Proclaiming Community in Communion

Two Sundays ago I was on vacation with my family and had the chance to worship at another church. It is always good to be able to step away and see how other churches do things and be reminded that the Church of God is much bigger than what I experience.

It happened to be a Sunday that the church was celebrating communion and one of the pastors was describing the sacrament and what we were about to do. What he said next was not wrong, but it gave me pause. As I said, it wasn’t wrong, but it was problematic because he didn’t follow it up with more. He said that what we were going to do was an intensely personal act between us and God. But he spoke nothing about how communion involves community.

When we take of the Lord’s Supper it is not merely a individualized, personal encounter with God. It is an act of the body and it is an act that emphasizes the body and how we are made one. God has taken away all that divided by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. What divided us from God is taken away, but also what divided people.

When we take communion, as it says in 1 Corinthians 11, “we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” By our actions we proclaim what that death did and what it represented. That’s why Paul criticizes the church in Corinth because their practice was not uniting the community, it was dividing it. If communion should proclaim the truth of the gospel, it can’t privilege the rich over the poor as they were doing. Nor should it focus entirely on the individual. There is that component, and we all should examine ourselves before taking of the sacrament, but there is more. Christ died to make us–collectively–his church. He is our head and we are his body. If we are not remembering that good news in communion, how then can our actions proclaim it?

The next time you celebrate the Lord’s Supper, be intentional to look around you at the other sisters and brothers to whom Jesus Christ has united us. You can certainly bow your head in private reflection, but know that this meal is thankfully more than about you and God, but it is a celebration that in Jesus the church is brought together and united. As we focus on the “foolish” act of our Lord on the cross, giving his body and blood for us, we proclaim his death–a death that brings us into fellowship with God and other believers.

What Does it Mean to Take Communion in an “Unworthy Manner”?

Lord's Supper

We read some strong words of warning in 1 Corinthians 11 about the way in which we approach the Lord’s Table and take communion. We are told:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

But what does it mean to eat the bread or drink the cup in an unworthy manner?

Paul writes in a style that often circles back around to a previous point. A great example is 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:2, in which he begins with his preaching of the cross–not his own wisdom, and returns to that same exact point. In this chapter he writes that the Corinthian community is splitting into factions when they have come to eat the Lord’s Supper. Some are going hungry, others are getting drunk, and because of that they really aren’t celebrating the sacrament (11:17-22). He then reminds them of the tradition that he has received and has passed on to them, giving us a picture of what happened “on the night when [Jesus] was betrayed…” (11:23-26). Then Paul returns to the point that preceded the words of institution (11:27-34). Paul critiques, puts forth communion as it should be, then goes back to critique. We might prefer to order this passage with the two critiques together, and then conclude with verses 23-26. In fact, reading it that way would make perfect sense. And in so doing it helps us to make sense of this “unworthy manner.” It is the same issue present in the earlier critique. Ken Bailey writes:

The key lies in the comparisons between sections A (11:17-22) and C (11:27-34). In section A the Corinthians had broken up into quarreling groups. Rich people came early, ate all the food and got drunk. The poor (who had to work) came later, found nothing to eat, remained hungry and were humiliated by being left out. The “church of God” (the entire Christian community) was “despised” in the process. This outrageous activity was clearly the “unworthy manner” that Paul was talking about. When this happened, the Corinthians were “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” This was more than “disrespect for the elements,” although that was no doubt a part of what Paul was saying. Rather, such outrageous behavior was criminal activity against “the body” of Christ, this is, against the community what was his body.1

  1. Ken Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. 322. ↩

Why Does Paul Want Women Covering their Heads in 1 Corinthians 11?

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Misunderstanding the Traditions

Paul has passed on traditions, or teachings, to the Corinthians, but as is his pattern, he then moves on to other churches. Paul is a missionary and he is persistent in traveling the Mediterranean world, spreading the gospel, and helping to plant churches. He does his best to remain faithful to this calling, but the difficulty is that he always is leaving behind brothers and sisters that he cares for and about whom he is concerned. While he does identify leadership for the new congregations, others travel from city to city and at times teach other gospels and challenge what he has received and taught himself. This is why the tone of his letters is often pushing back against new teachings or misunderstandings of what he left for them.

Already in this letter he has dealt with an issue around a teaching that “all things are lawful for me.” The church had taken this to mean that freedom in Christ could encourage any and all actions. Paul wants to affirm the freedom Christ has purchased for us, but he wants to correct their misunderstandings that led to lawlessness and sin. Yes, we have freedom, but it is freedom to live for God, not return to slavery and bondage to sin.

No male and female?

It is possible that another tradition that he passed on was something like what we find in Galatians 3:25-29:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

If the church misunderstood a teaching like this, it may have led to the problem we see in 1 Corinthians 11. Perhaps the women there, affirming the freedom we have in Christ and the new way Christ’s church is structured, no longer favoring the males, took the notion of “there is no male and female” a step further. What is meant as a leveling of the sexes, as well as ethnic and social status, in regards to our standing in Jesus Christ, could have been taken to obscure gender and sex altogether.

Looking back to creation where humans are created male and female, Paul doesn’t want the church to eliminate the distinction between the sexes. They are seen as equals, but we are not to undo the order of creation and elimiminate the sexes, altogether.

