The first part of this treatise established Scriptural authority for eating in the location where the church assembles.
But what about 1 Corinthians 11.17-34? This passage has been central to the debate over this question for over a century. When correctly understood, I believe it supplements the conclusion that God permits the church to eat in the assembly place.
Let us examine the passage critically.
There are two prominent—but fallacious—explanations of the passage rooted in eisegesis (reading something into the text) rather than exegesis (reading from the text).
First, a few Christians contend that it is wrong for the church to use the assembly hall for culinary fellowship. According to them, the passage prohibits this practice; instead, Paul allegedly requires us to “eat at home” (1 Cor. 11.34).
As we shall see, this interpretation depends upon ignoring the context. It also requires us to take a qualified instruction and turn it into something unqualified, which subverts the apostle’s message.
Second, others reject that explanation. Their interpretation of the passage is this: Paul did not prohibit eating in the church building. Rather, he prohibited mixing the Lord’s Supper with a common meal. Ostensibly, the Corinthians were profaning a sacred ritual by treating it as something ordinary — we consume the supper of the Lord to fill our souls, not our bellies!
Unfortunately, the textual evidence does not support this view either. While Paul addresses both the common meal (1 Cor. 11.17-22) and the sacred communion in the passage (1 Cor 11.23-29), the concept of mixing them is an importation into the text. The apostle makes an altogether different point.
These eighteen verses subdivide into three sections:
(1) The Problem (1 Cor. 11.17-22).
(2) Consequences of the Problem (1 Cor. 11.23-32).
(3) The Solution (1 Cor. 11.33-34).
In the first section, Paul reprimands the church at Corinth for their divisions (see also: 1 Cor. 1.11ff). Specifically, this discord manifested itself in their fellowship meals, resulting in an unwholesome conflict between the haves and the have-nots.
In the second section, Paul insists that their selfish actions led to three grave consequences, which demanded prompt correction all the more.
In the final section, the apostle offers a two-pronged solution for the congregation:
(1) The Ideal Solution: Support one another; “come together to eat” and share your meals; be considerate to one another (v. 33).
(2) The Less-Than-Ideal Solution: If someone cannot pursue this and is hungry, then it is best for him to “eat at home, lest you come together for judgment” (v. 34).
Consider how the text flows within this framework.
The Problem (Verses 17-22)
First of all, Paul exposes the church’s divisive relationships. Cliques had developed. Now, these factions were playing out in their fellowship meals. Note how he broaches the topic.
“Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse.”
In his book, Figures of Speech Used In the Bible, E. W. Bullinger suggests that the conjunction, de (“now”), is a “metabasis” — a doing or putting a thing in between to transition from one thing to another. He wrote:
“The figure is used when the speaker or writer passes from one thing to another by reminding his…readers of what has been said, and only hinting at what might be said, or remains to be said” (p. 608).
Concerning 1 Corinthians 11.16-17 in particular, he remarks that “in verse 16, Paul only hints at the contentiousness of others; and then passes on, in verse 17, to” the contentiousness of the Corinthians in their meals (ibid.). The sense thus is: “Now speaking of contentiousness…”.
Second, Paul issues a tactful reprimand to the brethren for this. “I do not praise you” is a figure of speech (tapenosis), whereby the severity of a matter is lessened for the sake of enhancing it. When the brethren read this, they should have understood him to say: I condemn you.
Third, Christian gatherings — including fellowship meals — are designed to “better” the church environment, improving relations between the brethren. But their meals became a source of contention between them, making matters “worse.” Thus, he reprimanded them.
Fourth, in verse eighteen, the apostle identifies the problem generically:
“…there are divisions among you.”
While this is not a commendable thing, the existence of “factions among” them was at least an effective sifting mechanism, by which those who are “approved” could be distinguished from those who are not (v. 19; cf. Deut. 13:3; Luke 2:35; 1 John 2:19).
Fifth, in light of these contentions, Paul concludes that
“when [they came] together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (v. 20).
To grasp the significance of this statement, let us bear a few points in mind.
(1) The careful Bible student should mark the verb form in the passage. He does not say: “you should not be eating the Lord’s Supper!” Reading this verse in that fashion has led some to conclude that Paul was reprimanding them for eating the communion with a common meal.
However, instead of a second-person imperative, Paul employed a third-person indicative (“it is…”). The particle "not," therefore, is a negating statement rather than a prohibitive negative. Greek grammarians suggest that it means, “it is not possible to eat the Lord’s Supper” (Bauer, p. 222; see also Abbott-Smith, p. 132 [I. 4. b.]; and Thayer, p. 176 [I. 3.]).
