A few days ago, I was reading through parts of Margaret M. Mitchell’s Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991). I came across the section where she was discussing the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
Mitchell points out that linguistically the entire passage focuses on the relational problems among the believers in Corinth:
Paul next turns to admonish the Corinthians for behavior in community worship which is even more divisive than the head wear disagreements. He begins this argument with his censure of their improper behavior first named in general terms, and then he describes specifically the abuse which he will treat… (1 Corinthians 11:20-22) Because he returns to this ecclesiological concern in 1 Corinthians 11:33-34, we conclude that the disunity of the church is the main topic of this argument, to which the tradition (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) is a response. (page 263)
If Mitchell is correct, and I believe that she is, then relational divisions during the Corinthian’s shared community meals is the reason that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Thus, we should read each part of that passage as building on Paul’s argument against these relational divisions.
For example, when Paul reiterates the account of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, he intended to admonish the Corinthians about the way they were treating one another. When he told the Corinthians to “let a person examine himself” in 1 Corinthians 11:28, it is in the context of communal relationships, not individual sin (although certainly individual sin causes problems with communal relationships). The same would be true about Paul’s teaching about judging ourselves in 1 Corinthians 11:31-32.
Paul began this section of Scripture by admonishing the Corinthians concerning their behavior when they came together to eat. He ends this section by again instructing the Corinthians about their behavior when they come together to eat. So, in context, we should understand that in this entire passage Paul is concerned about how the Corinthians are treating one another when they come together to share a meal.
We cannot pull parts of the passage out and choose to interpret that differently than the entire passage. Instead, the parts work together within the context of the whole.
Is this how you’ve heard this passage about the Lord’s Supper interpreted? How would it change traditional interpretations that you’ve heard?