Unity in Diversity?

An analysis of the internal cohesiveness, and external boundaries of the ekklēsia in Corinth [Home]

The Corinthian community was marked by diverse membership and internal strife, both of which are related to the social situation of Corinth, the “freedom” of its members, and the lack of social boundaries defining the group. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he seeks to construct and define the social boundaries defining the group, and improve internal cohesiveness within the group. Paul’s construction of social boundaries is seen through an analysis of Paul’s use of the body metaphor, as well as his use of χόσμος following the discussion of Edward Adam’s Constructing the World. The problem of unity within the Corinthian will be highlighted through 1st Corinthians 11:17-28 as Paul addresses the issue of the Corinthians practices during the Lord’s Supper.

Any discussion of Corinth, and the group of Christian believers there, must first begin with a brief understanding of the foundations of the Jesus Movement, Paul’s religious and social background, and the history of Corinth itself. After discussing the social, political and religious context the discussion will then turn the social makeup of the Corinthian Ekklēsia itself, and how the boundaries between the Ekklēsia and society affected this group of believers, and how Paul responds to these problems.

The Mediterranean World was divided into urban and rural settings, and had strong boundaries in the social stratum. In general, society was agrarian, marked by division of labor, and social inequalities. (Stegemann and Stegemann 11) Stegemann points out that a modern understanding of economy cannot be applied to the Mediterranean world. They argue the cycle of production and consumption generally occurs within the house. (Stegemann and Stegemann 19) Furthermore, any existing trade was due to scarcity and redistribution and was not a “supply and demand” market system. The rural populace consisted of farmers, slaves, and free wage earners. Although work on the land was considered the epitome of all work (Stegemann and Stegemann 27), a majority of the rural populace lived “on the fine line between hunger and assurance of subsistence.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 51) Many farmers were burdened by taxes, and provisions for Roman soldiers, and found themselves moving downward in the social stratum. The urban centers, on the other hand, were oriented towards consumption, not production and relied heavily upon the production of the rural famers. The urban centers were marked by specialization of work employing different trades both in the construction of the cities as well as the provision of daily necessities. (Stegemann and Stegemann 31)

While many authors put forth their own perspective on the social structure of the Mediterranean world, that provided by Stegemann is one of the most comprehensive, and finds general agreement among other authors. They divide the classes into an upper and lower stratum. The upper stratum consists of a ruling class, the rich, and the retainers. The retainers consisted of freed individuals, and slaves who performed administrative tasks or prominent political positions. (Stegemann and Stegemann 69) The lower stratum consists of the relatively poor or relatively prosperous; individuals who were able to provide at least adequate subsistence. The lower stratum also consisted of the absolutely poor, who are those people who lived below a level of minimum existence. The social pyramid defined by the author is also divided by urban and rural dwellers. While the urban environment encompasses the entire social spectrum, the rural environment is mostly those in the lower social stratum. In general, the population was in the lower classes, with only 1% of the total population in the elite upper stratum. The social classes were impermeable(Stegemann and Stegemann 93), except for movements downwards such as the example of a small farmer loosing their property and the free farmer becoming a tenant. (Stegemann and Stegemann 43)

The Jesus Movement itself was primarily a rural movement. (Meeks 11) Jesus was “probably a construction worker… such a worker would have belonged to the relatively poor, if not the absolute poor.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 199) The authors place Jesus within the lower stratum, but above minimum existence. Followers of Jesus are placed within the relatively and absolutely poor categories, with the exception of the tax collector. Of his disciples they write, “The economic situation of Jesus’ first-called disciples, by contrast, could only be termed modest, if not downright miserable.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 200)

While there is agreement about the social standing of the earliest followers of Christ, a significant amount of debate in regards to the social class of Paul, and his status as a citizen of Rome and Tarsus continues to exist. Stegemann is quick to point out the differences between the Lukan Paul, and the Paul revealed through his own epistles. In Acts, for example, Paul does not demonstrate a need to work, or for the support of others. In Paul’s epistles, on the other hand, he is both a craftsman and dependant on the support in others. Luke refers to Paul as both a citizen of Rome and Tarsus, while Paul never refers to himself as a citizen of either. In the Stegemanns’ view, “the Lukan picture of Paul represents a literary fiction, and for the estimation of the social position of the historical Paul, his own letters have priority. The historical Paul was a citizen of neither Rome nor Tarsus.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 302) This viewpoint largely stands on its own, with Meeks, Theissen, and others disagreeing. Meeks characterizes Paul as a city person (Meeks 9) and as someone able to achieve near self-sufficiency as a craftsman. (Meeks 17) Theissen also points out Paul’s ability to reject the support of the Corinthians in comparison to the social situation of other apostles. “Peter the fisherman is forced by necessity to accept the ‘privilege of support’; Paul the craftsman can afford to renounce it.” (Theissen 38) Paul was also able to plan and pay for his own travels. We can assume that Paul belonged to neither extreme of the social spectrum, and was most likely in the retainer class. On one hand he was able to provide his own support and felt comfortable and was accepted among some of the richer members of the Corinthian believers. As Theissen writes, “It is understandable that Paul would appeal to people whose social status was equivalent to his.” (Theissen 105) Additionally a noticeable lack of criticism for the luxury of his self support (criticism is based on his obligation to receive support) indicates that he was not withholding his own wealth from the community of believers. We assume Paul to belong to the retainer class and while he was likely a free, self-supporting, relatively rich, craftsman he was far from the social elite of the upper stratum.

