1. Corinthians 11. - The Mystery of the Sacrament

Erkki Koskenniemi

After speaking for a long time about eating the meat devoted to idols and the love for one’s neighbor, Paul starts to talk about a totally different subject: worship in the Church.

To cover one’s hair or not? 11:2-16

In this chapter, Paul talks about an issue that he wants to correct in the Church in Corinth. At first sight, it is not at all clear what the precise issue is. In any case, the Apostle discusses the fact that the Corinthian women did not cover their heads when praying or prophesying. This chapter clearly shows that is wasn’t a minor issue at that time. Paul begins by offering a typical goodwill and encouraging comments. As in chapters 1-4 he first tries to deliver the message using friendly words. According to Paul, it is important that the men should reveal their heads while praying or prophesying, but women should keep their head covered. Both praying and prophesying and prophesying here mean a public activity, either both public prayer and when delivering a prophetic message from the Holy Spirit.

Paul finds the explanation for this from the order of creation: Because all women are from the first man, a woman should keep “a symbol of authority” on her head. From images from the old times we know that this covering is not over the face, but only covered the hair. Paul teaches that men should not wear hats while praying in public or prophesying, because a man does not originate from his wife. According to the Apostle, even nature teaches that long hair is a shame for a man, but an honor to a woman. Even angels are involved somehow (v. 10), which apparently refers to heavenly worship (perhaps this therefore indicates this is not just a minor matter after all?). If anyone wants to argue, according to Paul he should know that the ways of God’s Church are binding also in Corinth.

This chapter confuses both the people explaining it, as well as the parishioners. The Church father Tertullianus, who lived in the same circumstances, tries to help us find the right way. He understood Paul's words so that the Corinthian women usually always wore a hat in their heads. When they received the Spirit of the prophecy, they threw away their hats.

This chapter has proven difficult for the interpreters. The Church Father Tertullian, who lived in a similar environment, may help us to find the right way. He understood Paul’s words as meaning that the Corinthian women usually always wore a head coverings on their heads, but when they received the Spirit of the prophecy, they threw them away. The significance of this is that this act indicated that the speaker no longer wanted to speak as a woman, but rather wanted to be seen as a teacher in the Church. Paul did not like this, and that is why he wanted to avoid misunderstandings. It was, therefore, not merely Paul’s stipulation that all women should enter the service in the God’s Church wearing the same suitable head covering, but rather, Paul was trying to prevent women from becoming teachers in the Church of Corinth. He clearly forbids this later, in the 14th chapter.

On the basis of the teaching in this chapter, men in different Christian traditions have complied with removing their hat when entering a church. Similarly, women in some traditions put on a scarf or a hat to cover their head. This happens in some conservative circles even today. I am sure no one has anything against this practice. Still, it has to be said, the practice it is based on an erroneous exegesis of the Bible. This error is clearly due to a simple fact, that during the centuries the fashion changed and people failed to understand Paul’s purpose concerning the matter.

Problems at the Supper 11:17-22

A bigger problem for Paul was that the way Corinthians conducted Communion; their practice left a lot to be desired. Paul had heard about this from people visiting the Church in Corinth and urgently needed to address the issue.

The Apostle does not want to reprimand the Church for disputes, which he had previously fiercely spoken of (Chapters 1-4). Rather he considers it normal and even good that there was different groups in the church. It is clear, however, that the different opinions had led to problems At that time, during the Lord’s Supper, everyone ate a decent meal, which for many was their only actual meal of the day. At the same time as the meal was eaten, the bread and wine, the Sacrament, was consumed. The actual hunger-satisfying meal required everyone to bring some food. It is probable that the Eucharist started with thanks to God for the bread, i.e. the blessing of the bread, with Jesus’ words repeated concerning it, and this was followed by the meal. Finally, came the cup of wine and Jesus’ words on it.

Paul outlines the issue. Apparently the affluent Christians were not willing to wait for those who worked a long day. In any case, they did not want to share their own meals with everyone, but only with their own group. Thus, some had a lot to eat, while others had very little. In this way the Eucharist resulted in inequality and a strengthening of group (us v. them) mentality. This was likely to cause the believers to fight with each other and worse. For this reason, Paul advises them to forgo eating and drinking together, and rather eat and drink somewhere else in order to take the edge off their hunger and quench their thirst. The Church meeting then became a place to share the sacrament, but no longer the meal.

Setting the Holy Communion 11:23-26

Corinthians had to be guided in the right direction by reminding them how Lord had conducted the Supper. Paul refers to the old tradition, which stretches all the way back to the Upper Room in Jerusalem. This chapter contains the oldest description of the Eucharist in the New Testament. It is therefore very appropriate that it belongs to our Church even today when incorporating the Communion into the worship service, the mass.

The bread is the body of Christ to be shared in the Eucharist, which is given for us. Wine is the new Covenant in his blood, poured out for us for the forgiveness of sins. Every Communion remembers Christ, and those who participate in it proclaim the Lord’s death. This happens until Christ comes back.

“The breaking of bread” and “blessing” are related to the Jewish meal traditions. The Jewish meal began when the host took the bread from the table and held it up for all to see. Keeping the bread elevated, he praised God for example in this way: “Praised are you, Lord our God, King of the world, who gives our land to chance to produce bread!” The guests then joined in by saying “Amen”. After this, the host broke the bread in as many parts as there were people participating and shared it with everyone. After that, the meal was eaten. The Lord’s Supper has traits of the Jewish Passover meal, but Jesus gave it new traits and a new content. The words Paul taught in Corinth remind us of the Jewish background to the Eucharist, all the way back to the Upper Room.

The Holy Communion is a Sacred matter 11:27-34

Because of the Corinthians abuse of the Lord’s Supper, the Apostle urges the Church to reconsider carefully what the Lord’s meal actually is. His words are a serious warning here: A worthless celebration of the Lord’s meal means being guilty of Jesus’ death. This is the reason Christians must keep in mind the sanctity of the Holy Communion. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”

The words “without discerning the body” can be understood in two ways. It may mean that a Christian must distinguish between Lord’s body and the rest of food. It may, however, also mean that s/he should discern Lord’s body, i.e. his Church. In this body, all are equal so no one should be discriminated against, which is what had just been happening in Corinth. The first explanation is probably more plausible, even though this is difficult to ascertain.

In verse 31, Paul speaks of the right of way of avoiding afflicting oneself: “If we would examine ourselves, we would not have to be judged.” In other words, a person should only participate in the Lord’s Supper with the right attitude, and can judge this for them self. If a person judges himself in this way, there is consequently no need for God to judge him.

Paul’s words about illnesses and deaths in the Church of Corinth are somewhat mysterious. These are the Lord’s judgment, not so much for the individual but for the Church as a whole. The purpose of this judgment was not to destroy the Church of Corinth, but rather to wake it up. Without this, it would have received the same judgment as the rest of the world.