Confident Christianity: “Abuse of the Body” – 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

spankingAs much as we hollered about it while we were growing up, I obviously survived a home where spanking was on the menu of options for discipline. It was, I am told by those in the know, an infrequent event, but I always felt it was a definite possibility when we were disobedient. The world renowned pushover Dr. Spock’s thoughts notwithstanding, I didn’t ever feel unloved be my parents, and I frankly don’t ever really recall getting spanked. I am told that I was, and I remember being concerned that I would be, but I have very few memories of any such actual events. Here is what I DO know, based on my parents work in my life: sometimes teaching requires correction. Positive reinforcement of behavior by one who is in charge is important, but not everything can be taught by affirmation.

As in the case of biological child-rearing, so discipline became a part of the “spiritual parenting” of the Apostle Paul as he dealt with young, growing and often erring churches. Perhaps no church represented so perfectly the erring first century Christian as well as the one at Corinth. To that body, Paul had much he had to write about concerning error. Like any skilled parent, he only offered correction after he affirmed right behaviors, and those observations were a significant part of last week’s lesson. As he continued addressing the Corinthians, Paul made the note the local church body was NOT doing all they could to walk with Jesus, particularly in the area of the instructed symbols of the church. As chapter 11 continued, the Apostle wrote:

1 Corinthians 11: 17 But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.

The text made clear that in the case of Corinth, the church observed some of the instructed “symbolic practices”, but were actually WORSE OFF because they did so! Sometimes, doing something regularly but badly is worse than not doing it at all – and clearly that was true in their case. Paul tried to bring them to the understanding that when the symbols are misused in a way that hurts the body; they no longer bring the help they were intended to offer the church. The symbolic observances of the church must always be subject to the truths they proclaim, and were commanded in order to help the church in her mission.

I observed a few years ago a time when the instructed observances hurt churches. In fact, in the 1980’s, the Jesus-commanded Ordinance of baptism, given to the church to offer us a reminder to regularly and publicly proclaim that our salvation was given by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through our faith in Jesus became a problem for the fellowship of churches of which I am joyfully a part. I personally know several churches that so poorly treated people over the practice and instruction concerning it, that some churches eventually disbanded and closed. What was given to the church to be a public display of our salvation became a public display of our critical spirit and religious list making. It didn’t start that way, but that is how it came out. Our movement of churches, now several thousand local churches worldwide, was deeply damaged by the attitudes and voices of that era, and we are still recovering from Satan aided, but self-inflicted wounds.

Paul made clear the Corinthian believers were wrong about what they were doing, and people were WORSE OFF for participating in some of the symbolic practices of the church. It was a display of selfishness, class distinction and careless living that hindered them. Here is the point of the whole section we are considering…

Key Principle: When practices become more important than people, religion replaces relationship… and that isn’t why God called us together!

As funny as it sounds, the church wasn’t designed to be a “religious” organization in the way the world uses religion. It wasn’t created to be a celebration by good people of moral concepts. The church was and is supposed to be a fraternity of the undeserving that come together thankful for God’s grace, and clinging to one another for His glory. It isn’t designed to be independent spirited but rather corporately motivated. I am not suggesting the days of the early church, where they “sold all their goods and had all things in common” was the only intended form, but I am suggesting the opposite, where “everyone watches out strictly for themselves and comes together to compare what they drive in the parking lot” is also not what God had in mind. Why do I claim this? If you read carefully the words of the Spirit through the quill of Paul, I am confident the truth will emerge that God wanted people to come together to care for one another. That is the heart beat of the church. When it is divided, it cannot be what it was meant to become.

The church was created to be a place where Biblical truth was explained and that in turn motivated Biblical relationships of men and women who recognized they were divinely thrust into a Biblical mission together.

The church wasn’t supposed to be a social club – but it was supposed to have the ability to foster relationships and lifelong friendships, so social aspects of the relationship were to be important. It wasn’t supposed to be a tireless call to workers to get busy, as in some spiritual “whip cracking” locale where people were cajoled into more and more commitment, but it was intended to mark the lives of followers of Jesus with a definite sense of commitment to work out their faith in the community by being a powerful picture of God’s love for hurting people. It wasn’t supposed to be an ingrown rehearsal of an endless set of Bible studies, but it was to be a place where the truth from God was made plain.

The Problem Wasn’t Simply Division

When truth is out of balance, a church will become a weekly Bible teaching center of anonymous people who gather the way people go to a local fast food restaurant. People will all come for the “burger and fries.” They will sit in the same room and eat the same food, but they will not meet one another, and aside from courtesy they probably won’t even speak to one another. They will all get what they came for, but get nothing of one another. That is NOT the church’s design – but it is easy for this kind of thing to happen in a community made up of adult living facilities and mission home complexes. We can come together to get the message and go back to our communities without becoming a real church.

