The Communion of Saints

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

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The phrase, communion of the saints, connotes two things: unity and holiness. A communion is a fellowship and, in the Christian context, implies a table fellowship—the Lord’s Supper. In Greek, saint and holy one are the same word. Unity in holiness is rare these days.

The Garden of Eden was initially a picture of peace and unity. Adam, Eve, and God were all at peace with one another (Gen 2). Satan broke this unity with temptation that led to sin (Gen 3). After leaving Eden, the death of Abel at the hands of his brother, Cain, amplified the family disunity. Disunity was further magnified in the line of Cain which led to Lamech, who introduced polygamy, further murder, and revenge killing. In a nutshell, sin broke our relationship with God, with one another, with our communities, and with nature itself.

To combat this disunity, Adam and Eve had a third son, Seth, who replaced Abel as the righteous son of Adam (Gen 4). Seth was “fathered” in his image of his father, Adam, much like Adam was created in God’s image (Gen 5:1-3). The righteous line of Seth maintained a special relationship with God and became a living witness to the world. Being this living witness was the mission of Abraham (Gen 12:2), the nation of Israel (Isa 2:1-5), and, after Pentecost, the mission of the New Covenant community of Jesus that became the church (Acts 1:8).

Jesus taught unity. He said: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) He encouraged the disciples to minister in pairs (Luke 10:1). Shared ministry was not only a lesson in evangelism; it was a lesson in unity. It is no surprise then to hear how Jesus remarked at the report of the seventy-two disciples: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18)

C.S. Lewis (1973, 10–11) gives a visual image of disunity when he pictures hell as a place where people move further and further apart. At its best, the church is a place where people move closer and closer together. In the tradition of Seth, the church stands being created in the image of God through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The church’s sense of community, post Pentecost, is the metaphorical return to Eden (Acts 2:42-45).

The Apostle Paul painted an image of unity when he likened the church to the body with many parts. He observed: “if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” (1 Cor 12:16) We are all special and yet differ in the spirit gifts that we bring to the church through the Holy Spirit. This is why we celebrate the gifts of others. For our unity is in Christ and Christ’s mission, not in our idiosyncrasies and differences. Still, the need for reconciliation is evidence that our differences are real and ongoing.


Lewis, C. S. 1973. The Great Divorce: A Dream (Orig Pub 1946). New York: HarperOne.

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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.


  1. How was your week? Did something in particular?
  2. What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 10?
  3. Does verse 1 fit better with chapter 10 or 11? Why?
  4. What is the focus and point of imitating Paul? (v 1)
  5. What is ironic in Paul’s statement in verse 2?
  6. Why might verse 3 be controversial? What is Paul’s point?
  7. Why is Paul interested in head coverings? (vv 3-7) Should we be concerned?  What is the point here?
  8. What is Paul point of reference in making comments in verses 8-12? (Genesis 3:7, 18-25)  Does birth order matter to us?  Did it matter in Paul’s day?  Why?
  9. Why is Paul concerned about hair length and covering? (vv 13-15)  Does it matter today?
  10. Is your answer to question 9 affected by verse 16 or does verse 16 belong with what follows?
  11. Are the divisions that Paul mentioned in verses 18-19 because of hair, coverings, or communion (vv 20-22?
  12. How are the Words of Institution for communion (vv 23-26) affected by the context before and after?
  13. What is Paul’s warning in verses 27-32? In particular, what does the expression—without discerning the body—mean?
  14. What does Paul recommend in verses 33-34? Why? Is this all about food and drink?

1 Corinthians 11: Identity and Unity in Christ

First Corinthians 12

First Corinthians 10

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