Corinth was primarily a trading and banking city. Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in 147 BCE and was refounded by Roman colonists in 44 CE. Although much of the original city had been destroyed, the destruction was not complete. Bookidis writes that, “The first colonists arrived in 44 B.C.E. or shortly thereafter and found a city that was partially inhabited; Hellenistic buildings survived, although they probably lacked roofs and timbers… Looted of her riches, Corinth nevertheless still stood.” (Bookidis 141) The Roman colonists therefore not only inherited much of the physical form of Corinth, but some of its tradition as well. “When the new colony retained the name of Corinth in its title, it laid claim to a long and rich history that could be manipulated in many and different ways.” (Bookidis 164) Although there was a significant history in Corinth, one cannot underestimate the significance of the Roman colonists. Much of the original civic buildings would have been destroyed, the colonists would have little to no connection with the city’s past, and the colonists would place more importance on their connection with Rome, than with other Greek cities. In addition, the physical layout of the city began to be modified to the Roman style, and the public services also would be a copy of those in Rome. James Walters writes that, “It is important to recognize that Roman colonies were centers of Roman presence and influence, ‘mini-Romes’ that mirrored the religious institutions of the city of Rome more closely than any other setting outside Rome” (Walters 401) Corinth, as a “mini-Rome” would undoubtedly provide a familiar environment to the Roman colonists. “Colonists would have felt at home in Corinth because their fellow citizens shared values and tastes reflected in everything from architecture to crockery to ideas regarding education and civic responsibility.” (Walters 402) Corinth was therefore a mixture of the Greek city and the Roman colonists, and an environment where the Roman colonists would become more Greek as the city itself became more Roman. (Walters 409)

Figure 1 – Geographical location of Corinth

Corinth is situated on a narrow neck of land which connects the Peloponnese to mainland Greece, and separates the Corinthian Gulf from the Saronic Gulf, and therefore the Ionian Sea from the Agean. (Schowalter and Friesen 11) Corinth contained four harbors, and served as a portage across the isthmus in both directions – from the Corinthian to the Saronic Gulf, and from mainland Greece into the Peloponnese. Commerce and trade were therefore the primary sources of Corinthian wealth, however banking and production from artesians also contributed significantly to the wealth of the city. (Theissen 101) Due to the trade in Corinth, it was “a perfect place for the dissemination of goods and ideas – a multilingual, polytheistic, cosmopolitan community visisted by travelers, merchants, and seamen from all over the Mediterranean.” (Schowalter and Friesen 15) Missiologist David Bosch writes of Paul’s selecction of missionizing Corinth, “Paul thinks regionally, not ethnically; he chooses cities that have a representative character. In each of these he lays the foundations for a Christian community, clearly in the hope that, from these strategic centers, the gospel will be carried into the surrounding countryside and towns.” (Bosch 130)

While there are diverse positions on the social makeup of the Corinthian Ekklēsia, it is generally thought to have comprised a cross section of the social makeup of Corinth. In Urban Religion in Roman Corinth, Steven Friesen reminds the reader that 90% of the Roman Empire was considered poor, and that therefore most of the gradations in social standing are within the lower stratum. Friesen also reminds the reader that the top three categories of his poverty scale (equivalent to the upper stratum) only comprise 1% of the total population. (Friesen 365) Since there are no direct descriptions of anyone being rich, and the term used in 1st Corinthians 11:22 does not assume neither a large dwelling, nor home ownership, it should be conlcuded that “a signficant number in the Corinthian assembly were living in subsistence poverty or desperate poverty.” (Friesen 367) Furthermore, Friesen argues, it is irresponsible to assume that Erastus was a member of the municipal elite. He concludes that “Paul’s congregations were probably composed mostly of individuals living near, at, or below subsistence level” and that “there are no convincing arguments to suggest that Paul’s congregations contained any members from the wealthy 1% of the empires population.” (Friesen 369-370)

A majority of scholars, however, consider the Corinthian Ekklēsia to be a representative crosscut of Corinthian society, excluding the extreme rich and poor. This conclusion can is also inferred in both 1st Corinthians 1:26 and 2nd Corinthians 8:14. In the first instance Paul writes of the Corinthians, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” If there were not many wise, powerful, or of noble birth we can assume that there were at least some members which fit this description. (Theissen 72) Secondly, the Corinthian Ekklēsia is contrasted to the poverty of the Jerusalem church in 2nd Corinthians 8:14 where Paul refers to their “abundance” in comparison to the “need” of Jerusalem. While the need referred to in Jerusalem was likely one of the miserably poor (Stegemann and Stegemann 219), at the least we know that the social situation in Corinth is better than that in Jerusalem.

