Each Sunday, in many churches across North America, congregants hear these words preparing them for communion: “The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread ...”
However, few churchgoers kneeling for bread and wine at the altar may know that these words in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 are set in a longer section (11:17-34) that begins sharply: “Now in the following instructions, I do not commend you, because when you come together, it is not for the better, but for the worse!” Paul continues the attack in verse 20: “When you come together it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry, and another becomes drunk” (emphasis added).
What Paul describes sounds more like a food fight in a high school cafeteria than our solemn rituals. Have we missed something in this text?
This article isn’t mainly about food. It’s about inequality—the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. But when you live in the Roman Empire where most inhabitants live at or below subsistence, earning enough daily bread is the main thing you think about.
A longtime friend, George McClain, and I are presently finishing a curriculum simulating a house church planted by Paul in Corinth during the years 50 to 51 C.E. We owe much to the research of biblical and classical scholars and archeologists on power relations in the Roman Empire. This “empire-critical” method examines the sociological, political, religious, and economic structures that underpin first century Rome. Such structures contrast starkly with the “kingdom of God” as proclaimed by Jesus and his apostle Paul.
To begin with, Roman aristocrats detest democracy. They assume they are superior to all other people and thus have the right to rule over them. Gradations of hierarchy exist everywhere, from emperor to senators to knights to the lesser aristocracy to ordinary citizens to freeborn noncitizens to freedpersons to slaves. There is little upward social mobility; stability and hierarchy are valued more highly. Democracy means chaos.
Such stability and hierarchy are best maintained through a system of inequality called “patronage.” No one survives without a patron in a slightly higher class to provide help—with social connections, economic opportunities, or legal counsel. In return, the client publicly honors the patron. Clients themselves are patrons to persons below them. Throughout the empire, a myriad of such pyramids operate to maintain both inequality and social stability. Priests and temples buttress hierarchy through civil religion. The emperor is the representative of the gods.
To immerse ourselves in the material remains of this culture, several of us visited Greece and the Corinthia in 2009. David Pettegrew, my archeologist colleague and friend, walked us through weeds growing over ancient Corinth to the ruins of a first-century villa, perhaps like one owned by a patron of a house church. We pondered the ruins of the Asklepion, a community healing center where banquets for Corinthian elites would have been held—meals Paul considered “the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:19-21). We splashed our feet in the water at the harbor at Cenchreae, where Phoebe led a house church and from where she carried Paul’s letter to Rome (Romans 16:1-2).
PAUL NAMES FOUR people in Corinth who probably led house churches: Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11), Crispus and Gaius (1:14), and Stephanas (1:16; 16:17). Unlike his letters to Thessalonika, where no leaders are named, these people may represent patrons who provided a house for the believers to meet and, possibly, food for the daily communal meal.
While in Ephesus, Paul hears about problems in Corinth from “Chloe’s people,” so we chose to simulate her house church. Eighteen characters are divided into the four factions Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1:10-12—“those of Paul,” “those of Apollos,” “those of Cephas,” and “those of Christ.”
How did these divisions and quarrels arise? After Paul planted churches in Corinth, he left for more church-planting in Ephesus. Apollos, an eloquent preacher from Alexandria, arrived later and also attracted a following, probably those with more status, wealth, and education. We assume “Chloe’s people” generally supported Paul’s viewpoint, since they appealed to him for help. We don’t know if Cephas (the Apostle Peter) ever came there, but this faction could include Jesus-Jews more conservative than Paul. We characterized “those in Christ” as charismatic slaves, mostly women, who have been transformed from “bodies” without honor to persons of dignity and worth, seeking equality with the other believers.
As we role-played these factions, first in a seminary class and then with laypeople in Sunday school, we saw how issues of social class and status dominate the letter. On almost every issue, Paul tells the privileged “1 percent” to share it or give it up for the sake of the entire body of Christ. It is the core of Jesus’ self-emptying gospel. Here are a few examples:
Crazy, Upside-Down Logic
1 Corinthians 1:18-3:23
Paul immediately challenges the “not many” among the believers who are “wise by human standards ... powerful ... and of noble birth” (1:26). He lifts up the less educated and “weak ... low and despised in the world” (1:27-28). Waving a cross, the standard instrument of torture, Paul insists that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23). This is God’s “wisdom”—that God’s son should be so shamed and despised by the “rulers of this age” that they executed him as a terrorist. And these are the rulers the “noble” members are sucking up to!
Apollos may have preached the same message. But he was an orator from Alexandria, perhaps from the school of Philo, the great Jewish wisdom teacher. Apollos’ eloquence may have attracted some lower-level officials hanging onto upper-class privileges by their fingertips. Here was a chance to gain more clients to provide them additional public honor.
Paul insists that he and Apollos agree and are not rivals (3:5-6). But the factions are still spiritual babies, still “of the flesh,” full of quarreling and jealousy (3:1-4).
