Edited Text of Pastor Ray’s message on February 16, 2014
“We’re A Classy Organization!” 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
What class are you? Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, Working Class, Lower? We even define an Underclass–people who are no longer connected to the normal support systems such as employment, housing and even public aid. According to a 2012 Gallup survey, a large majority of Americans define themselves as Middle Class. But Class in America is nebulous since it is a self-definition and self-perception in relationship to others. Besides, who wants to self-identify as “low class”? Often, class identity is related to levels of education, profession or job choice, ethnicity and race. But most often it is determined by wealth. Historically, Class and privilege go hand in hand. If you’ve seen the movie “Titanic”, you will remember the defined boundaries of class. One may go down the decks (if one so inexplicably chooses), but never up and there are locked gates to remind you of your class. The higher one’s class, the more rights and privileges one enjoys. The higher one’s class, the more access one has to participation in corporate life and all the benefits participation affords. The higher one’s class, the more power one has to set the rules for full participation.
In the US Constitution, we say that all men are created equal and that all men have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But equality has never been equally distributed. Initially, it was reserved for white males property owners. African Americans were 3/4 of a man. Women didn’t count. And it has taken long battles to expand the definition of equality. Less than 100 years ago, women finally got the right to vote, and women have come a long way (Baby!). But women still don’t have the economic security that men enjoy. Lass than 50 years ago, African Americans were included in the right to vote, but despite the election of an African American to the presidency, they continue to face economic and social marginalization. “Equality” has never been a given and class and economic status continue to determine where one lives, what job one does, where one shops, what one wears, what one eats, what kind of education one’s children receive and what one considers “possible” for the future. In a supposedly “equal” America, we have a very unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity which results in very unequal health, housing, education—virtually every aspect of life.
Class is not a new idea. According to James Jeffers, author of The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, Roman society was extremely stratified with very clear “class” lines that could not be crossed. You were born into a specific class of people and you likely died the same class. “The Romans evaluated a person’s status based on whether the person was a citizen or a foreigner, patron or client, free or slave, ethnic Roman/Latin or not, voluntary ally or conquered enemy, male or female, and married or unmarried” (p. 182).
In Rome, one literally wore their class. In high school, I took 2 years of Latin—don’t ask me why. In that class, I learned two things. First, I learned the phrase of Julius Caesar, “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” The second thing I learned was how to wear a toga—basically a sheet wrapped around the body that had to be held up by one arm. I had to wear one for a day to be initiated into “Latin Club.” It was quite embarrassing because if I didn’t hold it up exactly right, I could end up…um…bare assed. Besides learning to hold up my toga, I learned that only male citizens of Rome could wear a toga. (Women wore Stolas.) The toga identified one’s class. In addition, not all togas were created equal. Togas with 2 thin purple stripes down the sides (purple was the “power color” of the day) were reserved for the “equestrian class”. These were not horse owners, but men of “noble birth”. A wide purple stripe down the middle of the toga was reserved for the senatorial class—the ruling class. Class within a class. Upper middle, Lower middle…we understand the concept.
If you were not a citizen, you were likely a freedman—a former slave (and you got to wear a simple tunic–without colors. Freedmen could never become citizens and remained dependent upon a “Patron”—the head of the household. You were the “client”—basically hired help. You became a member of the household (which gave you some security—a place to live and some income). But in exchange for the security, the client lost all privileges and was under the control of the paterfamilias (the father of the household).
If you were not a freedman, you were likely a slave. The slave class had no rights whatsoever and was considered property. The best they could ever hope for was to be given their freedom so they could become a “freedman.” Unlike slavery in the US, it was not race based, and often took the form of indentured servitude.
Women were a subset in each class. In Rome, citizen women had the right to divorce their husbands, but not much else. It was a male-dominated society. In everything, pater potestas was the order of things—the power of the father. Even adult married men with children were under the power of their fathers or grandfathers until his death.
Benefits of being in the “toga” class included getting the best seats at shows, entitlement to bigger portions and better quality portions of food or wine than the lower classes, and greater access to courts and justice. Virtually all social interaction was shaped by this hierarchy of caste and class. For instance, if a patron had guests for dinner, it was common for guests of high class to be served more and better food and drink than others sitting at the table of less social standing. If you weren’t part of the “toga” class, you would likely be served the leftovers (or the crumbs) in a separate location after all the guests had been served to their fill. All this was as natural as breathing. It was the way the world worked. It was just accepted practice.