One class of members which particularly added to the social diversification of the community of believers is the membership of those individuals Acts (Acts 10:2, 22; others) refer to as those who “fear God”, and may otherwise be known as “God-Fearers.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 256) A clear delineation of these individuals from Jews is found in Acts 13:26, where Paul refers to them independently, “My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God…” These “God fearing men” were both male and female. Evidence suggests that they were Gentiles who have not fully converted to Judaism. While they attended synagogue, they were not circumcised and did not hold completely to the Torah. Many were benefactors of a synagogue, and evidence also suggests that some were members of the local elite. Stegemann suggests that this partial conversion may, at least in some cases, be attributed to their inability to fully convert because of social obligations. “This confirms the hypothesis that among the God-fearers there were also members of local elite families who were not able to convert to Judaism and become proselytes – in all probability precisely because they belonged to the elite and therefore also had to perform certain (cultic) duties.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 258)

Corinth, and a Pauline Christianity, likely provided an attractive combination for the God-fearers in Corinth. Walters writes that, “The resulting climate [in Corinth] was one in which early Christians – and other private religious associations – could assemble in their household gatherings without the same level of suspicion or hostility that existed in other cities.” (Walters 416) Paul himself “portrays the Corinthian Christians’ relations with outsiders as conflict-free, even convivial.” (Walters 400) Additionally, Paul was known for opening the Gospel to the Gentiles without need for circumcision (1st Corinthians 7:18). Therefore many God-fearers who may have been prevented from converting to Judaism may have found this a welcoming freedom to become a member of the early Christian communities. Meeks also points to the “open” membership allowed by the Christian communities in comparison to the closed membership allowed only through birth or through proselytes. Theissen writes that the God-fearers emerge as leaders of Jewish and Christian congregations, and had shown themselves to be particularly receptive to Christianity. Theissen suggests the attraction to be three-fold. First, God-fearers had already demonstrated independence to their native tradition and religion. Secondly, Christianity crossed ethnic and cultural boundaries and they often stood between cultural boundaries. Finally, Christianity allowed them to maintain a monotheistic belief, high moral values, and a full religious membership without the constraints of Judaism. (Theissen 103-104) Theissen suggests that this luring of the powerful and rich God-fearer population may provide some explanation of the tension between Judaism and Christianity as these were many of the patrons. “To the disciplined Jew this meant that Paul was selling Judaism at reduced rates. In other ways too it must have been a bitter thing for the Jewish congregations of the Diaspora that Paul was successful with the God-fearers.” (Theissen 104) While one cannot argue that all God-fearers were rich and powerful, evidence shows that at least some were. Knowing that some God-fearers were members of the Pauline communities suggests that they provide at least some evidence for membership from the upper strata in the Pauline communities.

Indeed, most scholars agree that the Pauline communities contained a relatively well represented cross section of society. Stegemann writes that, “the predominant opinion seems to be that men and women from all strata of the population became believers and, indeed, that in principle the members of the urban elite played a dominant role.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 288) Meeks agrees, writing that “The extreme top and bottom of the Greco-Roman social scale are missing from the picture… The levels in between, however, are well represented.” (Meeks 73) Similarly Stegemann writes of the lower class that, “The poorest of the poor, the peasants, the rural slaves, and the day laborers hired for agriculture apparently were not found in the urban environment of the Pauline communities.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 292) And of the upper class that, “some members of the Pauline communities were possibly relatively prosperous and perhaps belonged to the group of the rich of their city. Nonetheless, they lack the decisive signs of status of the upper stratum.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 296) While there were members of the community from the upper strata, they were likely retainers. Most agree that the overwhelming majority of the communities were from the lower stratum. Meeks characterizes the typical Christian as a free artesian or a small trader. (Meeks 73) Worth noting, however, is that although those members from the upper strata were few, they seem to have been the dominant few of the congregation. Theissen writes that, “These representatives of the upper classes were a minority within the congregation, but apparently a dominant minority.” (Theissen 73)

This diversity within the Pauline community leads to an internal stratification. Theissen argues that, “the Corinthian congregation is marked by internal stratification. The majority of the members, who come from the lower classes, stand in contrast to a few influential members who come from the upper classes.” (Theissen 69) Similarly, Walters argues that “the considerable conflict within the Christian community at Corinth was related to the varying status levels of its members.” (Walters 397) Both authors argue that this internal stratification, which is enabled by the particular urban environment of Corinth, is the cause of nearly all conflicts within the Corinthian community. Craig Steven De Vos is quoted in Walters as noting that, “’a strong pattern of cross-cutting ties’ resulting from interactions between persons of various social strata in Corinth would have resulted in less conflict between Christians and outsiders, but more conflict between insiders.” (Walters 413) The permissiveness of the Corinthian urban environment and the “freedom” of the Gospel advocated by Paul not only allowed for a variety of individuals to identify themselves as followers if Christ, but also brought together a group of individuals which would not normally maintain social ties. These abnormal social relationships manifested themselves in the conflicts within the Pauline community at Corinth. This internal conflict and disunity is considered by many the primary purpose of 1st Corinthians and is embodied in 1st Corinthians 1:10, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

