In between the Apostle Paul’s discussion of Christian liberty (which covers chapters 8-10 of the book of 1 Corinthians) and his discussion of spiritual gifts (which we will go on to study in chapters 12-14) stands 1 Corinthians chapter 11.
This chapter introduces us to some additional issues that Paul sought to address within the church at Corinth- and much like the teachings found within the preceding chapters of 1 Corinthians, chapter eleven offers a wealth of practical instruction for those who are willing to unpack and apply the principles found within it.
This chapter divides neatly into two portions that are nearly identical in length. The first section is comprised of verses two through sixteen and deals with the subject of head coverings and the larger issue of roles and responsibilities among men and women. Verses seventeen to thirty-four then go on to discuss the Corinthians’ conduct in regard to communion.
Much like the first section of 1 Corinthians 11, this second portion of chapter eleven also addresses a larger issue. In this instance, the larger issue involved the Corinthians’ failure to approach the communion service with the proper degree of respect, reverence, and solemnity. This belied a troubling issue in their vertical relationship with God that negatively impacted their horizontal relationships with others.
The penalties associated with their failure to properly discern such matters were very serious and Paul will go on to provide a sobering list of such examples near the end of this chapter. They serve to remind us that our love for God must be accompanied by an equal measure of respect and reverence for who He is and what He has done on our behalf.
Since the book of 1 Corinthians largely consists of Paul’s responses to various questions from the Corinthian church, its interesting to note that he did not begin this section with the customary expression “Now concerning…” That expression appears six times within this epistle and it generally serves to mark the transition from one question to another. The fact that it does not appear here in chapter eleven may indicate that Paul sought to provide some unsolicited (but important) counsel on these additional matters.
But before the Apostle begins to address these issues, chapter eleven will begin with an ending as Paul closes out his previous discussion with a word of advice for the members of the Corinthian church: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). We’ll go on to examine this directive (and its implications) next.
“Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
If we were to rephrase the Apostle Paul’s counsel here in 1 Corinthians 11:1, we might do so by saying, “Follow my lead as I follow Jesus.” You see, its important to note that Paul’s emphasis is upon Christ in this passage- and the Corinthians’ responsibility to emulate his example extended insofar as Paul imitated Jesus.
So Paul, as a good spiritual leader, provided the members of the Corinthian church with a pattern to follow in their relationship with Christ. Here are a few other characteristics from Jesus’ life that we would also do well to emulate…
“Your attitude must be like my own, for I, the Messiah, did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Matthew 20:28 TLB).
“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:13-15 ESV).
“Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man.
And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal” (Philippians 2:5-8 Phillips).
These characteristics were representative of Jesus’ life and ministry and Paul sought to imitate them within his own life. There may be no clearer example of Paul’s commitment in this regard than the statement that closes 1 Corinthians chapter ten…
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God– even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33 NIV).
So Paul was willing to lead by example in this area. While Jesus represents our ultimate standard, we can learn from the God-honoring examples of our own spiritual leaders and imitate them as they seek to imitate Christ.
“Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2).
In much the same manner as he opened his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul the Apostle did not begin the transition to a new topic here in verse two with a list of problems to solve or issues to address. Instead, he began by focusing upon a positive characteristic that enabled him to praise the members of the Corinthian fellowship
Despite their numerous problems, the Corinthians knew they could rely upon Paul for good spiritual guidance and he responded with an appropriate expression of praise and affirmation: “…I praise you because you have remembered everything I told you and observe the traditions just the way I passed them on to you” (CJB).
Of course, Paul’s use of the word “traditions” (or “ordinances” as it appears in some translations) may seem troublesome. You see, the idea of a “traditional belief” in a spiritual context often represents a human-oriented observance that serves to nullify or circumvent the Word of God. Jesus expressed the negative aspect of such observances in speaking to the religious leadership of His day when He said, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Matthew 7:9).
However, we should note that Jesus’ teachings were generally transmitted via the spoken word rather than the written word in the days prior to the establishment of the New Testament canon of Scripture. Thus, these teachings formed the oral traditions that God’s commissioned representatives (such as Paul the Apostle) used in establishing the first century church.
One source helps to identify and explain these differences in the following manner…
“Traditions, as they are mentioned in the New Testament, are in two classes. First, there are the traditions of the Jews which, Jesus said, were causing them to transgress the commandment of God (Mat_15:3). These were customs that had grown up without divine sanction and transmitted from generation to generation. They became an evil thing since people soon put these traditions above the word of God.
Second, the word as used by Paul simply means the oral instructions he had delivered to them as an inspired apostle. They were, of course, on a par with the written instructions he had given to them. It is this orally transmitted message that they were observing that called forth his expression of praise.” (1)
(1) T. R, Applebury, College Press Bible Study Textbook Series, Studies in First and Second Corinthians Copyright © College Press 1963 [pg. 202] http://www.abarc.org/legacy/Bible%20Study%20Textbook%20Series/Books/1%20&%202%20Corinthians/1%20Corinthians%20-%20Applebury%20-%20Chapter%2011.pdf
“But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3 CEV).
1 Corinthians 11:3 represents one of the more controversial verses within this epistle and one that carries a number of significant interpersonal and theological implications. In fact, there are a number of aspects within this verse (and those that follow) that are sure to irritate the beliefs and attitudes of many who live in the 21st century.
Paul the Apostle opened this passage by saying, “I want you to know”, a phrase that alerts us to the importance of what he is about to say next: “…Christ is the head over all men, and a man is the head over a woman. But God is the head over Christ” (CEV).
This implies that the Corinthians did not fully recognize the importance associated with a chain of accountability- and this was something that surely contributed to a few of the other issues that Paul has addressed throughout this letter. So by summarizing this accountability structure in a brief, easy to remember form, Paul helped his readers to establish a proper sense of direction, order, and continuity in their relationships with God and others.
Part of the challenge involved in establishing a good understanding of this passage stems from the way in which we view the phrase “the head of…” The issue is that this phrase does not only apply to a man in relation to Christ, a woman in relation to a man, but also to the interpersonal relationship that exists between the first and second Persons of the triune Godhead. Needless to say, this means that there are a number of theological perils to avoid in navigating this passage.
Nevertheless, we can say that -at the very least- the use of the term “head of…” involves the concepts of honor, respect, and authority. One scholar helps to provide us with some useful clarifications in this regard…
“The significance of this metaphor has long been debated by scholars—it may indicate leadership and authority, or source and origin. The two ideas should probably not be regarded as excluding each other.
In two other contexts where Paul speaks of Christ as head (Eph. 4:15; Col. 2:19), the notion of “source” may be present (cf. v. 8). Elsewhere, Paul uses the metaphor with explicit reference to authority or submission (Eph. 1:22; 5:23, 24; Col. 1:18; 2:10). Here the stress probably falls on authority rather than source (cf. v. 10).” (1)
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2031). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“But I want you to understand this: The head of every man is Christ. And the head of a woman is the man. And the head of Christ is God” ( 1 Corinthians 11:3 ERV).
One way to avoid misinterpreting this passage is to allow Paul the Apostle’s use of the phrase “…the head of Christ is God” to inform our thinking regarding the other relationships mentioned here. To do so effectively, we must first pause to consider the doctrine of the “Trinity” or the triune nature of God.
When we use the word “Trinity” in relation to the God of the Scriptures, we mean that God is three persons in one Being, or three distinct Persons in one God. This fundamental truth regarding God’s tri-personal existence in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is developed in various places throughout the Bible.
