The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure. Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses. The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not obvious cannot remain hidden forever. – 1 Timothy 5:17-25
Reading and reflecting on this passage has been harder than many previous passages. Sort of like paddling against the wind on a stretch of flat water. I am not sure why but to be honest it felt a little like sitting in a four-hour church meeting. I have served as an elder in the past and I can attest that it is a lot of work and involves much prayer and pondering over questions large and small. I remember one issue involving the steeple on our church building that became a really big deal for many people. Eventually the sticky steeple issue was resolved but decades to resolve. I am not sure what “double honor” is but I would agree that those who lead our bodies of believers deserve it.
The main subject of this passage is elders and how they should be treated. Some of this advice is to protect the elder and other parts are intended to protect the people they are leading while following. The passage begins by lauding these leaders “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” We need to honor and support those who are serving leadership roles to guide the church. They are working hard to figure out how to put put the words of Jesus into practice in the everyday life of the followers they are leading.
Some conflict is inevitable whenever groups of people are trying to do something together. One solution would be to become a hermit and avoid groups of people, but God has instructed us to live in community with one another. If you have an issue with an elder, or a decision they have supported, you are directed to find two or three other people who agree that the issue is in need of addressing with the elder. This makes practical sense as the decisions of the elders are bound to cause tension a times. Paul’s solution seems reasonable and is probably not a bad practice outside of church leadership.
The next part gets a little more confusing, and I suspect contextual for specific issues occurring with the church in Ephesus “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others.” The first part of this would seem to be an effort to determine who to help, similar to “Love lists” that I reflected on a few days ago (1 Timothy 5:3-10). Ultimately, I think the the Holy Spirit should be guiding our healing hands, but I concede that this is way more difficult than it sounds. The second part is more perplexing. Perhaps there were elders who were hanging out with sinners and engaging in sinful behavior. I do not know. The guidance is to “Keep yourself pure.” Which brings us to the water reference in this passage.
The way to keep pure is to “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” On a purely pragmatic level this directive to mix alcohol (wine) with your water was a common and wise practice at this time in history. Water was often contaminated with deadly pathogens that would be killed, or at least weakened, by adding alcohol to the water. There is undoubtedly a metaphorical meaning here as well that is connected to the practices that are making people impure and spiritually “ill”. Let’s explore water contamination for a minute as see if it will shed some light on this part of the passage.
Water contamination has been around forever. Before the industrial age most of this contamination came from human and animal waste (feces) getting into water sources. The discovery of microbes would not come until the 1600’s and a curious young man named Antony Van Leeuwenhoek. He was one of the first to see microbes in water and infer that these might be causing illness. Many others followed and we eventually came to understand that organisms like cholera, E. Coli, and Giardia present in the water make people ill and sometimes kill them. This happens because our bodies are built to harbor some of these organisms in our intestinal tract. Outside of this location, and in too great a numbers, they can create toxins and responses from our bodies that can be deadly. In modern times we have all sorts of mechanisms to disinfect water like chlorine and other filtering methods. This is one of my research interests as a water scientist and I have published papers describing methods to filter water in Haiti.
Back to the passage and Paul’s directive to mix water and wine. I take the “water” to be representative of the “pure” message that the Spring of Living Water, Jesus, delivered to the disciples and others as he taught, fed, and healed people by the lake. Unfortunately this message is easily contaminated by flawed followers that sometime misunderstand the message or miss the Messiah. The “wine” may represent the traditions and practices that humans have created which can be bad or good. Some mixing of these is inevitable, and can even be good, if the proper prayerful precautions and preparations are made “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them”. This is saying that not all sin that can ensnare us will be clear. Some will obvious and result in immediate consequences, while others may be subtle and hidden, only to become clear years after the actual sin.
Jesus turned water in wine at the wedding in Cana in Galilee, removing the distinction between these two liquids. As followers of Christ we cannot reproduce this feat. We are left with a messy mixing of the precious Living Water with worldly wine to make sure we stay spiritually healthy. Elders are on the front lines of this process of mixing the “water” and “wine” to keep us spiritually healthy and “pure”. This work is really hard and often goes on without much recognition. These “bartenders of blessings” certainly deserve a double portion of honor.
Prayer: God thank You for those who have been called to help lead. Help us to thank and acknowledge their efforts.