The Men’s dorm lounge was a place of spirited debate and passionate argumentation when I was in Bible College. The great thing about our discussions and debates was that our theological wits were being sharpened (I think). Hopefully this post, rather than dividing and stirring up strife will help all of us sharpen our wits on what we believe!
In 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul tells Timothy to drink wine for the sake of his stomach and his infirmities. Before I discuss whether or not this wine contained any fermentation, I would like to point out how this text relates to the practice of medicine. In the New Testament, there is talk of healing. Jesus healed people (Matt. 21:14), and so did the apostles (Acts 3:11). Paul himself healed people (Acts 28:8). Paul even talks about gift of healing (1 Cor.12:28). What are we to make of this? I believe we are faced with a couple of choices.
First, we can abandon the New Testament and say that the stories of healing in the Bible are pure myth. Naturalism teaches that all we can know of the world is the natural laws which we see and observe. Thus, because naturalism teaches us that miracle such as healing do not happen, we should not expect them to happen. Following Rudolf Bultmann’s lead, this position would cause us abandon the biblical text as it does not meet with naturalistic presuppositions. This “demythologizing” means there is no such thing as supernatural miracles of healing – because we know from science that such a thing could not happen. For the true believer, however, this approach is unacceptable. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and it is true (2 Tim.3:16). There must be another explanation.
The other end of the spectrum is found in the modern signs and wonders movement. People like Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Haggin believe that the work of the Holy Spirit is always accompanied by signs and wonders, which include healing. This too has lead to all kinds of excess.
Consider as a third option that although Paul who could heal, he did not always heal! Instead of healing Timothy, he prescribes wine for Timothy’s stomach ailments! I take from this that going to the doctor, seeking a prescription is valid for believers. I do not need to go to a healing service; I need to avail myself of medicinal treatments for my ailments. Now, I do not say we should not pray for physical health (James 5:16), there seems to be biblical precedent for that. But healing is not always in the will of God (2 Sam.12:22; 2 Tim.4:20).
Now for the controversy: Was Paul telling Timothy to drink non-alcoholic grape juice? Or did the wine that Paul refers to include alcohol? I believe there is good reason to believe that the wine that Paul was speaking to Timothy about contained alcohol. There are a couple of good reasons why Paul was not telling Timothy to drink grape juice.
First of all, according to this verse Timothy was abstaining from wine. He was drinking only water. Now, that begs the question, why would Timothy be abstaining from something with 0% alcohol? What good reason could there be for abstaining from grape juice? The wine Paul was recommending was the kind of wine Timothy was abstaining from! As a chronically sick individual, Paul was recommending a “little” wine as a way to help with his stomach ailments. Paul was in no way advocating the use of wine as a means to intoxication, but he was recommending Timothy use a “little” wine for the sake of his stomach.
The fact is, Timothy was abstaining from wine because he did not want to become intoxicated – something the scripture forbid (Prov.23:21, 29ff; 1 Cor.6:10; Eph.5:18). So, rather than tread dangerously close to intoxication, Timothy had decided to choose for himself a no-alcohol policy.
What Paul condones here is not drinking, but the medicinal use of wine. In fact, it appears Paul was generally accepting of Timothy’s position of abstinence on this issue. To me, this would indicate that Paul had no problem with someone who abstained from the use of wine (unlike many today who suggest that abstinence from wine is equivalent to legalism). The fact that Timothy did abstain – and the allowance to drink wine was only for the sake of its medicinal qualities would lead me to conclude that abstinence is a good idea.
If you want to argue that it’s okay to moderately drink from this passage – then your drinking can only be as a cure for stomach ailments and in this day of pharmaceuticals, there are likely far better cures for stomach ailments than a glass of wine (I recommend chicken noodle soup and ginger ale). I abstain from alcoholic beverages. I would encourage you to do the same. Not because I can argue that alcohol in the bible was never fermented, but because the example of Timothy would indicate this is a legitimate choice!