For instance, the Scriptures tell us that God is One (Deuteronomy 6:4) and that the Father is God (Ephesians 5:20 and Jude 1:1), the Son is God (Hebrews 1:8 and Titus 2:13), and the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4 and 2 Corinthians 3:17). These passages have led us to the understanding that the God of the Scriptures is a unity subsisting in three Persons.
So two Biblical truths regarding the nature of God are evident from these passages:
- There is one God.
- There are three distinct persons who are God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When we put these Biblical truths together, we emerge with the doctrine of the Trinity. This is a challenging concept to illustrate and while no illustration of the Trinity is perfect, some are better than others.
Perhaps the most well known and most accurate illustration of the Trinity can be found in the example of a triangle. One triangle has three corners, each of which are inseparable from, and simultaneous to, one another. If we remove one corner of a triangle, it ceases to be a triangle. Each corner of the triangle is separate and distinct but in it’s essence, it is one triangle.
So in this illustration, we have three “things” (three corners) and one “what” (a triangle). Of course, this is not a perfect example because a triangle is finite while God is infinite, but it is probably the closest and most accurate analogy we can develop to illustrate the triune nature of God.
We’ll see how this definition can help us towards a proper understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:3 next.
Portions of this study originally appeared beginning here
“But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:3 HCSB).
In John 8:58 Jesus made an unmistakable claim to deity when he He used the term “I Am” as a self-reference. You see, Jesus’ use of this term established a direct link to the Old Testament book of Exodus where God made use of this very same terminology as a means of identification as well (see Exodus 3:13-14).
Yet Jesus also said, “…My Father is greater than I” in John 14:28 and 1 Corinthians 11:3 goes on to tell us, “…the head of Christ is God” as seen above. So what are we to make of these seemingly irreconcilable statements?
One way to address this question is to say that Jesus willingly laid aside His rights and privileges as God in taking on a human nature (see Philippians 2:5-8). As a perfect human being, Jesus did everything that a perfect human should do- and that included acknowledging the fact that God is supreme over all. However, there is another way to answer this question that makes use of the passage quoted above.
While the interrelationship between the Father and the Son is one of complete equality, these co-equal members of the Trinity bear different responsibilities with respect to one another. The Father has the place of authority, rule, and leadership. The Son is willingly subordinate to the Father and freely submits to His will. In fact, Jesus even went so far as to say that His very nourishment came from doing God’s will and completing His work (John 4:31-34).
So while God the Son is subject to the God the Father, the Son is not inferior to the Father. In much the same way, the male-female relationship mentioned here in 1 Corinthians 11:3 does not imply inferiority on behalf of the female person, nor superiority on behalf of the male person. Instead, each maintains a different responsibility within their relationship, just as the Father and the Son each have different responsibilities within the triune Godhead.
In one respect, this interrelationship between the Father and the Son serves as a pattern for God-honoring marital relationships. For instance, the male is tasked with the responsibility and accountability that accompanies a position of leadership. A woman takes on the responsibility and accountability that accompanies one who is an equal partner and helper. We’ll focus upon these aspects of the marriage relationship over the next few studies.
“But it is important for you to keep this fact in mind, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3 BBE).
In considering the relationships referenced here in 1 Corinthians 11:3, its probably fair to say that the concepts of authority and accountability are generally accepted by most people. For instance, governmental officials, business managers, or athletic coaches are all asked to submit to various authorities while maintaining responsibility for others who serve under their leadership. These authority structures allow a government, a business, or a team to function and fulfill its objective- or at least, that’s the way they’re supposed to work.
The problem is that governments sometimes become mired in bureaucracy, businesses make unprofitable decisions, and teams lose games due to poor coaching. Nevertheless, these issues are often related to the actions of those who inhabit these authority structures; the structures may be valid but their success is often dependent upon those who work within them.
Another issue may be found in the tension between the concepts of relative worth vs. inherent worth. For instance, a professional athlete is usually compensated at a rate that reflects his or her relative worth to the team. Since better athletes are worth more than lesser athletes, a team will usually pay better athletes more money. Unfortunately, this type of mindset tends to obscure the fact that all human beings (both male and female) are equal in terms of inherent worth. This concept of inherent human worth goes beyond any human standard because it is inherited from the God who considered every member of the human race to be important enough to sacrifice the life of His Son. (1)
As Paul the Apostle will go on to remind another first-century church, “Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other, whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a man or a woman” (Galatians 3:28 CEV). With regard to the male-female relationships spoken of here in 1 Corinthians 11:3, the difference is in role, not value. (2)
One source ties these ideas together in the following manner…
“God calls for submission among equals… Jesus Christ, although equal with God the Father, submitted to him to carry out the plan for salvation. Likewise, although equal to man under God, the wife should submit to her husband for the sake of their marriage and family. Submission between equals is submission by choice, not by force.
We serve God in these relationships by willingly submitting to others in our church, to our spouses, and to our government leaders.” (3)
(2) Bob Caldwell, 1 Corinthians 11 Study Notes [v.3]
(3) Life Application Bible: New Revised Standard Version World Bible Publishers [pg. 2016]
“But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:3 NET).
A few additional observations may be helpful in seeking to understand and apply 1 Corinthians 11:3 with regard to male-female relationships. For example, does this passage cover every such relationship wherever it may it exist?
To answer that question, we can say that it would not be appropriate to apply this text in a universal manner (such as to question the validity of female leadership in the areas of business and/or government) for a number of reasons.
First, the word translated “woman” within the original language of this verse refers to a woman of any age, including those who are married, unmarried, or widowed. (1) The book of 1 Corinthians employs this word twenty times in relation to a wife and eighteen times in reference to women in general. However, the context of this passage suggests that it is directed towards the relationship that exists between a husband and wife (or perhaps a father and daughter).
In addition to the context, the Scriptures cite at least three unquestioned examples of female leadership within the areas of government (Judges 4:4-5), business (Proverbs 31:16), and construction (1 Chronicles 7:24). (2) Therefore, we would be ill-advised in making any attempt to apply this verse to a governmental or workplace environment. Instead, it would be more appropriate to view this passage in terms of the responsibilities that exist among co-equal marriage partners.
For instance, a man is tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that his marriage partner is loved, honored, and secure. He is accountable to ensure that the couple maintains a God-honoring relationship and he must take the lead in regard to meeting her needs within the relationship. This does not mean that he is free to make arbitrary decisions or act independently of his partner. However, it does mean that if an unpopular or difficult decision must be made, he must accept the responsibility for making it.
A woman carries the responsibility to help and support her husband in recognition of the role that God has assigned to him. In fact, each partner carries an equal responsibility to acknowledge the other’s God-given abilities and voluntarily submit to one another in recognition of those qualities. As we’re told in the New Testament book of Ephesians, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
An effective guideline in this regard can be found in Ephesians 5:33: “…each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (NIV).
(1) G1135 gune Thayer’s Greek Definitions https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?strongs=g1135
(2) A number of other Scriptural examples of female leadership have also been put forth including Miriam (Micah 6:4), Esther (Esther 4:1-5:2), the women who stood with Jesus during His crucifixion (John 19:25), the women who came to anoint Jesus following His burial when His male disciples deserted Him (Mark 16:1), and Priscilla (Acts 18:26, Romans 16:3-4, 1 Corinthians 16:19) among others. See also here.
“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” (1 Corinthians 11:3 ERV).
