Imagine a pastor saying to a congregation, “When you come together as a church, it does more harm than good.”
But that’s exactly what Paul tells the Corinthians:
Now I don’t praise you as I give the following instruction because when you meet together, it does more harm than good. First of all, when you meet together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and I partly believe it. It’s necessary that there are groups among you, to make it clear who is genuine. So when you get together in one place, it isn’t to eat the Lord’s meal. Each of you goes ahead and eats a private meal. One person goes hungry while another is drunk. Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on God’s churches and humiliate those who have nothing? What can I say to you? Will I praise you? No, I don’t praise you in this. (1 Cor 11:17-22, CEB)
He began the chapter by saying, “I praise you because you remember all my instructions” (vs. 2, CEB), even if he still had corrections to suggest. But his words here are bookended with a double “I don’t praise you,” as if to say, Listen up, people; this is serious.
In the previous post, I suggested a contemporary parallel for what was probably happening in Corinth. Paul had already spoken of divisions in the church, earlier in the letter (1 Cor 1:11-12). But here, the fractiousness of the congregation was expressed in a different way — in the already existing social divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Roman society was deeply stratified. The Corinthian church would have been populated by an interesting mix of people from different social strata: a handful of rich patricians, and a large number of slaves, former slaves, artisans, and the like. In all likelihood, some slaves found themselves worshipping cheek by jowl with their owners.
The church would have met in the home of one of the wealthy members, who indeed were the only ones with houses to meet in. The Roman domus was in some ways quite different from the houses to which we are accustomed; they lacked windows and doors, having an open-air structure that let in sunlight and even rain. Church members would probably have gathered in the atrium just inside the main entrance.
The situation Paul seems to be describing is this: a smaller subset of the congregation, most likely the wealthier ones, were gathering in the smaller triclinium — a dining room arranged with three couches upon which guests would recline and take their food from a central table. The triclinium may have been in view of the atrium, or may have been in a more private area of the house. No matter: the poorer members of the congregation were showing up to the meeting hungry, and were somehow aware of the fact that the more privileged among them had been gorging themselves. That seems to be the point of Paul criticizing the rich for getting drunk: the issue wasn’t drunkenness per se, but a showy excess that humiliated their less fortunate brothers and sisters.
And at some point in that socially awkward context, they were supposed to come together for the Lord’s Supper.
It’s not necessary to suppose that the wealthy Corinthians were deliberately snubbing the poor. It’s enough to imagine that they were thoughtlessly carrying over their previous social habits into the life of the church, oblivious to the way they were embarrassing themselves and others.
Of what significance is this story for us? I’ll suggest some possibilities in the third and final post in this series.