Divisions at the Lord’s Supper – 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

After dealing with veiling of men and women in worship, Paul moves on to reports about divisions a the Lord’s Supper. Because of these divisions, some members of the church eat before others, and some even go hungry. What is the meaning of “go before”?

Triclinium Pompeii

The House of the Triclinium (Pompeii,
Excavated 1883)

Compare a few Bible translation:

  • “every one taketh before other his own supper” (KJV)
  • “each one goes ahead with his own meal.” (ESV)
  • “each of you goes ahead with your own supper” (NRSV)
  • “some of you go ahead with your own private suppers.” (NIV 2011

For some interpreters, the situation is Corinth is that wealthier members of the community bring their own food and eat before the poorer members arrive. They literally eat before everyone arrives, perhaps so they do not have to share with the poor members. But Bruce Winter suggested “go before” (προλαμβάνω) refers to eating all the food at the meal so that the poor to not have anything (After Paul Left Corinth, 143-48). In this case, the wealthy are behaving like gluttons and drunkards. D. Clint Burnett examines the evidence from several inscriptions and conclude that “go before” is the right meaning (Studying the New Testament through Inscriptions (Hendrickson, 2020; reviewed here).

So why is food a the Lord’s Supper creating divisions in the Corinthian church? Christian gatherings in the earliest days of the church were held in homes and it appears meals were an essential part of worship.  The meal resembled a Greco-Roman meal, and this may have been the problem for the church. In a contemporary context, we celebrate the ritual of the Lord’s Supper with very small, controlled portions and there is no opportunity for gluttony or drunkenness. Even if we drew the analogy to a church pot-luck supper, it is very unlikely there would be the sort of problems Paul is describing here.

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor suggested the wealthy host would invite the more important guest to dine with him in his triclinium, a formal dining room while the poorer members ate in another room like servants. (St. Paul’s Corinth, 159). The real problem is the church is treating the shared meal as they would a regular meal and using the meal to reinforce social distinctions just as they would in a meal at a Temple (as described in chapter 8). Burnett argues the design of the Roman dining room contributed to social divisions since a dining room had three tables, a triclinium, and only held nine (elite) people, and (maybe) no women ate and the best tables.

Paul says he heard there are divisions even at these special meals (1 Corinthians 11:18-19). The church host provided food, but people may also have brought their own food and drink to share among people in their own social class, while the poorer members of the congregation shared their own food, or perhaps waited for the leftovers from the wealthy members. Although it is not specifically mentioned, it is possible Jewish members brought their own food to not eat unclean foods, but the problem Paul is discussing is not foods, but treatment of people!

The poor in Roman Corinth did not have kitchens in their homes to prepare food, and if they were slaves, they were dependent on the masters for food, they would not be able to contribute to a common meal, unless they were able to purchase something at the market. In addition, the poor and slaves had to work, meeting began on early on Sunday, our Saturday evening. There was now weekend or day off for the poor, so they would have no way to purchase food in the event they could afford it.

Imagine a church potluck dinner with different tables based on your annual tithing level. The top-tier givers eat from a catered table from a five-star restaurant with an abundance of filet mignon and fresh vegetables, while the lower-level givers get crockpots of meatballs and green bean casseroles; the lowest level get a hot dog and a bag of chips. Most people would be highly offended by this arrangement: if we are all equal in the Body of Christ, why do some people get preferential treatment?

From a modern perspective, it is unimaginable wealthy Christians would overlook the needs of the poor, but the wealthy in Roman Corinth would take no notice of the poor at all! One of the main problems in the church is this social attitude was present when the church gathered for worship.

This behavior is not at all commendable because it is creating the same sort of social divisions in the church Paul says are erased in the Body of Christ. There are no Jews and Gentiles, but also no slave and free. This means the slave has the same family position in the Body of Christ.

6 thoughts on “Divisions at the Lord’s Supper – 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

  1. If (as I think to be obvious) the Lord’s Supper was a shared meal in the New Testament, why should it not be so now, rather than being the pale shadow of what it once was and was intended to be?

  2. Well done. Is the bending guy on the right vomiting?

    Woodrow Nichols

  3. It would make sense that new converts and believers in first century Corinth would still see harsh distinctions between the different social classes of people. Growing up in a culture that would have emphasized that your whole life just to join a new religion that labels everyone was equal would be a very difficult mindset to overcome. Paul’s letter to the Galatians may be addressing some similar things going on when he says that “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (3:28). This could also offer us further evidence and understanding that these distinctions were not fixed in the minds of the Corinthians overnight, but rather, it took time to fully realize what living in Christ meant. Thus, when it came to the Lord’s Supper, it would’ve felt completely normal to share a meal with the upper-class people before the poor and lower-class arrived, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. Just because something was normal and okay to do before becoming a believer, does not mean that it is after conversion. As believers, we are not to “conform to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:2).
    Continuing in your old ways of thinking pre-conversion isn’t just against our calling as believers, but it is also damaging our fellow brothers and sisters. Although Paul doesn’t go in detail too much about how the current practice of the Lord’s Supper is affecting others, I’m sure the lower-class is feeling segregated and neglected when they aren’t able to participate with the rest of their brothers and sisters in Christ.
    In a contemporary view, we should apply a passage like this to our lives based on the principle that we should not neglect participating in worship or gathering with other believers simply because they have a different level of wealth or social standing. Doing so not only limits the extent of community that we can have with our fellow believers, but also paints Christians in bad light as hypocrites who promote love and unity, but don’t include their own members.

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