Q. All my life I’ve been told and believed that a true Christian must be a tee-totaler. Period. Then I notice while reading my King James Bible that an elder in Christ’s church must not be “given to wine” (1 Timothy 3.3), but the word “given” doesn’t sound like tee-totaling to me. Now I’m confused! What does this passage mean when it says “given to wine?”
A. Short answer: I addressed this question in a post last month. Read that post.
Long answer: Neither this passage, nor the one very similar to it in Titus 1.7, nor the the rest of the Scripture, condemns drinking. What Scripture does consistently condemn is drunkenness. That is, it is not the consumption of alcohol that is generally forbidden by this word, but the abuse of it. That such is the clear meaning of this particular passage is apparent no matter what English rendering a person consults:
- given to wine (KJV, NKJV)
- given to drink (REB)
- drink too much wine (NCV)
- heavy drinker (CEV, NLT, KNT)
- get drunk (NIRV)
- drunkard (GNT, NAB, RSV, NRSV)
- given to drunkenness (NIV 1984, TNIV, NIV 2011)
- addicted to wine (NASB)
- addicted to alcohol (CEB)
Q. Are you saying it’s perfectly fine for Christians to drink? Are you advocating drinking alcohol?
A. Short answer: That would be “No and “No.”
Longer answer: No. However, though the answer to the second question is a categorical “No,” the answer to the first question, while “No” is far more involved than can be addressed by a simple, one-size-fits-all answer without comment. Why? Consideration of it involves both our conscience and our context in life. We mustn’t forget that the one who penned these passages in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 also wrote concerning our conscience (cf. Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8). For some Christians, in some situations, there is nothing wrong with drinking with self-control, while for others, it would not be right at all. What we must not do is impose our conscience on such matters on others.
But let’s not change the subject, as this question does. The passages here in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, were not intended to address this question, much less give anything like a comprehensive answer to such. In these texts, the apostle Paul assumes that at least some Christians drink and that it is fine for some Christians to do so in some settings. The notion that a Christian cannot be a mature disciple of Christ and drink alcohol at all is not found here (or anywhere else in the Bible). The question addressed in these texts is not whether or not there is a specific rule for drinking in any and every form, but whether or not a a candidate for serving as an elder is ruled by drink.
Q. Well, why then would an apostle single out drinking in these lists in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1? Why make a point of mentioning such?
A. A great many (all?) of the individual items in these two lists (1 Tim. 3.1-7; Titus 1.5-9) address different aspects of control in a elder candidate’s life. Do they exercise self-control? Do they have control of their attitude? Do they have their emotions under control? Do their habits in life speak of someone who is consistently allowing the Lord to control them? Do they keep their children under control? Do they have healthy control of the way they perceive and make use of money and possessions? And so, it shouldn’t surprise us then – indeed, we would likely expect – that mention would be made as to whether or not an individual is controlling their intake of substances (such as alcohol) or if that person is allowing substances to control them.
Surely a huge factor for this emphasis on the subject of control is the fact that the opponents of Timothy and Titus’ ministry in Ephesus and Crete were people whose lives were clearly out of control. Read all of 1 Timothy and Titus and note how frequently, and in how many different ways, Paul draws attention to such. Consequently, as Paul forms his lists for Timothy and Titus as to what to look for in the selection of elders, it only made good sense for him to highlight matters that stood in clear contrast to those who were wreaking havoc in the church there. Such comments function as commentary on “the qualifications lists.”
Q. So, do you drink?
A. No. Never have, don’t now, and never will – with a will. And the same holds true for all of my immediate family.