. It’s “normal.” It’s the water of the church; without these things she’ll wither up and die.

But some problems arise under the normalcy of drinking water, and Timothy shouldn’t expect that drinking more water will fix those problems. So Paul says it’s time for a temporary change of course. Drink some wine. Take some medicine. Do something that fixes the problem. Temporarily and carefully step aside from the ordinary, and break into a bottle of antiseptic. Deal with the problems, and deal with them as though you were treating a sickness. Then you can go back to drinking your water again. Look, you only take medicine when you’re sick. You don’t need to exchange every glass of water for a glass of wine, but when you’re suffering, pour something in your cup that will actually make your sickness go away. Timothy, in the church, you need to drink some wine. You need to conduct yourself in such a way that you fix the problems. “Normal” ministry isn’t intended to fix every kind of sickness. Some problems are wine-strength problems.

Get in faces; condemn sin. You’re going to hurt people’s feelings; you’re going to publicly shame some of them. You must. If you don’t, the problems aren’t going away, either in intensity, or frequency. You’re going to have to deal with sins that are obvious, and you’re going to have to deal with sins that aren’t obvious, and it may be that some people will think you’re being vindictive and cruel. Don’t worry, in God’s timing the truth will be evident to all eyes.

But Timothy, only drink a little wine. You don’t live this way. Don’t make your ministry characterized by wine-drinking; when people look at you, they need to see mostly water drinker, not mostly wine drinker. They need to think of you as a man of the well, not the barrel. But they need to know that when there’s an issue, you’re not afraid to pop a cork and kill the sickness; you’re going to deal directly, sternly, and effectively with the problem.

Timothy, constant stomach aches and frequent illnesses shouldn’t be your “normal.” There is medicine available; take it. Don’t be a drunken type of elder, a veritable loose cannon; that’s another set of problems. But neither should you be so afraid of the problems that come with too much wine that you refuse to drink a little. If you become an overbearing dictatorial menace, thinking that inflicting pain and shame is normal, you’re nothing but a drunk. On the other hand, if you’re a “spineless yellow bellied jellyfish” (thank you, JC Ryle!) who thinks the answer to every problem is “gentleness” or even “normal ministry,” you’re going to suffer a perpetual stomachache and frequent illness, with no hope of recovery.

That’s my understanding of the text. I see it as a metaphor, and I expect Timothy knew exactly what Paul was saying. What makes it a good metaphor is how easily it is distilled from it’s literal understanding. A little wine fixes things water won’t. A lot of wine makes new problems. Pastors, we’re going to have problems, and sometimes we will have major problems. Deal with them, and deal with them in ways that are outside of the “water” category of normal. Don’t be a drunkard – don’t be perpetually in conflict mode; but neither shy away, hoping they’ll fix themselves. Drink a little wine, for your stomach’s sake.

note: I want to thank my beloved Pops, Pastor Randy Reed, a man deeply in love with and devoted to the study of the Word of God, and who, somewhere along my journey of 36+ years under his tutelage, set my mind in this direction for understanding this text. -jr