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.”