1 Corinthians 11:17-34: “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?”

250px-Agape_feast_03I posted a series on 1 Corinthians several months ago in preparation for teaching a class covering the epistle. Today, I taught on the problems with the Lord’s Supper described in 1 Cor 11:17-34.

Until I was preparing for class this morning, I’d been struggling to resolve the tension among three facts:

Fact 1: The early church ate a common meal called the love feast or agapē. They ate in homes, and they took communion as part of the meal. The early church meal was not a symbolic sip and a cracker. It was a full meal, just as was the Passover.

Fact 2: Paul writes,

(1 Cor. 11:21-22 ESV)  21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.  22 What! Do you not have houses 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 commend you in this? No, I will not. 

(1 Cor. 11:33-34 ESV)  33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another —  34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home — so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

Paul says that they are to gather to “eat” (v. 33).

Fact 3: But Paul, plainly upset, also tells them to eat at home.

How can they both eat at home and come together to eat and wait to eat with the others?

Now, I think I understand what was likely going on. Finally.

First, Corinthian society was highly stratified. There were haves and have nots. Some were rich and some were poor, and their children and grandchildren would likely share their parents’ and grandparents’ lot. Crossing social lines was possible but rare.

People wore clothes indicating their social status, and they considered their status a matter of personal honor.

The well-to-do had servants and slaves. And as has always been true, the help ate only after their masters were served.

The church met in the evening, because no one got Sunday off. Work for most ended with sundown, but for household servants, work lasted until the master’s family was served and the dinner chores were done — the dining room cleared and the kitchen cleaned.

A well off person finished work around sunset, went home, was served supper, and then was free for the evening. If he planned to visit church to eat supper there, he left work and walked to a brother’s home for the love feast. He might stop at the market or home to pick up his share of the meal — covered dish but without Tupperware.

He expected to eat as soon as he arrived, because that was his customary time to eat — and he would be hungry — and to wait on others would be dishonoring. The slaves eat at 7:00. The aristocrats eat at 5:00. And so they ate at 5:00 — and thought nothing of it. It was the natural order of things.

Meanwhile, the slaves and household servants show up an hour or two later, bringing very little with them. Their masters would feed them at home, but their masters wouldn’t give them food to take to a Christian gathering. They arrived with nothing or next to nothing.

By the time the slaves arrived, the best food was gone. Meat was a luxury, and the aristocrats weren’t accustomed to sharing with the lower classes. They ate their fill. And they drank their fill. They may even have gotten a bit tipsy — since the sermon and singing was being delayed for hours while they waited on the slaves to show up. Bored people drink too much.

And Paul was furious. Why? Because the problem was an utter failure of the well-off members to be sensitive to the needs of their poor brothers and sisters. Better to skip a meal than to insult and dishonor the poorer members!

The ESV mistranslates v. 22, using “humiliate” when “shame” would be better. It was an honor society, and Paul speaks ironically. In the minds of the well off, the slaves had no honor and so couldn’t lose honor. To be a slave was utterly shaming. They couldn’t be humiliated because slaves were by nature humiliated — to a pagan Greek.

But to Paul, “the first shall be last.” God gives honor to the poor.

(1 Sam. 2:7-8 ESV)  7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.  8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world.

For the rich to leave the poor hungry is the very opposite of godliness. It’s the opposite of being like Jesus. It’s the way of the world, not the church. In the church, the poor are to be honored, not shamed.

(Lk. 14:11-14 ESV)  11 “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.  13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,  14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” 

And so, Paul is saying something like this: “If being rich, you’re accustomed to eating early, before the help get to eat, and you are too hungry to wait on them, eat something at home. Then come to the love feast, where you will wait on the poor to come when they get off work. Then you will all eat together — as equals.”

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to 1 Corinthians 11:17-34: “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?”

  1. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to as well. I’m sure that’s great comfort to you. 🙂

  2. Dwight says:

    I think part of the problem is that we don’t understand the concept of a meal within a religious context and a regular meal. The Jews had feast of which the passover was one and the Lord’s Supper a type. It would be the difference between a Thanksgiving dinner with all family gathered around and a meal that has some family, except one of them had religious significance. The Lord’s Supper wasn’t for eating, but for unity in Christ while eating, but the unity implies people to be unified with. Paul isn’t condemning the meal, but lack of unity in selfisness. One of the great concepts is of the extra chair at passover for the extra guest that might come. The feast were to honor God in unity of thought, not dishonor ingredients God in just eating to be filled…intent was key.

  3. Dwight, I thought the extra seat was in case the prophet Elijah showed up – but I could be wrong.

    Jay & Tim, I think you are right in your analysis. In Galatians, Paul speaks of taking Peter to the woodshed because he drew back from eating with gentile converts in Antioch “when some from James came.” N.T. Wright notes that Paul doesn’t say that James sent them, but they “came from James,” i.e. from the Jerusalem church. Why this rebuke? There was to be a single body composed of all, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. Take that principle to Corinth – and I think Jay nailed it. The question, “Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in?” was not addressing the fact of the meal during worship; it addressed some who were ignoring the needs of the poor members of the church.