The final relationship to consider in our look at 1 Corinthians 11:3 is actually the first one mentioned here: “…the head of every man is Christ”. This affirmation serves to establish a direct chain of accountability- every man is directly answerable to Jesus Christ for his actions. This carries a number of important implications for his other relationships as well. In fact, this model of accountability extends as far back as Adam, the very first man.
Have you ever noticed that whenever the Bible addresses the fall of humanity (as detailed within Genesis chapter three), Adam is the person who is held accountable for what took place? You can find one such example in the New Testament book of Romans where we are told, “Adam sinned, and that sin brought death into the world” (Romans 5:12 CEV). Another example can be found in the Old Testament book of Hosea: “Like Adam, they have broken the covenant — they were unfaithful to me…” (Hosea 6:7).
With this in mind, we might ask the following question: how is it that Adam is held accountable for what occurred in the Garden of Eden when Genesis 3:6 tells us that Eve was actually the first person to disobey God’s commandment? Well, the answer can be found in the fact that Adam was the one who received God’s directive regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This meant that Adam was accountable to God to ensure that those instructions were followed.
Unfortunately, Adam failed to take the lead in this regard, a failure that directly led to the consequences that we experience today. So even though Eve was responsible for her choice, Adam was accountable as well- and this serves to explain why he was directly answerable to God for what took place.
One source references the creation of humanity as found within the book of Genesis and makes the connection to this portion of 1 Corinthians chapter eleven…
“In the same divine order, the head of a female person is a male person. This does not deny that Christ is the head of the woman also, nor does it mean that a female person is inferior or of less importance than the male. Paul is reinforcing God’s order as it was ordained from the beginning (Gen_2:18) when the woman was created as a helper for man.” (1)
(1) Paul T. Butler, Bible Study Textbook Series, Studies In First Corinthians College Press Publishing Company, Joplin, Missouri [pg.202] https://archive.org/stream/FirstCorinthians/131Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, for that is one and the same as if her head were shaved. For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn. But if it is shameful for a woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man” (1 Corinthians 11:4-7).
The women of first-century Corinth customarily wore veils that covered their heads and faces. However, one exception to this cultural rule involved the prostitutes of that era who typically went about unveiled. Because of this, a married woman who was unveiled effectively served to dishonor her husband within the culture of that time.
So how might we interpret and apply this passage within the context of a modern-day society? Well, here is how one Christian scholar addresses this subject…
“First, a distinction should be made between the meaning of the text, and it’s significance. The meaning is what it says to people in that culture, and the significance is how it applies to our cultural situation today…
When the women of Corinth threw back their veils and prayed in church, they dishonored their …husband(s)… In that day, the veil was a symbol of a women’s respect for her husband. In such a cultural context, it was imperative that a woman wear a veil in church while praying or prophesying.”
“Second, there is a difference between command and culture. The commands of Scripture are absolute- culture is relative …There is a principal behind these commands that is absolute, but the practice is not. What Christians must do is absolute, but how they do it is culturally relative…
Many Bible scholars believe that this principal is also true of the practice of wearing a veil. That is, women in all cultures at all times must show respect for their husbands (the what), but how this respect is manifest may not always be with a veil. For example, it may be with a wedding ring or other cultural symbol.” (1)
It should also be mentioned that these concepts of honor and respect are applicable to men as well, for as we’re told in the New Testament book of 1 Peter…
“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7).
(1) Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When critics ask : a popular handbook on Bible difficulties (pp. 459–460). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
“For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man. For this reason the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (1 Corinthians 11:7-12).
This passage (along with the verses that follow) are apt to be highly contentious among many 21st century audiences. However, a look at the Biblical creation account referenced here may help bring clarity to this portion of Scripture.
In Genesis 2:7 we are told, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” In the original language, this verse paints the word-picture of God as an artist who designed and formed the first human being much as a painter or sculptor might design and create a work of art today. (1)
A short time later we’re told, “…the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him’ …And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man. And Adam said: ‘This is now bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man'” (Genesis 2:18, 21-23).
So just as Adam’s creation brought honor to God, Eve’s creation also brought honor to Adam through his association with her- and the significance of these creative acts continue to reverberate even within the angelic realm. While scholars debate the exact meaning of Paul’s reference to “the angels” within this passage, we can say that these members of the spiritual realm demonstrate their recognition of God’s created order at the very least.
Nevertheless, Paul reiterates the importance of a balanced view in this regard by stressing the mutual dependence between the sexes. One source comments by observing, “A counterbalancing reality, that henceforth every man is born of woman (vv. 11, 12), demands humility and an appreciation of our profound interdependence.” (2)
(1) The original word for “formed” is the Hebrew word Yatsar. “Yatsar is a technical potter’s word, and it is often used in connection with the potter at work… The word is sometimes used as a general term of ‘craftsmanship or handiwork,’ whether molding, carving, or casting…” (from Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.)
(2) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2031). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“Judge among yourselves. Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him? But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering. But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:13-16).
1 Corinthians 11:13-16 touches on a number of challenging questions related to prayer, personal relationships, and physical appearance. However, we should first note Paul the Apostle’s invitation (1) to examine the elements of his argument and render an appropriate judgment. In a sense, Paul asks us to do the much the same today: “Decide this for yourselves…” (ESV). With this in mind, we should allow the Scriptures to inform our thinking on these matters and follow with an appropriate course of action.
The manner in which Paul framed these questions is also highly instructive: “Is it proper…” This effectively moved the church at Corinth to consider what was honorable and dishonorable with regard to appearance within their culture. It also built upon the foundation for good decision-making that Paul established earlier: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
He continued by employing a rhetorical question, a figure of speech where a question is asked for emphasis or effect: “Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?” This question was not designed to obtain any information for the answer was clearly assumed- no. Paul then followed with another question where the implied answer was yes: “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?”
Of course, “long hair” and “short hair” are extremely subjective terms. For instance, many women hold a preference for shorter hairstyles, including many glamorous actresses and models who personify grace, beauty, and femininity. On the other hand, one source provides us with a historical example of much the opposite in both style and gender: “The Spartans, for example, favored shoulder-length hair for men which they tied up for battle and no one thought them effeminate.” (2)
So there are a number of variables to consider in seeking to properly understand this passage and we’ll look at a few of those variables over the next few studies.
(1) Paul issued a similar invitation in 1 Corinthians 10:15
(2) John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck Bible Knowledge Commentary [11:15] (p. 530)
“Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice–nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:13-16 NIV).
Much like the men from the Old Testament tribe of Issachar who understood their place in history and used that knowledge to make good decisions, (1) Paul the Apostle encouraged his audience to consider the socially accepted standards of their day to make good decisions with regard to appearance. While such cultural standards often vary, the need to maintain a similar attitude is still important today.
For instance, a God-honoring man in his early 20’s might sport a hairstyle that is considerably longer than another God-honoring man in his 50’s. In fact, the Scriptures imply that such differences may be expected, for they are generally reflective of the attitude and opportunity that accompanies youth (see Ecclesiastes 11:9).
Nevertheless, the fact that hair lengths differ from person to person and gender to gender does not necessarily mean that such differences are inappropriate. You see, just because a woman’s hair is long does not necessarily mean that it reflects well upon the God she claims to serve. The same holds true of men with shorter hair.
