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.

Unintelligible Worship – 1 Corinthians 14:20-25

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul deals with misuse of spiritual gifts which led to divisions between self-described spiritual and the unspiritual people in the church. Their worship was no longer devoted to fellowship between people of every social class (male and female, slave and free). Even encouragement from God’s word descended into a competition to see who can be more spiritual. Whatever is happening, it is so disruptive a visitor would not just think the behavior of the church was strange, they might confuse it with pagan rituals and completely miss the Gospel.

Paul describes their worship as childish (14:20). Maturity has been a theme throughout the letter, but now Paul applies the congregation’s immaturity to their worship. Like factions or other issues of maturity in the letter, likely the problems with worship are related to social class distinctions.

It is likely people in the congregation believed ecstatic gifts were a sign of spirituality and therefore the more one prophesied or spoke in tongues, the more spiritual he is. This is the way the non-Christian Greek would have understood the ecstatic gifts. The contrast between childish and adult thinking is consistent with Paul’s encouragement to seek the “greater gifts” in chapter 13. It is inappropriate to “think as a child,” whether this is in the context of factions in the church, eating and drinking, lawsuits, etc.

Paul’s concern is for the outsider who needs to hear the Gospel (14:24-25). This is likely a Gentile who knows nothing about the gifts of the Spirit and would misunderstand what ecstatic speech is.

What would a Greek think about tongues or prophecy? Ben Witherington suggests prophecy would be naturally associated with the Delphic oracle, while tongues would have been associated with ecstatic speech among the followers of Dionysus (Community and Conflict, 276-9). In either case, a person visiting the congregation would hear the chaotic worship at Corinth and assume individuals in the church were possessed of spirits like an oracle. The Delphic oracle is only one example of ecstatic speech in the Greco-Roman world. In Acts 16, for example, Paul casts a demon from a slave girl who was used as an oracle in Philippi, she has the “spirit of Python.”

Worship or Katy Perry?

Paul’s problem with the congregation the same as earlier sections of the letter. They are once again failing to separate themselves from the world and therefore are not reaching the world. Their worship is indistinguishable from these commonly known practices and therefore has really ceased to do any good at all. For Paul, five intelligible words would be preferred to ecstatic speech! Witherington also points out that religious rites in the ancient world were usually done in silence, with nothing but a flute player to cover up ambient noise. As worship began, the phrase favete linguis was used – “check your tongue”!

While Paul is not necessarily calling for the Corinthians to sit in silence. There is a need for intelligibly and orderliness in worship. Far from being a sign of spiritual status, the gifts are just that, a gracious gift by God to be used for the building-up of the church. The elite of the church assume that they are better than others because they have been given this gift.

What would an outsider think if they heard ecstatic speech after a banquet which included good food and wine? The natural assumption is the cult of Dionysus. This is a disaster for the church, since the cult was almost always outlawed and looked down upon by “polite society.”

With respect to prophecy, it is possible the Corinthians understood the role of a prophet as an oracle, like that found at Delphi. In general, the oracle was asked specific questions, and gave cryptic yet clear answers. Witherington reports the oracle might be asked about religious or political matters, but these would not really be the concern of the Christian congregation. Rather, they would ask domestic questions: questions about career, marriage, or possibly even practice. There are a number of slogans in 1 Corinthians, “Everything is permitted” (10:23) or “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). It is possible these are answers which were given through an alleged spirit of prophecy, in response to questions from the congregation.

Remember that the last half of this letter is a series of questions and answers. It is possible that the church is putting questions to Paul that they have already put to their own prophets! Perhaps this is the reason Paul quote these statements and then argues against them.

If these observations are even close to the mark, then this is another case of the Corinthian church failing to fully apply the Christ to the conversion of the pagan practices. Paul has to deal carefully with these people since he wants to encourage the use of spiritual gifts, but he must discourage behavior which is still “pagan.”

I really do not want to wade into the turbulent waters of the practice of tongues in contemporary worship since that distracts from Paul’s point. But if Paul is saying Christian worship ought to look different than the world, there is an equally disturbing application here. At what point does contemporary (American, evangelical) worship look and feel like “the world”?

  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and a country music concert, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and classical music performance, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a sermon and a pep-talk from a life coach, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?

Worship (in whatever form it takes) ought to draw people to the Gospel rather than drive them away.

Should Women Cover Their Heads for Worship? 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Nero as Priest

In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 Paul says “every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.” But “a man ought not to cover his head” while praying.  Should Women Cover Their Heads for Worship?

William M. Ramsay on cites Dio Chrysostom to the effect that the custom of women going veiled in Tarsus was an oriental and non-Greek custom, Paul is merely reflecting his own (Jewish) background by requiring women wear head coverings (The Cities of St. Paul, 201-5). Because of the popularity of Ramsey’s works on Paul, this theory is often repeated in modern commentaries, but it seems odd that Paul would impose this one Jewish custom on congregations when he frees them from so many other Jewish customs. On the other end of the spectrum, A. C. Wire argued Paul was a male chauvinist who is arguing against a radical female group led by a Corinthian woman prophet. Marg Mowczko has collected man of these sayings on her website.