Conversely, we can become the most integrated and social minded group in town, and still not be a good church. Biblical truth must be employed to create Biblical relationship. We are one in Christ because we follow Christ in ways determined by the Word of Christ. When we don’t do it well, the church testimony and health suffers. Note what Paul shared:

1 Corinthians 11:18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part I believe it. 19 For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you.

For many people, they read the word divisions and think: “Oh my, that is bad! People shouldn’t be divided in church!” The problem is they are wrong; that simply isn’t so. Look more closely at what the Apostle wrote. He acknowledged the fact of divisions based on what he overheard from the household of Chloe as explained in the first four chapters of this letter. He heard the church came together, but was deeply divided. The next thing he wrote could easily be considered shocking to some who don’t read the Word carefully. Paul wrote: “Some division is necessary in the church” in verse nineteen. Yes, the church will divide at times, and that was by design.

Let me explain: When people want to live in a way that God has made plain is “not in keeping with the walk” of an obedient Christian, they separate themselves from the body as a whole. Those who walk into a church declaring an unchanging allegiance to a lifestyle that is un-Biblical cannot and should not expect the church to expand definitions and open its practices to their defiance of God’s Word. Thieves that refuse to stop engaging in thievery should feel they must change their lifestyle to be in harmony with the body. Division caused by those who want their sinful practices to fall into the category of “accept me because we can’t have division” are mistaken. The church and Jesus Himself will bring a natural border between those who follow what the Word teaches, and those who do not. Again, that is by design.

Jesus taught His followers that faithfulness to Him would bring a natural division with some people. In the part of Luke’s Gospel called “Luke’s special section” in Luke 10-19, Jesus was in the last part of His ministry before facing the Cross. The passion week was not imminent, but was soon approaching. People were divided on Jesus’ identity and any commitment to Him. In Luke 12, He preached a very tough sermon calling on people to make sincere and clear choices to follow Him in discipleship, and followed it by saying:

Luke 12:51 “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; 52 for from now on five [members] in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. 53 “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 54 And He was also saying to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and so it turns out. 55 “And when [you see] a south wind blowing, you say, It will be a hot day,’ and it turns out [that way]. 56 “You hypocrites! You know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not analyze this present time? 57 “And why do you not even on your own initiative judge what is right?

Note that Jesus revealed several key truths. First, His mission would divide people, even in families. Second, the ability of people to read the signs of the weather didn’t seem to translate into their ability to read the signs of the times. He may have been signaling that time for a choice over Him was waning because the Cross was fast approaching, but there is more than simply that local warning in the context. Remember, the early church reading this text did so long after Jesus was condemned, crucified and raised. The warning was almost universally accepted as a call to the church to read the times around them and recognize they were called to be distinct.

Let us grab this truth clearly: Unqualified unity was not intended to be the single hallmark of the church.

The church was to be united with Christ, and with those who would follow His Word. At the same time, the very fact that Paul told the church at Corinth to remove a man who was publicly in sin and refusing to quit his practice in chapter five of this letter is clear evidence that UNITY is subject to obedience to God’s Word. The church cannot and must not hold unity as its highest value, but rather fervent, prayerful commitment to Christ-like obedience. If we make unity the most important value, we will surrender following Jesus to the strong forces of compromise in critical areas for the sake of a false sense of unity. As the prophet Amos would ask: “Can two really walk together unless they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3 KJV).

The critical problem wasn’t that people were divided, but rather the fact that they were not divided by separation from sin, but by selfishness. The two forces that can divide the church then are opposite. The first is sacrificial obedience, the second is selfish indulgence. They didn’t divide in obedience, they divided to indulge:

1 Corinthians 11:20 Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, 21 for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.

How did the Corinthian church begin with a meal feasting on the love of Jesus and celebrating Him and end up with a practice of drunkenness and disregard for their poorer members?

Reading about the sin involved in the church meal behaviors associated with the Corinthian church’s Communion service, it can seem hard to explain the actions of the people, but their behavior is as understandable as the popularity of decorating a Christmas tree with lights each year. The problem is very much the same; it was based on the practices of the world they learned before they were saved. All that is required is a simple explanation of common practices of the time from which the problem grew. Go back to the first century and take a journey walking through a Greco-Roman city to which you traveled looking for work. As a visitor to that new city, you would likely go to one of two important places to find opportunity: the local temple of your craft (called a “guild”) or, if you were in a port city like Ostia Antica near Rome you would ask for directions to the “Square of the guilds” (which can be found behind the theatre on the main east-west street, called the “decamanus”).