Paul’s reference to the “very nature of things” may serve to communicate a Scriptural truth: men and women should be distinct in their appearance. God has an interest in maintaining these gender distinctives as we’ll go on to see. But first, one source provides us with an important observation with regard to hairstyles…
“In talking about head coverings and length of hair, Paul is saying that believers should look and behave in ways that are honorable in their own culture. In many cultures long hair on men is considered appropriate and masculine. In Corinth, it was thought to be a sign of male prostitution in the pagan temples. And women with short hair were labeled prostitutes.
Paul was saying that in the Corinthian culture, Christian women should keep their hair long. If short hair on women was a sign of prostitution, then a Christian woman with short hair would find it difficult to be a believable witness for Jesus Christ. Paul wasn’t saying we should adopt all the practices of our culture but that we should avoid appearances and behavior that detract from our ultimate goal of being witnesses for Jesus Christ.” (2)
(2) Life Application Study Bible Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.
“Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her as a covering. But if anyone wants to argue about this, we have no other custom, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:13-16 HCSB).
1 Corinthians 11:13-16 directs us towards an underlying question: does our appearance make us look as if we are something that we are not with regard to gender? Here is how one scholar addresses this topic…
PROBLEM: Paul asked, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him?” But, the length of a man’s hair is relative to the culture and time in which he lives. It is not something that is known by nature.
SOLUTION: This is a difficult passage, and commentators are not in agreement on it. But, there are two general kinds of answers.
Nature Understood Subjectively. In this sense, “nature” denotes the instinctive feelings or intuitive sense of what is proper. This, of course, may be affected by habits and practices unique to the culture. If this is the sense of the passage, then Paul’s statement means something like this: “Do not your own customs teach you that long hair is a shame for a man to have?” This interpretation is difficult to justify in terms of the normal meaning of the word “nature” (phusis) which has a much stronger sense than “custom” in the NT (cf. Rom. 1:26; 2:14).
Nature Understood Objectively. In this sense, “nature” means the order of natural laws. Paul speaks of homosexuality as being “against nature” (Rom. 1:26) and of Gentiles knowing “by nature”—that is, by the “law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:15)—what is right and what is wrong. In this sense, Paul is saying something like this: “Even heathen, who have no special revelation, still have a natural inclination to distinguish the sexes by the length of their hair, women generally having fuller and longer hair.”
Human beings instinctively distinguish between the sexes in different ways, one of which is the length of hair. The main point was to aid in distinguishing the sexes. It was for this reason that the OT also forbade a man to dress like a woman (Deut. 22:5), a practice that would have given rise to all sorts of improprieties, both social and moral.” (1)
(1) Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When critics ask : a popular handbook on Bible difficulties (pp. 460–461). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
“Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has 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 intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:13-16 NET).
The Apostle Paul closed this section of 1 Corinthians chapter eleven by acknowledging that some might still choose to contend with him regarding these questions of head coverings and appearance. Nevertheless, Paul was quick to add that he was not alone in his position for such views were also held by “the churches of God” as well.
Of course, the fact that someone holds a majority opinion does not necessarily make that opinion right. (1) Nevertheless, this passage reminds us that those who comprise the genuine church of God will find general agreement in most areas.
The real question we must answer regarding these verses is this: do we accept this portion of Scripture? If the answer is to that question is yes, then the issue is primarily related to how we should practically employ the teachings found within these verses. If the answer is no, then the issue is related to our view regarding the authority of God’s Word.
One source alerts us to foundational issues that undergird the teachings contained within this portion of Scripture…
“Paul was not trying to foist a new behavioral pattern on the Corinthians but simply to hold the line against self-indulgent individual excess in the name of freedom. As in the case of food offered to idols (8:1-11:1), Paul dealt with the immediate issue but also put his finger on the root of the problem, the Corinthian pursuit of self-interest which was unwilling to subordinate itself to the needs of others (cf. 1Co_10:24) or the glory of God (1Co_10:31).
Throwing off the head covering was an act of insubordination which discredited God. Whether women today in church services should wear hats depends on whether the custom of head coverings in the first century is to be understood as a practice also intended for the present day.
Many Bible students see that for today the principle of subordination (not the command to wear hats) is the key point in this passage. The intent of the custom of women wearing hats today, for fashion, seems far different from the purpose of the custom in the first century.” (2)
(1) This is general observation and does not specifically reflect upon Paul’s God-given Apostolic authority. See http://traed.net/1corinthians/the-book-of-1-corinthians-1-corinthians-chapter-seven/#29
(2) John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck Bible Knowledge Commentary [11:16] (p. 530)
“Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it” (1 Corinthians 11:17-18).
The Biblical book that we know today as 1 Corinthians is a letter (or “epistle”) that the Apostle Paul wrote primarily in response to a number of questions he had received from the members of the first-century church at Corinth. However, the second half of 1 Corinthians chapter eleven will address a situation that the Corinthians had not inquired about.
The issue that Paul sought to address is identified for us in verse eighteen: “…I hear that there are divisions among you when you meet as a church, and to some extent I believe it” (NLT). This information probably comprised a portion of the report that Paul mentioned earlier in chapter one.
As we’ll see over the next few verses, this act of joining together as a church refers to a community meal that was a feature of first-century church life. One commentator quotes a source who offers a detailed explanation regarding this early church custom…
“The ancient world was in many ways a much more social world than ours. It was the regular custom for groups of people to meet together for common meals. There was, in particular, a certain kind of feast called an eranos in Greek language, to which each participant brought his own share of the food, and in which all the contributions were pooled to make a common feast.
The early church had such a custom; they had a feast called the Agape or Love Feast. To it all the Christians came, bringing what they could, and when the resources of all were pooled, they sat down to a common meal. It was a lovely custom; and it is to our loss that the custom vanished. This meal probably grew out of the fact that when Jesus first instituted the Lord’s Supper it was in connection with the Passover meal he and his disciples had just eaten.
It was a way of producing and nourishing real Christian fellowship (Gr. koinonia, sharing, participating). It offered the well-to-do a regular opportunity to share their material blessings with the poor. After this meal, all the Christians would partake of the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, to memorialize his atoning death for the sins of all men.” (1)
(1) Paul T. Butler, Bible Study Textbook Series, Studies In First Corinthians College Press Publishing Company, Joplin, Missouri [pg.210] https://archive.org/stream/FirstCorinthians/131Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it” (1 Corinthians 11:17-18 NIV).
The church at Corinth was largely comprised of people who had come to Christ from a variety of religious (and non-religious) backgrounds. For instance, there were many within the Corinthian fellowship who had previously been immersed within the pagan religious culture of first-century Corinth. That frame of reference may serve to explain some of the admonitions that will follow within this section of 1 Corinthians chapter eleven.
You see, a pagan banquet in Corinth typically featured a great deal of gluttony and drunkenness. The members of the Corinthian church who had come out of that background might naturally tend to fall back upon those ingrained behaviors until they had been instructed differently or reached a greater degree of spiritual maturity in Christ.
On the other hand, there may have been others within the church (primarily those with Jewish backgrounds) who were more accustomed to religious services that were considerably more solemn and reverential. Finally, it appears that many members of the church were divided among socio-economic lines as well.
These factors (along with the Corinthians’ inclination to divide into factions behind various spiritual leaders) all help to explain Paul the Apostle’s concern regarding the divisions that existed within the church. So in much the same manner as the old adage that tells us, “where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Paul knew enough about the Corinthian believers to conclude that there were problems in this regard, at least to some degree.