The application of this rather obscure command in most American  churches is usually some vague platitude that women should be dressed modestly. If the culture includes head coverings in this then the woman ought to not offend the culture. No one ever points out that if this is the true application, then a woman visiting a culture which is comfortable with public nudity is free to “fit right in” when they visit the beach.

I seriously doubt  modesty is the issue Paul is trying to get at in 1 Corinthians 11. There is clear evidence in the Greco-Roman world of prostitutes wearing head coverings.  There are several artistic representations of groups of women with or without head coverings. There is simply no evidence that head coverings were universal in the Greco-Roman world.

Based on his study of Roman statues, D. W. J. Gill suggested it was a Roman convention to cover the head while praying or offering a libation. There are two well-known statues from Corinth, one of Nero and one of Augustus with their heads veiled. The leader of a prayer or sacrifice that would cover their heads, the congregation (if any) would not necessarily do so. Gill argues the social elite in Corinth also practiced head covering while praying or participating in a sacrifice. Since the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 seems to include the whole congregation, perhaps it is only the prophets addressing the congregation that are covering their heads while prophesying.

 “The practice of men covering their heads in a context of prayer and prophecy was a common pattern of Roman piety and widespread during the late Republic and early Empire. Since Corinth was a Roman colony, there should be little doubt this aspect of Roman religious practice deserves greater attention by commentators than it has received.” Oester, “Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence,” 68.

As with many of the other issues in 1 Corinthians, the Christians are (continuing) to take their cues for worship from the pagan world. Paul’s command “women cover their heads” and men keep them uncovered distinguishes Christian worship from Imperial worship. They are worshiping in the same way that they would have in a pagan rite, Paul is rejecting this mixing of the world with the Church.

If the problem that is at the heart of the veiling of men / unveiling of women is taking worship cues from the pagan world, then there is a most serious application possible.  How far we want to take this application is quite controversial, from the mega-church movement to modern praise and worship services, it is possible that the American church has taken its cues from the pagan world rather than from the Bible. The modern American church seems to be following MTV rather than the NIV.

There is always a tension between cultural relevancy for the sake of evangelism and participating in the world because we enjoy it.  It is possible that is what was happening in Corinth.  The members of the church of Corinth were routinely acting like the world without taking into consideration how their new Christian world view speaks to their culture (sexual ethics, lawsuits, feasts and banquets at temples, visiting prostitutes, etc.)

So Should Women Cover Their Heads for Worship? The veiling of women or non-veiling of men may seem like a minor problem to use (“it’s just cultural”). But that misses the whole point. If the Corinthian Church was indistinguishable from the world in their worship, how were they going to effectively evangelize their culture?

Bibliography:

D. W. J. Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41 (1990): 246-60.

C. T. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Headcoverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth” BA (1988): 99-115.

R. E. Oster, “Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Archaeological Evidence in Some Modern Works on 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 7:1–5; 8:10; 11:2–16; 12:14–26).” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 83 (1992):52–73.

 

Sex and Wealth in 1 Corinthians 5

Paul states the sin in the church at Corinth is so bad even the Romans would consider it wrong. (See this post on Corinth as “Sin City”.) Why is the immoral man committing a sin like this? Most scholars think money is the main issue. Perhaps the wife was from a wealthy and prestigious family and she is trying to divorce his father. The younger man is attempting to keep any money or property in the family as long as possible.

A second more remote possibility is the man is exercising his freedom in Christ. It appears some early Christians believed they were free from the Law, so in order to demonstrate that freedom, they “sinned that grace may abound.” It is possible the young man was trying to prove his freedom from the Law by breaking a very strong taboo and engaging in an ongoing affair with this step-mother.

Carol and GregSo why has the man not been arrested and charged with the crime everyone seems to know about? In order to prosecute, the husband would have to sue for divorce. If this was an arranged marriage between wealthy families, there would have been complications in setting the marriage aside.

Bruce Winter points out only the husband has the right to prosecute in this case. There is a sixty-day period for him to do this after which someone else could potentially bring charges. Perhaps the exclusive period has not expired when Paul is writing, or maybe there is no one that is “wronged” by the relationship and it is being passed over because of the man’s position and power.

Additionally, if the husband was not a believer the church didn’t have any sway with him to get him to press charges and exile his son. Because the penalty included loss of property, perhaps the man was not willing to prosecute and possibly forfeit some of his own property.

If this suggestion is correct, then there are two strands of culture that the church is struggling with, the sexual sin and the favoring of the rich in the courts. Paul wants to deal with the sinful man within the church itself rather than dragging this ugly situation into the public courts. This has the potential to create an unfortunate principle that Christians who have grave sins ought to be tried in an church-court and not by the government, making it possible for some crimes to be covered up by the church. But this was not Paul’s intent at all! Ironically he is not trying to cover up the sin but deal with it in a public and open way.

