BY DR. AGONSON
On the surface, Ephesians 5:18 seems to be the perfect memory verse to inculcate the youths against the temptations of drink: “Do not be drunk with wine” seems rather clear. Yet, the whole of the verse sets this idea of drunkenness against another theme, and so, instead of concluding on some note of literal sobriety, of merely watching one’s blood-alcohol content, the Ephesians are instructed that they should instead be “filled,” that is, in the place of filling oneself with wine, the Christian should fill himself “with the Spirit.”
Now, this verse obviously mirrors verses in Proverbs, a book of wise sayings. Even the study guide in my Bible lists parallels to verse eighteen in Proverbs 20:1 and 23:31, both of which generally match this surface level reading of teetotalism. However, gaining a greater context for this verse, there is a repeated idea of wisdom versus foolishness in the preceding verses, and so, as one should avoid foolishness and seek wisdom, the idea seems to be that one should avoid drunkenness and seek the Spirit.
On the whole, this sudden injunction against alcohol seems out of place when taken purely literally. Yes, the specific of wine is in the passage, but there seems a deeper meaning to this verse than a temperance slogan. Now, a reason against drunkenness is given, the Greek word translated in various ways, debauchery, excess, dissipation. This excess, this ἀσωτία (asōtia), seems to stand in opposition to the wisdom Paul is urging his readers to seek, the fullness of Spirit.
In the next verse, counteraction is prescribed against drunkenness, an expounding upon verse eighteen’s idea of being filled with the spirit. Yet, instead of the somber tone one would ordinarily associate as the opposite of drinking, sobriety possessing a rather humdrum connotation of lifeless seriousness, the actions Paul encourages are lively and energetic: Giving thanks, music from the heart, singing.
There seems to be, logically, two ways a man may be drunk. He might have imbibed, and exceeded the limit, of some adult beverage, yet he may also lack sobriety, not from some external influence, but from an internal weakness, a nonseriousness. Preceding verse eighteen, Paul says to be careful, to make the most out of a day, to understand God’s will, and against each of these virtues he says to not be unwise, to not forget the day is evil, and to not be foolish. This pairing of “be this and not that” finishes with verse eighteen, culminates in a dichotomy of being filled either with the Spirit of God or the spirits of the bottle.
It is not such a leap to say that Paul here encourages us to be serious, and yet this seriousness is not of the mournful, sackcloth and ashes type. Indeed, laying out the desired actions of those not drunk, Paul describes something celebratory. On considering this, a parallel occurred to me from The Lord of the Rings. The evil faction consisted of corruption, that is, orcs are corrupted elves, the Nazgul corrupted kings. Within the fantasy of middle earth, evil is shown as unable to produce its own original content. Furthermore, the Ents, anthropomorphic tree giants, are paralleled by an evil imitation, Trolls.
Drunkenness is opposed to being filled with the Spirit, is an imitation of that true freedom and life we can have through relationship with God.
In our class’s discussion and study of Pneumatology, my mind often goes back to my childhood when my parents took me to Vineyard meetings, a denomination I was pleasantly surprised to see in our Erickson reading. I had a great time as a child: people were friendly, everyone was having fun, and a good number of them acted really weird. I am still friends with some of these people.
However, as I grew, I realized I was not one of them. Whatever animated these people, whatever caused them to shout, “Ho!” during the service, whether the Holy Spirit or some zeitgeist, was not manifested in me. I could imitate them, which I even tried, thinking I might be priming the pump for the Holy Spirit to come upon me, but in the end I was never taken over as the people around me claimed to be, I was never satisfied that it was the Spirit and not myself moving me.
I remember one service interrupted by a shofar, the irate musician declaring one of the women shouting “Ho!” to be under demonic possession. This madman was escorted out of the building, but I had already been considering his position.
The best answer I had to this crisis was prayer, but instead I avoided the issue. I tried not to think about it much, and generally avoided going to these types of services. When I did come, I sat quietly, trying to feel something I never felt.
Then it was, while visiting my sister, that I again found myself at a worship service where people were laying around on the ground giggling like they were high off of something. Here I prayed again, and perhaps with some earnestness I had never given to the topic, why I was not as they, why was I not overtaken?
And whether from God, but maybe my own reasoning, an idea was suddenly formed in my mind. I had been taking chemistry classes, and the thought presented to me was that adding chemical X to chemical Y may spark combustion, and yet that same chemical X added to chemical W might otherwise have a completely different reaction, one only a microscope would unveil. On the whole, the answer seemed that the same Spirit may come upon all of us, but that did not necessitate that all would respond in the same way. (This Seems to mirror 1 Corinthians 12:4).
And so, considering drunkenness, I admit that my friends externally seemed to fall into such a category, and yet my mind is at ease. Whether or not the exuberance they have is a veritable working of the Spirit is between them and God, and I learned not to judge myself, and my own internal experience of God, by the external show of another.