However, the issue went far deeper than these divisions among the individual members of the church. The problem was that the Corinthian’s conduct at these meetings actually did more harm than good. In other words, it might have been better for the members of the church to avoid meeting at all than to get together and act in in the manner that Paul will go on to describe.
So Paul said in effect, “I’m hearing about certain things that are going on during these church fellowships in Corinth. I’m not sure I believe everything I’m being told, but some of it I can’t help but believe.” Paul will go on to validate this concern by identifying a specific kind of attitude that existed among the members of the church next.
“For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you” (1 Corinthians 11:19).
As noted earlier within the opening chapter of this letter to the Corinthian church, there were a number of divisions within the Corinthian fellowship. For instance, there were groups within the church who favored the teachings of a man named Apollos. Others endorsed the Apostle Peter’s ministry. Then there were those who preferred to listen to Paul the Apostle himself.
While we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that different members of the church naturally gravitated toward different spiritual leaders, Paul was concerned that a far more subtle and damaging attitude was at work. While it was certainly not wrong to maintain a preference for one teacher over another, it was certainly wrong to divide into factions over such individuals.
This was just one of the issues that Paul wrestled with in Corinth- and the same attitude that promoted one teacher at the expense of another had also spilled over into the relationships that existed among the individual members of the Corinthian church. This effectively served to splinter the church as various members of the congregation chose sides and separated into those who were recognized and approved by “their” group and those who were not.
One means of avoiding such issues today is by seeking to employ the counsel found in Ephesians 4:2-3: “Be humble and gentle in every way. Be patient with each other and lovingly accept each other. Through the peace that ties you together, do your best to maintain the unity that the Spirit gives” (GW). We can also benefit by remembering the message of Romans 12:10: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (NIV).
While there will always be points of disagreement among the individual members of a church, such differences must be discussed and debated from a base position of unity and respect for those with whom we disagree. This does not necessarily mean that we will always find common ground with others and there may be times when two groups or individuals must simply “agree to disagree” in order to maintain unity. While this may be less gratifying than the feeling of personal satisfaction that comes from winning an argument, unity within the body of Christ is far better than the cliques, divisions, and/or factions that often derive from such exchanges.
As one commentator thoughtfully observes, “Paul may be using irony, trying to make the Corinthians see that their infighting has the unworthy motive of seeing who can argue the best.” (1)
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2033). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? 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 do not praise you” (1 Corinthians 11:21-22).
Although Paul the Apostle opened 1 Corinthians chapter eleven with an expression of praise for the members of the Corinthian church, he was forced to qualify that recognition in regard to their conduct at the communion table.
You see, it appears that the community meal that preceded the actual communion service had gotten seriously out of hand in Corinth. In fact, Paul’s description of the Corinthians’ conduct in this regard is so disturbing that one might wonder if he would have been justified in addressing this issue at the beginning of this letter rather than here within the second half of this epistle.
Paul’s use of the term “the Lord’s Supper” (a phrase found only here in 1 Corinthians 11:20) may have represented an attempt to contrast the Corinthians’ conduct at the communion table with Jesus’ conduct at the Last Supper, an event that represented one of the most solemn moments in His ministry. But whatever the Corinthians were doing in association with the Lord’s Supper, one thing was certain- it had little or nothing in common with an appropriate observance of Jesus’ sacrificial death on their behalf.
Unfortunately, it appears that the Corinthians lacked the wisdom and spiritual perception necessary to exercise good judgment in this regard. This unfortunate lack of discernment had already been revealed in a number of other areas including sexual misconduct within the church (1 Corinthians chapter five), the act of bringing lawsuits against other members of the congregation (1 Corinthians 6:1-8), and questionable expressions of Christian liberty (1 Corinthians 8-10).
So just as we’ve noted throughout the book of 1 Corinthians, this passage of Scripture serves to remind us of the importance of seeking God on a daily basis for the wisdom, perception, and discernment necessary to exercise good judgment in various areas of life. As we’ll see, the Corinthians’ mishandling of the Communion ordinance had already led to a number of serious repercussions- and we can avoid their example by prayerfully seeking God’s illumination for any similar “blind spots” that may exist within our own lives.
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not” (1 Corinthians 11:20-22 ESV).
One commentary provides us with a succinct description of the situation that the Apostle Paul references here in 1 Corinthians 11:21-22: “The Lord’s Supper should have been the remembrance of a preeminently selfless act, Christ’s death on behalf of others. Instead the Corinthians had turned the memorial of selflessness into an experience of selfishness and had made a rite of unity a riotous disunity.” (1)
With these things in mind, let’s consider the manner in which the members of the Corinthian church expressed these internal attitudes through their external actions at these gatherings. We can do so by taking a closer look at the descriptive account that Paul the Apostle provides for us in the passage quoted above…
- First, these actions bore no resemblance to anything that took place with Jesus and His disciples at the Last Supper (see Mark 14:12-25). We should also note that their behavior at these so-called “Agape Feasts” failed to correspond to even the most basic definition of the word “agape.”
- Those who were capable of bringing their own provisions to these gatherings went on to consume their meals before other members of the church had an opportunity to do so.
- Those who had the capacity to provide for their own meals did not take the initiative to share with others, particularly those who were unable to do so.
- As a result, those who could not provide for their own meals went hungry.
- Some members of the church over-consumed to the point where they actually became inebriated.
So those who were responsible for these acts were guilty of more than just discourtesy, thoughtlessness, or inconsideration for others. As one scholar goes on to explain…
“Paul’s concern here is not only with drunkenness but also with the humiliation of the poor. The Lord’s Supper symbolizes, among other things, the unity of God’s people (10:17). Those Corinthians who were well-off apparently did not share with the less fortunate among them at the feasts where the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. This selfish behavior openly contradicted the meaning of the ceremony.” (2)
(1) John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck Bible Knowledge Commentary [11:20-21] (p. 531)
(2) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2033). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“Therefore, when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For at the meal, each one eats his own supper ahead of others. So one person is hungry while another gets drunk! Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on the church of God and embarrass those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I do not praise you for this!” (1 Corinthians 11:20-22 HCSB).
This passage offers a number of clues regarding the diverse nature of the Corinthian church. For instance, the fact that there were those who were capable of providing for themselves implies that there were a number of working-class families within that congregation. However, the fact that others became intoxicated during these fellowship meals indicates that there were other, more prosperous members of the congregation who possessed an abundance of alcohol and plenty of time to drink it.
Another clue regarding the composition of the church can be found in this statement: “You even start eating before everyone gets to the meeting…” (CEV). This distressing lack of sensitivity may be more significant that it appears. You see, a working day for a slave or a day laborer of that era typically began at sunrise and ended at sundown. We can find a reference to this type of working arrangement in Jesus’ parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.
This detail becomes important when we stop to consider the fact that slaves comprised a significant portion of the early church- and these church fellowships may have represented the only opportunity that he or she might have to enjoy a decent meal during the course of an average week.
Therefore, its easy to imagine the pain of a hard-working laborer who had looked forward to the opportunity to enjoy one good weekly meal only to arrive to find that the other members of his or her church family had already consumed everything.
