The complexities of unity:

A brief analysis of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34

Eliezer A. Graterol, PhD, DMin, is a professor of world religions and missions at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of pastoring a small country church where members gathered several times a week to hear God’s Word, seek solace, and enjoy communion. This close-knit community drew many to Jesus. Comprising diverse backgrounds and talents—farmers, physicians, immigrants—they shared a familial bond. However, challenges arose and small disagreements escalated, fracturing the once-united congregation. Even church services and events became tainted by division and exclusion, evident in displays of affluence and status. This fracturing hindered outreach efforts. As their pastor, I felt deeply frustrated and saddened by these developments.

During one celebration of the Lord’s Supper, members acknowledged losing sight of its true meaning; they began to confess their sins and commit to rediscovering fellowship and unity. Barriers dissolved as hands reached out to bridge divides. In the days that followed, the church aimed for reconciliation, knowing that only together could they honor the true essence of communion and their faith in Jesus.

The first epistle to the Corinthians, written by the apostle Paul, offers a fascinating glimpse into issues related to unity in the church in the context of one of the most important of Jesus’ institutions, the Lord’s Supper. This article examines the profound issues within the Corinthian church, particularly the division and quarrels evident in the practice of the Lord’s Supper, as meticulously addressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34.

Corinth: A nexus of diversity

Paul’s upbringing is marked by three interconnected worlds—Judaism, Hellenism, and Roman culture.1 They contributed to Paul’s unique perspective and greatly influenced his writings, particularly the first letter to the Corinthians. Corinth’s prominence and challenges are highlighted in the following statement:

During the Roman period Corinth was the undisputed political and commercial leader of the Greek cities. Its dual harbors made it one of the maritime powers of the world. . . .

. . . As one would expect in a port city like Corinth, almost every conceivable cult had found its way there. . . .

. . . That prostitution flourished in a port city like Corinth is beyond dispute.2

Despite the cultural and religious complexities, the gospel triumphed in Corinth, leading to the establishment of a Christian community. However, the Corinthian church, like many of our congregations today, faced significant challenges, with division and quarrels among its members emerging as one of the most pressing issues (1 Cor. 1:11).

The Lord’s Supper: A microcosm
of division

The division and quarrels within the Corinthian church found a poignant expression in the practice of the Lord’s Supper, as elucidated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. Paul’s rebuke is clear and forceful, addressing the harmful nature of the Corinthian gatherings and the blatant divisions among members during the sacred observance.

The church of Corinth faced several challenges and problems. Here, Paul is about to address one of these challenges manifested in the context of the Lord’s Supper. No problem is greater or more dangerous within the Christian church than division and animosity among the members. Sadly, this regrettable reality is evident in many of our churches today. The Corinthian church did not have any problem gathering together; the issue lay in the manner in which they were doing so. The notion of “gathering together” is reiterated in the narrative at least five times.

In the milieu of the first century, societal divisions were pronounced. Distinctions prevailed between the Greeks and the barbarians, those proficient in Greek and those not, individuals with the privileges of Roman citizenship and those without, the demarcation between the intellectual elite and the uninformed, and the dichotomy of free individuals and slaves.3 Despite this social landscape, the Corinthian church, rather than promoting solace and fellowship, appeared to have overlooked the significance of κοινωνία (koinōnia). As aptly articulated by theologian Leander Keck, “The Corinthians who are abusing the Lord’s Supper have minimized or lost the basic Pauline sense that the life of faith is a life of community.”4

The term σχίσμα (schisma) in verse 18 denotes a split, gap, division, rent, or schism.5 This division became notably apparent during church gatherings. The primary issue addressed by Paul in this context is the exclusion and indifference toward the less fortunate.

In their observance of the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthians discriminated against the poor. Paul condemned this perversion, stating that Christ would not accept their act of worship. . . .

Paul’s criticism was that there were divisions among the Corinthians, but he had already addressed this issue extensively in chapters 1–4. Here, he focused on the divisions that existed when the Corinthians came together as a church.6

Abuse of the Lord’s Supper: Exclusion and humiliation

The abuse manifested in the exclusion of the less fortunate as the wealthier members indulged in lavish banquets while leaving the marginalized to languish. This abuse not only betrayed the concept of κοινωνία but also transformed the Lord’s Supper into a self-serving feast devoid of its sacred purpose.

During that era, a prevalent Roman custom involved affluent individuals inviting their close associates early to banquets, serving them the finest dishes in a designated area known as the triclinium (dining room). The Corinthians adopted this Roman practice. Consequently, within a relatively small space capable of accommodating only a handful of people, the intimate friends of the wealthy guests were hosted. As a result, individuals of “lesser status” within the church were compelled to be dismissed to the atrium, a more expansive area situated in the center of the house. It is likely that the Corinthians executed this practice deliberately, thereby delineating a distinction or division, as denoted by the term σχίσμα, based on social status.7

The early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper with great banquets. . . . These meals came to be known as “love feasts.” They probably climaxed in an observance of the Lord’s Supper.