So let’s go to church in Corinth. The First Century church met in a home—probably the home of a patron. The church likely included everyone who was part of the household—the “clients” and the slaves–and the guests of the patron. The weekly “church service” probably included a meal that concluded with the Lord’s Supper. So far, no problem. But there is a problem in the church that has been reported to Paul. Not everyone was being given access to the meal! The social stratification that was so “normal” was shaping the practice of the church. When the Lord’s Supper was being served, the ‘haves’ were getting gorged and drunk and the “have nots” got the crumbs that were left on the plate.
While this way of behaving might have been “normal” in the culture of Corinth, for Paul it was completely unacceptable. His response, “What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!
Why is Paul so incensed by the behavior of the upper class? Because their behavior toward the poor is a complete mockery of the work of Jesus’s death remembered at the Lord’s table and of the new community God had created through the baptism of the Spirit. Paul reminds them in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. The Lord’s Supper was intended to demonstrate the unity of the church. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” (I Corinthians 10:17) The inequality being practiced in the assembly at Corinth during the Lord’s Supper was a denial of that unity. Whatever was “normal” outside the church was not to be replicated inside the church, the Body of Christ. The church at Corinth had turned the Lord’s Supper into an occasion to exhibit social distinctions and claim higher “approval” from God based on their class. As a result, their assembly was doing more harm than good.
To maintain the social class structure within the way the church organizes itself and practices its communal life is an affront to Christ and an affront to the brothers and sisters who have been mistreated and humiliated. To marginalize those of lower economic or social status is to bring shame to Christ and act as one who betrays Christ. Eating the Lord’s Supper while maintaining the inequities is eating in a manner that is unworthy of the Lord. It is to fail to discern the body of Christ. The church in Corinth has continued to structure itself along the same lines as the caste system of Greco-Roman society. And they are eating and drinking judgment on themselves.
The Church we were never meant to be practices the social hierarchy of the culture. God wants the church to be a place of equality where the lines of class and caste are completely eliminated. Whatever you are on the outside should no longer make a difference on the inside. It should be revolutionary.
Wow! I never heard this growing up in the church. The “words of communion” were lifted out of this passage so I always thought that the commands about self-examination and taking communion unworthily were about introspection about my personal sins. Taking communion without first doing a self-assessment related to my wickedness was a dangerous thing. It might lead to sickness or even death. The self-examination that Paul commands is about assessing how the church treats those who do not have the privileges of the upper class. To celebrate a class based Lord’s supper to to eat in an unworthy manner. The church is unhealthy because of inequitable relationships within the church. The church is dying because the poor have been humiliated. The church is dying because the church has maintained the divisions of social class.
The solution? First, eat at home! In other words, don’t bring your social biases and structure into the assembly and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. And secondly, wait for one another. The word “wait for” can also mean “welcome” or “include”. In other words, make sure that you eat with those who have been marginalized.
It’s a good thing we’ve learned from Corinth! We’ve got celebration of the Lord’s Supper down. We all get a little piece of bread and a little shot of juice. All about the same size–tiny. Then, we all eat it and drink it at the same time. And we all go home hungry.
But are we really that different from Corinth? If we look deeper than the logistics of communion, the church in America has a long history of marginalization and unequal treatment based upon class or status. We have Northern Baptists and Southern Baptists because of slavery. We have churches we perceive for the wealthy and churches we perceive for the poor. “High Church” and “Low Church” often refers as much to class as it does to liturgical structure. We still make distinctions and we still practice those distinctions in the life of the church. We have denominations that ordain women and other that refuse based on an restrictive view of women’s spiritual capacity–a view Jesus never shared. We have churches that are open and affirming and those who “hate fags” based on a restrictive view of gender and sexuality–a view the early church never shared since those of undefined sexuality–eunuchs–were fully included in the life of the church. In making the distinctions, we continue to fail to “discern the body of Christ.”
I can hear Paul saying to the 21st century church: “What am I supposed to say? Do you want me to praise you? Well, I certainly will not praise you for this!
What is the solution for us? “Eat at home!” Check your biases and class consciousness at the church door. Whatever is ‘normal’ outside the church MUST be ‘abnormal’ inside the church. Don’t bring your preconceptions of class (either your own or other’s) into the assembly of the church because it is incompatible with the unity of the body of Christ. “Wait for each other.” If we are going to preach the “one-ness” of God’s people where in Christ there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no rich or poor, no gay or straight, no black or white, etc, then we must practice a radical welcome and a radical inclusion that gives the full rights and privileges of being members of the household of God to everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, irrespective of their caste or class or status. Otherwise, we will remain the church that we were never meant to be. Class dismissed.