That could have been the background to this section and the reason for the women to be uncovering their heads. The practice of their day was for women, in public settings, to cover their hair. If some saw such a practice as unnecessary now that there is “no male and female” they would have done away with it, uncovering their hair or cutting it in a fashion similar to men of that day–short. But as I said, Paul doesn’t want them to think that creation is undone. God’s creation is good, including God’s making us male and female, and in Christ that is not discarded but maintained. Male and female are both valued in the church, and the one does not have to become like the other nor do they both need to be subsumed into a genderless condition. So when Paul instructs the church in reference to its dress, using the cultural norms of that day, he is trying to preserve a distinction. It is not a distinction in roles in worship, for as I said yesterday, women in this chapter are clearly praying and prophesying, but rather a distinction in appearance between men and women.

Cultural Associations and Sensitivities

To make the matter more complex, it is likely that the segment of the female population that did uncover their hair publicly were prostitutes. This, as well, is not something that Paul would then want in the worship of the church. He wouldn’t want women, in seeking to enact their freedom, to be a stumbling block to their own church or be a poor witness to the world (1 Corinthians 10:32). Do they have the freedom to uncover their hair? This is not a question unlike previous chapters asking about eating food that has been offered to idols. But similarly, the question should instead be, “What action is going to build up?” Is the way that the women of the church, in their specific culture, present themselves building up and loving the congregation? This would especially be an important question for the female prophets as they lead in worship.

Whenever we have a chance to stand before a people, speaking for God and about God, the goal should not be to draw attention to ourselves. We don’t want to cause confusion, temptations, or detract in any way from the message. The attention and focus should be on the one who has called us. The way this applies to dress and other aspects of public leading will change depending on the culture and audience. But the goal is to lift up Jesus Christ and his good news, with as little hindrance as possible.

Further Reading

As I said yesterday, there is a great deal written on this chapter, and this only has begun to scratch the surface. I hope that it has furthered your study in some small way. That being said, there are parts I haven’t dealt with today and I’d encourage you to continue to study this passage. There are a multitude of opinions and it is difficult to separate what our current cultural climate may want this passage to say from what God is teaching us through Paul’s words to this church in Corinth.

I’m linking to one article to read if you want a place to start. It is by NT Wright, whose commentary I’ve used for studying 1 Corinthians, and in his paper he includes some of his research from that commentary. But reading it at the link provided gives you a taste of the commentary without having to buy anything. While at first glance it may seem long, compared to what is out there, it isn’t so bad. For an admittedly difficult passage like 1 Corinthians 11, you don’t want people to move too quickly and skim over the tricky parts. It assumes some level of familiarity with the passage and it is written to a British audience, but if you take your time, I think there is much to benefit from it.

Men and Women in Worship in 1 Corinthians 11

In 1 Corinthians we’ve already had discussions of men and women in the first half of the letter. There Paul wrote about marriage and sexual relationships. After finishing a section on freedom and responsibility, he now returns to men and women and this time the emphasis is on worship.

That context should dictate much of how we understand this passage. It falls within several chapters on worship, from 1 Corinthians 11 to 14. You can just glance at the section subheadings (which I know are not part of the original, but usually do a fine job of helping you find your place), and you’ll see sections on dress in worship, the Lord’s Supper, gifts of the Spirit, the many members of the church body, speaking in tongues, and orderly worship. Besides giving us context, doing this is also a nice reminder that a letter like 1 Corinthians has form. It isn’t a random assortment of chapter-long nuggets of wisdom from Paul. He is making larger movements.

So in this context, he focuses on men and women. He wants to maintain some order and standard within the worship setting, laying out requirements for men who lead worship and women who lead. That is what we can take away from verses 4-5–both men and women are leading in this church setting in Corinth. Both pray and both prophesy, the latter of which is a public act.

This is a difficult passage, but that is one takeaway that can serve as a background to prayerfully go through the rest of this week’s reading.

Tomorrow we’ll look more closely at what concerns Paul about their worship, what may have been motivating certain actions in Corinth, and what he wants them to do about it.

Pray for God’s Wisdom as We Read His Word

When you read the almost endless supply of articles and essays written on women in 1 Corinthians 11, you’ll find a great variety of opinions as to what the chapter means for us today. It’ll range from women still needing to cover their heads all the way to this being a chapter that supports women leading in worship.

And while the commentaries I read, written by people far smarter than I am, conclude that this section is at least in some way puzzling, that detail doesn’t seem to stop fierce debate to occur that lacks the humility a puzzling passage should demand.

So before I write more on this chapter, take your time in reading the passage. See if you can list out all of what you think Paul is trying to say. How do those things fit with his larger writings in this and other letters? Try to read it without assuming you know what he’s trying to say. That last one is a tough one for all of our Bible reading. Too often we assume we know best, and we go searching for God to confirm our hunch. Let’s open up this week with prayer, for God’s Spirit to guide us as we seek, in good First Corinthian style, the wisdom of God.

Student’s Prayer, St. Thomas Aquinas

Creator of all things,
true source of light and wisdom,
origin of all being,
graciously let a ray of your light penetrate
the darkness of my understanding.

Take from me the double darkness
in which I have been born,
an obscurity of sin and ignorance.