Since each craft had its own “lodge” in the form of a temple, and meeting halls in the form of small pubs, food and drink were indelibly associated with your work life. Two men sitting with a glass filled with conditum, perhaps some beer or a even a small roasted dormouse covered in sesame and honey were not uncommon sites. These men were making deals for labor in a guild. When you entered town, your craft became your most important way to mark your personal identity, and your guild or lodge became you “home away from home” place to make contacts. People moved around the Roman Empire looking for work based on their guilds and were known by their titles, like Saul of Tarsus, a “binder” or “tentmaker – and Lydia of Thyatira, the “seller of purple” etc.

At annual festivals like the Bacchanalia, or the festival of wine, which was celebrated with the breadth and depth of today’s Christmas in the west, you grew up (in the days before you knew Jesus) drinking in the guild hall with the boys of your craft. Much like famed “police pubs” in Boston, where off duty officers built a fraternity together, these old guild pubs thrived in Roman cities.

Into that business world came the testimony of Jesus. People who were iron-workers came to Jesus, as did men and women associated with cloth dying, money changing, Mediterranean cargo shipping, architectural building and eventually every other guild. Both free men and slaves associated with guilds found Jesus as Savior. They had much experience with temple attendance and they knew how celebration meals worked, or at least they thought they did. Into that work context the “love feast” and “communion service” was inserted, and they carried over old practices into the new setting. As a result, the normal practice of drunken revelry and a temple party atmosphere was rapidly bonded to the most sacred of Christian remembrances.

Before you dismiss them as ridiculous Christians for carrying in the practices of the lost world into their traditions, consider carefully how much time you spent decorating a pine tree in your living room last year- a symbolic exercise that pre-dated Christianity and came from paganism. We do it and sometimes think of it as a Christ-centered thing – but there is no such word in the Bible to cut down pine trees and put lights and balls of color on them. I am not attempting to speak against the practice of Christmas trees; that is not my point. The issue under consideration is that early believers eclectically bonded common practices of their world to their new-found faith, and so do we. Ours are simply more common to us, and don’t seem as outlandish as theirs.

Another very significant difference is this: in getting drunk they were openly sinning in the practices they maintained while decorating a tree isn’t a sin. God made clear in the Scriptures that we mustn’t choose to be under the influence of any substance, whether from a bottle, pill or needle, that dominates our thinking unless in the most extreme of situations (like the Biblical case for the comfort of the gravely ill, etc). In our normal course of life, we are to be joyfully led by the Spirit of the Living God. We are permitted to use the things God gave us for joy and comfort, but never in excess and never under its dominance. Let the word be very clear in your mind: Drunkenness and any form of intoxication is off limits to the child of God intending obedience, period. In the same way, it is no sin to be under anesthesia during surgery because it is necessary, but, if you are prescribed a pain pill for your healing, you must use it only as directed and refrain from taking a voluntary “mental vacation” with the pills. Every hour you “check out” from responsible living is an hour you won’t pray, won’t seek God and won’t be used by Him for His glory. Be careful. Be clear-minded. Be sober in your thinking – for these are Biblical commands.

Go back in your mind again to the temple pub and look around at toga and tunic clad men sitting on low stools in the dim of olive oil lamps. Normally, wealthy Romans ate at home in banquet halls while most poor Romans ate in fast food establishments called “popinae” or “tavernae” (because they had no kitchens in their respective poor dwellings). In guild meetings, the wealthy and the poor were afforded an opportunity to eat in the same lodge hall. Though eating together, it wasn’t customary for the wealthy to give the poorer members from the best of their conditum or wine brought from their private cellar, but they may offer to buy a round of beers for them, or fill their cups with the cheap swill the “house” was serving as wine. One major point of the lodge meeting was to glean contracts, while another was to encourage poorer members to look up to more accomplished masters of their craft. This system survived in different ways for a thousand years in the west.

When some ancient Romans came to Jesus, and were told of a regular meal associated with their church union together, do you understand how they could easily think it would look like their last guild meeting at the local temple?

Daily meals at temple pubs were at the heart of the social and economic life of locals, and periodic guild meals allowed people to sit according to one’s accomplishments and wealth derived from the work. It is worth noting that in the city of Rome, each hill of the city housed significant guilds; with the Aventine Hill acting as the center of some of the “hard trades”. Every guild had their bread distribution, a kind of union stipend for those injured or unemployed. They collected union dues at payday, and some were responsible for distributing pay, particularly for the fulfillment of state contracts. In addition to lodge hall meetings some held regular local forums. In many, they had “symposia” – the plural of symposium – a word that meant a drinking party or convivial discussion held after a banquet (and notable as the title of a work by the philosopher Plato). The closer you study it, the easier you will see how the new bonds formed at a church would probably seem to incoming members like a new lodge and its meetings like the guild pubs.

