Drunk and Disorderly for Jesus
A reflection on Ephesians 5:15-20 by Nathan Nettleton, 20th August 2000
© LaughingBird.net

Paul’s word play on drunkenness is both a useful contrast and a useful comparison for Christian living.


Last week we began looking at the “practical applications” section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church and this passage continues it. We’ve just got a short extract this week, and I want to focus our consideration of it around an intriguing word-play in the middle of it. It is a word-play on the image of drunkenness. Paul writes, “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit.” In my paraphrase of the passage I’ve rendered it, “If you’re going to go getting yourselves ‘under the influence’, make sure its the influence of the Spirit and not of the wine!” I was endeavouring to highlight the humour in Paul’s words, because he is clearly playing with the image of “getting full”, or as we might put it, “getting a skin-full”. He continues this play on images in the following verses where he uses the idea of singing together to illustrate what he’s talking about. He’s saying you don’t need a “skin-full of booze” to get you singing together - there’s another way.

One of the things that I think is really interesting about this play of images, is that it is double edged. Do you remember those exam questions you used to get where they’d name two things and then ask you to “compare and contrast” them? Well this is a similar kind of thing. Paul is not simply setting up two patterns of behaviour and contrasting them - one good and the other bad. He is calling us to note some similarities as well. We’ll look at the contrasts first, but if you’re feeling unsettled that Paul might be comparing drunkenness with spiritual living, just remember that he wasn’t the first to do it. Remember what happened on the Day of Pentecost. The Book of Acts tells us that most of the onlookers thought that the newly Spirit-filled believers had just had a skin-full of booze. We’ll come back to that.

The contrasts between a boozy lifestyle and a Spirit-filled lifestyle are more familiar to us. In some churches, being a non-drinker is considered to be one of the essential signs of your Christian commitment. The Methodists, the Salvation Army and, in some parts of the world, the Baptists have all been associated with a strong anti-alcohol stance. I guess I should admit, up front, that I don’t identify with that view - I enjoy a drink and I enjoy it often. But I still recognise the contrast!

The image that Paul is using here is not simply that of drinking, it is that of drunkenness. There are various reasons why some people routinely drink to the point of drunkenness. It produces an altered state of consciousness, which can often be quite pleasurable, at least at the time. A few people perhaps get drunk regularly just because they enjoy that experience. My observation though, is that most of the people who regularly get drunk do so, not so much because they like the way it feels, but because they don’t like the way they feel the rest of the time. It is an escape, a way out. It is a way of numbing, for a while, the pressures and pains of a life that is not providing the satisfaction, joy and fulfilment that we all long for. When life is feeling like a failure, we tend to be less concerned about the consequences of something like drunkenness. It makes us feel a little better for a while and if things are crook anyway, it can’t make them that much worse.

Paul begins then by contrasting this with life ‘under the influence’ of the Holy Spirit. The contrast begins as a continuation of the practical instructions that began in last week’s reading. Here he is urging us to be careful and clear-headed in the ways we live. He tell us that we are living in evil times and that we can easily get sucked into wrong things if we don’t have our wits about us. “Live wisely. Don’t do anything stupid,” says Paul. There’s no one more gullible than a drunk. Their defences are down and they’ll fall for anything. The one thing most drunks waking dreading even more than a hang-over is hearing back what they did the night before. Paul is clearly of the opinion that drunkenness, no matter how good it might feel at the time, is not the pathway to the fullness of life that God desires for us all. To find the pathway of the full and limitless life, you’ll need to have your wits about you. So the contrast is clear.

What about the comparison? We are less used to thinking of good Christian living as being anything like habitual drunkenness, but I think Paul is doing this quite deliberately. And I think that perhaps the reason we have trouble with the image is because we have tended to fall into exactly the error that Paul was hoping to get us to avoid. We are so used to thinking of Christianity as very nice and proper and sober and dignified, and Paul was wary that in encouraging us to be careful and wise we might over react and become stiff and starchy and miserly. Christians can be the ugliest people in the world when they get like that. They become lifeless and life-denying, and Paul is hoping we won’t fall into that.

So he sets about counter balancing his good sober advice with this image of “drunk and disorderly” Christian living! His word-play on getting “full” suggests that he sees some similarities. Today he might have alluded to other drugs of choice and encouraged us to get high on the Spirit. Paul draws on the image of alcohol as a social lubricant - as something that enables people to relax and celebrate and enjoy one another’s company. You know the image. We’ve all seen scenes of a group of people who might otherwise be rather uptight and distant having a few drinks and marching down the street arm in arm singing at the top of their voices. Paul picks up this idea and suggests that you don’t need alcohol to get you singing - getting high on the Holy Spirit can achieve the same desirable goal! He does suggest that “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” might be an improvement on bawdy drinking songs, but then Luther, Watts and Wesley all wrote hymns to the tunes of some of the drinking songs of their day. Our hymn “Covenant Wine” does the same thing with a modern one.

Someone (Mark Twain perhaps?) once said, “Alcohol doesn’t change a man, it just unmasks him.” Some drunks are violent, lecherous and belligerent. Some are pathetic, broken and sad. And some are uninhibitedly joyous, funny and sociable. It is clearly this latter group that Paul is holding up for comparison. I remember at my induction service here, Alan Marr, our Superintendent (or ‘bishop’) told a story of being in Sydney the night of the Mardi Gras. By being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he found himself running into the protest march of the Festival of Light. Alan commented that in terms of a spirit of joy, colour, celebration and creativity, the contrast between the two marches - the Mardi Gras and the predominantly ‘christian’ protest - could not have been more striking. His comment was very much in the spirit of what Paul is saying here. If Christianity seems to be lifeless and starchy, then you’re doing it all wrong. We are, after all, following someone who was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. Lighten up! Loosen up! Get a ‘skin-full’ for Jesus!

Questions for thought and discussion.

• What are some of the characteristics associated with drunkenness that take us away from living as Jesus would have us live?

• What are some of the characteristics associated with ‘teatotalism’ that take us away from living as Jesus would have us live?

• What are some of the characteristics associated with the ‘influence of alcohol’ that should be evident in those under the ‘influence of the Spirit’?

• How do we go about increasing those positive characteristics in our life together?