Privilege in the Corinthian Church

Privilege in the Corinthian Church June 20, 2015

We discussed 1 Corinthians 11 in my Sunday school class recently. I shared the well-known details that churches met in homes, and the argument that what is in the background to this passage was the custom of people sitting (or rather reclining) at meals to be separated along socioeconomic lines.

The interesting suggestion was put forward that, in addition to such things, the very timing of the meal might have been an issue. The wealthy host and his or her friends might have the luxury to meet at a particular time for a meal, while ordinary people might still have been working. And so, by the time the latter arrived, the former might well have already made significant progress in eating the food and drinking the wine that was available.

That suggestion fits wording in the text quite well. And it makes the text relevant to an important topic in our time: unexamined and unrecognized privilege.

Has anyone else made or come across this suggestion before, that the timing of the meal might have led to a separation between the wealthy and the poor in the Christian gatherings in Corinth?



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  • Mark

    Kennett Bailey includes this in his discussion of 1 Corinthians in “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes”.

    • Thanks for letting me know – Bailey’s book is on my shelf of things to read and blog about, and it has taken me much longer to get to it than I intended!

  • Anthony Lawson

    This idea crossed my mind as well many years ago while studying the topics of “house church” and communion as full meals rather than the symbolic ones of a small piece of cracker and a thimble full of wine (or grape juice).

  • Robert

    I think you have to be right about the timing; some people arrived late, and went without, while the people organising the meal (presumably the host and his family) had been stuffing themselves meanwhile. As I understand it, reclining was an upper-class custom; they had rooms big enough to indulge, while lesser householders sat upright like we do, and ate off tables.

    • Jon-Michael Ivey

      Members of the upper classes sat upright to eat breakfast and lunch (both of which commonly consisted of leftovers from the previous dinner) Dinner was the only formal meal where the guests reclined, and was generally only so formal for those with at least a modest amount of wealth.

      In antiquity there was a strong taboo against dining together with those of a different socio-economic status. The whole scheme was reversed during the holiday of Saturnalia (when masters and slaves might pretend to be equal or pretend that their roles were reversed), but generally the wealthy host and guests dined while slaves served them.

      It was not unheard of for a master to invite one of his most favored slaves to dine with him as a guest, but only to celebrate his decision to free that slave. This norm was so entrenched in Roman society that a slave who was publicly invited to dine with his master but then never manumitted could take his master to court to sue for his freedom. If the guests called as witnesses testified hat the master had invited the slave to dine with him, the court would take that as equivalent to them witnessing a verbal contract to free the slave.

      When I learned about that custom in my Latin class back during high school, the Eucharist quickly came to mind. I never read about any cases where it actually happened, but it sure sounds like a Christian master who owned Christian slaves and celebrated the Lord’s Supper together with them could be legally forced to free them.

  • Doug

    I haven’t got a copy to hand to check, but doesn’t Theissen mention it as far back as his Social Setting …?


    “Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord… For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself… FOR THIS CAUSE many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep [have died]… For… we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord.” 1 Cor 11:27-32

    Paul claimed that illnesses and deaths of many in that church were due to God’s “judgment.” Sounds like a more fanatical interpretation than most ministers would be willing to employ today, instead they would be more likely to check on the sanitation of objects used for sharing the Lord’s supper. It also makes one wonder how Paul might have reacted if many at a church picnic began heaving up egg salad that had gone bad, would Paul claim God was judging them? What if children attended the same religious day care or Sunday school classes and illnesses began to spread among them? Another chastening from the deity? Paul implanted in people’s minds that bad things happened because God was punishing believers for not falling in line with the one true belief system, i.e., Paul’s. But that’s how religious fanaticism tends to work.

    For more evidence of Paul’s fanaticism see


  • Bethany

    I have, though I can’t remember where I read it off the top of my head.

    IIRC After Paul Left Corinth had extensive interpretation of 1 Corinthians as Paul’s reaction to issues of privilege within the church.

  • Chris Spinks

    Dale Martin touches on this in his freely available classroom lectures ( and in The Corinthian Body (I think). He points to Gerd Theissen’s series of articles from the 70s and 80s, where Theissen seems to have made the same argument. From the online lecture, “Imagine what you have is a potluck like this. If you’re fairly well off you can show up at, say, five o’clock. I’m going to show up at five o’clock with my buds, we’re going to have a little drink before dinner, brought a bottle wine, and then the other people will show up when they can when they get off work. Well, when you get off work, if you’re a laboring person or a slave in the ancient world, and slaves didn’t work at regular jobs so they would follow a work day. You got off work at sundown. If you’re a working person or especially a slave you can’t go to the church service until the sun is down. By that time, apparently some of the better off people have already been there, and Paul seems to say they’re already drinking and eating, and having a good time before the rest of the people even show up.”