For example, the Holy Spirit employs the verb in this manner in Hebrews 9.5. Referencing the items within the Jewish temple, the author stipulated that he could not get into detail about them at the time. Rendered literally, he wrote: “about which things it is not possible now to speak in detail.”
Therefore, if “the Lord’s Supper” (v. 20) refers to the communion, then the passage means that their “contentions” (v. 16), “divisions” (v. 18), and “factions” (v. 19) against one another have made it impossible to commune with the Lord and each other. The problem, then, is not with the Lord’s Supper as such, but with their treatment of one another.
(2) Next, the phrase, “the Lord’s Supper,” is anarthrous (without the definite article) in the original language. Certainly, in Greek, it is
“not necessary for a noun to have the article for it to be definite” (Wallace, p. 243).
In such cases, if the noun referent is monadic (one-of-a-kind), denoting something uniquely familiar, it does not need the article since it is already well-defined.
One commentator suggests that the
“fact that there is no article in the Greek shows the early prevalence of this name for the Eucharist” (Farrar, p. 364)
— that is, it did not need the article since everyone already associated the phrase with the sacred meal.
Still, the indefinite rendition is plausible: i.e., “a meal of the Lord” (CJB), leaving open the possibility that the phrase refers to a common supper rather than the communion supper specifically.
(3) The term “Lord’s” is noteworthy as well. Most translations render it as a genitive (possessive) noun (“Lord’s”). Yet, the word kuriakos is an adjective (not a noun), and it is in the accusative case (not the genitive).
In secular literature, it was employed adjectively of “imperial” matters — e.g., the “imperial service” or “imperial treasury” or “the Imperial Day” (J. H. Moulton, et al., p. 364). In this context, then, the adjective denotes “a Lordly supper” (i.e., suitable to him).
However, Greek grammarian, W. E. Vine, frowns upon the rendition, “Lordly” — perhaps because it may be confused with the idea of opulence and arrogance — although he next advances the meaning, “pertaining to the Lord” (153). This is precisely the meaning of the English term (see “Lordly,” entry 3).
Given this point, consider these two possibilities:
First, the phrase may refer specifically to “the supper instituted by the Lord” (i.e., the Christian communion; Thayer, 365). If so, then, as Ceslas Spicq (1901-1992) puts it, the statement means:
“…to participate in the Eucharist without practicing brotherly love ‘is not to eat the Lord’s Supper’…Rather, it is a private meal, one that no longer has the spirit of the liturgical act that was instituted by the Lord and remains consecrated to him” (p. 339).
In that light, the criticism is not about mixing the sacred meal with the common one. Rather, even though they ate the communion together in a worship setting, yet, because of their factions, they were really eating it separately (privately), fracturing the communal bonds between them. It is not possible to commune with brethren while you are harboring contempt for them! Hence, outwardly, they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper;
“yet really and truly [they were] not celebrating the Lord’s supper” (Barnes, 211).
Second, the apostle may instead be describing the church’s potluck dinner, while intending to conjure up an indirect reminder of the communion and all it stands for.
In this vein, Greek grammarian, William Mounce, translated the phrase as:
“a supper in honor of the Lord” (Reverse-Interlinear).
Perhaps, then, it means that when they gathered together in one place to eat a common dinner (i.e., a potluck), it was not possible to eat a truly Christian (Lordly) supper since they were so fractured against one another. How could the Lord be honored by that (cf. 1 Cor. 10.31)?
(4) The word "supper" (deipnon) “represented the principal meal of the day, answering to the late dinner” (Vincent, p. 249).
In every other New Testament passage (including verses 21 and 25 in this chapter), the term alludes to meals — or feasts — that were designed to fill up or satiate the appetite (cf. Mt. 23.6; Mk. 6.21; 12.39; Lk. 14.12, 16-17, 24; 17.8; 20.46; 22.20; Jn. 12.2; 13.2, 4; John 21.20; Rev. 3.20; 19.9, 17). Sometimes, Bible characters consumed a “supper” for secular purposes, sometimes for religious occasions (i.e., Passover supper, Jn. 13.2; Lk. 22.20). In each instance, however, they enjoyed a filling meal.