But the problem may have gone even deeper, for as another translation renders this passage, “…some of you hurry to eat your own meal” (NLT). This suggests that some church members intentionally ate their meals quickly in order to avoid the obligation of sharing with others. These factors have led once source to comment…
“What started as a ‘love’ feast turned out to be an orgy of squabbling, hurt feelings and even drunkenness. This, of course, destroyed all possibility of properly commemorating the Lord’s sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper. Paul insists that this prostitution of Christian fellowship destroys the true meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. They go through the ritual of the Lord’s Supper all right, but it does not glorify Christ.” (1)
(1) Paul T. Butler, Bible Study Textbook Series, Studies In First Corinthians College Press Publishing Company, Joplin, Missouri [pg.212] https://archive.org/stream/FirstCorinthians/131Corinthians-Butler_djvu.txt
“So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!” (1 Corinthians 11:20:22 NIV).
The Apostle Paul’s great displeasure with the Corinthian church in regard to their behavior at the Lord’s Supper is underscored by the fact that he has now expressed his disapproval twice within six verses of this chapter. A brief look at the way some other Biblical versions translate 1 Corinthians 11:22 serves to illustrate Paul’s sense of unhappiness with the Corinthians’ conduct in this matter…
“What am I supposed to say to you? Am I supposed to praise you? Well, for this I don’t praise you!” (CJB).
“Am I to commend this sort of conduct? Most certainly not!” (Phillips).
“I don’t even know what to say to you! Are you looking for my approval? You won’t find it” (Voice).
Two sources help provide us with an explanation for this stinging response…
“When the classes came together, it was customary for those of the higher classes to eat from a better menu, with larger portions, and in an inner dining room while the lower classes ate inferior and inadequate fare in an outdoor courtyard (Fee, 534-45). Corinthian toleration of such class distinctions within the church indicates that they misunderstand the unity the Lord’s Supper celebrates.
…Paul takes for granted that the church is a heterogeneous entity. His solution is not one church for the rich, another for the poor; one for Jews, another for Gentiles. Unity in Christ counts for nothing if it merely accommodates existing distinctions as the Corinthians are doing.” (1)
“The early Church was the one place in all the ancient world where the barriers which divided the world were down. The ancient world was very rigidly divided; there were the free men and the slaves; there were the Greeks and the barbarians-the people who did not speak Greek; there were the Jews and the Gentiles; there were the Roman citizens and the lesser breeds without the law; there were the cultured and the ignorant. The Church was the one place where all men could and did come together.
…A Church where social and class distinctions exist is no true Church at all. A real Church is a body of men and women united to each other because all are united to Christ.” (2)
(1) Asbury Bible Commentary Abuse of the Lord’s Supper (11:17–34) https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Abuse-Lords-Supper
(2) Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes Notes on 1 Corinthians 2017 Edition, Abuse of the poor 11:17-22 [11:22] http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/1%20Corinthians/1Corinthians.htm
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
After expressing his disapproval over the way in which the Corinthian church had mishandled the communion service, Paul the Apostle will now go on to re-examine some of the events that took place between Jesus and His disciples during the Last Supper. In doing so, these verses will serve to establish the proper manner in which to approach the communion table, not only for the first-century church at Corinth but for those who follow as well.
But first, we should note that Paul began by saying, “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you…” This indicates that the message to follow will not be anything radically new or different. Instead, Paul is about to remind the Corinthians of something that he had already discussed with them.
Much like Paul’s experience with the Corinthian church, we can also benefit from a periodic reminder of those things we’ve already learned. You see, it is often easy to adopt the standards and practices of a world that fails to recognize the God of the Scriptures and attempt to bring such things into our relationship with Him.
In this instance, the members of the Corinthian church were acting in a manner that reflected their pagan religious culture. This of course, was far removed from anything that the Apostle Paul had taught them regarding the Lord’s Supper.
In a similar manner, there are any number of subtle (and not-so-subtle) cultural pressures that serve to encourage us to think and act in ways that are out of alignment with sound Biblical teaching. The example of the Corinthian church should encourage us to prayerfully read the Scriptures on a daily basis, not only to remind us of the truths we have already learned, but to ensure that we do not lose what has already been delivered to us.
As Paul reminded another first-century church…
“Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2 NET).
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 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.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NIV).
Since the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church is largely believed to pre-date the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 may represent the first recorded account of the events that established the sacrament of communion. A brief look at Luke 22:15-20 will help provide us with some important background regarding this passage…
“And (Jesus) said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.’ After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you'” (NIV).
These portions of Scripture document the institution of the Lord’s Supper, also known as Communion or the Eucharist. The term “Communion” serves to highlight the intimacy and fellowship we enjoy with God through Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf. The word “Eucharist” is taken from the Greek word for thanksgiving and emphasizes a sense of appreciation for the salvation that Jesus offers through His substitutionary death.
Communion consists of two elements: bread which is representative of Jesus’ body and the “fruit of the vine” (generally consisting of wine or grape juice) that serves to represent Christ’s blood. The solid physical properties of bread offer an easy association with Jesus’ body, while the liquid qualities of wine or grape juice are easily associated with the blood He shed on our behalf.
We’ll examine the four major viewpoints regarding these elements (and what they are said to represent) next.
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 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.’
In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 ESV).
Over the generations, four major viewpoints have developed concerning the elements of communion. These viewpoints may be quickly summarized as follows:
Generally associated with the Catholic church, this view holds that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ when the words of institution are spoken by the priest. While the physical properties (taste, appearance, etc.) of the bread and wine do not change, the inner reality of these elements undergo a spiritual change.
Developed by Martin Luther and generally associated with Lutheran churches, this view holds that Christ’s body and blood are truly present within the bread and wine but the elements do not actually change into Jesus’ body and blood. This view makes the analogy that Christ is present within the elements in the same way that heat is present in a piece of hot iron.
Developed by John Calvin and observed by Presbyterian and reformed churches, the Dynamic view states the elements are symbolic and that Jesus is dynamically and spiritually present within those elements by the Holy Spirit. The bread and wine nourish the physical body while Jesus nourishes the soul of believers as conveyed by the Holy Spirit who dwells within them.
Symbolic or Memorial View
Generally associated with Baptist, Pentecostal, and many non-denominational churches, this view holds that the elements are symbols of the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus. It sees communion as a memorial ceremony of Christ’s finished work and an occasion for God’s people to join together in unity and loyalty to Christ. (1)
Regardless of which of these individual views one may hold, the act of partaking in the bread and the cup should be viewed as an act of worship as we seek to honor Jesus and reflect upon His love for humanity as expressed through His sacrificial death- a death that saves us from eternal punishment and separation from God.
(1) All definitions summarized and adapted from Nelson’s Bible Dictionary
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NET).
Before we consider the “new covenant” mentioned within this passage, let’s first take a moment to outline this important Biblical concept and define its terms.
A “covenant” refers to a specific type of legal arrangement between two parties. A covenant is much like the kind of contractual agreement that we might enter into today in the sense that it involves a legal commitment between two groups or individuals. However, the difference between a Biblical covenant and many other types of contractual arrangements is that the terms of a covenantal agreement were non-negotiable.
You see, the terms of a covenant could not be altered or rewritten to suit the desires of another party. If one side objected to a portion of a proposed covenant, there was no way to amend it. Instead, a covenant was an “all or nothing” arrangement that was binding upon both parties once they agreed.
This type of agreement would have been familiar to those who were acquainted with the Old Testament Scriptures for God had entered into a number of these arrangements with such well-known Biblical personalities as Noah (Genesis 6:18), Abraham (Genesis 17:1-9), and David (Psalm 89:3-4).
The difference between many of these Old Testament covenants and the New Covenant that Jesus established is that the New Covenant is not based upon something that a human being is obligated to do in his or her relationship with God. Instead, it is based upon what Jesus did for us in offering Himself as a sacrifice on our behalf.
