Paul’s Letter to a Prejudiced Church

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How the apostle’s instructions on the Lord’s Supper speak to multiethnic congregations today.

Many of us have believed multiracial congregations to be solutions for white racism. But as sociologist Korie Little Edwards’s research demonstrates, even when churches gather racially diverse congregants, the way they gather often reinforces societal preference for white culture and deference to white power structures. In such cases, churches solve the problem of segregated Sunday mornings without solving the problem of a racially oppressive Christianity.

Scripture addresses a similar situation in 1 Corinthians. The apostle Paul writes to a multiracial, multiclass church made up of Jews and Gentiles, enslaved people and free people (12:13). This made their congregation far more diverse than the typical North American church today, which, according to Edwards, lacks even a single member from another ethnic group.

Paul nevertheless tells the Corinthians that their gatherings “do more harm than good” (11:17–22). The reason? The way they came to the Lord’s Supper reinforced socioeconomic divisions among them. Some had too much to eat. Others had nothing at all.

To understand Paul’s critique, we need to understand the way that meals worked within Corinthian society. Corinth had a clear hierarchy, an obvious social and economic ladder. Where you stood on that ladder depended on whether you had enough social capital to be considered “wise,” “influential,” and “of noble birth” (1:26).

This social hierarchy could be a matter of life or death. Earning one of these labels meant that you were more likely to get the economic opportunities and social network on which your survival might depend.

In Corinth, communal meals provided a primary way for individuals to claim …

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