Friday, August 23, 2013

The Context of Kids Drinking in Corinth Considered

In my previous post on 1 Cor. 11:17-34, I said I’d be considering the context of this text next. Considering the context carefully appears to me to be important if we’re not to miss Paul’s purpose in penning this portion of his letter to Corinth. Understanding his purpose, we’re in a much better position to ask the right questions of the text and follow its flow of thought for a right application with respect to children at the family meal.

Discussion of the context will move from the wider to the nearer context, from the periphery to the center. So I’ll discuss first the larger context of the whole letter, its broad occasion. Second, I’ll then briefly canvass the situation that occasioned the broader section (7:1-14:40) in which 1 Cor. 11:17-34 comes. Third, I’ll briefly consider the narrower section that embraces the common concerns (11:2-14:40) in which the section on the Lord’s Supper finds its appropriate place. And last, we’ll think over what’s going on in the immediate context of the text that concerns us.

So, first, why did Paul write 1 Corinthians?[1] He wrote because the Corinthian church was divided and dirty. Paul had apparently been informed by way of an oral report of a number of problems in Corinth, not the least of which was disunity (1:11). The report communicated not only that the Corinthians misunderstood Paul’s first letter (5:1), but also that there was divisiveness, sexual sin, and social snobbery (1:10; 5:1; 11:18). Paul also received a letter from the Corinthians that communicated considerable confusion over marital matters, participation in pagan practices, order in corporate worship, and the bodily resurrection of believers (7:1; 8:1; 12:1; 15:12, 35).

So he wrote his letter to get this church, divided on account of the arrogance of its more influential members, to work together for the advance of the gospel. He wants them to drop their divisive one-upmanship, build up the faith of the weak, and witness effectively to unbelievers. He argues that much of their conduct was out of step with the gospel. At root of their disunity lay an arrogance (3:21; 4:6, 8, 18–19; 5:2, 6) totally incompatible with God’s free grace in Christ: wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1:30; 4:7). The arrogant divisiveness and selfish disregard of others going on generally in Corinth shows up in a particular way at the Lord’s Table.

Now, second, and more briefly, it seems salutary to take note that the text on the Lord’s Supper comes in a much broader section spanning from 7:1 to 15:58. This broader block of text deals mainly with the questions from the Corinthians (see, e.g., 7:1; 8:1; 12:1). Paul responds to the queries of the Corinthians one by one. As many commentators comment upon, 1 Cor. 11:17-34 may be the only passage in the broader block that does not address specific questions.[2] Paul appears to bring up the ethical chaos at the Lord’s Supper in response to oral reportage, supported by the “I hear” of 11:18. Which leads to the third, even narrower still, context in which 11:17-34 finds itself embedded: 11:2-14:40.

This third, narrower context—11:2-14:40—addresses the gathered assembly, or corporate worship, in Corinth. The section right before our text speaks to the head coverings question (11:2-16). Then chapters 12-14 concern the use and abuse of spiritual gifts. So 1 Cor. 11:17-34 comes in where it does because of its thematic links with the forgoing and succeeding sections. It deals with matters of unity and edification when the church gathers together as one body.

Now last, we ought to think about what the immediate context reveals about Paul’s concerns at the Lord’s Supper and the implications for the practice of the gathered people of God. This context brings still more clarity for how we ought to think about the participation of children in the family meal. And to this clarity I shall turn our attention in the next post. So more anon. 

But for now one might just ask this question: how would our questions about kids eating and drinking with the adults at the church's family meal find a place in the questions and concerns at Corinth? Would they?

[1] Much of what follows in this first "context" simply comes from Theilman’s introduction in the ESV Study Bible. Though the commentaries cover much of the same ground, and indeed more, Theilman states succinctly and nicely what was going on in Corinth and Paul’s chief concerns.
[2] See, for example, the commentaries of Fee, Thiselton, and Garland

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