Because of this, the New Covenant can never fail, for it does not depend upon fallible human beings to fulfill its terms. This is why Hebrews 7:25 tells us, “Therefore he is able, once and forever, to save those who come to God through him. He lives forever to intercede with God on their behalf” (NLT).
“Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27).
Paul the Apostle has already listed a number of inappropriate behaviors that marked a typical communion service at Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 11:18-22). Those behaviors reflected an irreverent attitude towards one of the most significant moments in Jesus’ ministry and failed to represent Him properly to those outside the church. The good news is that there are very few individuals who are likely to engage in such behaviors today. The bad news is that the danger of failing to give these elements the respect and attention they deserve still remains.
Consider this: there are businesses that range from large multi-national corporations to small family farmers who produce immeasurable quantities of the elements that we associate with the Lord’s Supper- bread and wine or grape juice. However, the vast majority of those products will never be associated with anything spiritually significant. So what makes the elements that are destined for the communion table any different? Well, the answer is that these elements are not significant for what they are but what they represent.
To illustrate, let’s consider a trademarked image that a company uses to represent itself and it’s products. In one sense, a company logo is nothing more than a picture or a series of colors, shapes, and/or words arranged in a distinctive pattern. Nevertheless, a good logo can help to associate a company with the products and services it offers and establish a positive identification in the minds of consumers. While a company’s logo is not the company itself, it does serve to represent the company to others.
In a limited sense, we might consider the elements of communion in a similar manner. Much like a trademark that serves to designate a particular company, the elements of communion are important for what they represent. When set aside for spiritual purposes, the common elements of communion are no longer commonplace for they are now associated with Jesus’ death on our behalf.
Those who view the elements that represent Jesus’ death in an irreverent manner run the risk of duplicating the same mistake made by the church at Corinth. As one commentator explains…
“An unworthy manner is any manner that is not consistent with the significance of Christ’s death. This does not mean that every participant must grasp the fullness of this significance, which is hardly possible. Nevertheless everyone should conduct himself or herself appropriately in view the significance of the Lord’s death.” (1)
(1) Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes Notes on 1 Corinthians 2017 Edition, Discerning the body 11:27-32 [11:27] http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/1%20Corinthians/1Corinthians.htm
“But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:28-29).
What does it mean to “examine ourselves” before entering into the communion service? Well, consider the way in which we define the concept of an examination today…
- We often use the term “examination” in regard to a test or analysis.
- We might use this term to describe a medical checkup of some sort.
- We sometimes use the word “examination” to describe an audit or inspection.
- Finally, we can associate the idea of an examination with the act of making an inquiry or investigation.
Each of these definitions has something in common: they each involve the act of making an appraisal. In a similar manner, “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup” (NIV) implies that we should appraise ourselves before partaking of communion to determine if our conduct is (or has been) honoring to God.
The idea is not that we should examine our worthiness to participate in communion but the worthiness of the way in which we partake of it. (1) As we’re told here in 1 Corinthians 11:28, “…so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” The intent is not prohibitive but preparatory and serves to encourage us to approach the communion table in an appropriate manner.
We should also note that the focus of this examination should be upon ourselves and not others. Those who choose to examine others at the communion table serve to emulate the bad example of the Corinthian church for as one source reminds us, “The Corinthians neglected to examine themselves, but they were experts at examining everybody else.” (2)
If an honest self-examination determines that our thoughts, words, and/or actions have been less than honorable in this regard, then we would do well to address such things in the manner prescribed by 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
As another commentator has observed…
“The word used here means ‘to test’ and was used of the testing of metals. The point is that no Christian should observe the Lord’s supper in any casual or flippant manner, treating it as something ordinary. It is the central ordinance of Christianity; and the believer’s fidelity to it, or infidelity, is fraught with eternal consequences.” (1)
(1) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11”. “Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament”. <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=1co&chapter=011> [v.27]. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
(2) Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes Notes on 1 Corinthians 2017 Edition, Discerning the body 11:27-32 [11:27] http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/1%20Corinthians/1Corinthians.htm
(3) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11”. “Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament”. <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=1co&chapter=011> [v.28]. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
“That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:30-32).
In 1 Corinthians 11:29, Paul the Apostle encouraged the members of the Corinthian church to examine themselves before partaking of communion for an important reason: “…he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” Here now in the following verses, Paul will go on to discuss two related judgments that had taken place among them.
You see, the fact that the Corinthians approached the Lord’s Supper in a disrespectful manner had already led to sicknesses and weaknesses among the members of their congregation. This reference to “sickness” might refer to any number of illnesses or physical infirmities while “weakness” might be understood in a physical or emotional sense (or perhaps a combination of both).
While some may feel uncomfortable with the idea that God might impose such ailments as a result of our conduct, we should recognize that this passage identifies a definite cause and effect relationship. To express this idea by way of a Biblical analogy, we might turn to a passage from the New Testament book of Galatians: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
For example, a person who decides to step outside the parameters of a God-honoring lifestyle may have to live with the negative consequences of that choice. In such instances, God may decline to shield that person from the repercussions of his or her actions much like the Corinthians endured sicknesses and weaknesses as a result of their conduct at the Lord’s Table.
We should also remember that such choices may negatively impact others as well. At best, those who were sick and weak in Corinth as a result of their behavior lost their ability to function as fully productive members of their church and community. At worst, these choices effectively led to hardships and difficulties among family members, caregivers, and others who were dependent upon them.
Finally, we should remember the words of Acts 10:34: “…God is no respecter of persons.” While God is loving, kind, patient, gracious, and longsuffering with His people, we should recognize that there are consequences associated with our behaviors. No matter who we are, we should recognize that God may sovereignly choose to allow negative consequences to come into our lives if our behavior (like the Corinthians) warrants it.
“That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:30-32 NIV).
The Scriptures sometimes utilize the word “sleep” as a euphemism for death. One such example can be seen in Mark 5:22-53, a passage of Scripture that details Jesus’ acceptance of a request to return to the house of a local religious leader to heal his young daughter. Unfortunately, by the time Jesus arrived to restore the little girl to health, the man’s daughter had since passed away as a result of her illness. Thus, Jesus arrived at a home filled with mourners and others who had come to offer their condolences.
In responding to this turn of events, Jesus answered by saying, “Why all this commotion and weeping? The child isn’t dead; she’s only asleep” (NLT). Those who heard this response reacted with laughter, scorn, and ridicule at such a seemingly ludicrous statement- but they stopped laughing after Jesus put them out and returned the little girl alive to her parents.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Scriptures sometimes use the word “sleep” as a figure of speech to represent death may lead to a potentially disturbing question in regard to 1 Corinthians 11:30: “Are you saying that God might actually put someone to death if he or she does something wrong?” While the answer to that question is generally “no” it is important to recognize there are certain considerations to keep in mind..
First, we should acknowledge that this passage makes a connection between the Corinthian church’s inappropriate behavior at the Communion table and the fact that such people were not permitted to enjoy a longer life. In this respect, we can say that God may have been merciful to such people in ending their lives before they had a chance to commit any further indignities against Him.
Next, while the thought of God ending someone’s life prematurely may not fit with our preconceived notions of Him, we should remember that everyone will eventually die; it is only a matter of where, when, and by what means. We should consider the fact that God reserves the sovereign right to recall anyone’s life at any moment for any reason He sees fit- and that reality should have a definite impact on the way in which we choose to live.
