Thursday, July 26, 2007

Paul on Spirit-filled Living,the Singing of Praise Songs, and Mutual Submission


One of the more obviously relevant texts for the discussion of modern Christian worship is Ephesians 5.18-21, which involves a series of clauses all dependent on a main verb that talks about behavior in worship. In vs. 18 we have a clear contrast– 'do not get drunk with wine (Paul does not say do not drink wine, but rather don’t engage in dissipation), but rather be filled in Spirit'. This contrast is also found in the Pentecost story in Acts 2 and suggest that early Christian worship was often ecstatic and jubilant, involving loud singing. The outsider might have a hard time telling the difference between exuberant praising (especially if it involved singing in tongues) and a drunk person singing and carousing. It is not impossible that Paul is contrasting Christian worship with Bacchic rites which involved drunkenness and frenzy and orgiastic behavior. In any case, it should be noted that Paul says to Christians who already have the Spirit “be filled” and the verb is in the present continual tense.

Here Paul might be referring to the sort of repeated fillings that happen to Christians who already have the full measure of the Spirit, but are inspired in spiritually high moments to speak and sing. In such cases it is a matter of the indwelling Spirit inspiring and lifting up the individual, not a matter of the individual getting more of the Spirit. They are caught up in love and wonder and praise and adoration of God by the Spirit that moves them.
John Chrysostom is right in suggesting that Paul is contrasting intoxication that leads to one sort of singing and inspiration which leads to another. He is not talking about some second work of grace or of sanctification here, as the contrast makes clear. “For they who sing psalms are filled with the Holy Spirit, as they who sing satanic songs are filled with an unclean spirit. What is meant by ‘with your hearts to the Lord’? It means with close attention and understanding. For those who do not attend closely, merely sing, uttering the words, while their heart is roaming elsewhere.” (Hom. Ephes XIX). Rudolph Schnackenburg says that Paul means singing from the bottom of one’s heart, and so it is an exhortation to heartfelt and sincere praise and singing. There is a difference between mere ecstatic uttering of things, and heartfelt praise which is an act of adoration.
Perhaps Paul knew about the Dionysiac rituals in which getting drunk was seen as the means of achieving religious ecstasy or frenzy or spiritual exaltation (cf. Is. 28.7; Philo, Ebr. 147-48; Vita Cont. 85,89; Macrobius, Sat. I.18.1; Hippolytus, Ref. 5.8.6-7). Since early Christian worship took place not only in the context of a home, but also often in the context of a fellowship meal, the issue of drunkenness and worship were not unrelated issues for Pauline Christians as 1 Cor. 11 demonstrates.
As Fee points out, what often gets overlooked in the discussion of Ephes. 5.18-21 is that we have a series of participles that modify the exhortation to be filled by/with the Spirit– speaking, singing, giving thanks, submitting. He also rightly notes that the emphasis here is not on the ecstasy producing potential of the Spirit, but on being filled, or having the fullness of the Spirit’s presence. Nor is the emphasis on being ‘high’ or drunk on the Spirit as opposed to being drunk from wine. Rather the picture is of individuals and a community together being totally given over to the Spirit and the Spirit’s presence and leading.
Philo seems to describe something of the Sitz im Leben Paul has in mind here: “Now when grace fills the soul, that soul thereby rejoices and smiles and dances, for it is possessed and inspired, so that to many of the unenlightened it may seem to be drunken, crazy, and beside itself....For with those possessed by God not only is the soul wont to be stirred and goaded as it were into ecstasy but the body is also flushed and fiery... and thus many of the foolish are deceived and suppose that the sober are drunk” (De Ebr. 146-48). Far from being filled with the Spirit leading to dissipation or drunkenness, Paul affirms it leads to wisdom and to the spirit of a sound mind and to the proper adoration and singing that all of God’s creatures should render back to God. In other words, it is the key to living the Christian life in a manner pleasing to God and edifying to others as well as one’s self.
The Spirit is both the means and the substance of the filling, and vs. 19 tells what sort of response the Spirit prompts in the believer. Christians sing hymns to Christ and also give thanks to God through the impulse and empowering of the Spirit. Note the implicitly Trinitarian nature of this discussion. The life of the Spirit-filled community is to be characterized by joyful singing, thanksgiving, and submitting to one another. “If believers were only filled with wisdom, the influence would be impersonal; however the filling by the Spirit adds God’s personal presence, influence, and enablement to walk wisely, all of which are beneficial to believers and pleasing to God. With the indwelling each Christians has all of the Spirit, but the command to be filled by the Spirit enables the Spirit to have all of the believer.” (H. Hoehner).
It is possible that the three sorts of songs mentioned in vs. 19 had differing forms. 'Psalmos' probably means psalms, usually praise songs with accompaniment, since the term originally meant ‘to pluck a string’. 'Hymnois' may be more hymn-like liturgical and acappella pieces which were pre-written, and spiritual songs may mean spontaneous songs from the heart prompted by the Spirit, but we can’t be certain about any of this (cf. Col.3.16). This could just be another example of Asianism, with the love for piling up near synonyms. “It is likely that in the singing and chanting traditional elements such as Jewish liturgical materials were combined with ecstatic, innovative tendencies.” (M. MacDonald).
What we can be sure of is that Paul says these songs are to be addressed, surprisingly enough, to each other, rather than just to God! They are to speak to one another in songs of praise. This makes clear that worship is not just a matter of adoration, but also involves edification. Vs. 19c probably does not mean ‘only in your hearts’, but rather ‘in a heartfelt way’ understanding that it is ultimately to the Lord. Perhaps what is meant is that the internal praise is to the Lord, but the external praise is to each other. We are always to do this in the spirit of thanksgiving (cf. 1 Thess. 5.18), and we are to do it, submitting ourselves to one another.
It is not to be a protracted display of ego, and as 1 Cor. 14 suggests believers are to defer to each other, taking turns. Notice too that here, as in 1 Cor. 14 nothing suggests a clergy dominated worship service. Everyone is allowed to join in and participate as the Spirit leads them. If we ask what the relationship is between the material in Ephes. 5.1-20 and the material found in 5.21-6.9 the answer is that a general discussion of sanctified or holy living leads to a particular example of what sanctified living looks like, namely in the Christian family. Schnackenburg is right that we find this very same sort of ethical discussion in the earlier Paulines, for example in 1 Thess.4.3-7 where we find another exhortation to holiness in relationships.
Finally, it is worth stressing that the clause submitting to another out of reverence for Christ" provides the transition from the previous paragraph to the household code which follows, such that mutual submission of all Christians to each other is then illustrated by the sort of mutual submission that goes on between wife and husband in Christian marriage. Ephes. 5.21 is the heading for the following discussion of marriage, indeed so much is this the case that there is no verb in Ephes. 5.22a-- in the Greek it simply says 'wives to husbands as to the Lord'. One must fill in the verb in 5.22a from 5.21 and this in turn means that what the verb meant in 5.21 is also what it must mean in 5.22-- indeed there are not two occurrences of the verb, only one, and the context in 5.21 is clearly that of mutual submission of all Christians to each other, in this case in the social context of worship. What follows from this observation is that Paul will go on to explain what mutual submission looks like in the context of Christian marriage-- wives to their own husbands, and husbands self-sacrificially loving their wives as Christ loves the church. The important point is that self-sacrificial Christ-like love is most certainly seen as a form of submission, the husband submitting to and serving the wive, just as she does for him.