The “freedom” of the Gospel, which abandoned the idea of Greek, Gentile, Jew, male or female, began to remove social boundaries for the sake of unity within the group. Circumcision, for example, serves as both a powerful unifier for the Jewish community, and a powerful divider between the Jews and the Gentiles. Circumcision was identified as one stumbling block for many of the God-fearers to become proselytes. Paul is innovative in his removal of the requirement for believers to be circumcised. (Meeks 176) While this served to welcome the God-fearers into the community, it also served to remove a differentiating factor between the Pauline community and the general society. Additionally the common meals celebrated between Christians reflect a significant lifting of social boundaries. Stegemann writes that “Jews and non-Jews in these communities programmatically realized an unrestricted – though in part controversial – social interaction.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 251) In particular the common meals of the ekklēsia, “reflect a comprehensive lifting of the boundaries of social intercourse.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 270) Theissen warns that this, “relativizing the Law… was bound to relativize the distinction between Gentile and Jew, since the boundaries of the Law were also the boundaries of Judaism.” (Theissen 35) Without arguing the validity of this relativizing of the law, one can suggest that the Christian community cannot expect to maintain the same boundaries and group distinction as Judaism.

Paul therefore not only removed boundaries within the group; he began to relativize the external boundaries of the group. Additionally, Meeks argues that Paul is rather ambiguous about relationships outside of the Christian community, as well as a number of other issues. He writes, “The effect of the argument [in 1st Corinthians 10:1-22] is to leave the issue of the Christian group’s boundaries somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, social intercourse with outsiders is not discouraged. The mere act of eating meat is desacralized in order to remove a taboo that would prevent such intercourse. It is thus not idolatry. On the other hand, any activity that would imply actual participation in another cult is strictly prohibited.” (Meeks 100) This resulted in what many argue are fuzzy boundaries for the Corinthian community. Such boundary problems only serve to compound the already a group already stricken with internal conflict.

Meeks refers to the need for social boundaries for the continuance of a social organization, “in order to persist, a social organization must have boundaries, must maintain structural stability as well as flexibility, and must create a unique culture.” (Meeks 84) He writes that this was part of the Jewish identity and that, “Jews knew that their very identity depended upon their maintaining some distinct boundaries between themselves and ‘the nations.’” (Meeks 36) In addition, these boundaries, he suggests, is one factor that provides cohesion within the group itself, a much needed cohesion for the diverse group in Corinth.

Just as the internal stratification made significant contributions to the conflicts in Corinth, the lack of group boundaries also contributed to these conflicts. Adams proposes that “the majority of the problems in the church… reflect the Corinthian church’s weak boundaries.” (Adams 85) The weak boundaries, and failure of boundary maintenance can be categorized in one of two ways, “conformity to the normal social practices and activities of the wider community; or, commitment to the ideals and beliefs of the dominant culture.” (Adams 88) Adams ties this concern with group boundaries directly to the internal cohesiveness of the group stating that, “Paul’s desire for group solidarity in the Corinthian church comports with his concern for group boundaries since the one is the concomitant of the other.” (Adams 99)

It would be irresponsible to simply assume that Paul sought a group as sharply defined as Judaism, or as closed off as many social groups. What was Paul’s idea of a community? Did Paul envision a community that maintained external social boundaries, or did he envision a more welcoming community where there “is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Was this to be a universal declaration, defining relationships between the Church and society, or a declaration to the social interactions within the Church? Through the arguments of these same authors, we will attempt to define how Paul attempts to construct a social group for the Corinthian believers through the language and metaphors used in 1st Corinthians. We will later see how these, internal stratification and social boundaries, were the underlying problems in the conflict over the Lord’s Supper and how Paul seeks to resolve that particular conflict.

First we know that Paul’s use of the word ekklēsia assumes and requires the regular meeting of a body of believers. Robert Banks discusses the use of the term “ekklēsia” in Romans and in 1st Corinthians to analyze what groups Paul refers to as the “church” in comparison to the groups he does not define as a “church.” For example, Paul addressees are referred to as either “the church” or “the churches” in 1st Corinthians 16:1, 16:19, 14:33, 11:18; Romans 16:4. In other instances, such as the four groups mentioned in Romans 16:10-11 and 14-16, Paul refers to groups as “those who belong to…” and in the case of 1st Corinthians 1:11 “Chloe’s people.” While these refer to small groups of people, Paul refers to the Corinthian body in 1st Corinthians 14:23 as “the whole church” while he refers to the believers in Rome in Romans 1:7 as “all God’s beloved in Rome.” From Paul’s selective usage of the term Ekklēsia to describe only certain groups, Banks arrives at several conclusions about Paul’s understanding of the Ekklēsia. First, “ekklēsia cannot refer to a group of people scattered throughout a locality unless they all actually gather together.” (Banks 34) He provides as evidence the Roman and Corinth groups. Although the Corinth group may have regular meetings in smaller groups throughout the city, the act of coming together as a unit allows Paul to refer to the entire body of believers at Corinth as the ekklēsia. In contrast, the smaller groups in Rome meeting together may themselves be an ekklēsia, however the group as a whole, due to the lack of meetings, was not the ekklēsia, but “God’s beloved.” Banks concludes that “the term ekklēsia consistently refers to actual gatherings of Christians as such… the word does not describe all the Christians who live in a particular locality if they do not gather. Nor does it refer to the sum total of Christians in a region or scattered throughout the world at any particular time.” (Banks 35) While the theological understanding of the “Church” may have expanded since to include the idea of a “Worldwide Church” or the “Catholic Church” that include members who have never met, Banks makes it clear that at the time of Paul’s early writings, the Ekklēsia referred to a group of people in the practice of meeting regularly.

