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”?
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.