1 Corinthians 11:17-22
October 21, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:10 in the audio file.
Or, More Harm, and Good, at the Lord’s Supper
It’s one thing to trip on a step, it’s another thing to trip on a step two minutes after someone warned you to watch out for a step that lots of people trip on. It’s one thing to order Diet Coke, it’s another thing to order a Diet Coke with your fried stick of butter at the State Fair. It’s one thing to come together, it’s another thing to come together to humiliate one another; it would have been better just to stay home.
While some of the praying and prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 may have happened when the church gathered, there’s no doubt that the entire church has gathered as the church in verses 17-34. Five times in these verses, and three times in the first four sentences, Paul writes, “when you come together.” In particular the second half of chapter 11 is about coming together (physically) to share the Lord’s supper (verse 20), and Paul rebukes them for not actually coming together (figuratively) and so they were not actually eating the Lord’s Supper (spiritually). One commentator called the scene “a theatre of discord” (Godet, quoted by Garland). It is possible that coming together can do more harm than good.
In the first half of the chapter Paul commended the Corinthians for their orderliness in recognizing appropriate distinctions. In the second half of the chapter Paul criticizes the Corinthians for their disorderliness in regarding inappropriate distinctions. The first half is about head coverings, the second half is about communion. The first half is about reflecting God-given structures of authority, the second half is about reflecting anti-gospel arrangements. The first half is about honoring one’s head, the second half is about humiliating one’s brother.
Verses 17-34 are all about communion, and especially about how the Corinthians were eating and drinking in an “unworthy manner” (verse 27, and the background of that claim is described in the first paragraph, verses 17-22). Most of the instruction I’ve heard about communion, and it has usually had much more to do with the nature of the elements more than the nature of the supper itself, has started in verse 23 and finished in verse 32. These are the only NT verses that repeat the Lord’s instructions when He instituted the ordinance, so that’s significant. These verses describe the consequence of unworthy partaking as sickness and death, which is also significant. And while acknowledging that “unworthy manner” could cover a variety of manners, the verses that bookend the instruction and exhortation, verses 17-22 and 33-34, are critical to defining what sort of manner is unworthy.
To be sure, the Corinthians needed correction. But as true as it is that those who administer the sacrament of communion should take this passage seriously, and so teach and warn partakers about the dangers involved, it is also true that not every believer and not every church that comes to eat and drink the Lord’s supper has the Corinthians’ sins. The Corinthians came together in a way that undermined the gospel, and there is more than one way to undermine the gospel. Many Christians served themselves first rather than their brothers and so failed to honor Christ who gave Himself for others. But many Christians today beat themselves up through miserable introspection when by Christ’s wounds we are healed. Getting drunk at communion is not the gospel, and neither is dumpster diving to find sin to feel bad about.
In verses 17-22 we see the disorder and division when the church came together, and it did more harm, and good.
The previous paragraph stands out in the letter for its positivity and praise for the Corinthians’ practice. The pat on the back now becomes a slap in the face.
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. He ends this paragraph in verse 22 by asking if he should commend them, and he can’t even. When it involved head coverings, he gave them instructions so that they would know why what they were already doing was good. But the instructions he’s about to give are so that they would know why what they were doing was wrong.
As I said earlier, the phrase when you come together refers to gathering as an assembly, a meeting of the church. The context is clearly Christians meeting for Acts 2:42 type of behavior; praying and teaching and fellowship and the breaking of bread. This is the church assembled for worship, and it’s quite a thing to say that these meetings were for the worse. It’s not preacher hyperbole either. In the following instruction Paul points out that the church of God was being despised (verse 22), the have-nots were being humiliated (verse 22), and some were being judged with weakness, illness, and even death (verse 30). That is worseful worship.
What could they possibly have been doing to make coming together worse?
For, in the first place (which he never gets around to saying “in the second place,” though we could probably see some additional points) when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. Report of divisions took up the first three chapters of the letter, and he already dealt with that, so there is something different about these “splits” (σχίσματα, schisms) as we’ll see in verse 20. These divisions are not according to their favorite preacher but according to their perceived importance.
Paul says, I believe it in part. It may have been the same people who reported the previous problems (see 1:11), and the part Paul believed could be because he was trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, or, his acknowledgment that sinners sin, even in the church.
Paul explains more in verse 19, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. There are two ways to take this comment. One way would be to take it as sarcasm, as if for the sake of argument Paul was using the same terminology as the privileged that they were the truly privileged, and that they had set up meal seating arrangements so that they could show off their preeminence. “Yes,” Paul would be saying, “you all are quite recognizable, and wow, very impressive.”
The other way to take Paul’s explanation, which I think is the better interpretation, is that Paul understands that, as it’s been said, “God draws straight lines with crooked sticks.” In other words, some splits are unavoidable, “it is necessary” (δεῖ) according to God’s plan, and there is more harm, and good, that comes from these sorts of divisions.
Time is a great revealer of truth, so is community interaction. It’s not always possible to know another man’s character in a snapshot; in fact it’s usually difficult to do so. But God has His ways of making things clear, of justifying His people, even through situations that He hates.