Seconly, Paul envisions the Ekklēsia as an active and participatory group. This occurs through Paul’s emphasis of interdependence upon one another. He stresses participation through his belief that all members have a gift of service to the church, and that all of these gifts serve together with equal importance. Finally, he models authority of following the Gospel, not following a leader. This leaves the ekklēsia to be an interdependent, participatory body with its own active leadership. Banks argues that Paul advocates a freedom that consists of independence, dependence and interdependence. In particular an interdependence “with others, since liberty leads to service and can only be practically defined in relation to their needs” (Banks 25) Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in 1st Corinthians 12:12-31 also emphasizes an interdependence of spiritual gifts, and the value of each member’s gift, which serves to emphasize the participatory nature of the church. Banks interprets this passage saying that, “Since all have something to give, there are no mere spectators in church but only active participants.” (Banks 109) Finally, Paul’s leadership is not one of authority, but one of example. Paul refers to his authority as one of “love in a spirit of gentleness” (1st Corinthians 4:21) and “for building you up and not for tearing you down.” (2nd Corinthians 10:8). Banks writes that “Paul exercises authority among his communities by persuading them to accept his point of view” (Banks 180) and that he is “asking for obedience not to himself so much as to the gospel.” (Banks 182) The ekklēsia to which members are called is not one for following a charismatic leader, or an outspoken minority, although the members of the upper strata seem to have taken a minority leadership role (Theissen 73), and Paul is likely attempting to confront this problem in 1st Corinthians 12.

Thirdly, Paul refers to the group of believers as being “called out” from the Gentiles and “into” Christ. Their salvation then is into a new community, and although the believers might not form the ekklēsia without meeting together, they do form a union in Christ. Stegemann writes that Paul conceives of the ekklēsia as, “its own eschatological community called out from the Gentiles.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 252) For Paul, “salvation” is bound together with his idea for community. Banks essentially describes a critical part of salvation as a change from one community to another. He writes that, “Prior to their encounter with Christ people belong to a community, however much their actions incline them to pursue their own self-interest. And it is into a new community that their reconciliation with God in Christ brings them.” (Banks 17) Banks goes on to say that the phrase “in Christ” is used by Paul 164 times and often found describing an individual Christian. This term is used to form a bond between Christians who may not be in contact, or as a reminder of the community bond outside of the ekklēsia meeting. Banks writes that, “Individuals are in relationship with Christ even when they are not ‘in Church.’” (Banks 38-39) Helmut Koester also reminds us that this joining of a new community is the central motive and understanding of Baptism for Paul. He writes that, “Paul’s foremost concern is to build the new community of believers, the ekklēsia, which is the body of Christ. Baptism is not a mystery rite but the incorporation of an individual into that body (1st Corinthians 12:12-13). It is an act that has definite social consequences.” (Koester 347-348) Paul clearly sees a clear boundary between those in the body of Christ, and those outside of the body of Christ. Paul envisions salvation as not only a spiritual act, but also an act of changing communities. For Paul, becoming a Christian was not simply joining another voluntary association, but redefining one’s life and becoming a full, complete, committed member of a new community.

This community is not simply a social group, but also a political group. Richard Horsley argues that the Pauline community in Corinth had a very strong political element through Paul’s presentation of Christ, prohibition form using civil courts, and the use of the body metaphor. First, Horsley argues that Paul has borrowed a significant amount of terminology from the Roman imperial cult. This borrowing of terms is not simply for convenience, but “Paul rather uses these terms to present Jesus Christ as the lord and savior who has displaced Caesar as lord and savior. Paul himself proclaims the gospel of Christ in such a way that it stand diametrically opposed to the rule of Caesar.” (Horsley 386) Horsley goes on to argue that this is presented most clearly in his recount of the crucifixion in 1st Corinthians 1-4 where Paul states that the “rulers of this age” (1st Corinthians 2:6,8) will be brought to imminent judgment. Paul’s prohibition of the use of civil courts in 1st Corinthians 6:1-11 may be the strongest indication, writes Horsley, that Paul things of the assembly as an alternative society “already living in the new age while anticipating its full blossoming in the near future.” (Horsley 388) The use of the “body” metaphor was strongly political. Banks also recognizes that the typical use of the body metaphor was to refer to one’s civil duties (Banks 66), although he misses the strong political implications in Paul co-opting this terminology in describing the assembly at Corinth. Horsley writes that the climax of Paul’s argument is in 10:14-22, where the climax is, “In the political (not ‘sacramental’) realism of this climactic step in the argument, he insists that it is impossible for members of the assembly to share in the (‘bodily’) solidarity (koinōnia) of the body and blood of Christ and also in that of other gods, demons, or lords! As is evident again later in 1st Corinthians 12, ‘body’ was a standing political metaphor for the ‘body politic’ of a Greek or Roman polis/civis.(Horsley 391) He continues to clarify Paul’s intentions writing that, “Paul was prohibiting the members of his assembly from participating in the fundamental forms of sociopolitical relations in Corinthian and Roman imperial society. His ekklēsia was to constitute an alternative society.” (Horsley 391-392) While the body metaphor is used to emphasize the unity of the assembly, the equality and necessary participation of all members, it must also be understood in comparison to the “body” of civil duties. Such language has strong political implications when Paul talks about a duty to the body of Christ, rather than a civil duty. An understanding of Paul’s idea of the ekklēsia must see the ekklēsia as a group that is not simply an association with political implications, but one that is nearing that of a new society.

