Misunderstanding the “Supper of the Lord”—1 Corinthians 11:17-34

1 Corinthian Series, Bible study lesson 11

by Reta Halteman Finger

On November 6, Election Day evening, 800 ecumenical communion services took place around the United States. Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper together to remind ourselves that our first allegiance is to Jesus as Lord, not our nation, political party, or president, whoever (at the time) he might be. I shared this meal in Harrisonburg, Virginia—officiated by Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Mennonites—Democrats and Republicans. The call to unity throughout the service brought tears to my eyes.

The call to unity in Christ across divisions is indeed what Paul calls for in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. He insists that following Jesus as Lord trumps following Lord Caesar. But cultural practices of the Roman Empire are making a travesty of the “supper of the Lord” (20). Things are so bad that it would be better if they never ate together at all! (17).

What is going on?

We find a clue in verses 20-21. “When it’s time to eat, you are not eating the Lord’s Supper, but your own suppers!” Consequently, “some go hungry while others get drunk!” How could this happen?

Meals in the Greco-Roman world
To understand this text, we need to set aside our own experiences of the Lord’s Supper. Entering the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day, you find that formal evening meals always begin with a bread-breaking ritual in honor of a deity. Polytheists choose their patron god or goddess, Jews worship Yahweh, and Christians break bread in honor of Jesus. Then you eat your meal. This is followed by the ceremony of the cup. Drinks are mixed—wine with water—in the amount appropriate for the evening’s activities. If you planned for a philosophical discussion, use more water; if you expect to bring in flute players and hook up with male or female prostitutes, add less water in order to get drunk. The first cup is poured out as a libation to the deity; the second (and third and fourth…) cups are shared among the diners.

Are Jesus-meals different?
Now let’s picture how Christ-followers adapt this common meal practice. (The term “Christian” is not used until later, first in a pejorative sense.) Paul evangelizes and plants churches in various parts of a city—in this case, Corinth. They start small, perhaps one household, drawing in neighbors, friends, co-workers, and slaves as time goes by. It is never safe to walk distances in the dark, so believers attend the house church on their street. We can guess from that there are at least four house churches in or around Corinth, headed by Chloe, Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanas (1 Cor 1: 11,14,16). Phoebe leads another group four miles away at Corinth’s port of Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2).

Paul teaches the believers to break bread as Jesus did before his meals and then eat together as one body. If they can afford wine, they share the cup ritual after supper, in honor of Jesus as Lord. Each house assembly probably meets each evening for the main meal of their day, followed by worship and teaching.

(Where did all that food come from? In the early Jerusalem church where wealth was redistributed, people ate by households every day [Acts 2:46-47]. In house churches where everyone is poor, such as Thessalonika, everyone is expected to work to earn food for the daily potluck [2 Thessalonians 3:7-13]. But in Corinth, where there is now a famine among the poor, it seems that wealthier patrons are expected to provide most or all of the food.)

Two radically different table practices
At least that’s the way it started. But now there are factions within the house churches, as noted earlier, which seem to be along class lines. Never forget the patronage pyramid described in Lesson 3. Though the elite classes depend on multitudes of slaves and other manual laborers to support their lifestyles, they never normally eat with them. They even rank persons within their own class at a meal (see Luke 14:7-11). Elites don’t have to work, so they visit the public baths and then enjoy a leisurely supper in the late afternoon. In their villas, the triclinium, or dining room, contains couches along three walls (see illustration). Here, hosts and their guests recline, leaning on the left elbow and eating with the right hand from low tables served by slaves.

Roman Villa Floor Plan
Roman architecture works against Paul’s theology of the table. In an upper-class Roman-Corinthian house, only nine people can eat together in the triclinium. To eat a true Supper of the Lord in a Corinthian house church, everyone would have to sit on the floor of the atrium and share all food together at the same time. Illustration by Ted Finger.

Now imagine a house church meeting in one of these homes—probably the only place large enough for the growing group. Perhaps Chloe’s shop and living space has grown too small, so a wealthier patron invites them to his house. In exchange for this favor, he expects the other believers to honor him publicly, as clients as obliged to do.

But here problems arise concerning the meal. The patron and his peers eat earlier in the triclinium. By the time the sun sets and the manual laborers and slaves can stop work and arrive for the meal, the elite persons have already finished their food and are getting tipsy from the wine. The latecomers must stand in the atrium and hope for leftovers. No wonder Paul charges these patrons with “showing contempt for God’s gathered assembly and humiliating those who have nothing” (22).

This is the context for the “words of institution” we so solemnly listen to at our communion table (23-26). Jesus breaks bread and says to his friends, “This is my body which is for you all.” The bread is his physical body and the body of disciples gathered around the table. “Do this,” he says, “to remember me.” By this he means, “Share this bread as a way to remember all the meals we have eaten together with many different kinds of people throughout Israel.” At the end of the meal, Jesus says the same thing: “Share this cup with each other. It is my blood, even as you all are my body and blood in the world.”

Paul directs these words to the upper-class members of the church. Share your food with Jesus’ body—with all of his body. When you do this, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” If Jesus’ radical lifestyle led to his death, can’t you at least die to your privileges and wait for each other so all can eat together? (26, 33).

Discerning the body of the Lord
Only now can we understand what Paul means when he speaks of eating and drinking the Lord’s body and blood “in an unworthy manner” (27, NRSV). If you as an aspiring city official cannot sit down and eat with the female slave who prepares your meals or the grimy farmer who shears your sheep, you are not “discerning the body.” Rather, you are eating and drinking judgment against yourselves (29). This is why those who get inadequate food are weak and ill, and some even have died (30).

But what does Paul mean by “eating at home” in verses 22 and 34, as most English versions translate it? Is the Lord’s Supper just symbolic, and we should fill up at home so we don’t pig out in church? But that runs counter to Paul’s entire point. Poor people don’t have kitchens with full refrigerators; they are fortunate to rent one bare room in a tenement. The Greek word here is oikia, which refers to the “house.” Paul means that, if any are hungry let them eat to their fill in the house church—at the regular assembly that meets in a house. Otherwise, many will have barely anything to eat at all. And the hosts will be condemned for not following Jesus’ pattern of eating meals together, across class, race, and gender (v 34).

Have we missed the point?
Most “tables of the Lord” today focus primarily on one’s vertical relationship with Jesus. Even our church potlucks—where actual meal-sharing takes place—usually comprise people of similar social status.

Today in this post-campaign season, bipartisanship still remains an elusive dream. Huge socio-economic chasms lie between the 1% and the bottom half of the 99%. Perhaps Christians on the political left or right, the well-off or the struggling, should observe Jesus’ practice by eating together. What do you think might happen?

For reflection:
How does your experience of communion relate to Jesus’ table practices? When was the last time you ate with people of a different social class or culture?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.