In His providence God tests the faithful and separates the faithful from the unfaithful. Of course that is not always how it looks on the surface to those who judge with partiality. You can imagine in a church setting, which is what Paul describes in this paragraph, that professing believers on both sides claim to be the ones being lied about, both sides claim to be in the #blessed position of persecution (see Matthew 5:11-12). Rarely will a selfish Christian say that he was the selfish Christian, that’s part of the reason for the division in the first place. To admit it would be, possibly, to take steps toward reconciliation. Here Paul describes a division that does not lead to reconciliation so that God can show who is genuine, who is tested and “approved.”
How do we recognize the genuine? Paul doesn’t give a list here, but there are some things to look for. Where is the growth in Christlikeness? Where is the humility? Where is the joy? Where is the worship? Keep watching and it will become obvious. Of course it is possible that sin is on both sides, not just one, but is anyone dealing with sin? Is anyone defending or denying it? Paul says that it is necessary in God’s will and we can call it good even when it is difficult. Real divisions take place, real hurts happen, real loss occurs, and real good brought about by grace. Splits are hateful to God, and splits do not happen by chance but by the providence of God (Calvin).
Here is their particular problem. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.
This is inappropriate for members of one body, inconsistent with the nature of the gospel, unloving to brothers in the same family, and false to the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper.
There’s no doubt that Paul is referring to a meeting of the church, not just a private meal. But apparently there was often a meal involved prior to communion, and it likely occurred in a private home. The practice of the early church included the frequent breaking of bread together (Acts 2:42), and Jude referred to such meals and “love feasts” or “agape feasts” (Jude 12). It seems that these were not like our potlucks where the expectation is to contribute to one table where everyone can theoretically get a spoonful from every pot. These were BYOM = bring your own meal, and you eat what you brought but with the group.
The church is an assembly of different types of people, male and female, married and unmarried, young and old, masters and slaves, rich and poor, which is the division apparently accentuated here. Based on some archeological finds, not many houses had a large enough room to fit more than 10 or so guests at a time. There was often a main room with then overflow for the less esteemed. There may also have been a famine about this time (Suetonius mentions famines during the reign of Claudius, referenced by Thiselton), which would only have made the line between the “haves” and “have nots” more clear. But Paul puts no emphasis on the practical difficulties. He rebukes the flaunting, deliberate, selfish separation and indulgence. Some of the members, presumably even at one of their houses, were making no attempt to include others.
The extremes were, one goes hungry, another gets drunk. Perhaps some of the Corinthians were used to feasts to Dionysus (Greek) / Bacchus (Latin), the god of wine and festivity.
The Corinthians’ manners were so inconsistent that Paul says, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat, regardless of what they thought they were doing. They had the symbol and no substance. The name, the Lord’s supper, is compared to “the Lord’s table” in 10:21.
It was tainted by the deadly combination of indulgence and indifference. This selfish devouring (προλαμβάνειν) of their own food contrasts with Jesus’ taking bread (λαμβάνειν, 11:23). Both “take.” The Corinthians “take” on their own behalf; Jesus “takes” on behalf of others. (Garland)
The questions are humiliating. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? I think it’s important to point out that Paul’s answer to the problem was not socialism. He didn’t require a collection and then equal redistribution of food. He certainly would have encouraged those with more resources to help those with less, but the goal wasn’t to make sure everyone had the same amount of food. Do you have more? Great! Then just eat your feast at home rather than doing it as dinner theater.
Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? It wasn’t the possession or the consuming, it was a mocking of their fellow members, looking down on them and rubbing their noses on an empty plate. The word humiliate is the same word (a form of καταισχύνω) as “dishonor” in verses 4 and 5.
Unlike with their practice of head coverings Paul had no verbal hand-clapping for them. What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
Financial distinctions in the church are nothing new, and the rich can humiliate the poor, and the poor can resent the rich. Of all places, though, the division that comes from despising one another ought not be found around the communion table. This is the Lord’s Supper. He is the Lord of who has what and how much. He is the Lord who died for our selfishness and our envy, who humbled Himself so that we could be humbled and saved.
There are, of course, other ways to humiliate and despise one another, that are no good. Don’t just leave your irritation at the church door (or at home), leave your irritation at the cross. Don’t meditate and maneuver for sake of showing how different you are.
And as we look ahead to the remainder of the chapter, remember the context in which Paul admonishes the Corinthians to “examine” themselves so that they are not partaking in an unworthy manner. Paul’s admonition has a wide application, but too many pastors have applied it in different ways that are inconsistent with the gospel. Don’t despise other members of the body of Christ, and also don’t despise that you are a member of the body in Christ.
And finally, be encouraged that God is revealing the tested and genuine. As we sing in “The Church’s One Foundation”:
though with a scornful wonder
men see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent a-sundered
by heresies distressed;
yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up,“how long?”
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.
It is no good to despise the church of God and humiliate others at the Lord’s Supper. It is also no good to do it when you get up from the Table either. Our love for one another and joyful serving of one another is a terror to those in rebellion to God; unity is a weapon. Don’t strive to be over one another, strive side by side for the faith of the gospel.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. (Philippians 1:27–28, ESV)