Though not incontrovertible, this insight lends itself to the possibility that Paul was referring to the common meal (which satiates) instead of the communion — viz., due to your factions, “it is not possible to eat a Lordly dinner, for in eating each one takes his own supper ahead of others…”
Still, if the communion is intended, the word “supper” may merely describe the evening aspect of the sacred ritual. Barnes opines that Paul called it a “supper” “because the word denotes the evening repast; it was instituted in the evening” (p. 211; cf. Mt. 26.20, 26ff).
At any rate, there is no evidence in this verse to suggest that Paul was reprimanding the Corinthians for mixing the communion with a common meal. That notion is an importation into the text.
For that matter, it is significant that the original communion was celebrated “as they were eating” the Passover feast (Mt. 26.26), a meal in which the entire band of disciples filled themselves with meat, herbs, unleavened bread dipped into the sauce for the Paschal lamb, and fruit of the grapevine. And there is much evidence that the apostolic church observed the communion like the last supper — at night (cf. Acts 20.7) and directly “after” the evening meal (1 Cor. 11.25; Lk. 22.20), which served as a charity dinner (see Alikin, p. 104; see more below).
In short, “the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11.20) may mean that, due to their factions (vv. 18-19), manifested in their potluck dinners (vv. 21-22), either:
(1) it was not possible for them to consume the communion in a way that honors the Lord — a point he specifically elaborates upon in verses 23 through 29.
or, (2) it was not possible for them to consume their potluck dinner in a way that honors the Lord.
And consider this: would it be unreasonable to think that the apostle intended the phrase to refer to the Sunday evening proceedings as a whole? Isn’t it possible that “the Lord’s Supper” may have been the early church’s way of describing the charity dinner and the communion service that followed it — where the “Lord’s last supper” stood as the prototype? Hence, their factions during the common dinner have made it impossible to celebrate the entire supper event that is dedicated to the Lord.
In the next place, Paul says:
“For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk” (v. 21).
“For” is an explanatory conjunction, elaborating on the previous verse. Since the apostle’s explanation in this verse alludes to their common meal, where “each one” eats their “own supper” and some are left “hungry” while others are not, it is plausible to infer that the “Lord’s supper” in the previous verse refers (at least in part) to their common dinner. Hence, it was not possible to eat a fellowship dinner in a way that honors the Lord (a Lordly supper); why?; “for in eating” these meals, they were divided against their brethren.
This “division” manifested itself specifically in that “each one” (suggestive of “selfish individualism” — see Harold K. Moulton, p. 37) “takes his own supper ahead of others.”
The verb “takes…ahead” comes from the word prolambanei — to overtake; anticipate. In this case, it indicates that they were selfishly arriving early to their fellowship dinners to get a head-start on the feast, eating their “own” food (which they had brought) without waiting for the poorer brethren to arrive, leaving little or “nothing” for them.
Based on this word, Bible scholar, Valeriy A. Alikin, wrote an insightful summary of the situation in the church at Corinth:
“Instead of gathering in all of the food before the meal started and then dividing it in equal portions among the participants, each of them ate the portion that he or she had brought with him or her. The result was that the wealthy members ate larger and better portions than the poorer members. The individualistic and selfish behavior of the participants had a devastating effect on the unity and coherence of the community and, as a result, the community fell into sharply divided groups” (p. 105).
The design of the fellowship dinner was to help feed the poor brethren. But the selfish actions of the Corinthians left some “hungry” (peina—to ‘pine for’ food; be famished) while others were “drunk.”
This remark (hungry vs. drunk) strikes the eye roughly. We were expecting “full” as a counterpart to “hungry,” but Paul’s use of “drunk” instead gives us a more vivid sense of the extreme contrast between the sufferers and the pleasure-seekers [though see endnote 1].
“Drunk” (methuo) signifies: to be intoxicated —i.e., with alcohol (cf. Mt. 24.49; Ac. 2.15; 1 Th. 5.7). It is possible, therefore, that some of the carnal Corinthians were getting inebriated with alcohol they brought to the dinner, flying high and in buoyant spirits. Meanwhile, their impoverished brother, for whom Christ died, was wretchedly pining away with a rumbling stomach — scandalous on two fronts!
Nevertheless, if “drunk” is literal, why would he say in reply:
“Do you not have houses to eat and drink in” (v. 22)?
The apostle himself had already condemned “drunkards” earlier in the epistle (cf. 1 Cor. 6.10). Is it plausible to think that the same man, just five chapters later, would have preferred them to get “drunk,” provided they did so at home? That can hardly be the case.
