Drinking songs

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord… [Eph. 5:18–19]

Paul's opposition of drunkenness and Spirit-filled singing has always struck me as a little bit odd. Is singing hymns at church supposed to help Christians who are tempted by the bottle?

In his book Ancient Christian Worship, Andrew McGowan offers a suggestion which makes Paul's instruction a very natural thing to say: these are instructions to a community which regularly gathers for banquets.

McGowan shows that the early Eucharistic meal were recognisably a version of Greco-Roman banquets (convivia). Such a convivium would consist of a meal followed by a drinking party. Depending on which social group was conducting these banquets, there might be some after-dinner discussion, or perhaps some musical entertainment. However, it isn't difficult to see how a party like this could go off the rails. So, Paul weighs in:

In contrasting musical sobriety with the dubious practices of the Greco-Roman banquet, Ephesians is implicitly pointing to proper conduct at the eucharistic meal again […] So this is liturgical and not merely ethical advice. [McGowan, 113]

This should remind us that, in the New Testament, the Eucharistic meal is often assumed, or faintly alluded to, without being directly talked about. The hearers of these letters would typically have been gathered around a table in a dining room, either having just enjoyed their feast of bread and wine or just about to do so. Keeping this context in mind does add some additional colour to certain familiar statements in the epistles:

Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. [1 Cor. 5:8]
For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. [Eph. 5:29-30]
We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle. [Heb. 13:10]