1 Corinthians 11: Identity and Unity in Christ

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (v 1).

One of the greatest challenges of our times is to find our identity in Christ, solely in Christ.  Many other voices cry to be heard; sometimes demanding total allegiance without warrant.  Whenever these voices win, we find ourselves denying Christ in some aspect of our lives and end up practicing idolatry.  The Apostle Paul cautions us to imitate him as he imitates Christ (v 1).

In chapter 11, Paul focuses on two areas of contentious debate in the church in Corinth (and our own churches):  gender (vv 3-16) and class (vv 20-34) relationships within the church.  In beginning to discuss these verses, it is helpful to remember that Paul has repeatedly emphasized our unity in Christ:  There is neither Jew nor Greek [cultural equality], there is neither slave nor free [class equality], there is no male and female [gender equality], for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28 ESV).  The questions at hand explore how to maintain order and respect within a context of our equality before God.

The social context of Paul’s comments on gender is frankly not well understood and confusion about how to translate Paul’s instructions has led to conflicting advice followed by different churches and denominations.  The common lectionary simply skips over these verses.  Notwithstanding, Hays[1] (183) notes 4 points about gender relationship which are well-understood:

  1. Paul endorses the freedom of women to pray and prophesy in the assembly; the only question is what sort of headdress is appropriate…
  2. The patriarchal order of verses 3 and 7-9 is set in counterpoint with a vision of mutual interdependence of men and women…
  3. The passage does not require subordination of women…but a symbolic distinction between the sexes.
  4. The immediate concern of the passage is for the Corinthians to avoid bringing shame on the community.

Paul’s more lengthy discourse on the relationship between husbands and wives in Ephesians 4:22-33 basically prescribes men to love their wives and women to respect their husbands in a context of equality before God.  What this means in the context of communal worship is basically that neither party should flaunt their independence or sexuality in dress or conduct in a manner that would embarrass the other or the community.  Obviously, a lot more could be said about this subject.

Paul’s comments about classism in the church’s celebration of communion probably come as a surprise to those accustomed to reading this passage causally.  This is because the communion practice in serving communion is to skip over the context of Paul’s comments which have 4 parts:

  1. Paul observes divisions and factions in the church (vv 13-19);
  2. Paul accuses the Corinthians of not celebrating communion properly because some eat and some go hungry;  some get drunk and some have nothing (vv 20-22);
  3. The words of institution (vv 23-26); and
  4. Warning about improper celebration of communion (vv 27-34).

The key verse here is: For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (v 29).  What does it mean to discern the body?  At a minimum it means that communion is taken together; more importantly, it means that the celebrant needs to consider the needs of the community (unity and equality) before taking part in communion—communion is a communal event.

If our identity is in anything other than Christ (culture, class, gender, race, and so on), then taking part in communion invites God’s judgment.  When we remember Christ, we should not have other things in our minds or on our hearts.

 

[1] Richard B. Hays. 2011.  Interpretation:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

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