Throughout this first letter to Corinth, Paul’s concern is with the body and its unity, and he adamantly opposes anything that might throw that body into disharmony, divisiveness, or stratifications along customary lines in a way that would decrease the witness and the societal and cultural and global effect of the body of Christ.
While continuing to link the act of eloquent speech with other speech acts performed amongst the gathered church, one must also continue to consider this issue of divisions with the church. Though the divisions are obvious when Paul is mentioning the factions that are aligned with various teachers or apostles, they don’t quite come to the fore unless one is attuned to the cultural situation. Divisions or stratifications, as would have been common within the variety of voluntary meal-table-based associations in Corinth, were based largely on wealth and social status, which were linked with one’s honor standing. This can be seen quite readily with Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper.
An unfortunate reality of the Corinthians fellowship at the meals that were held in remembrance of 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 (think of the socially upending story of Jesus turning the water into wine for an excellent example from the Jesus tradition). As evidenced by what can be viewed in the eleventh chapter, this situation was very much occurring in the Corinthian church.
In that chapter 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 knowledge of the culture, with a very basic awareness of associations and their meal practices, one notes that the divisions here mentioned go beyond alignment with a particular individual, and that they are reflective of standard practice.
Additionally, an observer is now 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. With this in mind 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).