Paul sees the Ekklēsia not only as a group meeting together, a group called out from society, forming unity in the Body of Christ, or a political movement, but as an alternative society. Paul’s cosmological language in 1st Corinthians draws a distinction between the Christian community and larger society, and he seeks to define, or construct, an alternative world for the believers at Corinth. This is the fundamental point argued by Edward Adams and his analysis of Paul’s use of χόσμος in 1st Corinthians and Romans. While Paul’s usage of this term differs in 1st Corinthians and Romans due to the polemical purpose of each letter, Adams argues that Paul uses χόσμος in 1st Corinthians primarily in a negative sense, defamiliarizing it from the standard Greek usage in order to emphasize a dualism in this world and that to come and construct an alternative society for the Corinthian believers.

The typical beliefs and associations with the Greek usage of χόσμος were positive. Adams writes that the word was typically associated with, “order, orderliness, regularity, stability, cohesion, continuity, harmony, fitness, beauty and integration” (Adams 80) and was positively looked upon in the Greco-Roman culture. In short, it encoded a particular worldview that presented the world as an object of praise and admiration. (Adams 80) A similar understanding would have existed within the Corinthian community. Adams writes that, “the Corinthian strong (whose position seems to be the dominant ethos of the church) viewed the χόσμος as a positively valued ordered unity, entirely free of malignant forces and devoid of corrupting influences, flowing from God, governed and directed by him.” (Adams 101) This would have stood in stark contrast to the view and beliefs of χόσμος presented by Paul in 1st Corinthians, where are overwhelmingly negative.

Adams presents three features of Paul’s use of χόσμος in 1st Corinthians. First, almost half of Paul’s use of this world in his undisputed letters appears in 1st Corinthians. Second, it is almost always used in a negative way. Thirdly, there is a fairly constant comparison between the χόσμος and the church. (Adams 105) The usage of χόσμος in 1st Corinthians is almost exclusively in chapters 1 through 8 and is mostly used in an apocalyptic sense, which would have been a significant departure from the Greek beliefs and understandings of the word. The term is mostly placed in a dualism between the χόσμος and the church, or between the wisdom of “the world” and word of the cross. (1st Corinthians 1:20-21) Adams writes that, “by discrediting the χόσμος Paul thus undermines what may well have been one of the main theoretical bases for their society-conforming style of faith” (Adams 113) and that “Paul, therefore, utilizes χόσμος negatively in this context to press the distinction between the church and the wider society and to construct for his readers an alternative social world and symbolic universe.” (Adams 114) For Paul, this χόσμος is not something to be reformed, but destroyed. His purpose in this process of defamiliarizing the world is to encourage a particular response in the Corinthians to the world surrounding them. A response that would result in increased unity within the body. “He uses χόσμος to try to build strong group boundaries and to construct a social world distinct from the larger society, embracing alternative forms of sociality, patterns of living and community ideals.” (Adams 149)

However much Paul might seek to help the Corinthians distinguish themselves from the “world”, he does not advocate a separation from the world. Adams writes that, “In agreeing that one cannot leave the χόσμος, Paul is not in any way softening his stress on the social and ideological boundaries of the church. He is merely indicating that his concern for the boundaries of the Corinthian church does not extend to a desire for the congregation’s complete separation from the rest of society.” (Adams 125) Similarly, Horsley points out that, “The life of those who have formed the community of the new age in Corinth are no longer really part of ‘the world,’ although they are still living in it.” (Horsley 390) While Paul is clearly advocating for the believers in Corinth to strengthen their boundaries, he is not calling for them to withdraw from their surroundings. He is calling for a well defined group, which has its own identity and solidarity, yet allows for members to continue interacting with society. Paul seeks to help the group of believers draw a distinction and understand themselves apart from the larger society, without constructing barriers preventing others from entering that group. The Ekklēsia is a living body, with active participation and participatory leadership. The Ekklēsia is a body with political consequences and part of God’s redeemed world. It would be irresponsible to suggest that Paul did not seek to define boundaries for the body of believers; however one can say that he did not seek to construct entrance barriers. Paul sought to form a group defined by the crucifix. Paul largely seeks to accomplish this by focusing not on the difference in people, but between all people and God. (Banks 110) He seeks a community defined by their redemption that stands in stark contrast to the condemned χόσμος. This accomplishes the task of emphasizing internal cohesion by minimizing their differences, and constructing a group boundary by emphasizing the difference between those inside the group, and outside of the group.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he responds to a number of issues, and from this response we have learned much about his view of the ekklēsia, its boundaries, and its internal structure. The previous overview of the Corinthian community will be used as a framework a brief analysis of 1st Corinthians 11:17-24. This particular passage will be used to highlight how some of these internal stratifications, and failed boundaries manifested themselves in a particular conflict in Corinth. We will then analyze Paul’s response to this conflict to further understand his view of the ekklēsia.

