In a number of places I’ve been growing up, I heard a particular explanation of 1 Cor. 11:17-34. That explanation was that the instruction Paul gave was a condemnation of the church’s “making a common meal out of the Lord’s Supper.”
With great respect to the good men who’ve stated it, I believe this is a shallow explanation of the passage, and that verses 17-22 provide the appropriate context. They show that “common meal” was not at all part of the censure Paul issued.
The Corinthian church had a number of problems. Many of them came from Pagan backgrounds; idol worship, ceremonial promiscuity (temple prostitution) and eating meat from sacrifices to those gods, just to name a few. This was the culture of the people of Corinth. However, as redeemed disciples of Christ, they are now called away from their former lifestyles and called to a life of self-oblation and dependence on God.
Chapters 10 & 11 are interesting. In chapter 10, the Apostle instructs them, “Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. ” – instructing them that they cannot have it both ways. You can’t keep your life of Pagan self-indulgence and worship, and sit down at the table with Christ’s saints and eat the LORD’s supper.
Just like the serious dichotomy in their attitudes and behavior in chapter 10, chapter 11 demonstrates a serious problem that has nothing to do with “making a common meal” of the Supper. Consider the opening of the passage:
17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.
The passage continues with the oft-explained passage,
“Don’t you have homes 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 praise you for this? Certainly not! “
The problem clearly is identified in those verses. To be accurate, the passage has to mean something far more than our 21st Century Western World thinking. “Don’t you have homes” couldn’t be accurately translated, “don’t eat in the church building.” Nor could it mean, “don’t make a common meal of the Supper” – as the church had been in the habit of ritual meals since the Jewish feasts and ceremonies. In fact, Jesus’ very institution of the Supper was in the context of a meal.
The problem here is that status differences and class envy were penetrating the Lord’s church. The everyday feelings and practices of these Christians was not fixed – and not only that – but specifically brought INTO the church. Those with status, riches, wealth, and availability were abusing the freedoms and liberty of those who “had nothing.” The Lord’s church was called to a higher purpose! To be a light in the darkness, to be a light to the nations, and to show Christ to the world. The Corinthians were far from it.
Although slaves are not mentioned in chapter 11, the Greco-Roman world was full of slavery during the time of Paul’s writing. If the slave in the Roman society (50-60% of their world) cannot come to the Lord’s table for equality and fellowship, to where can he go? (Don’t think 19th century African slavery; think credit, debt, sponsorship, and mentorship.) The Roman slave may not be a particularly poverty-stricken slave, but just a lower socio-economic class person. Regardless of the status of the individuals; the “haves” were disregarding the equality of these Christians who were less-fortunate. Whether slave or free, the church in Corinth wasn’t eating the LORD’s supper at all. It was their own supper with inequality, status envy, and refused fellowship.
All of this makes the last few verses (often ignored) make sense. If one doesn’t discern the body rightly, he will not care for his brothers or sisters. The Lord’s church loves its own, and cares for one another in a way incomprehensible to the outside world. Verse 30 alludes to those who are weak, sick, and have even died – because the body was not discerned rightly. If the church there would care for one another, wait for one another, and eat the LORD’s supper, perhaps the fate would not be the same.
The conclusion is simple.
11:33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. 34If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. – Food isn’t the problem. It’s mindset. If one is coming to the assembly to eat and feast, he has the wrong motives.
While the early church did in fact take part in an Agapao (Agape – Love Feast), Paul does not condemn, nor condone it here. His silence leads us to believe it was a non-issue. What was NOT a non-issue was the way the church of God was to treat one another, since “we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” (1 Cor. 10:17)