Of all the Pauline Epistles, 1 Corinthians speaks most directly to the problems and concerns of today's parish pastor. One such problem is that of practices surrounding participation in the Lord's Supper. It was one of the many problems that affected the unity of the first-century church in Corinth. And it is one that has affected the unity of the entire Christian church over the centuries.
Particularly during the Reformation there were intense discussions and differences between the various religious groups and Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli regarding the meaning of the Supper. Even now such issues as transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and the symbolic meaning of the emblems continue to divide Christianity.
But in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul was not attempting to develop a complicated eucharistic theology, such as was debated during the Reformation. Throughout 1 Corinthians the theological issue is that of unity. All the doctrinal and ethical problems had their roots in the divisive spirit that had ingrained itself in the church. Yet, ironically, the church has made one of the very passages that Paul wrote to help unify the church the grounds of great disunity among the body of believers.
One simply needs to read 1 Corinthians 11:17-19, which begins the discussion, to realize Paul's interest: "But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you assemble as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and I partly believe it, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized."*
The Corinthians' problem, then, was not theological but sociological—if one can truly make such a distinction, for all biblical sociological problems are in essence theological. The factious spirit among them when they came together for the Lord's Supper made the meal not really the Lord's Supper (verse 20). Because of the inequitable and divisive social situation, the Spirit of the Lord was not present.
In verses 21 and 22 Paul clearly states the causes of disunity at the Communion service: "In eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not."
These verses tell us a number of things regarding the social situation of the church in Corinth, which seemed to be at the heart of the divisive spirit there.1 First, there were at least two groups at the service. Second, the groups began eating at different times. And third, the quality and the quantity of the food differed among the groups. Let us look carefully at each of these points.
Shutting out the poor
1. Who constituted the different groups? It seems that the Corinthian church included a large group from the lower class, and a small segment from the upper stratum of society. This is clear from chapter 1:26: "For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth."
It would seem that during these ancient Lord's Suppers—especially when the church was large, as the Corinthian church was—the members sat at several tables. It can be surmised that the wealthy would have the habit of physically separating themselves from the poor and partaking of the meal in their own exclusive society.
Chapter 11:21, 22 shows that the small upper stratum was prosperous and well fed to the point of drunkenness. On the other hand, it shows that the larger group, consisting of the poor, did not have enough to eat, went away hungry, and were humiliated.
2. These groups began eating at different times. Verses 21 and 33 indicate that some started eating before the rest. No doubt it was the upper class who were going ahead with their meal. But why would they begin first?
It was an accepted practice for each to bring his or her own meal to a common place and partake potluck-style in communal fellowship (cf. Acts 2:42-46). But the prosperous in the Corinthian church had lost the primitive sense of sharing and unity. They would start to eat before the poor arrived so that there would be no sharing of material goods with the less fortunate.
But not only was the minority group selfish; pride seems to have been involved also. First Corinthians 11:22 indicates that their actions humiliated the poor. The rich had no desire to associate with the humble and lowly (see Rom. 12:16). By eating alone in their exclusive groups, the well-to-do were putting down their brothers and sisters in the community and causing them embarrassment. They were, in effect, saying, we are superior to you.
3. First Corinthians 11: 21 indicates that at the supper some were hungry and others were drunk—clearly implying that there were unequal portions of food and drink. But it also seems that the quality of the meal of the rich was much superior to that of the poor.
At a common meal it was Greek practice for the higher social class to have a different quality of food from the lower class. In his study of the social situation of the Corinthian church, Gerd Theissen cites a few examples to support this point. He notes, for instance, that Pliny, a famous personality of that era, argued that at a common meal a person of a higher social status should adjust his eating habits to match those of a lower status.
And Theissen quotes Martial's complaint to his host, who is of a higher social class, that he is treating him (Martial) as if he still belongs to the lower class. At dinner the host eats fattened oysters from Lucrine Lake, while Martial sucks mussels through a hole in the shell. The latter eats hog fungi, while the former enjoys turbot. The rich host consumes a turtledove "with its bloated rump" and golden with fat, while Martial is served a magpie that had died in its cage. 2
It seems fair to conclude that some similar situation existed in the Corinthian church. The rich church members' meals, consumed before the whole body of believers came together, probably included some meat and fish delicacy (possibly the food sacrificed to idols, with which chapters 8-10 deal). After the common meal, the rich were stuffed and drunk, while the poor went away hungry.
Profaning Christ's body
Paul unequivocally condemns this way of conducting the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:22). In the same verse he states that those who exhibit such selfish indifference to the needs and feelings of the poor actually despise the church of God.
In fact, he says that by their selfish actions and mistreatment of the poor, the wealthy Christians were profaning the body and blood of Christ (verse 27). Such actions intensified the schisms in an already fragmented church. To eat and drink worthily is to recognize that in the fellowship of believers all should be equal. Some cannot be sated while others are hungry. To permit such a situation is to invite judgment—a judgment that Paul links to the sickness of many and death of some of the believers (verses 29, 30).
One wonders whether Paul's message is not intensely appropriate to Christians today. As we sit at the table for the Lord's Supper, do we profane the body of Christ? Do we participate contented with our material comforts while fellow believers in the Third World go hungry and even humiliated? As Ron Sider asks in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, how dare we rest contented at the Communion service "until the scandal of starving Christians is removed"? 3
Today, true unity in the body of Christ cannot be achieved when there is such a great distinction between the rich and the poor, between the sated and the empty. Each participation at the Lord's Sup per should remind us of the Corinthian situation. We should hear Paul's voice anew. The poor, the hungry, are a part of the body of Christ. They deserve to be treated as such. To ignore their plight is not to discern the body of Christ. It is to bring judgment upon ourselves.
When we prepare ourselves for the Supper, we must put away all of the sins that divide the body of Jesus Christ. Yes, this means personal sins such as pride, jealousy, covetousness, envy, major or minor misunderstandings, malice, hatred, and falsehood. But at the same time, we must not fail to put away the social sins, sins such as neglect of the poor, hungry, and oppressed. It is only when the church of Christ has rid itself of these vices, at the individual and corporate levels, that these words of Jesus in His great prayer will be fulfilled: "That they may all be one" (John 17:21).
*All quotations from Scripture in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.
1 I am greatly dependent on Gerd Theissen's The
Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1982) for sociological insights on the
situation in Corinth. See also William F. Orr and
James Arthur Walther's comment on 1 Corinthians
11:17-34 in The Anchor Bible: 1 Corinthians
(GardenCity, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976).
2 Theissen, p. 157.
3 Ron J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of
Hunger: A Biblical Study (Downers Grove, 111.: Inter-
Varsity Press, 1977). Cf. William Johnsson's editorial
"A Tale of Two Countries," Adventist Review,
Nov. 6, 1986; and Barry L. Casey, "Needless Hunger
in a Bountiful World," Adventist Review, Nov. 6, 1986.