The conflict over the Common Meal described in 1st Corinthians 11:17-24 is a conflict that was likely caused by those individuals associated with the “strong” group. We know this for a few reasons. First, we know that this conflict came to Paul by word of mouth, or by another letter, but not through the letter sent to Paul by the Corinthians to which he refers in 1st Corinthians 1:11. Paul states in 11:18, “I hear that there are divisions among you…” which contrasts in comparison to 1:11 where he refers to the letter he received by stating “Chloe’s people report to me…” While there are a number of possible interpretations, most assume that the cause of conflict was the consumption of meat at the Common Meal by some and not by others. From this we can make the likely exclusion of anyone from the lower strata causing conflict by bringing or providing meat for the meal. Stegemann writes that meat was essentially unavailable for the lower strata, and that their meals were mostly bread, olive oil, and occasionally vegetables and eggs. (Stegemann and Stegemann 93) We also know that any meat the poor would have eaten would have been at public feasts, sacrifices, or other civil religious ceremonies. There were therefore dependent upon the meals in the Christian community as a substitute. Meeks writes that, “For many members, especially those of the humbler social strata, the Christian assemblies and meals provided a more than adequate substitute for benefits, both physical and social, that they might otherwise have obtained from membership in collegia of various sorts or from the various municipal festivals.” (Meeks 104) Therefore if meat, or any additional food, is assumed to be a part of the conflict in 1st Corinthians 11:17-24, then it must be assumed that the strong were the major participants, or the cause of this conflict. Additionally Paul’s response itself provides evidence for this as his reply is directed towards the strong.

This assumes that the group identified as the “strong” is also the wealthier Christians, which some argue is not necessarily true. Stegemann suggests that while the conflict is likely related to different social standings, this could occur within the differentiated social situation within the lower class, essentially making it a conflict between the poor and the poorer. (Stegemann and Stegemann 295) Meeks, on the other hand, concludes that the “strong” and the “weak” are from significantly different social strata, and the divisions referenced in 11:18 are primarily between the rich and the poor. (Meeks 70, 159) Meeks finds agreement with Theissen who concludes that the conflict is basically one between the rich and the poor. (Meeks 151) Theissen goes on to state that if this is the case, the rich probably do not feel guilty since, as the benefactors of the meal, the considered themselves generous in providing a meal to the poorer Christians. (Theissen 162) Theissen also suggests a relationship between the conflict in 11:18 and that in 10:14-22, and states that in both instances the conflict is whether there Lord’s Supper is compatible with another meal. (Theissen 159) Based on that possible connection, one could also apply Theissen’s interpretation of the “weak” and the “strong” conflict in 10:14-22. He proposes that the “weak” could either be a gentile Christian who used to eat consecrated meat and developed a guilty conscious, or a Jewish Christian who had always avoided such meat and exercised this new freedom but with a bad conscious. (Theissen 124) Critical to Stegemann’s interpretation, is that they also conclude that the Corinthian community is comprised mostly from the lower strata (including Paul himself), and therefore the disagreement in 11:18 must therefore occur within the lower strata since, in Stegemanns’ viewpoint the entire population is comprised of members from the lower strata. The majority of scholars, however, agree that the Corinthian community includes members from different social situations. Therefore the logical conclusion is that the conflict in 11:18 deals with members of significantly different social situations.

Paul’s response to the conflict has one purpose: to enhance internal cohesion and unity within the assembly. Quoting Margaret Mitchell, Walters suggests that this is the central topic of all of 1st Corinthians, whose main thesis is presented in verse 1:10 where Paul appeals “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you.” In Meek’s opinion the Lord’s Supper was used both to promote the unity of the group and protect its social boundaries. (Meeks 160) The problem in Corinth is that the Lord’s Supper has brought forth conflict, “Instead of the ‘unity’ of the members as the (‘mystical’) body of Christ, the assemblies produced divisions (1 Cor 11:18), and the social differences between church members were apparently manifested in the table fellowship itself.” (Stegemann and Stegemann 283) Recognizing that the primary importance of the Lord’s Supper for Paul is the unity of the assembly, and that the primary purpose of 1st Corinthians is the unity of the assembly, Paul’s response must be interpreted as such. James Dunn also concludes that what Paul had in view in chapters 10 and 11 was primarily the social cohesiveness of the group rather than a theological dispute. (Dunn 611)

There are at least four possible interpretations of the problems in 1st Corinthians 1:18. James Dunn proposes a situation where the conflict arises due to some coming early and eating before others arrived (1st Corinthians 11:21.) Dunn explains that furthermore there may not have been sufficient room in the main dining area for the latecomers, who may have therefore been relegated to a different area. This could occur due to the Greco-Roman tradition of serving dinners with a “first” and “second” table with a break between the two. In this situation there would be a first table where several courses are served followed by a break. Often a number of guests would arrive for the second table, the “symposium” where there would be additional food and drinks served. Dunn suggests then that, “Possibly… the problems in the Corinthian church were caused by richer Christians maintaining the practice of the first table and treating the Lord’s Supper as the second table alone.” (Dunn 610)