How does this idea of dealing with sin “in house” work in a contemporary context? I am not advocating ecclesiastical courts nor should people who have broken the “law of the land” find refuge in the church.But there is a need for local churches to deal with some issues like a family. But this has caused huge problems when a church tries to cover up a legal and moral issue by dealing with it “in house.” (I am thinking of sex-abuse by church staff or priest, etc.) Based on his reaction to the young man in an incestuous relationship here in 1 Corinthians 5, I am certain Paul would have dealt with a pastor who is a sexual predator harshly. “Hand him over to Satan” may very well refer to handing his man to the civil authorities and let him face the full penalty of the law. In a modern context, no church should be sheltering a sexual predator; they ought to be handed over to the state and prosecuted as sex crimes.

But for issues like petty insults and personal disagreements, Paul does not want these brought to the law courts. If your brother in Christ gossips about you and harms your reputation, you should not sue him for slander. Deal with that kind of an issue inside the church.

How do we draw appropriate application between the first century and the twenty-first century with respect to church discipline? Does the modern church offer more grace and mercy to the wealthy members of the community and treat the poor harshly? In many cases, the modern church is quite like the Corinth of the first century.

Drive Out the Sinner! 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

Paul’s solution is simple to the problem the young man having an incestuous affair with his step mother: expel/purge the sinful man from the congregation (5:4-5). As far as Paul is concerned, the man already stands condemned. Don Garland points out the perfect tense verb (κέκρικα) implies Paul has already made a judgment and his decision still stands when they read this letter (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 157). Does the verb imply Paul already told them to expel the man and they were resisting this decision?

Love the SinnerPaul alludes to Deuteronomy 22:24 in his command to “purge the man from your midst.” Purge (Heb. בער, LXX ἐξαίρω) refers to driving something away, usually some sort of evil or sin (it is used in Deuteronomy nine times and in Isa 30:22 for “driving away” idols). Exodus 22:4 uses the same Hebrew word for driving someone’s animal from your vineyard and in 2 Chronicles 19:3 it refers to getting rid of idols before seeking God. Paul has the same idea in mind here: “exclude the man from the church.”

This is an example of church discipline, since the church is to gather to expel the young man from the church. But the way Paul describes this discipline is shocking: “hand the man over to Satan.” Since is the prince of this world, to hand someone over to Satan means “outside of the church.” Does this simply mean “kick him out of the church”” Or is Paul “revoking his salvation? The purpose cannot be a loss of salvation since the point of handing him over to Satan is remedial: that his soul might be saved on the day of the Lord.

But Paul also uses Passover language in this chapter. If someone was kicked out of the house during the first Passover, they would not be “under the blood of the Lamb” and therefore in danger from the Destroyer. If the immoral man is kicked out of the church (a family), he will be in the world without the protection of the blood of the Lamb, Jesus.

By becoming a Christian the young man already was on the “fringes of society as a religious misfit” (Garland, 1 Corinthians). If he were then expelled from the Christian community, it might be impossible for him to return to the pagan world he rejected. As Garland puts it, “expelled Christians in this era could find themselves in social limbo—neither fish nor fowl.”

The goal of this action is “the destruction of his flesh.” The Pauline use of σάρξ (sarx) is quite regular and usually means the sinful nature, although it is possible to use the word for physical body. It is possible Paul has in mind physical death, that the immoral man would suffer from a physical illness leading to his death. Garland examines this argument and ultimately rejects it. But there is some precedence for a sinner “being struck dead.” Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–11). Later in 1 Corinthians Paul says some members of the congregation have died because of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30).

The noun ὄλεθρος does refer to physical death in the Septuagint (Exod 12:23; Josh 3:10; 7:25; Jer 2:30). In 1 Corinthians 10:10 Paul uses a related word ὀλοθρευτής, the Destroyer, a destroying angel who renders God’s judgment in the wilderness. More importantly is the use of the word in Exodus 12:23, the angel who destroyed the Egyptians at the first Passover. It would not be surprising for a Second Temple period Jewish thinker like Paul to see the man as sent into a demon-haunted world where he will suffer terrible things.

love-the-sinner

Others think Paul is talking about some sort of penance for his sin. The individual will be handed over to Satan for physical torment that will result in his repentance and a rejection of the particular offense. This remedial punishment may have in mind Job 2, where God hands Job over to Satan for a period of time (although I would disagree Job must suffer some some kind of purgatory like suffering because of his sin).

Whatever the phrase means, the point is the same: the man committing this sin must be expelled from the congregation by the whole congregation, for the good of the congregation.

Here is the real problem: is this a principle for dealing with church discipline, and if so, how do we apply that principle to contemporary church practice? This does not seem like a “love the sinner, hate the sin” situation. The sin Paul is dealing with is extreme and will destabilize the Christian community to the extent the sinner must be expelled.