In our last essay we studied 11:2-16, which concerned the topic of men and women in worship. Having completed his criticism of men and women in worship in 11:2-16, Paul now turns in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 to a second problem with their public worship; namely, their conduct when celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
Notice the clause, “I do not commend you” in verse 17. You will remember that Paul began verse two of this chapter by commending the Corinthians, even though he was planning to correct their worship practices. But Paul begins this section on the Lord’s Supper by declaring that he will not commend them in regard to it.
So Paul definitely was unhappy with what was happening at Corinth when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. And he was unhappy enough to withdraw his commendation in respect to that issue. It seems important to me to note that Paul believed this problem was more serious than the problem of head coverings.
Paul’s first specific complaint, as seen in verse 19, regards the factionalism along economic and social class lines. You will recall that Paul condemned factionalism at Corinth earlier in the letter (1:10-4:12). Evidently one of the ways in which the factionalism was affecting the church was when they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper. The rich were gathering in a little clique, and were shutting out the poor in the process. This is new information. In the earlier part of the letter, Paul was condemning the factions, because they were based on who the group’s favorite apostle was: Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. But now we see that social discrimination also was taking place.
We can see several things in these verses. For example, the problem was taking place when the Corinthians assembled “in church” (v. 18). Both the NRSV and NIV translate it assembling “as a church.” Notice that Paul makes a stunning accusation. He declares that their worship services are doing more harm than good, literally it reads, “it is not for the better, but for the worse.”
You will remember from our study of earlier passages in this letter that cultic meals were a deeply ingrained part of worship in that culture. Those meals often were eaten at temples, which served as the restaurants of the day, as well as places of worship.
The Corinthian Christians still practiced eating meals as part of their worship, and the meals included the Lord’s Supper. We learned in chapter 10 that some of the Corinthians still thought it was acceptable to eat at the temples, because they knew that the gods to whom the offerings were made were not real gods. But Paul would have none of that, because he believed that demons were involved in those meals (10:14-22). So the Christians were to eat in their homes, not in the temples.
Now the only members of the fellowship whose homes would have been large enough to accommodate the church for worship would have been the rich members. And the homes of those rich members likely were the meeting places. Archaeologists have demonstrated that the typical home of the rich in that culture had a relatively small dining room, with space for about 12 guests maximum. When larger groups were entertained, the guests who could not fit into the dining room would have to eat in the atrium or courtyard, where another 30-50 could be accommodated.
I think we can see how this arrangement could foster the kind of practice Paul is condemning. The rich host, who would be paying for the meal, would invite his rich friends to eat with him in the dining room. The other members of the fellowship would have to eat out in the atrium.
Now there is insufficient evidence in the text to ascertain precisely what abuse was upsetting Paul so much; but it evidently had something to do with the customs of the day. It may be that the rich ate a sumptuous meal in the dining room, while the “poor” members were given meager fare in the atrium. Or perhaps the rich ate a fine meal without offering anything to the poor, who were assembling in the atrium for the Lord’s Supper.
This sort of abuse would explain why some participants in worship were hungry (v. 21), and why Paul suggests that regular meals be eaten at home before assembling for worship: “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in” (v. 22)? “If any one is hungry, let him eat at home” (v. 34.
Paul’s second complaint is even more difficult to deal with, because his comment is so vague. I am referring to his statement in verse 19, “Indeed there have to be factions among you for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” The statement is difficult, because of Paul’s earlier denunciation of factions. Both Barrett and Fee suggest that Paul is referring to the end-time divisions that Jesus himself predicted would occur and would show who the true believers are. In other words, Paul is saying there must be factions, not in the sense that factions are good, but in the sense that they are inevitable. That is, the behaviors of the Corinthians in the various factions will reveal who the true believers are.
A third complaint by Paul is very serious. He declares that the Corinthians worship, which included a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, was not really a celebration of the Lord’s Supper (v. 20).
Verse 21 tells us why. Each one goes ahead with his own meal, while some go hungry and others get drunk. This idea of going ahead with their own meal is quite vague, but it apparently has something to do with the difference in food offered to the rich and the poor guests respectively. Some have suggested that each person brought their own meal to the service. But there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that people did that in their culture. Others have suggested that the rich ate before the poor arrived. But Paul clearly states that he is dealing with what happened when they met together.
The best view is that the rich host is discriminating among church members. He is serving a sumptuous meal in the dining room for his rich faction, and he is providing very little food for the poor out in the atrium. As a result, the poor are going hungry. In addition, some among the rich are getting drunk. Paul is extremely upset by all of this. And as we see in verse 22, he declares that the ultimate result is that the church is despised and the poor humiliated.
Now then, the next paragraph is Paul’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, by which Paul reminds the Corinthians of the Supper’s real purpose. Matthew and Mark also have accounts of the institution of the Sacrament, which show that it originated with Jesus (Mt. 26:26-29; Mk. 14:22-24). Their accounts differ in some respects from Paul’s, but not in any significant way.
Verses 23-26 make up a well known and understood paragraph. So we will discuss it briefly. I only wish to make a couple of comments. You will recall that Jesus and his disciples were celebrating the Jewish Passover when he reinterpreted the bread they were eating and the third of four cups (the cup of blessing) to symbolize his own body and blood. In that way he was symbolizing his death.
The purpose of the sentence, “Do this in remembrance of me,” suggests a regular celebration of the Sacrament. But we must keep in mind that the Sacrament is not simply a remembrance of Jesus’ death. It also is a remembrance of the salvation that comes to us because of that death. In verse 26 Paul gives the real reason for celebrating the Sacrament. It is “to proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” But the Corinthians have forgotten that. In Corinth the celebration of the Sacrament has become a time to “pig-out” and party for the rich and a time of humiliation for the poor.