Actually, the question, “do you not have houses…”, was never intended to be read as a suggestion (see more below). And while the word “drink” (pino) in verse twenty-two generically refers to assuaging thirst by imbibing any liquid — alcoholic or not (cf. Jn. 4.7; Mk. 14.25; Lk. 1.15) — still the phrase “eat and drink” in direct response to “hunger” and “drunk” (v. 21) lends itself to the notion that “drunk” was meant literally.
On the other hand, if “drunk” is figurative (cf. Rev. 17.2, 6), he means that while “one is hungry,” “another is” so full he has poisoned himself with delirium. In other words, “drunk” may be used as a metonym to stress the effects of over-eating — i.e., it is as if he is intoxicated: senses dulled, spirits enlivened, body impaired, etc.
Regardless, one scholar suggests the meaning:
“The one has more than is good for him, the other less” (Bengel; see also Findlay, p. 879; cf. Jn 2.10).
John Gill (1607-1771) proposed that “drunk” should be taken to mean
“excess, or at least very plentifully, so that he was very cheerful and more disposed to carnal mirth than in a serious and solemn manner to partake of the Lord's supper” (Exposition…).
Either way, the picture is grotesquely clear: some were suffering while others were engrossed in pleasure.
Finally, in verse twenty-two, he highlights the core problem:
“What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.”
Heinrich Meyer (1800-1873) remarked that the question, “Do you not have houses…”, actually has “inferential force” as opposed to propositional force. Rather than suggesting that they “eat and drink” in their houses, Paul is sharing an internal monologue, in which he infers upon their motives. Why are they behaving this way — i.e., gorging upon a feast while leaving their brethren with "nothing"? There are only two possible explanations:
(1) Either they have no homes in which to “eat and drink” and must feed themselves at the church dinner.
(2) “Or” they “despise” their brethren and wish to “humiliate” them for their social and financial inferiority.
Paul infers that since it is not the former (they do have homes in which to eat and drink), it must be that they “despise” those in the “church of God” who “have nothing.”
To corroborate this: the word “what” translates the conjunction gar (for), which more likely has the force of why than what. Hence, “Why? Do you not have houses…”
Also, there is a double negative in the question, not conveyed in the English versions, which gives it a rhetorical thrust. In that light, Charles Ellicott (1819-1905) suggested a better translation:
“Surely it is not that you have no houses to eat and drink in…” is it? Of course not!
The “or” in the following question — viz., “or do you despise the church…” — shows that this was the other alternative to the question: Why are you behaving this way? Is it that you do not have houses in which to eat and drink? Surely not! Or is it that you despise the church? That’s it!
Since they had homes in which they could hide their carnal feasting (though Paul does not propose they do this), and since they have chosen instead to act carnally at the church dinner, the only explanation is that they wish to flout their wealth and snub the poor.
So, rather than give them the honor they think they deserve for their carnal display of wealth, Paul severally condemns their actions.
Incidentally, if, as some misinterpret this verse, Paul was insisting that the brethren “eat and drink” at home and not at church, then not only should churches refrain from eating in the assembly place, but they should also remove their water fountains. If we cannot “eat” at church, then on what basis may we “drink” there too?
Summary of the Problem
In short, the church at Corinth had a problem of the haves vs. the have-nots. The fellowship meal was a charity dinner — a “love feast.” But the wealthier members at Corinth “despised” (looked down upon) “the church of God” (i.e., its poor members—cf. Jms. 2.6). So, instead of serving the poor, they brought their “own supper” to serve themselves, showing no hospitality toward those brethren who had “nothing,” thereby “sham[ing]” (“humiliat[ing],” ESV) them and exacerbating the “divisions” and “factions” among them.
Certainly, if all they aspired to do at these church meals was to serve themselves, they could do that at home. But the fact that they did this at the church potluck indicates that they had more sinister motives in mind.
Again, Paul says nothing here about mixing the communion with a common meal or eating it to fill up like a common dinner. In other words, the problem was not about the way they treated the communion elements per se, nor was it about where they enjoyed the potluck (i.e., the assembly place vs. home), but about the way they treated each other. Correct that, and they could continue to eat together with divine approval.
Consequences of the Problem (Verses 23-32)
Paul identifies three reasons for which correction was necessary.
(1) As long as the problem festered, their worship was unacceptable (vv. 23-29).
(2) Because of their callous stinginess, they were responsible for the suffering taking place in the congregation (v. 30).
(3) They were in danger of being eternally condemned (vv. 31-32).
First, their factious actions made their communion worship nauseating to the Lord (vv. 23-29).