Let’s think the banquet issue through for a moment. Consider the truth from the Book of Acts, and you will note that from the beginning of the faith it became a prevalent custom for Christians to eat together. Some of these meals were named agape feasts, or “love feasts” and became a sought place of refuge for traveling Christians in early Church, as well as a strong identifier to locals of the growing numbers committed to Jesus. Soon the practice grew and on a fixed time; Christians assembled to eat together. Participants brought their contribution in the form of food: proteins like fish, poultry, meat, cheese wedges, milk, honey, fruit, wine, and bread. The bakers of guild breads often stamped the loaves, and each church love feast likely had a variety of stamps represented – bread purchased from different parts of the city.

The meal seems to have preceded the passing of bread and wine for the sacred time to recall Jesus’ words from the last hours in Jerusalem before His arrest and Crucifixion. The practice, then, became eating this “carry-in” meal and then ending it with a representative meal of bread and cup as the “Lord’s supper”. Though the meal commemorated the work of Jesus Who “shared all things” with His followers, it soon apparently began to look more like a common guild banquet, in which the wealthy took the best places in the room and ate of their own delicacies, without distributing them to others. Increasingly, the participant families looked after themselves, regardless of the fact that some of the church sat at another table and had little or perhaps even none. The truth of the body gave way to the traditions of the practice.

Remember our key principle?

When practices become more important than people, religion replaces relationship… and that isn’t why God called us together!

Paul warned them that “familiarity bred contempt” in their relationships within the church. Like medical students learn to look at serious wounds and blood without flinching, some believers inadvertently learned to look at the needy without being moved because they were overexposed to needs. The whole meal became an exercise in division, not in unity.

I have seen this sort of thing happen a number of times in my life as part of the local church:

• In one church I recall an older man who believed anyone who wasn’t baptized by being dunked in a forward direction was not really surrendered to Christ and obedient. His adult son came to Jesus in Texas and was baptized, but the man boasted to me that he wouldn’t go to that little church for a visit because they didn’t do it right. His son sent a video of the event, and we watched as he wept over his lost life and wasted time, and then was dunked backward in that little Baptist church. At the end, I found myself in tears over the testimony of the young man and the marvelous transformation of his life, while his own father sat there hardened because the form of the baptism wasn’t right. “It should have been three times forward!” he said. While I may believe the form the old man cited was the clearer way to do it – I lamented that he missed the point. He was unmoved by his son’s heartbreaking realization that he had wasted his life before surrendering to Jesus. In my opinion, his father was wasting his own life now – because He was so busy trying to get people to see he was right about method his missed the message behind it. That was the day I decided that those of us who value an exacting expression of the Word need to be vigilant to guard ourselves against Pharisaic thinking.

• A Pastor friend of mind related that he served with a man and his family who wouldn’t come to communion services at the local church because they didn’t have the practice of tying on the towels on each other in order to wash each other’s feet. Since the Bible clearly said that Jesus got up and GIRDED HIMSELF with a towel when He washed His disciple’s feet, this man felt that was the proper way to practice doing what Jesus did. He missed the bonding time of the church to make his point about some peculiarity that he felt was more important than being present with the body at that critical hour. Testimonies that helped others grow and share were tearfully related – but he missed every one. Some of the sweetest moments of fellowship occurred while he sat at home, upset that his point wasn’t being taken seriously enough. It hurt the body, and it showed he didn’t understand the whole point: we can get so caught up in the detail of the event we miss the greater teaching behind it.

With cultural explanations in mind, consider the practice Paul wanted Corinth to follow in the partaking of the part of the meal that recalled Jesus in the Upper Room. Paul wrote:

1 Corinthians 11:23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25 In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

Note what Paul said carefully. First, the pattern Paul gave them came from the Lord and not simply from Paul. In our last lesson we noted that the church had three practices: There were “capital O” Ordinances commanded by Jesus for all of the church of every age; there were “small o” ordinances given by the Apostles in the early church and there were traditions of local bodies created in elderships for local symbolic teachings. Paul made the point in verse 23 the practice of the love feast and particularly Eucharist (bread and cup) were “capital O” symbols given by Jesus.

