The Corinthian Heresy

Over at my original site, Speaking the Truth in Love, I’ve been trying to clean up some of the regular, ongoing series there in order to devote more time and attention to shorter devotional expositions while developing some of my more expanded thoughts here, thus the Worship Wars series. One of the series I started there was titled “The Check Engine Light of Worship,” in which I started working through the passage from 1 Corinthians 11 that recounts the institution and then details the practice of the Lord’s Supper. You can get caught up on that series here

Out of necessity, I have had to go back and revisit the entire section from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, working through the Apostle’s argument in great detail. In ten years of writing and teaching ministry, it may be the single most difficult passage I’ve attempted. The great challenge is to untangle familiarity with the passage, which includes fighting against regurgitating other people’s arguments. Below, though a rather lengthy post, is my exposition, verse-by-verse on the correction of the Lord’s Supper from the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth focusing on verses 17-22, the heart of the argument, and then providing some summary conclusions and applications. First, a brief review of where we are so far in the series.

In the posts above, we began in Part 1 with a brief overview of the problem, or errors, which the Apostle Paul addresses. Then in Part 2, we saw a general overview of the night Jesus instituted the supper.  After seeing the foundation of Passover in our Lord’s institution of His supper in Part 3, we now want to expand upon the original post by looking more closely at 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 and the source of the divisions which they had found themselves entangled. 

Verse 17

In the introduction of this passage, verse 17, the Apostle makes his intentions clear that a rebuke, rather than a commendation, is forth-coming, “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.”  Essentially, what he is saying is that when the Corinthian believers were gathering as an ekklesia (when you come together; the Gk. word here is synerchomai) it was making things worse.  The problem, which will be defined shortly, was causing their gatherings to be unedifying (Rom. 14:19; Eph. 4:12), and we might even say harmful to the point of destructive and deserving of divine discipline.

Verse 18

“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,”

Verse 18 expands upon this thought by adding a key element, which we will identify as a fruit of the root problem, namely divisions, literally schisms, as commentator Charles Hodge points out.  As is typical with Paul, he begins to enumerate a list (in the first place), but will not finish it, though it will serve to highlight the primary issue.  Additionally, we find the second mention of the phrase, “when you come together,” with the addition of, “as a church.”  This will be a significant detail in the reproof that is to come.  With these two mentions, it becomes clear that the emphasis is on when the people are specifically meeting for the purpose of ekklesia, the gathering of God’s people in Christ, where there is something wrong, defined here as divisions.

The report that has been delivered to the Apostle was that the Corinthians were gathering divisively, rather than in unity with Christ, in fellowship with the Father and Son, through the Spirit, and with each other.  Hodge notes a key point for us, which we develop more fully below, that the divisions were directly connected to their public worship, particularly their mode of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

Verse 19

“for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”

Continuing to build the argument, we arrive at verse 19, which probably should be a continuation of verse 18, because it is further commentary on the nature and purpose of these divisions.  Here we read a rather strange conclusion that there must be “factions” for the purpose of identifying genuine believers.  This is remarkable insight into the sovereign purposes of God who truly works all things together for His good purposes, in this case allowing divisions for the purposes of proving those who are genuine.

The word used in this verse, which the ESV translates as factions, is elsewhere translated as heresies.  It is defined by Charles Hodge as, “literally an act of choice, then a chosen way of life, a sect or party; though not always negative.”  Often it means to have an opinion differing from the church or a doctrine contrary to Scripture, though Hodge points out that is less likely the use here.  In our case, we simply have a difference of opinions over the mode or manner of observing the Lord’s Supper and it has led to divisions.

We must ask though, what is the particular “heresy” in focus?  Here we need to remember that that the divisions are not the heresy, rather the result of the heresy.  Likewise we need to note that Paul has previously addressed divisions in the opening chapter.  Getting to get to the heart of the matter, why are there divisions and heresies?  And what, if anything, would rehearsing institution of the Lord’s Supper (vs. 23-27) bring to bear against these divisions?

Verse 20

“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.”

