What’s the problem with the way the Corinthians are handling the Lord’s Supper? Some think the key issue is that they were profaning a holy ritual. Others think the key issue is mistreating the poor. I think the key issue is their lack of belief.
In this section of the letter, Paul is responding to questions the Corinthians have asked him. Starting in chapter 11, he is addressing questions that relate to how they are handling their worship services. In 1Corinthians 11:17, he turns to how they are handling the Lord’s supper.
What’s at stake?
Some people think the main problem is the way the Corinthians are handling a sacrament. They are profaning the holy ritual of communion and Paul wants them to handle the sacrament properly.
Others, who focus on the language about the poor, conclude that Paul’s emphasis is social justice. They think the key teaching is that no poor person should have any less or be treated differently than a rich person.
I think the key issue in this passage is their lack of belief. The way the Corinthians are handling the Lord’s supper reveals a profound problem with what they believe. If they understood what this ritual means, they wouldn’t act in this way.
11:17But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22What! 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. – 1Corinthians 11:17-22
- Paul opens this section with a harsher and firmer tone than the first half of the chapter.
- He thinks it would be better not to have communion at all than to have it the way they are handling it.
- We know from chapters 1-4 there are divisions in the Corinthian church over Paul’s authority as an apostle. Some reject Paul in favor of Apollos. In this issue, the divisions are along economic lines, but it could be the same group of people.
- 11:18-19 paraphrase: ‘I can believe that there are divisions among you, because I would expect that the worldly and foolish among you will ultimately show themselves to be different than those who are mature in the faith. Those who follow the world are on a different path and that will eventually become evident.’
- The divisions are inevitable in the sense that worldly values will eventually conflict with gospel values.
- Wealthy homes often had a courtyard or atrium in the middle which could hold 30-50 people. Off the courtyard, there was typically a dining room which would hold about 10-12 people. When a large church gathered, it appears the wealthy and social elite were eating in the dining room. Leaving the poor, the freed slaves, the lower class to eat in the courtyard.
- It was common for people to bring their own food to these gatherings. People of different status would bring different amounts and types of food. The poor are going hungry while the rich are feasting to the point of getting drunk.
11:33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come. – 1Corinthians 11:33-34
- Paul’s conclusion is wait on each other (like a waiter). Serve each other and attend to everyone’s needs before attending to your own.
- Instead of bringing a feast and ignoring those who have nothing, wait on them. Serve them and make sure they have enough.
- If your primary concern is being fed, then eat at home, because that’s not what the meal is about.
- There will always be division between those who follow the world and those who follow the gospel.
- Sometimes it is appropriate to compromise and accommodate (as we learned in the meat to idols and head coverings sections).
- But when fundamental issues of the gospel are at stake, it is not appropriate to compromise or accommodate.
- In this situation, the way they are conducting themselves casts doubt on whether they really believe the gospel. In a ceremony that is supposed to celebrate unity in Christ, they are ignoring those who are going hungry while indulging themselves .
- Their actions are so incompatible with the gospel that Paul is concerned that they might not really believe it.
For more detail and explanation, please listen to the podcast.