“The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 10 (Eph 5:19, Part 2)

EarlychurchWe continue to consider Ferguson’s arguments in chapter 22 of his The Early Church and Today, vol. 1 and vol. 2, edited by Leonard Allen and Robyn Burwell. This chapter is titled “Church Music in Ephesians and Colossians.”

It astonishes me (it really does) how rarely the anti-instrumental music advocates bother to exegete Eph 5:18. I mean, the supposed “command” to sing found in Eph 5:19 is in fact a participle hanging off the clause “be filled with the Spirit.”

That is, you have no idea what the point of “singing” is until you’ve figured out the meaning of “be filled with the Spirit” because “singing” is subordinate to “be filled.”

Of course, the utter failure of the conservative Churches to exegete Eph 5:18 is partly explained by the “word only” advocates who shudder at any thought of a present, active, moving God. And so doctrine gets built and millions of believers are damned on the exegesis of a participle treated as an independent command, with no regard at all for why that participle is attached to the verb “be filled.”

10th grade grammar

Check the grammar —

(Eph 5:18-21 ESV) 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

(In fairness to many readers, the NIV botches the translation by starting a new sentence at “singing” — mistranslated as “sing” — and in v.21, mistranslating “submitting” as “Submit.”)

I’ve not diagrammed a sentence since the 10th grade (a very long time ago), but it’s still obvious that we have two parallel independent clauses: “And do not … debauchery” and “be filled with the Spirit …” connected with a coordinate conjunction: “but.”

The second independent clause is modified by a string of four participles, each modifying “be filled” — which is, of course and very obviously, the main idea of the sentence.

Greek grammar

So how do the participles figure into the grammar? Well, as you might expect, some have argued that the participles should be treated as commands (“imperatives” or “imperatival participles”).

Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics responds –

On a syntactical and stylistic level, this view [that the participles are imperative] does not take into account the semantic situation in which an imperatival participle is found (which, among other things, indicates that this is a very rare usage), nor the usage of dependent participles in this letter in particular (cf. Eph. 1:13-14, for example, where several dependent participles are strung along). To view any of these participles as imperatival is to view the passage from the English point of view only, ignoring the Greek.

(p. 651). It’s not a command!

He later writes,

In this text the five participles are debatable. Some have suggested means, manner, attendant circumstance, and even imperatival! … As we shall see later, attendant circumstance and imperatival par­ticiples are rarely, if ever, found in a construction such as the one in this text. … Result participles are invariably present partici­ples that follow the main verb; as well, the idea of result here would suggest that the way in which one measures his/her success in fulfilling the command of 5:18 is by the participles that follow (notice the progressive difficulty: from speaking God’s word to being thankful for all, to being submissive to one another; such progression would, of course, immediately suggest that this fill­ing is not instantaneous and absolute but progressive and relative). There are other arguments for the idea of result in these participles that we will have to forego. Suffice it to say here that the issue is an important one in light of the popularity and abuse of the command in Eph 5:18 (especially in evangelical circles).

(p. 639). He’s likely not even aware of the Church of Christ controversy, and yet he shows plainly that the participles are not commands but evidences of our growth in being filled with the Spirit.

How rarely does someone point out the progressive difficulty of the participles, from “addressing” to “submitting.” It’s much easier to sing the right words than to submit in the right way! This is about maturing in Christ as the Spirit slowly but persistently fills us.

It’s not that we get fired up by a great song leader or a big crowd or intense prayer. It’s not a moment of being filled. In Paul’s vocabulary, it’s a lifetime of growing fullness.

Thus, “addressing,” “singing,” “giving thanks,” and “submitting” show the results of being filled with the Spirit, indeed, the outflow of the Spirit. These are not how one becomes filled (which Eph 4 addresses), but rather the natural consequences of becoming filled, over a lifetime spent with Jesus.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to “The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 10 (Eph 5:19, Part 2)

  1. Price says:

    The Col 3 companion passage uses the word “teach” as it refers to our singing… Is that an Eastern point of view as well.. It seems that the Western application for singing is entertainment…

    And, then how can a woman sing, if that singing is teaching, when some would prohibit them from doing so… Must she sing base rather than alto ? Where women sing independently from men, are they teaching the whole congregation as a group? Am I jumping ahead ?

  2. The concept of the increasing difficulty of the participles in Ephesians 5:18-21 is brilliant. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  3. Beyond the grammar, there is an inference here (I tremble to use that word). When Paul says “be filled with the Spirit” this suggests a state of being that one cannot create on his own. Is God himself something one can manipulate into a convenient vessel at our own will? Do we control this process? Hardly. This does require an active God, to infuse Himself into us. The big inference here is that God is willing and ready to do this without exception–that the willing believer has the filling of the Spirit available to him at all times

  4. Tim says:

    I do not see where the instruction found here is to be applied to an official assembly or even an unofficial one. Is the subject plural or singular? Can we not sing at other times such as when we’re happy (James 5:13). Is singing at any time “required” if one is not happy or “merry”?

    Must we wait until we assemble to sing for any and all reasons?

  5. jack815 says:

    We need to re-examine our understanding on grace as well as things you mentioned here Jay. If we must, as Christians agree on every thing, then we are undone before we start. Instrumental music and other issues have been debated and argued over for years. There are good, honest people with a lot of scholarship on both sides, which cannot come to agreement..This says to me that we should not divide over this, even if we don’t agree. If there is sin involved in the debate, it seems to be one of disposition. How we treat brethren who disagree is important. I appreciate as always your attitude and openness in being willing to discuss all sides of an issue.
    It seems Christians have always had a hard time with disagreeing… this is why I enjoyed your study on “How to argue” (I think that is what it was called.)
    Good job on the participles (I never understood those things in school).

  6. R.J. says:

    Tim, the overall context of Ephesians 5:19 indicates that it should be taken as individual or better yet reflective(weather individual or collective). The Greek plural itself does not indicate weather it is collective or individual. Authorial intent alone determines that.

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