“If we were properly evaluating ourselves, we would not be judged, but when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord, so that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31-32 HCSB).
For a group who seemed to pride themselves on their ability to make distinctions among their spiritual leaders, this passage provides further evidence to support the belief that the members of the Corinthian church displayed an alarming lack of spiritual discernment.
First, the preceding verses of 1 Corinthians 11 tell us that the Christians at Corinth approached the communion table in manner that was irreverent and disrespectful- and judging from the Apostle Paul’s description, it appears that this conduct had gone on for quite some time. In response, God subsequently brought judgment upon the Corinthians in the form of sicknesses, weaknesses, and in many cases, the untimely deaths of those within their fellowship.
Yet even then, it appears that no one within the church had enough spiritual insight to associate their inappropriate conduct with these disciplinary actions. Instead, it was left to the Apostle Paul to establish that connection in a very direct and straightforward manner. Since the Corinthians had failed to judge themselves properly in this regard, they effectively invited God to do it for them.
These corrective actions undoubtedly led to a great deal of sorrow, grief, and emotional pain among the members of the church. Yet as Paul tells us in the passage quoted above, they could have avoided these afflictions if only they had adopted the following mindset: “…if we evaluated and judged ourselves honestly [recognizing our shortcomings and correcting our behavior], we would not be judged” (AMP).
Of course, there may be other reasons to explain why God’s people might seek to avoid this kind of self-examination, both then and now. For instance, there may be a fear of potential repercussions, a reluctance to realign our plans with God’s agenda, or the simple desire to avoid responsibility for our actions, just to name a few.
Nevertheless, it would be far better for us to take the initiative in addressing our shortcomings, especially when we consider this potential alternative. As Paul himself said to the church at Rome, “Everything written in the Scriptures was written to teach us…” (Romans 15:4 GNB) and the example of the Corinthian believers serves to remind us of the need to examine our conduct, evaluate it according to God’s standards, and prayerfully alter our behavior to conform with His character when it becomes necessary to do so.
“If we would examine ourselves first, we would not come under God’s judgment. But we are judged and punished by the Lord, so that we shall not be condemned together with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31-32 GNB).
While the concept of “God’s judgment” may generate any number of fearsome images, it’s important to allow the context of this passage to establish the purpose (as well as the limitations) of these particular judgments. For instance, the judgments referenced here in 1 Corinthians chapter eleven were not designed to be punitive but corrective in nature.
You see, these judgments served a specific purpose: “…we are judged and punished by the Lord, so that we shall not be condemned together with the world.” As one source observes in commenting on this passage, “The temporal judgment of believers who are hurting God’s church may be an act of love in sparing them a more severe judgment related to destroying the church (cf. 1Co_3:10-17).” (1)
The author of the Biblical book of Hebrews echoed a similar sentiment…
“And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son'” (Hebrews 12:5-6 NIV).
We are free to make our own choices just as the Corinthian believers were free to make their choices as well- but choices have consequences. For example, those who regularly and consistently engage in spiritually unhealthy behaviors should not expect God to stand idle. In such instances, it would not be unreasonable to expect God to bring corrective measures into their lives as a result. Much like the experience of the Biblical prophet Jonah, God has any number of ways to get the attention of those who may be moving away from Him- and some of those methods may be quite uncomfortable.
While it is possible to choose a road that will ultimately lead us away from Christ, we should not expect God to make it easy for us if we elect to do so. Like the good, loving parent referenced in the passage from the book of Hebrews quoted above, God’s love for His children will not permit us to consistently pursue choices that will ultimately harm us. As Jesus Himself said to the New Testament-era church of Laodicea…
“I am the one who corrects and disciplines everyone I love. Be diligent and turn from your indifference” (Revelation 3:19 NLT).
(1) Dr. Bob Utley Free Bible Commentary 1 Corinthians 11 [11:32] Copyright ©2014 by Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/new_testament_studies/VOL06/VOL06A_11.html
“For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31-32 MKJV).
Paul the Apostle presented the Corinthians with a choice that still remains valid today; “…if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.” In a sense, this judgmental responsibility isn’t very different from the one held by an athletic coach or teacher. For example, a coach or teacher who never instructed, trained, or disciplined those who were entrusted to their care would not hold their job for very long. Instead, a good teacher or coach will work hard to motivate, correct, and discipline their students and athletes to be the best they can be.
The difference in this analogy is that God graciously provides us with the opportunity to “coach ourselves” as the Holy Spirit illuminates the Scriptures on our behalf. As Jesus said to His disciples in John 14:26, “…the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
Therefore, we have an opportunity to facilitate our own spiritual growth as we prayerfully study the Scriptures and seek to make choices that honor God. But if we fail to take these initiatives, God may initiate them for us. The New Testament book of Hebrews identifies the challenges associated with these corrective initiatives as well as their intended result: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11 NIV).
Of course, this should not be taken to imply that every hardship or difficulty we encounter represents a judgment from God. For instance, Jesus alerted us to the fact that we would face such adversities when He said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).
Nevertheless, if God elects to bring such measures into our lives, we can be confident in the fact that He intends to bring forth something good from doing so. As one commentator explains, “The Scriptures make it clear that God discipline those He loves (Heb. 12:5-10). This is different than punishment because its end goal is to correct our lives, not to be payment for our sins. Jesus has already paid for our sins on the cross.” (1)
(1) Bob Caldwell 1 Corinthians 11 – Examine Yourself [v. 32]
“Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come” (1 Corinthians 11:33-34).
As we enter the final verses of 1 Corinthians chapter eleven, Paul the Apostle will follow up on the spiritual instruction contained within the preceding verses with a bit of practical application: “…when you gather for the Lord’s Supper, wait for each other. If you are really hungry, eat at home so you won’t bring judgment upon yourselves when you meet together” (NLT).
In offering these sensible instructions, Paul served to demonstrate his practical concern for the members of the Corinthian church. For instance, a person who was ravenously hungry upon arrival to a fellowship dinner in Corinth might overindulge and thereby “…disgrace God’s church and shame the poor” (1 Corinthians 12:22 NLT). But by eating at home prior to departing for church, such a person would be less likely to take “…his own supper ahead of others” (11:21).
So these practical directives helped create an environment that best served the needs of everyone. They would also help to establish the kind of atmosphere that reflected well upon Jesus’ church and invite God’s blessing instead of His judgment.
As the members of the Corinthian fellowship grew in their spiritual maturity, the need for this kind of instruction was sure to diminish over time. But until that spiritual growth took place, these edicts would help put the Corinthian believers in the best position to honor God during these fellowship meals.
Nevertheless, it seems that Paul also realized that there were some issues that were best addressed by means of a face-to-face meeting. You see, the fact that there were “other matters” left to discuss implies that Paul did not answer every question put to him by the members of the Corinthian church within this letter. However, he assured his readers that he would answer the remainder of their questions in due course and as one source observes in commenting on this passage…
“We can only guess what further directions Paul has in mind. Further instructions concerning the Lord’s Supper? rich-poor relations? the proper conduct of worship in church assemblies? other traditions? Such passages should give us a greater sense of modesty in asserting with overconfidence our interpretations of the rest of the letter. We are, after all, reading someone else’s mail.” (1)
(1) Asbury Bible Commentary – Other directions (11:34 b) Copyright © 1992 by The Zondervan Corporation https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Other-directions