Isn’t 1 Tim. 5: 23 clear proof that there is nothing wrong with Christians drinking alcohol?
That Christians in the early Church did drink alcohol is clear from the instructions given by Paul regarding the appointment of elders. If teetotalism was Scriptural, he would have required those in this position of being “models for the flock” (1 Pet. 5: 3) to practise abstention from alcohol. This is why the apostle does not raise the issue of wine–drinking itself, but only of the “excesses” (1 Tim. 3: 3) associated with it. Nor is Paul speaking of unfermented grape–juice, for he speaks in the same context of being disorderly through wine (see Titus 1: 7). Alcohol is clearly implied.
However, just because wine–drinking is permissible does not make it profitable (see 1 Cor. 6: 12). The shortage of NT Scripture positively in favour of wine–drinking has led those who advocate it to latch eagerly on to 1 Tim. 5: 23: “use a little wine on account of thy stomach and thy frequent illnesses”. Though clearly of narrow application, this solitary passage is extrapolated to justify drinking for pleasure, social drinking in public houses, and even the consumption of beers and spirits. Without making any comment on the rights and wrongs of those things, to handle Scripture in this way is to misuse it. 1 Tim. 5: 23 does indeed prove the incorrectness of absolute teetotalism, in the sense of never taking alcohol, but that is not really the justification our questioner is seeking. What he wants justifying is recreational drinking––drinking for enjoyment. 1 Tim. 5: 23 no more proves this than the fact that heroin is used medically proves its general acceptability. It is a typical case of reading into Scripture what is not there.
What the apostle is suggesting to Timothy is the use of wine on health grounds. Water in those days was a significant carrier of disease, and Timothy, with his apparent susceptibility to stomach problems, was advised to drink wine (which is naturally antibacterial) as well. He was not to abuse the practice, for it is clearly stated to be a little wine. 1 Tim. 5: 23 thus has no bearing on the subject of recreational alcohol consumption––it refers only to wine in its medicinal capacity.
What is interesting about this passage is that Timothy drank “only water” in a culture where wine–drinking was common. Why was this? Some might like to argue that this was because he was “weak in the faith” (Rom. 14: 1), and had an over–sensitive conscience where alcohol was concerned (see Rom. 14: 21). This assertion is an insult to the character of the man who is twice called “man of God”––the only one so–named in the NT. As to the facts, Paul does not advise wine–drinking in order for Timothy to become more liberated, but, as the Scripture explicitly records: “on account of thy stomach and thy frequent illnesses”. The apostle was concerned, not about Timothy’s teetotalism, but about his health. With regard to wine, Timothy had opted for safety, and he could only be persuaded to moderate his views on medical grounds. Alcohol, because of its special nature, carries a risk with it for those who are always to be marked by sobriety (Titus 2: 12) and self–control (Gal. 5: 23), and who ought not to “be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6: 12). If Noah, (who walked with God ––Gen. 6: 9), had not planted a vineyard, (Gen. 9: 20–21) he would not have got drunk. Timothy is to be commended, not criticised, for not being prepared to take the risk.
Flippant attitudes to alcohol invariably lead to flippant attitudes to drunkenness. Thus some, while condemning extreme intoxication, have sought to justify the “merriment” that comes from a moderate intake of wine. Psalm 104: 15 is often cited. There we read of God bringing forth ”wine which gladdeneth the heart of man”. Yet this simply means that it was pleasurable to drink! It is only because the verse speaks of wine rather than, for example, milk, that the assumption is made that it must refer to its intoxicating pleasures. To insist that wine only gives pleasure on account of its alcoholic effects is emphatically disproved by Judges 9: 13 where wine is said to cheer not only man, but God! The fact is, instead of laughing at being “tipsy” we ought to call it by its proper name. Such behaviour is unbecoming as a Christian (Rom. 13: 13; Eph. 5: 18; 1 Pet. 4: 3). Certainly as Christians we have liberty to partake of wine, but “let him that thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10: 12).