In their meals, the Corinthians favored the privileged and rich. If the Lord’s Supper was observed in Corinthian homes, the rich and powerful may have been allowed to eat first. . . . They magnified the harm by leaving nothing for the others. Such social practices were so common that it would have seemed natural for the church to do the same.8

Both the affluent and the impoverished transformed the event into their individual suppers, divorcing it from its intended significance as “the Lord’s Supper.” The humiliation of the poor, relegated to the atrium according to verse 22, compounded the issue. Paul’s condemnation also targeted the excessive consumption of food and drink, leaving little for the working class, who might arrive later, as evidenced in verse 21. The absence of all members or the dismissal of some due to social status precluded a true gathering around the table. In such instances, the presence of Christ was compromised, and what occurred was not a genuine “Lord’s Supper” but, rather, a self-serving feast marked by division and exclusion.

Eucharist

The term εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō) is employed in verse 24 with reference to the bread in the context of the Lord’s Supper, leading some to associate it intimately with a sacrificial connotation.9 However, the actual meaning of this term contradicts the sacrificial interpretation. Εὐχαριστέω can be understood to mean “to be grateful,” “to express gratitude,” or “give thanks.”10 Moreover, the verb κλάω (kláō), used to describe the breaking of the bread in the same passage, appears 15 times in the New Testament. Notably, in most instances, this verb is used either when Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying the bread or during the Last Supper.11 Following the breaking of the bread, Jesus distributed it to His disciples, suggesting that the term breaking bread could be a technical phrase for κοινωνία and communal partaking.12 The emphasis lies not merely in the breaking of a single loaf but in how members of the body of Christ come together to partake of that shared loaf. This action should be approached as a cause for celebration, marked by joy and thanksgiving, rather than viewed as a sacrificial act.

In remembrance of Me

The expression “in remembrance of Me” is reiterated twice in the narrative (verses 24, 25) and finds its roots in Jewish heritage. Within the context of Paul’s three worlds, Judaism—with its emphasis on remembrance—prompted a continual reflection on Israel’s traditions.13 This practice underlines the significance of recalling and acknowledging the historical context of shared beliefs. In the gatherings marked by κοινωνία, only Christ deserves exaltation and praise, emphasizing the exclusive centrality of Christ in the communal activities of believers.

Proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes

In verse 26 of the presented passage, the verb translated as “to proclaim,” καταγγέλλω (kataggellō), extends beyond the confines of time and history. Its primary reference is to the past event of Jesus’ death, a significant occurrence that appears to have been overlooked by the Corinthian church. Moreover, the verb holds a present connotation, as the gatherings of believers and the communal meal itself can be viewed as a form of proclamation or as occasions during which a verbal declaration of Jesus’ death occurs.14

Furthermore, καταγγέλλω carries an eschatological dimension, pointing toward a scenario that will be fulfilled in the eschaton. Keck emphasizes that its meaning extends beyond mere preaching. It encompasses a broader sense wherein individuals, by fully embodying the new life in Christ, make their faith known by manifesting their beliefs in their actions. This living expression of faith impacts others, as illustrated in 1 Thessalonians 1:8, highlighting the transformative power of a life lived in accordance with one’s faith.15

Joy

In 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, Paul earnestly implores the members of the Corinthian church to reclaim the Christian principle of unity. Regardless of cultural, political, or societal pressures, the church must refrain from denigrating or excluding any group. On the contrary, God’s church should stand as a beacon against financial, racial, and cultural discrimination. The Lord’s Supper, a sacred observance, must be embraced within the context of κοινωνία, a fellowship facilitated by the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The essence of joy and thanksgiving must permeate every gathering of the church. Moreover, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper bears immense significance for the church, encompassing past, present, and future connotations. In each instance, when believers unite to partake in the Lord’s Supper, they engage in a simultaneous remembrance of Christ’s past sacrifice, appreciation for present benefits, and anticipation of His future return. It is within this multifaceted framework that the profound significance and enduring importance of this communal experience are rooted.

  1. N. T. Wright, Paul (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 3, 4.
  2. John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1999), 214, 215.
  3. William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975), 101.
  4. Leander E. Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), 934.
  5. Michael S. Bushell and Michael D. Tan, BibleWorks 4.0. (BibleWorks, 1992).
  6. Richard L. Pratt Jr., I and II Corinthians, Holman New Testament Commentary, ed. Max Anders (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 2000), 196.
  7. Polhill, Paul and His Letters, 245.
  8. Pratt, I and II Corinthians, 197.
  9. Russell D. Moore, Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), loc. 785.
  10. Bushell and Tan, BibleWorks 4.0.
  11. Just on four occasions, κλάω (kláō) is used in either its aorist or past form to refer to the breaking of the bread in the apostolic church as presented in the book of Acts (Acts 2:46; 20:7; 20:11; 27:35).
  12. This same idea is found in the use of κλάω (kláō) in reference to the four passages above.
  13. Keck, New Interpreter’s Bible, 935.
  14. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), 557.
  15. Keck, New Interpreter’s Bible, 935.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Eliezer A. Graterol, PhD, DMin, is a professor of world religions and missions at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

May 2024

Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Trauma:

A global crisis right in your local congregation

Connecting for His coming:

Five steps for effective community engagement

Mishpat, priesthood, and Scripture:

The foundation for loving others

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - IIW-VBS 2024 (160x600)