The Case for Covenant Communion: 2nd Edition (part 2) – 1 Cor. 11 (a)


A second edition of The Case for Covenant Communion is forthcoming (d.v.). I am interacting with Children and the Lord’s Supper (Christian Focus, 2011). In the first chapter summary of their case, Waters and Duncan write, “First Corinthians 11, then, sets for clear criteria for participation in the Lord’s Supper. The Supper is not for all church members” (21).

This is the first post on understanding 1 Corinthians 11, focusing on the original context. A common reading (esp. Reformed) of this passage uses Paul’s rebukes as grounds for admission to the Table and inverts his reproofs into “criteria” for entrance. This is not the only way to read this passage (see Jeff Meyers ch. in The Case for Covenant Communion, 1st ed.). Turning the rebuke of evil Pharisees by John the Baptist into “entrance criteria” is precisely what Baptists do. I maintain this is a bad hermeneutic. We should address the entrance requirements (into saraments/covenant, etc.) for children in passages that address children, not passages reproving adults for sinful behavior.

What seems to be almost entirely missing in Reformed discussions of 1 Cor. 11 is the actual context of such an event. By missing this, it is easy to skew the reading toward entrance “criteria.” What is in the background? What did a Corinthian Lord’s Supper entail?

“Put together with what we know of the social conventions and mores of the time, we can suppose what is going on in Corinth at the Lord’s supper. One of the members with a large enough house–and this inevitably entails a commensurate servant staff–hosts the dinner in which the Lord’s supper is observed. Some persons–this apparently breaks along economic lines also–are free to come early, and they have (the choice?) food and drink. Some get drunk (11:21). Others (Paul characterizes them as “those having nothing”) perhaps get there late(r) and find, along with tipsy coworshipers, leftover food at best. (For more on the socioeconomic makeup of the congregation at Corinth, see the Commentary on 1:26–31.)” J. Paul Sampley, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 934.

“What should have been a ritual of incorporation and group solidarity, with members of the one body sharing their food and drink in acts of reciprocal hospitality (cf. Neyrey 1996: 159–82), seems to have degenerated into a ritual of rivalry and competitive display threatening to split the fellowship (vv. 18–21). The common meal has become anything but “common.” In particular, disparities of wealth and status between members are being dramatized every time they “come together” to eat. How could this be? What is causing the breakdown into “divisions” (schismata) and “factions” (haireseis)? Vv. 21–22a provide the clue: “For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper [to idion deipnon], and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? Stephen C. Barton, 1 Corinthians, ed. James D.G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 1339.

If this first century setting is described accurately, does this not raise some questions about the “criteria” of participation? Is Paul’s focus on mental capacity or social inequity? Is this just “liberal” social theory imposed on the text? No. It’s the best historical reconstruction.

Venerable evangelical commentatory, Leon Morris says, “The wealthier members of the congregation clearly provided most of the food, and this could have been a marvellous  expression of Christian love and unity. But it was degraded into the very opposite. The poor would have to finish their work before they could come, and slaves would find it particularly difficult to be on time. But the rich did not wait. They ate and drank in their cliques (‘divisions’, v. 18), each eating ‘an own dinner’ (idion deipnon). The food was gone before the poor got there! One remains hungry, another gets drunk.”1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 7 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 156.