Hollands Opus said...

as a recovering chauvinist, I wonder if you could cache that out a little further with respect to your last comment on husbands and wives submitting to one another. This likely goes into the larger question, also, of Paul's not allowing a woman to teach in the church, and women being silent and learning from their husbands. Don't make me wait for your book! Even some brief commentary, perhaps a recommended source would be helpful.

In our increasingly emasculating society, I am striving for right understanding in this, so as to avoid overly visceral reactions.

Pretty tall order I know, but perhaps you could pound down a 16oz Adrenaline Rush and help out! Thanks, brother.


Michael Gilley said...

This is great! Thanks Ben!


Ben Witherington said...


I have three books already out for a long time about women and their roles in early Christianity. On the texts you refer to I would commend you to simply look at the lay person version in Women in the Earliest Churches. Paul has no problems with women teaching in the churches in general. in 1 Cor. 14 the issue is not teaching but responding to prophets with questions, which are better asked at home. 1 Tim. 2 has to do with high status women who simply assumed they could teach and exercise authority prior to learning and submitting to the existing teaching (nothing in that text about women submitting to men, by the way, or in 1 Cor. 14 where the issue is again submission to the prophetic word).

The issue is not emasculating men, the issue is properly empowering women, who are equally created and redeemed in the image of God, and equally called and gifted to share in whatever way the Spirit leads. Most importantly, relationships in the physical family are certainly affected by one's gender, but what determines roles in the family of faith is the Holy Spirit, not gender.



Hollands Opus said...

Thank you Ben, and I should have qualified my remarks about "emasculation".

The popular culture seems to be increasingly painting men as either lazy dolts that do nothing for the family, or as just another little boy that needs to be corrected, along with the rest of the children. This seems a fair analysis of sitcoms and advertisements.

My intention is to be accurately biblically informed about those things I mentioned, so as to not have my understanding of scriptures be tainted by my visceral reaction to ungodly gender designations and understandings "in the world". I will purchase your book. Thank you for your input, and I look forward to you book in December.


Leslie said...

Dr. Witherington,

How do you interpret the idea of "speaking in tongues" in the early church? My understanding is that speaking in tongues meant speaking in other languages of the day, particularly due to actions like that of Pentecost, where everyone heard in their own language.

Josh said...


Yeah, I have often wondered that too. The tongues in acts seem to be in other known languages.I have often heard of refered to as the reversal of the tower of Babel curse. But in 1 Cor. the tongues that Paul is talking about seem more like ecstatic utterances; like the Pentecostals do. I think Fee even links this to the phrase "speaking in the tongues of angels." In his view, they are talking in the language of the future i.e. "heavenly language."

How does the "tongues speaking" trasition from known languages, if indeed all that was done on Pentecost was known tongue speaking, to ecstatic utterances?

Thanks for posting such great biblical studies posts, Ben.

By the way, I am moving right along in the UM ordination process.
(My home Baptist support us financially and they said they would continue to support as long as we are faithful to God's calling; praise the Lord for people who care about God's agenda more than others)

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Leslie:

You are right that Acts 2 is about a miraculous gift of speaking in foreign languages, something my Greek students pray for regularly :) However glossolalia as mentioned in 1 Cor. 12-14 refers to speaking in an angelic language as is clear from 1 Cor. 13.1-2 and 14.


Ben W

townpiper said...

Thanks for your insights, Ben. What's your take on glossolalia as practiced in some of today's churches.? As a linguist, I've always had a hard time with the concept. Some,of course ,would consider"non -glossolates" like myself, to be a bit less "yielded" and somehow less "spiritual". Sounds like Galatianism to me. What say you?
God Bless.

Kzer-za said...

Do you ever plan to write any OT commentaries?

CaptainQuick said...

Holland's Opus,

You could go to to find more articles about the biblical basis for mutual submission.