I usually post several days ahead — just in case something terrible happens, like a computer death — and to make sure I have time to repent of my posts before they go public. And I put Bruce’s post on the site several days before it actually appeared. Unfortunately, it was scheduled to appear on one of those days when I was in the midst of a computer salvage operation (still ongoing, by the way).
So although Bruce had told me a revised post was coming, I failed to take the old one down. Here’s his fuller post, with my apologies.
Ephesians 5:18-21: The Work of the Spirit Through Song in a World Under Siege
The teaching in Ephesians 5:18-21 by Paul has, at times, been discussed by itself – without taking into account the broader context. Ephesians 4:17-5:21 includes important parallels that tie the teaching together. For example, 5:18-21 parallels 5:11 and also reveals 4:23-24 applied to Christian worship. When we focus on Paul’s teaching about song outside of the context, we leave behind why he says what he says.
Much lies behind Paul’s comment in Ephesians 4:17. The apostle to the Gentiles is writing about song in the broader context of Asian and Greek life and conduct – including worship. The apostle is speaking in generalities, but they are generalities that point toward the strong influence of Asian religion on the earliest Christians. The dark pressure should not surprise us. Luke’s account of earliest Christianity in Ephesus reveals the influence of Artemis of the Ephesians. Further, a growing number of archaeologists and historians have noted of late the power of the Dionysus cult in both Ephesus and Corinth. The two cities acted as influential hubs for the religion. The mystery cults permeated Gentile life and worship in Roman Asia and beyond (see, for example, Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity; Philip Harland, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations; Ross Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings).
Paul’s generalities in Ephesians 4:17-5:21 do not describe the specifics of religious ritual. Indeed, he writes, “it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.” (Eph. 5:12; NIV) However, we should not conclude that Paul is endorsing specific, well-known practices associated with cult ritual simply because he uses the general words “shameful” or “debauchery.” Both Greek words were prominently associated with Asian cult activities. Dionysian worship was fueled by wine and instrumentation.
The apostle is speaking in contrasts. Herbert Presker, for one, highlights the contrast of music with song as he discusses the Dionysus cult and Ephesians 5:18. He writes that, “The life and liturgy of Christians are not marked by sensual ecstasy or Bacchantic [Dionysiac] frenzy (Gk. methyskesthai oino) but by infilling with the Spirit (Gk. plerousthe en pneumatic). The distinction could hardly be more succinctly expressed: orgiastic enthusiasm on the one side, and on the other the fullness of the Spirit that finds liturgical expression in praise and thanksgiving….” (see more at Presker, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 4:548). Paul reveals his concern about sensational life and worship throughout the text – an issue that OneInJesus contributors have been raising as well (and which I appreciate). Is Paul urging song as opposed to instrumented music? Yes, it appears he is doing exactly that. His comment about song is not written “on its own.” Powerful instrumental music factored prominently in Dionysiac ritual. Indeed, one Greek papyrus highlights how instrumentation was used to initiate supposed supernatural possession (see William Johnson, “Musical Evenings in the Early Empire: New Evidence From a Greek Papyrus with Musical Notation,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 120 (2000): 57-85).
The apostle provides further emphasis by his use of the ado–psallo (sing; make music) structure of his words. Three Septuagint Psalms include the same structure, but Paul has revised the Psalms to point to song alone (see LXX Psalm 26, 56, 107).
In a text that deals with the war of light versus darkness, Paul is stressing how the Spirit uses song to renew a congregation of Christians. He is highlighting the dangers in a world under intense spiritual siege. The subject of instrumental music and the importance of song to the Lord and to one another are part of a desperate spiritual struggle – one that the West does not always see with clarity. Leonard Allen, Richard Hughes, and Michael Weed make the point with strength when they write that, “In this world there is a sharply diminishing sense of overarching, invisible realities surrounding daily life and giving it meaning.” (Allen, Hughes, Weed, The Worldly Church, 56). Seeing by faith what Paul sees will inform our conversation – and our worship. A spiritual war is real; our spiritual song acts as a setting for the Spirit’s work in comforting, protecting, and renewing us. It also can unify us. Note: more is available, including notes/references, in the recent publication Deceiving Winds (21st Century Christian).