“For,” in verse 23, reveals why Paul could “not praise” them for their mistreatment of those who had “nothing.”
“The Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner, He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Cor. 11.23-26).
As mentioned before, the early church celebrated the communion ritual just “after” their Sunday evening charity dinner (v. 25). This practice made for a sharp contrast between the two meals.
First, during their potluck dinner, the Corinthians showed they had nothing in common with their brethren; in fact, they “despised” the body of Christ. Then, they partook of a meal that was designed as a reminder of the common union they share — that Christ’s body was “broken for” all of them, haves and have-nots alike. Thus, they displayed their utter ignorance about why we consume the communion each Sunday.
“Broken” (klao) signifies “to divide into pieces.” The Lord divided the bread for the express purpose of distributing the portions to his disciples. Of this passage, therefore, Johann Bengel (1687-1752) observed:
“The very mention of the breaking involves distribution and refutes the Corinthian plan — every man his own” (see his commentary under verse 24).
In other words, the Corinthians refused to “break” their common meals and distribute portions to their poor brethren, leaving them with “nothing.” This disposition frustrated the very spirit of the sacred meal.
By disrespecting their poor brethren, they were disrespecting the Lord’s sacrifice (cf. 1 Cor. 8.11; Rom. 14.15 “for whom Christ died”). To paraphrase:
It is not possible to commune with brethren in the spiritual supper if you refuse to commune with them in the common!
If their common supper was not Lordly (honorable to Christ), then how could the sacred meal be so?
So, the apostle concludes:
“Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27).
In what way, based on this context, were the Corinthians partaking of the communion “in an unworthy manner”? Paul makes no allusions to any external procedural errors.
Instead, their gatherings were making the congregation “worse” (v. 17) by the “divisions” (v. 18) and “factions” (v. 19) among them, exacerbated when some ate their common supper “ahead” of their “hungry” brethren (v. 21) who were left with “nothing” (v. 22). Anyone who partakes of the communion while “despising” (kataphroneo—to think down against) and “shaming” those in “the church of God” who have “nothing” are doing so unworthily (cf. Mt. 5.23-24).
Ultimately, sin put Jesus on the cross (cf. Isa. 53.5; 2 Cor. 5.21; Heb. 9.28). And since they could not possibly partake of the communion without sin in their hearts (directed against their brethren), instead of honoring the Lord’s sacrifice when partaking of the communion, they made themselves responsible for it — i.e., they became “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
Later (vv. 33-34), Paul will furnish us with the congregational solution to this problem. In verses twenty-eight and twenty-nine, however, he offers a remedy for each individual.
“But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
As long as their attitudes toward their brethren were selfish and disrespectful, their worship was unacceptable. Thus, a vigorous self-inspection was sorely needed.
To eat and drink “judgment” (krima—Eng., ‘crime’) to themselves may mean either to invite an accusation against themselves (i.e., a lawsuit in God’s court; cf. 1 Cor. 6.7) or to invite condemnation (i.e., punishment—cf. Lk 24.20). Either way, they were spiritually unwell.
The participial phrase, “not discerning the Lord’s body” (v. 29), is somewhat obscure. Note the following:
"Discerning" (diakrino) means to separate or distinguish. It has to do with singling something out due to its uniqueness (whether positively or negatively). File that point away for a moment.
Next, the term “body” may have a double meaning.
First, it may signify the literal body of the Lord. Some Greek manuscripts omit the genitive tou kuriou (of the Lord), leaving us with the reading: “not discerning the body.” Yet, the Lord’s literal body is at least implied. And Paul also had spoken of “the body and blood of the Lord” a few verses earlier, suggesting that he was thinking of the Lord’s physical death (v. 27). Thus, to fail to “distinguish” the value of his bodily sacrifice is an extremely noxious thing to do.
Second, by extension, the phrase may refer to the metaphorical body of the Lord — i.e., his church. In the chapter before (1 Cor. 10.16-17), as well as in the chapter to follow (1 Cor. 12.12ff), Paul maintains that the communion is a reminder both of the Lord’s physical body and blood and of the fact that the church is “one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (10.17; cf. 1 Cor. 12.12; Eph 1.22-23). Too, in the present context, Paul had spoken of the Corinthians dishonoring (i.e., “not discerning”) “the church of God” (11.22), suggesting that he was also thinking of the Lord’s metaphorical body. As Alikin put it:
“When believers neither discern nor are concerned about each other’s needs, the body (of the congregation) is disregarded and neglected” (p. 107, note 18).
