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. 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, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 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. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. – 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 ESV
Disorder, disunity and division. All three were taking place within the church in Corinth. That is partly the reason Paul had to address the issue of authority and headship. It seems that there were those who were not comfortable with his teaching regarding headship and submission. Once again, the issue of freedoms and rights had come up. In the opening verses of this chapter, Paul dealt with women in the church who refused to cover their heads while in worship. This was not about value or worth. It was about God-ordained headship and authority, but also responsibility. Paul said, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3 ESV). Now, it is interesting to note that Paul makes it clear that both the husband and the wife, the male and the female, were free to prophesy and pray when the church assembled. But the man was to do so with his head uncovered, because to pray or prophesy with his head covered “dishonors his head” (1 Corinthians 11:4 ESV). In other words, he would be blatantly rejecting the headship of Christ in his life. And if a wife prophesies or prays with her head uncovered, she “dishonors her head” (1 Corinthians 11:5 ESV). Her actions would be construed as dishonoring the God-appointed headship of her husband.
This was all about order, unity and a submission to the will of God. And this was not the only issue going on in Corinth. Paul now addresses their attitude toward the practice of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Ordained by Jesus Christ Himself, this ordinance was to be a regular occurrence in the church. And the early church commemorated it as a feast. Unlike our modern version of the Lord’s Table, theirs was a meal. In the book of Acts we read, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46-47 ESV). This “love feast” was a communal gathering at which they commemorated the Lord’s death with the bread and the cup. But they also shared a meal together. And that’s where the problem developed. Paul says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (1 Corinthians 11:20 ESV). In other words, they had turned the Lord’s supper into something altogether different. Their supper was marked by selfishness, division and even drunkenness. It had become all about the meal and not about the Messiah. They were there for the food, not to celebrate the sacrificial death of Jesus, which made possible their salvation.
Paul doesn’t sugarcoat the problem. “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21 ESV). The gladness and generosity mentioned in Acts 2 was long gone. It was as if everyone was in for themselves. Some ate, while others went without. It had lost its communal aspect, because people were eating without waiting on the others. And then there were those who were using the “love feast” as an excuse to get drunk. There was little difference between this Christ-ordained event and the feasts practiced by the pagans in their temples. Paul is shocked by their behavior and can’t understand why they don’t just eat their meals at home if they can’t control themselves. The Lord’s supper was meant to remember all that Christ had done to make their salvation possible, not to satisfy their fleshly appetites.
In a not-so-subtle attempt to shame their actions, Paul asks them, “do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Corinthians 11:22b ESV). Their actions made it appear that they had no love for their brothers and sisters in Christ. There was no sharing of meals and compassion for the needy in their midst. The church in Corinth bore little resemblance to the early church in the books of Acts.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. – Acts 2:42-45 ESV
How easy it is to lose sight of our purpose as followers of Christ. We can turn our times of corporate worship into individually-focused moments of self-satisfaction. Forgetting that we are there to worship God, we can make it all about us, demanding that the music and the message cater to our personal preferences. We can go through an entire Sunday service neglecting those around us and never truly worshiping God. And in doing so, we miss the whole point of corporate worship. For Paul, the Corinthians had missed the message behind the Lord’s supper. It was not to be about enjoying a good meal. It was to be a celebration of our common bond in Christ and a commemoration of His sacrificial death on our behalf. Luke records the words of Jesus on the night that He instituted this sacred service.
When the time came, Jesus and the apostles sat down together at the table. Jesus said, “I have been very eager to eat this Passover meal with you before my suffering begins. For I tell you now that I won’t eat this meal again until its meaning is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.”
Then he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. Then he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. For I will not drink wine again until the Kingdom of God has come.”
He took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.”
After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.” – Luke 22:14-20 NLT
Just moments after this sobering sequence of events, the disciples would be arguing about who was the greatest. They had missed the point. So Jesus said to them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27 ESV). The Kingdom of God was about selflessness, not selfishness. Followers of Christ, in imitation of Him, were to be servants, not self-serving. When we focus on self, we end up loathing the body of Christ. When we make it all about ourselves, we neglect the fact that Jesus died, not just that we might enjoy salvation, but solidarity as the people of God.