Paul went step by step through the presentation of the bread and cup in verses 24 and 25, making a careful note of what the elements recalled. The bread represented the body of Jesus given for them at the Cross to pay for sin. The blood represented the MEANS of the New Covenant promised by God in Isaiah 59 and Jeremiah 31. The prophets of old declared that God was going to send another covenant to the Jewish people to save them – but they did not clearly describe the means of that covenant. In the Upper Room, Jesus made clear the means of the new agreement would be through His own saving blood. It was shed for Israel, but on the way to their redemption God planned to have a time for the Gospel to reach the Gentile world.

Finally, it is essential to recognize in verse 26 a major component of the meal was a public testimony to the belief that Jesus was preparing a place for them and about to return in the clouds to receive His church. Communion isn’t just about fellowship. It has as a chief end some proclamation of testimony about prophetic events. Churches that don’t believe in a literal return of Jesus for His church but still offer communion wafers have utterly missed the point of the proclamation!

Paul pressed further into the heart of the problem that brought this subject into the letter in the first place. He wrote:

1 Corinthians 11:27 Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. 28 But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. 30 For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. 33 So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. 34 If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.

If the chief problem with the symbolic meal was they were allowing division to ruin the unity of the body, and weren’t taking care of one another as one would expect, Paul offered prescriptions that included moving their eating to their own homes, or temporarily breaking up the corporate meal for a time. Fighting common culture is very hard, and probably required more than an instructive letter was designed to offer.

This command was a much larger statement that it first appears; for Paul was, in effect, telling this to STOP thinking of the church meeting as a lodge, and the members as those of a guild, and go home. Their faith wasn’t to mimic the meetings that were so familiar to them – it was to be a testimony of their unique commitment to proclaiming Christ. The church needed to learn to stand out in commitment to Jesus, especially when in contrasted from the common culture. Pressures to conform were no doubt great. Yet, Paul made clear that is was better that they cease doing something that was literally killing the body rather than continue to mar the symbolic celebration of Jesus’ saving work and the pictured proclamation of the Lord’s imminent return.

Principles to consider:

First, when all the cultural discussion is over, the point of the passage is not very complex, and is very practical. The gathering of believers called the “body” must be more important to me than my own desires if I am to demonstrate Christ-like living and thinking. In earlier chapters, Paul cautioned against wounding a weaker brother. Here, he cautions against another form of uncaring spirit to those of the body. In a modern “selfie” culture, here is the truth: the other believers and their needs must become more important to me!

Second, the record of the Epistle forces me to consider others are watching when I participate in worship. I don’t only come to church to “get what I need” if I am truly walking as God has commanded! Part of my participation is for the same of testimony and interaction with others. Fellowship isn’t a word for stale cookies served above linoleum floors at church functions. People must increasingly matter if I am going to be what God called me to be.

Third, the body of Christ is more important than the symbols; for though the symbols have no power in themselves, the body of Christ is very powerful when it is united and reliant on Jesus for strength and direction. Jesus made clear to Jewish leaders that the “Sabbath was made for the man, not the man for the Sabbath.” What He made plain was this: Though every practice God prescribed is right; people matter more than the practices.

When practices become more important than people, religion replaces relationship… and that isn’t why God called us together!

Pastor Don Hawks shared a story that may help us understand the sobering reality of the symbols we have been discussing:

During the war in Vietnam, a young West Point graduate was sent over to lead a group of new recruits into battle. He did his job well, trying his best to keep his men from ambush and death. Still, one night when they had been under attack, he was unable to get just one of his men to safety. The soldier left behind had been severely wounded in an open field of fire. From their trenches, the young lieutenant and his men could hear him in his pain. They all knew any attempt to save him – even if it was successful—would almost certainly mean death for the would-be rescuer. Eventually the young lieutenant crawled out of hiding toward the dying man. He got to him to the trench safely but was hit so many times that he eventually succumbed to his injuries and died from exposing himself in or to save the exposed and wounded comrade. After the rescued man returned to the States, the lieutenant’s parents heard that he was in their vicinity. Wanting to know this young man whose life was spared at such a great cost to them, they invited him to dinner. When their honored guest arrived, he was obviously drunk. He was rowdy and obnoxious. He told off-color jokes and showed no gratitude for the sacrifice of the man who died to save him. The grieving parents did the best they could to make the man’s visit worthwhile, but their efforts went unrewarded. Their guest finally left. As the dad closed the door behind him, the mother collapsed in tears and cried, “To think that our precious son had to die for somebody like that!” That’s what Paul was trying to explain to Corinth that our Savior Jesus did for us! He died saving us. How we act toward one another mattered to Him before His death, and continues to matter to Him now.