Though the divisions within the Corinthian church are obvious when we have Paul mentioning the factions that are aligned with various teachers or apostles (I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas), they don’t quite come to the fore unless we are attuned to the cultural situation. Divisions, or stratifications, as would have been common within the variety of voluntary associations in Corinth, were based largely on wealthy and social status, which were linked with one’s honor standing. We can actually see this quite readily with Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper, with the criticisms that are leveled at the wealthier members of the community of believers.
An unfortunate reality of the Corinthians fellowship at the meals that were held in remembrance of the Jesus (the Lord’s Supper), was that they were conducted in much the same manner as the meals of other associations that would also include a commemoration or honoring of their object of worship. The make-up of the church in Corinth would have ranged the entirety of the socioeconomic scale, reflecting the constitution of the city at large. The meals of the associations, which existed for a variety of reasons, would have been divided and stratified based on social and economic status. Those with wealth and honor would eat the best food and wine, being served first, whereas those with lesser means, traveling down the socioeconomic scale and the honor roll, would eat food and wine of much lower quality, or perhaps none at all (we can think of the story of Jesus turning the water into wine for an excellent example from the Jesus tradition). As evidenced by what can be seen in the eleventh chapter, this was very much occurring in the Corinthian church.
There, Paul writes “Now in giving you the following instruction I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. For in the first place, when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident” (11:17-19). Based on a very basic knowledge of the culture, with an awareness of associations and their meal practices, we can see that the divisions here mentioned go beyond alignment with a particular individual, and that they are reflective of standard practice. Also, we have to be clued in to the fact that those who are “approved” are those with honor---those who have status in, and the respect of the community-at-large, though this should have no bearing on their standing in the church. Paul continues: “Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk. Do you have not have houses so that you can eat and drink? Or are you trying to show contempt for the church of God by shaming those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I will not praise you for this” (11:20-22).
The language of honor and shame should heavily influence our reading of these passages. Also, we should take note that it is Paul’s treatment of the standard division-inducing practices that were common to their world, and of their being put on display at the Christian meal gathering that included an honoring of Jesus while also hearkening to His meal practices that were designed to show forth the messianic banquet that denoted the coming of God’s kingdom and rule. This, in a telling way, precedes Paul’s going on to deal with “spiritual gifts” (12:1). We should most definitely hear Paul, through his treatment of meal practice and his decrial of division and giving weight to those considered more honorable, forming the basis for what comes next in his letter. Also, though a review of it has no place here, we cannot underestimate the importance of the fact that the entire letter builds upon itself, and it has been very much building to this point in the letter.
If we pick up at the eleventh chapter, without considering all that comes before it, and attempt to make analogies or applications without a consideration of context, we’re going to miss the force of Paul’s critique and what follows. To be sure, he has dealt with a number of issues in getting to this point, but there is nothing that takes up more of his attention than the issue of spiritual gifts, and they take up a large measure of his attention within a letter directed to a church that is overly concerned with issues of honor and shame and are allowing that construct to dictate the functioning of the church. The “spiritual gifts” are the subject of chapters twelve, thirteen, and fourteen---the largest section of the letter by far. The practices of the church, and the way that honor was being assigned within the church loom large as we delve into chapter twelve.
The Corinthian congregation has been prepared for this special attunement by all that has been covered in the letter up to that point, especially so that Paul can be heard as doing more than offering a list of spiritual gifts in the first part of the chapter. We join the Corinthian believers at their meal gathering that has been stratified based on honor concerns, fully realizing the potential honor gathering opportunities linked to public speech acts, and hear Paul say “With regard to spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were often led astray by speechless idols, however you were led. So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is cursed,’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (12:1-2). Paul makes it clear that everyone, without exception, that refers to Jesus as Lord (a public speech act) is motivated by the Spirit of God. We can hear this as a leveling out of the church body. Regardless of the quantity or type of speech acts that Paul will go on to detail, the entire body of believers stands on equal footing, spiritually speaking and when it comes to honor---all have the Spirit of God operable within them---when they call Jesus “Lord.”