(1Co 11:17-19 ESV) 17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
These are sad accusations. The assembly of the saints does more harm than good! How tragic. After all, it’s in assembly, when we are physically together, when we should best be able to demonstrate the unity and the love that comes from God. But in Corinth, they evidenced selfishness, which led to division.
(lyrics are below).
Paul sarcastically asserts that divisions in the assembly show which group among them is accepted, but not because those who separate themselves are approved — but because separation proves them to be disapproved.
(1Co 11:20-21 ESV) 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.
Paul asserts that the meal they took was not the Lord’s supper, even though they called it the Lord’s supper. It was missing an essential element: love. He’ll prove his point in short order.
While I know of no Church of Christ that has committed the abuses present in Corinth, I know plenty of loveless churches. We may still go through the form of the Lord’s supper better than Corinth, but sometimes the substance is no more real.
A little background would help. The Passover was a meal, including lamb, bread, and wine. When Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper it was as part of a full meal. Although only the cup and the loaf are mentioned, they were courses of a meal. It was not merely a symbolic meal.
“Supper” in the Greek means, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn, supper — the evening meal. In fact, the term emphasizes that it is the main meal of the day, even a banquet, more than the time of day. It’s just that, in the Roman world, the main meal was in the evening.
In Acts 2,, we read of the Jerusalem congregation eating from house to house (Acts 2:42,46). In fact, it’s clear from several passages that the early church ate a common meal (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1 Cor 5:11; 8-10; Gal 2:12; 2 Pet 2:13; Jud 12).
This meal came to be known as the “love feast” or simply the agapē. That is, the meal came to be so associated with the church’s shared love that they called it “love.”
The common meal was significant also because it symbolized the great banquet promised by God at the Second Coming —
(Isa 25:6-8 ESV) 6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. 7 And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
(Rev 19:9 ESV) 9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
Of course, Jesus’ parables are filled with references to a great feast held by a king, alluding to this same imagery. And the agapē anticipates this meal — declaring that we will one day eat together with God in the new heavens and new earth.
But the meal also honors the teachings of Jesus that we share with the poor, so that they may also anticipate the day when we all eat at a rich, common table and no one goes hungry. And so the early churches used the agapē to feed their poor members. It was both community and charity — because you can’t eat with the poor unless you are willing to provide for their food.
And the agapē was an act of radical hospitality. The church met in homes. (They weren’t house churches but a citywide church meeting in homes under a common leadership.) And so the host family was offering hospitality to all who come — not only opening their home but preparing a meal, doubtlessly a First Century covered dish meal, so that members other than the hosts shared in the preparation of the meal.
That gives a different complexion to such passages as —
(Rom 12:13 ESV) 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
(1Ti 3:2-3 ESV) 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
(1Ti 5:9-10 ESV) 9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.
(Tit 1:7-8 ESV) 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.
(Heb 13:2 ESV) 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
(1Pe 4:9-10 ESV) 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace:
And so, in Corinth, the agapē was combined with the Lord’s Supper. This was a very natural pairing, as bread and wine were standard courses in any Mediterranean supper.
Now, with all this in mind, to us, it’s truly astonishing that the Corinthians showed up and didn’t share with each other. Some actually got drunk on wine while refusing to share with those who didn’t bring their own. Some went hungry while others ate lavishly!
It’s hard to imagine why this might have been. You would think this would have been rude even by pagan standards, but evidently the problem was in fact acting like the pagans!
Certain members were not waiting for each other (cf. v. 33) but rather some, presumably the wealthier members, were going ahead before the others arrived and satiating themselves with food and drink while others would end up getting little or nothing. This was a common complaint in other dinner parties in the Roman world.
In many cases the seating of the guests and the distribution of the food were orchestrated in such a way as to reflect the social pecking order as perceived or imposed by the host. Ancient writers complained of being insulted by the lower quality or lesser quantity of food served to them in comparison with more highly esteemed dinner guests.
It seems the social elite of the church, who would not have been constricted by work obligations, gathered and began their meal before the arrival of the poorer members of the church who would not have had such work and schedule flexibility.
Also, even a large Roman home in Corinth would have room for a limited number of people in the dining room (the Roman triclinium), usually about nine people who would be served by the household servants, so that even if all the members of the church arrived at approximately the same time only those who were invited into the triclinium would have been likely to be served a full meal. Even there distinctions might have been made by the proximity of each guest to the host and the quality and quantity of food served to each. Other members may have gathered in an outside atrium where sparser offerings, if any, would have been found.
As already mentioned, the household slaves would have normally been expected to serve the dinner guests. One can only imagine what kind of dynamic might have been created when, as in Corinth, slaves were also part of the church and technically, at least, participants in the Lord’s Supper as well.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 545.
And so, the Corinthians evidently honored social distinctions of Roman culture, allowing the wealthy and privileged to disdain the others. Secular social structures prevented both unity and love — making the meal something other than the Lord’s supper.
And this tells us something about the appeal of the early church. Their common meals leveled society and allowed all levels of society to eat together without regard to rank or position. In such a hierarchical society, this must have been heady indeed.
“Bread and Wine” by Josh Garrels
I was wrong, everybody needs someone, to hold on
Take my hand, I’ve been a lonesome man, took a while to understand
There’s some things we can’t live without,
A man’s so prone to doubt,
Faithful are the wounds from friends.
So give it just a little time,
Share some bread and wine
Weave your heart into mine,
Walls fall down, where there’s a peaceful sound, lonely souls hang around
Don’t be shy, there’s nothing left to hide, come on let’s talk a while
Of the places we left behind,
No longer yours and mine
But we could build a good thing here too
So give it just a little time,
Share bread and wine
Weave your heart into mine
If I fall, I fall alone, but two can help to bear the load
A threefold chord is hard to break
All I have I give to you if you will share your sorrows too,
Then joy will be the crown upon our heads