Theissen suggests three possible interpretations to the conflict over the Lord’s Supper. First is the suggestion that the conflict is a conflict of different groups at the Lord’s Supper. In this interpretation, the richer minority provided the food for the Lord’s Supper. The words of institution then are used to convert this private possession into a community one. This also resulted in a conflict as, “The [the rich] took part in the congregational meal which they themselves had made possible, but they did so by themselves – possibly even separated from the others and at their own table.” (Theissen 151)

The second possible interpretation suggested by Theissen is one of variable beginnings for the meal. Verses 33 and 21 both suggest that there are problems with regulating the beginning of the Lord’s Supper. Theissen clarifies that the words of institution are only spoken over the bread and the wine, at which point those private possessions are extended to the congregation. Until the words of institution, however, all food items are private possessions and private meals. The problem in Corinth could be a problem with regulating the beginning of the service of worship, and therefore the words of institution, effectively allowing for private meals prior to the communal meal. Theissen therefore concludes that, “the wealthy Christians not only ate separately that food which they themselves had provided, but it appears that they began doing so before the commencement of the congregational meal.” (Theissen 153)

The third interpretation is that the conflict is due to differing amounts of food and drink being served. In this case those who are wealthier would get a larger portion of food than others. Theissen states that this interpretation does not make sense, however, based on Paul’s response in 11:21. The final suggested cause of the conflict is a serving of meals of different qualities at the Lord’s Supper. In this scenario some Christians may have not been satisfied with only bread and wine, and therefore brought additional food. The problem, however, is that Paul cannot simply demand this be shared with the rest of the congregation, as the words of institution only provide for the sharing of bread and wine. It also would not be unusual for most of the Corinthians for people of various social statuses to be served food of varying quality. Meeks provides such an example, “If at the common meals of the Christian community, held in his [Gaius] dining room, he moreover made distinctions in the food he provided for those of his own social level and those who were of lower rank, that would not have been at all out of the ordinary.” (Meeks 68) This is also related to the lack of a clear starting point of the Lord’s Supper, which effectively allows for a private meal before the words of institution. Since the words of institution do not allow for converting additional food into the common meal, Paul must propose another solution. Therefore, the suggestion must be for the church members to eat this meal in the privacy of their own home, for the sake of the unity of the assembly.

Regardless of the interpretation, the conflict over the Lord’s Supper was due to a practice of the Corinthians which emphasized the difference between the members of the assembly, rather than united them. Paul’s response is one that allows for some differences in the meal, without bringing these differences into the community. Theissen writes that, “Within their own four walls they are to behave according to the norms of their social class, while at the Lord’s Supper the norms of the congregation have absolute priority.” (Theissen 164) What is interesting in Paul’s response is that he seems to have a slightly different view of the ekklēsia and private property that that of Luke presented in Acts 2:44 where we read that the Church had, “all things in common.” While Paul’s response is not always favorable to the “strong” one cannot overlook that Paul does not reprimand the excess of the strong, but only reprimands this public demonstration which causes divisions within the community.

1st Corinthians 11:17-28 provides a clear demonstration of a lack of internal cohesiveness within the Corinthian community. This conflict also demonstrates the failure of many of believers to distinguish themselves from the beliefs of the community. The unique situation of Corinth generated a community of believers comprising a representative cross section of society, and relative acceptance within the community. These two factors made for relatively more conflict within the community than outside of the community. In comparison other groups of beliefs faced increased scrutiny and persecution, such as that in Thessalonica, causing the diverse group to unite to strengthen the internal bonds in order to maintain strong external boundaries. In the writing of 1st Corinthians Paul seeks increase unity within the group by defining social boundaries for the group, and define a worldview that contrasts the Church from the world, and constructs the Church as an alternate society. Did Paul accomplish his task of increasing unity in Corinth? Theissen writes that in 2nd Corinthians ironically, “almost all the Corinthians now seem united in a position opposing Paul.” (Theissen 57) One cannot help to find some truth in what Walters suggests of Corinthians that, “it may be appropriate to read Paul’s Corinthian correspondence as a commentary on the faultier of Paul’s mission to produce house churches with stable boundaries when there was not sufficient external pressure to reinforce them.” (Walters 417)

The believers at Corinth had failed to maintain sufficient boundaries with wider society. In 1st Corinthians 11:17-28 we also see that many members of the community continued social practices of the wider society at the common meal, which served to highlight the internal stratification. The common meal therefore proved a point of division, rather than unity, within the Corinthian assembly. Paul has demonstrated through first Corinthians the failure of this initial group of believers to sufficiently distinguish themselves from the wider community within the unique context of Corinth where the social conditions allowed for more internal conflict than external. In the face of such conflict, Paul may use strong language, but continues his leadership style. He also does not appear to provide any clear-cut instructions to the Corinthians, but reprimands their actions which prove to be divisive. In Paul’s usage of χόσμος it seems that Paul recognizes the need for strengthened group boundaries in order to strengthen group cohesiveness. While external pressures may serve to increase the cohesiveness of the church, Paul seeks to internally resolve the issue through the construction of a virtual division between those who are part of the redeemed community and the condemned χόσμος.


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