It is of interest to note that on one hand, this Corinthian church is remembering Paul and maintaining the traditions that he had passed on to them, but on the other hand and in many ways, they had become completely dismissive of that which Paul passed on to them as coming from Jesus Himself. Thus, no praise from Paul when it comes to their practice of the early church tradition of the table of the Lord.
Continuing to move forward, and considering what is happening within this church, it is paramount to keep in mind that the culture possessed strong, dividing, separating, stratifying societal forces that were in existence and readily demonstrated at the meal tables of the ancient world. Because of the language that is in use, when great pains are taken to understand and reflect upon the importance of meals in that time, it becomes possible to identify the fact that Paul is communicating in the context of problems centered on meal practice. It is with this in mind that Paul can be heard saying “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” (1 Corinthians 11:17b-18).
Paul is not speaking into a vacuum. This body of believers that meets regularly around the meal table as a central feature of their gathering is going to know about their own divisions, and they are going to know where those divisions are most clearly able to be seen. This letter, which would have been read out loud to the congregation in one sitting, has already made mention of “jealousy and dissension” (3:3), and beyond the eleventh chapter---quite noticeably in chapter twelve---Paul is going to address further divisions that have sprung up in connection with the ongoing honor competition. Because those divisions come on the heels of what he is communicating in the eleventh chapter that is going to be clearly situated within church meal practice, and because the congregation is going to hear these words in short order (with no private reading and no artificial chapter and verse divisions), they actually play into the divisions that Paul is referencing in the eleventh chapter.
Returning to the nineteenth verse, Paul is found to have written: “For there must in fact be divisions among you, so that those of you who are approved may be evident” (11:19). This is a rhetorical exercise (part of the basic education process of the Greco-Roman world), and the use of rhetoric is commonly employed by Paul. He is not saying “there must be divisions so that we can know, and know correctly, who among you is truly saved and approved by our God.” Such a thought would move the analysis in the wrong direction. Rather, he is being critical of their divisions and of the steps that are taken to highlight or to make quite evident who it is that can be identified as those who are “approved.”
Because he goes on to write “Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper” (11:20a), it can be noted that Paul is indeed addressing divisions and those who are “approved” in the context of the church’s meal table (their celebration of the Lord’s Supper/communion). This talk of the “approved,” which is directed to a people steeped in the honor and shame culture and the social stratification associated with it, seems to be a clear reference to the honored guests and the chief seats of the world’s banqueting tables. Realizing this opens up a whole new world of understanding.