Exposition of 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, One supper, but whose?

1 Corinthians 11:17-22

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In 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. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

It is quite easy to mistake Pauls point when he speaks about communion in the church at Roman Corinth. He is not trying to teach communion theology; instead, he is correcting communion practices that dishonor the memory of Christs sacrifice for others. Many churches today merely shear off the criticisms and use the rest to conduct communion services.

Frankly, any church whose meetings are described by Christs apostle as doing more harm than good (1 Cor. 11:17) ought to think hard about discipline from the Lord (more about that later). The factions Paul mentioned in 1 Cor. 1:10 were likely factional differences between one house church and another. The differences in 1 Cor. 11:18 are of a different kind, as Anthony Thiselton explains: Here, however, the very house meeting itself reflects splits between the socially advantaged and the socially disadvantaged.[1]

A villa from Pauls time, just outside Roman Corinth, had a dining room with dimensions of 24 x 18 feet, probably seating about 9 high-ranking guests. The central atrium, a combination courtyard and hallway, had dimensions of 16 x 20 feet, possibly accommodating as many as thirty in crowded conditions. Some believe the strong met in the dining room, where a few high-status diners could recline for a shared meal with their social equals, while all the others fit into the larger atrium as best they could.[2] Starting with the host and moving downward in social class, we have close friends, second-class friends, hangers-on, clients, freed persons, head persons, youngsters and servants. The beautiful and ancient mosaic below was taken from the dining room floor of the villa. The hosts close friends enjoyed it.

Floor_mosaic_from_Roman_villa_in_Corinth

Every section of 1 Corinthians has its difficult part, and 1 Cor. 11:19 is one of those verses that has been interpreted in many ways. We cannot agree with the NIVs translation for two reasons: (1) for Paul to say there have to be differences among you makes him contradict himself in a letter where he consistently teaches their unity in Christ, and (2) the Greek word for God does not appear in the Greek text and is supplied by translators assumption (according to NIV and NLT, but not ESV, NET or HCSB). Some other view is needed.

Only two explanations can cut through all the difficulties. The first would be to understand the verse as Pauls irony or even sarcasm, but that explanation appears less likely in a context leading to judgment (verses 28-30). The preferable explanation is that Paul is not expressing his own opinion at all! Instead, the strong have cooked up another theological argument to defend their privileges. Further, it is not God who is doing the approving but the powerful who are claiming that certain others have not yet proven themselves tried and true.

With that start, we will next look at Thiseltons translation of 1 Cor. 11:19: For dissentions are unavoidable, it is claimed among you, in order that those who are tried and true may be visibly revealed.[3] Thiselton, whose explanation we have begun above, joins others who believe these dissentions had been anticipated by the Corinthian believers based on Jesus warnings that false prophets would come in his name: Matt. 7:15 and 24:11. Thiselton suggests the strong took up this idea by reasoning that not everyone who claimed to be a believer might be proved tried and true. From that principle, the strong concluded that dissentions are inevitable. However, they are using this slogan not to protect the whole church but to justify separating from those who are not in their social class. In addition, they are blaming the victims by saying they are not yet proven to be tried and true (Greek dokimos).[4] On this basis they are resisting Paul.

The result of this scheme is well expressed by David Garland: The splits at the Lords Supper are imposed by prideful, insensitive humans seeking to differentiate the top-drawer members from the common rabble.[5] Pauls reaction is strong: they may be eating supper, but it cannot possibly be the Lords Supper (1 Cor. 11:20)!

The idea of each family bringing its own food and drink is described by Garland: The practice of basket dinners, or eranos (contribution) dinner parties, in which persons make up a dinner for themselves and pack it into a basket to go to anothers house to eat was well known.[6] But the result was also predictable: one person remains hungry and another gets drunk (1 Cor. 11:22).

As usual, when Paul whips out the rhetorical questions, it is time for those behaving badly to duck (1 Cor. 11:22). Garland explains the plight of the poor: In the ancient world the poor did not have kitchens in their tiny apartments and prepared their food on portable grills or ate out at a fast-food shop. . . . The privileged had the luxury of eating in their homes.[7] Those not attached to a household suffered badly in times of famine, which we know historically came even to prosperous Roman Corinth.

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

 


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 857.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 860-61.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 848.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 858-59.

[5] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 539.

[6] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 541.

[7] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 542.