In keeping with this idea, Bullinger observes that Paul employed a paregmenon, a figure of speech where “repeated words are derived from the same root” (p. 304; e.g., Mt. 16.18, “Peter” and “Rock”). The words “judgment” (krima—a noun) and “discerning” (diakrino—a verb) are cognate forms.
In essence, this means that by failing to distinguish [i.e., show respect to] their brethren (positively), they consumed the communion unworthily and distinguished themselves (negatively) and brought “judgment” (v. 29), “chastening” and “condemnation” from the Lord (v. 32).
“Though, by the act of communion, they professed to belong to the Body of Christ, yet if they did not…distinguish their fellow-members of that Body from all others, they condemned themselves, they accused themselves. For, while they ate and drank thus, they did so unworthily: and by that very act they condemned themselves” (ibid., pp. 305-6).
Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the Corinthians had directly devalued the literal body of Christ. On the contrary, Paul’s frequent appeals to his death indicate that the Corinthians highly cherished his sacrifice for us (cf. 1 Cor. 1.17-18, 23; 2.2, 8; 8.11; 15.3; 2 Cor. 5.14).
However, given the context, that is ultimately what they were doing, since the church—including its poor members whom they had been “shaming”—was the figurative manifestation of “the Lord’s body.” In other words, they failed to regard the Lord’s church-body as a distinguished group to be held in honor (cf. “especially” Gal. 6.10). In so doing, they were devaluing the body of the Lord himself (Mt. 25.44ff). Thus, the double meaning is very persuasive.
Either way, Millard J. Erickson summarized the issue succinctly:
“For members of the church to be divided into factions and to despise others who partake with them of the one loaf is an abuse and contradiction of the practice” (1121).
Hence, they needed to adjust their attitudes toward their brethren, lest they continue to worship the Lord unworthily.
Next, their factious ill-treatment of one another led to a second severe consequence: the congregation was suffering. Paul wrote:
“For this reason, many (i.e., an ample amount —AP) are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (v. 30).
“Sleep” is a euphemism for death — “some have died” (ESV; cf. 1 Cor. 15.6, 20-21).
Of course, it is possible to take this statement figuratively: i.e., refusal to be hospitable toward those who have “nothing” has led to spiritual weakness, illness, or even death (outright apostasy).
However, as a rule, the literal interpretation should always take precedence unless the context demands otherwise. As such, two interpretations are possible.
First, because of their failure to “discern the Lord’s body,” God sent
“physical illness and literal death…upon the worldly Corinthians as temporal judgments for disciplinary purposes” (Jackson, 329).
Thus, “many” of the sinners in the congregation were suffering, and perhaps even some who were not culpable were caught in the crossfire. Paul’s reference to the Lord’s “chastening” (v. 32) certainly supports this explanation.
A second possibility is this: for refusing to be hospitable, the wealthy were partly responsible for the physical illnesses and deaths of their indigent brethren. They had the power to aid their brethren who had “nothing,” but they chose to let them go “hungry” instead — and some even died from malnutrition. Alikin thus noted:
“It was not only the unity of the community which suffered by the misbehavior of some participants but individual members of the community were harmed by it as well. The harm done to the community manifested itself, according to Paul, in illness and deaths in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 11.30)” (p. 105).
The Danger of Eternal Condemnation
Finally, this problem needed prompt correction because the Lord, the righteous judge, condemned their actions. Paul wrote:
“For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (vv. 31-32).
The apostle may be reiterating the point he earlier made (1 Cor. 4.3-4) — viz., that if we were in charge of our own judgment, we would all evade condemnation, for “I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this, but He who judges me is the Lord.” Since we are judged by the Lord, he does so to chasten [correct] us, so that we won’t be lost like sinners in "the world." Take your chastening in this light, therefore, and repent!
However, it is more likely that he is explaining why (“for”) it is necessary to examine ourselves (v. 28). The sense then would be:
“If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged [by the Lord]” (ESV).
As Barnes puts it:
“If we would exercise a strict scrutiny over our hearts and feelings, and conduct, and come to the Lord’s table with a proper spirit, we should escape the condemnation to which they are exposed who observe it in an improper manner. If we would exercise proper severity and honesty in determining our own character and fitness for the ordinance, we should not expose ourselves to the divine displeasure” (p. 222).
In short, the Corinthians would not be judged by the Lord if they had only judged themselves first — and corrected their errors.