Sex, Lawsuits, and Banquets
1 Corinthians 5:1-6:20
Chloe’s people have reported that one man in the church has a sexual relationship with his stepmother—his father’s wife (5:1). Because Paul says this behavior conflicts with Roman practice, one scholar, Bruce Winter, argues that the father is alive—in which case the son is transgressing the law of honor. But the family is wealthy, and the father does not want to call public attention to this shame. Nor do the Corinthian assemblies excommunicate the son; he is their patron and benefactor. Paul connects greed and robbery to sexual immorality three times (5:10, 11; 6:10).
Paul probably discusses lawsuits here (6:1-8) because of this legal mess. But in any case, only elite patrons of the church could file a grievance in a Roman court; persons of lower rank may not sue a superior. Instead, Paul insists internal problems be brought before “the saints” (6:1-6): “Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another?” This is very risky for those with power and privilege. What if the wisest person in a house church is a slave? Patrons cannot allow slaves to think they deserve as much respect as their owners!
Paul then curtails the privileges of all elite men in 6:12-20. They say, “all things are lawful for me.” The context is the elite banquets—the over-eating, over-drinking, and “hook-ups” for dessert. But how can a client in their house church challenge his patron about attending these banquets?
Gender inequality pervades the empire, but Paul argues for equal faithfulness in marriage and for the value of the physical body because God has bodily “raised the Lord and will raise [our bodies] by his power” (6:13b-20). In fact, the greedy, drunkards, or the sexually immoral should not even attend the community’s agape meals! (5:11).
The Risk of Eating Idol-Meat
1 Corinthians 8-10
Here Paul again addresses elite members of the church. Only they can afford to eat from the top of the food chain, but he issues two instructions that curtail their privileges. Although it’s okay to eat whatever food is offered at a private dinner, if someone there—most likely a Christian slave—tells you it was offered in sacrifice, don’t eat it for her sake (10:27-29).
Second, Paul absolutely forbids public banquets. Temple banquets reinforce hierarchy. Diners are seated according to rank, with better food for the higher-ups. Besides the dessert course mentioned above, these “good old boy” meals are times of networking—strengthening business ties and reinforcing patronage relations. For Paul, this is to sit down at the table of demons (10:14-22), the table of the domination system that God opposes. But by not attending these banquets, Christian patrons would cut themselves off from their pagan peers and lose honor. They will resist.
For this reason, Paul includes chapter 9—about a privilege he himself gave up for the sake of the gospel. He has refused all financial support from the Corinthians (9:1-7, 12, 15). Paul knows it would come from the church patrons, making him beholden to them rather than to the majority of poor laborers and slaves. He would be co-opted into the unequal patronal system, which opposes Christ’s good news of equal inclusion (9:16-18).
Instead, Paul becomes a lower-class handworker in his rented tent-making shop (Acts 18:1-3). He sees this self-emptying of privilege as the core of Jesus’ gospel. But by offering himself as an example of what Jesus did, he angers his would-be patrons. It would be a public honor to have Teacher Paul as their house-philosopher. In response, some reject his apostleship (a painful situation Paul laments in 2 Corinthians 10-13).
Not a Supper of the Lord!
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
The context of chapters 11 to 14 is a worship service. Elite persons do not work for a living, so they arrive at a patron’s house for supper in the late afternoon and recline on couches in the dining room. All laborers must work until sunset. By that time, the food is gone, and the early diners are drunk (11:20-21). This is eating and drinking in an unworthy manner, says Paul. It is not “discerning the body” (11:29). That is why those not getting supper “are weak and ill and some have died” (verse 30).
The text presupposes a full meal that begins with a bread-breaking ritual and ends with a ritual of the cup—in honor of the Lord Jesus. The confusing words “homes” and “at home” in verses 22 and 34 are literally “house” in Greek, here meaning the “house church.”
Paul uses the example of Jesus’ Last Supper to play on the word “body.” Jesus shared bread as a symbol of his own physical body and his body of disciples gathered with him (verses 23-25). The elite members of the house church must remember the “death of the Lord” (verse 26) so they can commit socio-political suicide by waiting to eat a late supper with people they deem inferior. But Paul is adamant. If you are not eating together, it is not a Jesus-Supper. You are eating your own suppers and you humiliate those who have nothing (verses 20-22).
From the patchwork evidence of 2 Corinthians, we know that Paul’s letter was not well-received—at least not by patrons or their clients whom Paul ironically calls “super-apostles” (11:4-6). The “1 percent” of Christians in Corinth were no more willing to give up their privileges than most of us today want to give up privileges of wealth, class, race, or education. The secular Occupy movement is calling attention to a staggering economic gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent in America. Is it possible that, in their struggle to proclaim the moral bankruptcy of such inequality, the Occupiers are partaking of more authentic “suppers of the Lord” than many of us kneeling in the sanctuary?
Reta Halteman Finger recently retired from teaching Bible at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. Previously editor of the Christian feminist magazine Daughters of Sarah, she is the author of Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups and Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.