Turning now to verse 20 we add our final component of the Apostle’s argument against the Corinthians, introduced by the third use of our formula, “when you come together” and then the added, “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.”  Here we begin to see the layers peeled back revealing the root of the divisions and heresies, namely the involvement, at least in some sense, of the observance of the Lord’s Supper.  In this verse, we find the negative statement on this observance, “it is not”.  The meaning here is that when they come together, for whatever purpose they were meeting (perhaps just simply to eat), it was improper to call, refer to, or otherwise observe the Lord’s Supper. Paul did not recognize their gathering as an opportunity to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, despite this being the Corinthians own intentions.

Commenting from the Apostle’s perspective on this passage, Hodge writes, “This is not the real, though it is your professed purpose. ‘You come together for a common, and that too, a disorderly, unbrotherly meal.’ ”  Note careful what Charles Hodge is concluding, the Corinthians were coming together for a common meal, which itself was disorderly, and they had assigned to it the Lord’s Supper. Staying with Hodge, he provides even more insight into the nature of the divisions which were in fact driven by an incorrect observance of the Lord’s Supper

“The Lord’s supper is the supper instituted by the Lord, one to which he invites the guests, and which is celebrated in commemoration of his death.  That was a very different service from the Agapae, or love feasts, as they were afterwards called, and which, on account of the disorders attending them, were subsequently prohibited by the Council of Carthage.  These Agapae were feasts to which each one brought his contributions, during and after which (the bread during, and the cup after) the consecrated elements were distributed.” (pg. 219)

Historically, there has been a lot of confusion over the relationship between the Agape meal and the Lord’s Supper.  Numerous commentators have concluded that the two were coextensive and that because the early church ate daily, or met on the first day of the week to break bread, that this necessarily implies a frequency of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  However that position simply cannot be supported by Scripture, including our passage under consideration in this post.  Additionally, many of the modern house-church movements have rightly concluded that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the context of a meal, but have wrongly concluded that this meal was the Agape.

Referring to Hodge from above, the Corinthian problem was really three-fold: 1. Misappropriation of the Lord’s Supper 2. Disorderly Agape Meal 3. Division.

Verse 21

“For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.”

Before we move into verse 21, we need expand upon this chief error we’ve identified as misappropriation of the Lord’s Supper, or more clearly the incorrect observance of it.  The Corinthians celebrated the agape or love feast, which was common among the early church, much like our modern potlucks or church picnics.  The problem was that they were using these occasions to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, perhaps as Hodge suggests during and after the agape.  We need to hold this interpretation in our hand as we move into verse 21, “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.”

Here we arrive at a difficulty.  We can interpret this verse, the eating and meal, as further commentary on the incorrect observance of the Lord’s Supper, meaning that they weren’t waiting for each other before partaking of the Lord’s Supper and that this was the error in their practice.  Or we can interpret this verse as a commentary on the Agape feasts, in which the rich were taking their fill of their own food, while the poor, arriving later, were left with nothing.

There are two clues that help us to arrive at a conclusion.  Before looking at these clues, Matthew Poole provides insight into the historical nature of these meals

“There was at this time in most of the Christian church a Jewish party, viz. such as were converted from Judaism to Christianity, and had a tang of the old cask, being too tenacious of some Jewish rites. These looked upon the Lord’s supper as an appurtenance to the passover, immediately after which we know that Christ at first instituted his supper. As therefore Christ did eat the paschal supper before the Lord’s supper; so they, in imitation of him, though they forbore the paschal lamb, yet would have a supper of their own to precede the Lord’s supper, and having provided it at home, would bring it to the place where the church was to meet; and their poor brethren contributing nothing to the charge of that supper, they would not stay for them, but took this their own supper: so it came to pass, that the poorer Christians were hungry, had none or very little share in their feast, while others, the richer part of the church, had too much.”

This seems important.  There were those who were coming out of a Jewish context that recognized the importance and significance of Passover, though now having been transferred from the remembrance of the Egyptian Exodus to the Remembrance of Christ’s death.  They had apparently understood the ongoing significance of the memorial, but somehow allowed for the addendum to the Agape to take place.  They were trying to correctly observe what Christ had commanded, but had turned it into two meals, presupposing that Christ had done the same with the Passover and then His own supper.  They simply substituted the Agape for the Passover and retained the observance of the Lord’s Supper.  We must bear this historical note in mind when we arrive at the Apostle’s correcting prescription in verse 23.