Nevertheless, the apostle (v. 32) reassures the erring Corinthians that such chastening from the Lord is designed to help them avoid eternal condemnation with the rest of the world, not to discourage them (cf. 2 Sam. 7.14; Ps. 94.12; Heb. 12.5–10; Rev. 3.19).
The Solution (Verses 33-34)
At last, having thoroughly exposed the Corinthians for their inhospitable actions in their common dinners toward those who had “nothing,” creating “factions” and “divisions” between them, and having shown that if they should continue this course of action, they would
(a) continue to defile the sacred supper (by dishonoring the sacrifice of the Lord who died for the very brethren they were “despising” and “shaming”),
(b) continue to be held liable for the illnesses and deaths occurring in the congregation, and
(c) continue to be chastened by the Lord, until they shall finally “be condemned with the world,”
Paul now offers the congregation a two-pronged solution.
The Ideal Solution
First, ideally, the brethren will choose to continue to “come together to eat” (v. 33) their fellowship meals. He does not truly wish them to eat separately “at home,” but desires that they learn to love and respect one another. Thus, he urges them, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another.”
Significantly, the solution he offers is not: “stop eating the communion as a common meal!” If that were the issue, how could he instruct them to “wait for one another”? Would this make any sense as a solution if the problem had to do with mixing the communion with a common meal — i.e., wait to eat the communion as a common meal together?
Likewise, the solution is not to refrain from eating together in their assembly location. Please note that he does not insist unreservedly that the church should eat separately “at home.” Rather, he encourages them to “come together (not separately) to eat.” But, when they do so, they must ensure that they are “wait[ing] for one another.”
The term "wait" (ekdechomai—to welcome/receive out of) suggests both hospitality and patience. Paul commands (present imperative—“start waiting”) them to reach out in readiness to receive each other; i.e., support each other with hospitality, not with selfish individualism (“each one” — v. 21).
Too, the word also has a time element (patience), as clearly indicated in other passages (Jn. 5.3; Heb 11.10; Js. 5.7; Ac. 17.16; 1 Cor. 16.11; Heb. 10.13). And Paul also described them as taking their “own supper ahead of others” (v. 21).
Again, the picture is this: if their charity dinner started around dusk (e.g., 6 pm) followed by (“after supper” v. 25) an evening worship session where they partook of the communion (e.g., 7 pm), then some of the wealthy brethren were showing up to their meeting place with their “own supper” just before the charity meal (e.g., 5:45 pm) to prevent their poorer brethren (whom they “despised” due to their poverty) from enjoying their food, leaving them “hungry” (v. 21) and with “nothing” (v. 22) when they arrived at the gathering later.
But they did not show up early merely to eat more than the others — if that were their only motive, they could have done that at home without showing up with their food at all. Thus, by going to the gathering “ahead of others,” they could not only fill up to their heart’s content, but, more importantly, they could send an arrogant message to the others — we are the important ones in this congregation; the rest of you can go pound sand.
The ideal solution, then, combining both hospitality and patience, is to share your food with your brethren; show that you care for them, even if that means having to “wait” for them to arrive.
G.G. Findlay, in his contribution to the Expositor’s Greek Testament, paraphrased the ideal solution as follows:
“No one must begin supper till the church is gathered, so that all may commence together and share alike. To wait for others presumes waiting to feast with them” (884).
The Less-Than-Ideal Solution
Second, Paul offers them a less-than-ideal solution (v. 34).
“But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment.”
Who is the “hungry” individual in this verse?
Earlier, the “hungry” individual was “shamed” because he had “nothing” to bring with him to the meal, nor did his brethren offer him food (vv. 21-22, though, again, see endnote 1 for an alternate explanation). But if such an impoverished individual was left “hungry” at the charity dinner because he had “nothing,” then he surely had “nothing” at home to eat as well. How could Paul send such a pitiable individual home to eat…“nothing”?
More likely, then, the “hungry” individual in verse thirty-four was a member of the wealthier class — the source of the problem. Again, the “hungry” individual "pines after" food; he is famished, craving sustenance. While it ordinarily denotes someone starving from lack of food (cf. Mt. 4.2; 12.1, 3; Rom. 12.20; etc.), it is conceivable that Paul employed this term as a pejorative against those whose appetite was insatiable.
In other words, he was one
“who cannot content [himself] with the equally divided portions assigned to them” (Alikin, p. 107).
In part, this is because he is ravenous in his selfish carnality, but also, as Paul inferred earlier, because he wished to humiliate others who did not have access to his resources. So, he started eating “ahead of others,” but still at the gathering place.