  4. laymond says:

    Does anyone here think Paul would approve of the way, and time we partake of the “Lord’s supper” . I doubt it , was the last supper referred to in the bible , consumed on Sunday at 10 o:clock
    in the morning? when many people are at work, we try to appease by serving again at Sunday night service, but there may be only one who was not there in the morning and no one eats with them, is it the deadly sin to have communion more than once on Sunday ? I thought the supper was a meal to be shared in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for members. I really doubt we are any better in the eyes of Paul than the church at Corinth.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Tim,

    Like anyone, I always enjoy being agreed with. 🙂

    And I believe in group hermeneutics. That is, I think Bible study should be done with others. Hence, I submit my views to the commentary of the readers — and sometimes even change my mind but always learn something. Therefore, to me, far worse than disagreement is silence.

  6. Sam says:

    Laymond and Jay, I will push back against part of what you wrote, because I think that you (and the vast majority of people share the ideas that you wrote) are conflating two ideas. The conflation is seen, for example, in the whole of Laymond’s comment, and in Jay’s words, “They ate in homes, and they took communion as part of the meal. The early church meal was not a symbolic sip and a cracker. It was a full meal, just as was the Passover.”

    Here’s the conflation: Was “communion” (assuming that by that word you mean the “symbolic sip and a cracker”) a “part of the meal”, or was it “a full meal”? In Corinth, were they re-creating the Jewish Passover meal? No, they were having dinner together. But in having what would otherwise have been a regular, get-folks-together-for-dinner event, they were adding to it and including in it a particular element — the special eating of a certain amount of bread and the special drinking of a certain amount of wine. That special observance wasn’t the full meal, and the full meal wasn’t the special observance. The special observance was PART OF the full meal, not the whole thing.

    Was the special observance a symbolic sip and a cracker? Not literally, no. But if it was like the special observance that happened during Jesus’ last dinner with his followers, it was a “Here, take some of this bread and eat it”, and, “Here, divide this among you and drink it”, that occurred WITHIN the setting of the full meal. It seems clear to me that what we today know as “the Lord’s supper” or “communion” was NOT the full meal, but the special observance WITHIN the full meal. And so I have no problems with a church taking the special observance out of the full meal and focusing specifically on it during a corporate gathering — because it’s not the gathering (or the meal) that makes the special observance special; it’s the special observance that makes the gathering special.

    (However, I do wish that more churches used something more than a bit of cracker and a sip of juice. If the elements traditionally used were some bigger, I’d be happier with it. And I’d be happier if more churches would include the special observance in more of their full meal gatherings.)

  7. Sam says:

    That second line should read, “. . . the vast majority of people WHO share the ideas . . .”

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Sam,

    I agree when you say, “The special observation was PART OF the full meal, not the whole thing.” I think that’s what I said as well: “They ate in homes, and they took communion as part of the meal. The early church meal was not a symbolic sip and a cracker. It was a full meal, just as was the Passover.” Notice that my point is that the “early church meal” was a full meal, after having said that communion was part of the meal. (I could have been more clear.)

    To “break bread” in the First Century was to share a meal. Hence, Acts 2 and 20 refer to meals, not symbolic morsels. But the entire meal was not the communion. It was the “love feast,” as it came to be known.

    Now, what I’d love to see is a robust small group ministry where families eat together in homes and take communion as part of that gathering — even if they take a crumb and a sip in the morning at the larger assembly. I think it would transform small groups into something more spiritual. Sometimes they degrade into the purely social. And we struggle with knowing quite what the group is for. Add a love feast and communion and the small groups will be radically improved, I think.

  9. eddodds says:

    Now, what I’d love to see is a robust small group ministry where families eat together in homes and take communion as part of that gathering — even if they take a crumb and a sip in the morning at the larger assembly. | Interesting that the Protestant Reformation got us past needing a priest to preside over the Eucharist but many feel squeamish to take the Memorial Meal any time we would want to, um, remember… Now, on to the matters of the collection for the saints in Jerusalem and the enrolling of widows 😉 Ditto on the small groups / spiritual connection. imo, Elderships should spend their time on administering spiritual gift inventories, get on with the laying on of hands ordaining and commissioning every member (and put a line item in the budget to get the LinkedIn profiles tied to the church directory so everyone is aware of everyone else’s bailiwick). Intentional mentorship structures / apprenticeships / theology of work stuff.

  10. Alabama John says:

    To take any large unleavened bread and a full glass of wine or grape juice or other fruit of the vine would be getting to close to eating in the church building. It must be a pinch and a sip to be safe.

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