Verse 22

With Poole fresh in our minds, our first clue towards understanding what exactly is in view, the Lord’s Supper or the Agape meal, comes in verse 22

“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.”

Commenting on this passage, again Hodge is salient

“The two grounds on which the apostle condemned this conduct of the Corinthians were, first, that it was a perversion of the Lord’s supper; and secondly, that it was disrespectful and mortifying to their poorer brethren. It was a perversion of the Lord’s supper, because it made it an ordinary meal designed to satisfy hunger. For that purpose they had their own houses. The church comes together to worship God and to celebrate his ordinances, not for the purpose of eating and drinking. It is important that the church, as the church, should confine itself to its own appropriate work, and not as such undertake to do what its members, as citizens or members of families, may appropriately do. The church does not come together to do what can better be done at home.”

With our passage in mind and the note from Hodge above, we see more clearly the two errors taking place, perverting the Lord’s Supper and disrespecting the poor at an ordinary meal.  Verse 21 is addressing this second error –  the ordinary meal, also known as the Agape.

Our second clue is the direction that the Apostle heads with the recitation of the Lord’s Supper institution, beginning in verse 23, which will correct their primary error, how to properly celebrate the Supper.  In this we read nothing that would correct divisions and we read nothing that would correct the ordering, waiting, or sharing of common food at an Agape.  Instead, we have a prescription applied to the correct observance of the Lord’s Supper, namely a memorial meal set within the context of Passover, the annual Jewish celebration.  At the conclusion of reciting the institution of the Lord’s Supper and judgment upon those for incorrect observances, the Apostle shifts his attention back to the Agape in verses 33-34, 33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.”

The structure of this passage can be summarized as follows:

  • A Agape Meal Rebuke (vs. 17-22)
  • B Lords Supper Directions (From Christ, vs. 23-26)
  • B’ Lords Supper Rebuke (vs. 27-32)
  • A’ Agape Directions (vs. 33-34)

Finally, here is what we can conclude regarding the Corinthian “heresy”.  First, they were observing the agape, or love feast, which was perfectly acceptable (Jude 12).  The problem was that they were using it as an occasion to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  In order to separate the Agape, a common meal, from the Lord’s Supper, a holy meal, the Apostle rehearses the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which he had received directly from Christ. 

This leads to the second conclusion, the simple instructions regarding the observance of the Lord’s Supper. The context was a memorial observance in connection with the Passover meal, not a common every day meal. Were the early Jewish Christians wrong to recognize this relationship, sans the Passover lamb, and to see the Lord’s Supper as the true fulfillment of Passover? If anything, it would seem that they had a better understanding of observing prescribed meals/feasts than we do today. Would they have been inclined then to celebrate Passover every time they got together, with great frequency and commonality?  No.

Third, the Corinthians had need of correction regarding the agape.  Instead of having all things in common and sharing with one another, it had become an occasion for the rich to feast and for the poor to be humiliated because they had no contribution.  Instead, they are exhorted to eat at home, but bring and share when they come together as the ekklesia of God.  All of this points to the divisions, which were down stream from both of these errors.  These were just another occasion of division which had been addressed extensively in this letter from Paul.

Finally, we have the Lord’s Supper warning and the correct observance of the Agape, two points which we will need to take up in a future post.

What then are we to summarize from this passage thus far?

  1. The Lord’s Supper is to be a unique celebration in relation to the Passover as it was originally prescribed.  This maintains continuity with respect to regularity and thematically with respect to redemption and ransom. All disagreements and divisions over the frequency for celebrating it today dissolve when one returns to the original occasion of its institution.
  2. Conversely, it expresses discontinutiy because Christ is our Passover Lamb and the elements representative in the Passover meal have now been reassigned to represent the body and blood of Christ.  Early Jewish Christians were not wrong to recognize the connection and maintain the annual celebration. (see also the Quartodeciman Controversy)
  3. Eating together, the Agape, was common and should be common today.  It promotes unity and love.  Passages such as Acts 2:40-47, Acts 20:7, Jude 12 are evidence that one of the typical expressions of the familial relationship between believers was and should be the sharing of a common meal.
  4. Divisions were unacceptable.  A major theme the Apostle addressed to the Corinthian ekklesia.  By our own human nature, we are prone to separation and division.  Though God does have purpose behind them, they should always be a last resort.

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