Previously, we saw that Paul’s question, “do you not have houses to eat and drink in” (v. 22), was not meant as a suggestion but as part of a rhetorical remark. Here, however, Paul actually instructs (present imperative) the “hungry” individual to “eat at home.”
Mark the distinction between “him” (“let him eat at home”—third person singular) and “you” (“lest you come together…”—second person plural). He does not instruct the congregation ("you") to eat at home, but only the one who is “hungry” (i.e., a self-satisfier).
Hence, if someone cannot “wait” for the others because he is “famished,” then “let him take off the edge of his hunger at home” (see Jamieson, et al.), “staying his appetite before he comes to the meeting” (Findlay, 884). After all, the point of these charity dinners was not to serve self but to distribute to others in common fellowship. Indeed,
“The church supper is for good-fellowship, not for bodily need; to eat there like a famished man, absorbed in one’s food…is to exclude Christian and religious thoughts” (ibid.).
The final clause, “lest you come together for judgment,” demonstrates that the church is still permitted to come together to eat its potluck meals, while the “hungry” individual was sent “home.” Unfortunately, the presence of selfish individuals in these meals was fraying the congregational rapport and making matters “worse” (v. 17). Though Paul wants them all to “eat together” — not at home — yet to allow selfishness to ruin the charitable nature of these gatherings is to put the entire gathering in jeopardy of “judgment.”
Every Sunday evening, churches of Christ in the first century “came together to eat” a “love feast” or “charity dinner.” Afterward, they observed the communion ritual as part of their evening worship (cf. Acts 20.7). These gatherings were designed to help “better” the congregation. However, the potlucks at the church at Corinth were making matters “worse” (v. 17).
Despicably, the wealthier Corinthians took their “own supper ahead” of those who had “nothing,” leaving them “hungry,” while the wealthier Corinthians were engrossed in carnal mirth. This created deep “divisions” and “factions” between the brethren. Because of this, neither the potluck supper nor the communion was truly “lordly” in nature. Indeed, “it is not possible to eat” a supper that honors the lord when you are mistreating the very brethren for whom he died!
Accordingly, because of their divisions, they were worshiping the Lord “in an unworthy manner.” When they consumed the communion, how could they possibly think they were partaking of it worthily when, at the same time, they were dishonoring his church-body (for whom he sacrificed his fleshly body, Acts 20.28)? A serious self-examination is in order!
Likewise, whether God was punishing them for disciplinary purposes, or whether they were allowing those who were “hungry” and had “nothing” to become “sick” or die from malnutrition, either way, they were responsible for the suffering taking place in the congregation.
Finally, if they continued this course of action, they would be eternally “condemned.” But God is pleading with them to judge themselves first so that he won’t have to condemn them ultimately along “with the world.”
To solve this problem, therefore, Paul urges that they continue to “come together to eat,” provided they “wait for one another.” Be considerate and share! After all, these types of gatherings are designed to “better” the congregation, not make matters “worse.”
But if someone continues to fray the congregational rapport with his carnal “hunger,” that one must be sent “home” to “eat,” lest when the church continues to “come together” for these meals, the entire group comes under God’s “judgment.”
This passage demonstrates that the venue in which the Corinthian church enjoyed their fellowship meal “as a church…together in one place” was also used to partake of the communion (see also 1 Cor. 14.26). But the problem wasn't the venue in which they were observing these meals; nor were they mixing the meals.
Rather, the problem with these meals stemmed from their divisive relationships with each other. Paul, therefore, urges them to correct their behavior toward one another so that they could continue to “come together to eat” these meals with divine approval.
Thus, far from prohibiting eating in the assembly place, 1 Corinthians 11.17-34 encourages it, provided it is done in a way that honors the Lord and his people.
Though church pitch-ins are not spiritual requirements, there is, nonetheless, ample Biblical evidence that authorizes the practice. If the leadership of the congregation makes such gatherings available, then men and women of faith should use them to “build each other up in the most holy faith” (Jude 20), so that we may come together “for the better” and not “for the worse.”
This is a two-part series:
Eating In The Assembly Place (2)
 Another explanation is that “hungry” — both in verse 21 and verse 34 — refers not to those who have “nothing” and are therefore starving, but to those wealthy folks who brought “their own” food and have a "ravenous" appetite. Some are ravenous and others are drunk. This interpretation of "hungry" in verse 21 is more consistent with Paul's use of the term in verse 34. But it is less natural in verse 21. Still, either explanation is conceivable. See more under “The Less-Than-Ideal Solution.”
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