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 their spot on the ladder or even move up a rung. Like middle-school cafeterias today, where you sat at the meal said a lot about where you stood in the social pecking order. Bringing more food or claiming a more honorable seat, for example, were strategies for trying to climb the ladder.
This was all just business as usual in Corinth, but Paul declares that such behavior has no place in church. Because of the way this multiethnic, multiclass congregation humiliated the have-nots, they couldn’t call what they were doing the Lord’s Supper at all. They were acting more Corinthian than Christian.
By mirroring oppressive Corinthian hierarchies in the way that they gathered, the Corinthian believers “despise[d] the church” and sinned against the very body and blood of the Lord himself (11:22, 27).
Paul’s intensity in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 might surprise us, but it makes complete sense given his words earlier in the letter. Consider your calling, Paul tells the church:
Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong . . . so that no one may boast before him. (1:26–27, 29)
At the start, Paul tells his listeners that the way Christ arranged his church smashes to bits the Corinthian social ladder that honors the wise, influential, and well-born. How has the Corinthian church responded? By gluing that oppressive social ladder back together in the way they gather.
Paul’s solution isn’t to disband this multiracial, multiclass church, or to reduce the role the meal plays in their life together. Instead, he calls the church to “welcome one another” in the way they feast (11:33, CSB). This might be easily missed, because most major English versions translate Paul’s command in verse 33 as “wait for one another.” But in hospitality contexts, the Greek verb translated as wait can refer to welcoming someone, similar to the way we might talk about someone in the hospitality business “waiting” on tables. What would it look like for the Corinthian church to “welcome one another”?
Paul gives us a clue in what he says next. In 1 Corinthians 12:12–13, he reminds them that though they are an ethnically and economically diverse congregation, each individual is a member of the one body of Christ. The diverse members use their diverse gifts for the good of the whole. This is a message to which contemporary multiracial churches remain committed.
I’m not sure, however, that we’re nearly as excited about what follows: “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (12:24–25).
God himself has structured the church so as to give greater honor and concern within the congregation to members who lack honor outside of it. God does pay attention to where people are in the social hierarchy, but only in order to privilege those at the bottom.
Because of this, Paul calls the church to welcome one another in ways that fit this countercultural arrangement. By refraining from privileging the socially powerful and by actively according special honor to the socially disenfranchised, the Corinthians would gather for the better, rather than for the worse.
The Corinthians’ preservation of social hierarchies at the Lord’s Supper mirrors the way many multiracial churches prioritize white preferences and norms in their worship styles, their approach to community engagement, and the racial makeup of their leaders. But if the problems are similar, perhaps the solutions are too.
Multiracial congregations might learn from the way historically black churches, for example, have dismantled social hierarchies in their own gatherings. Every church, regardless of its ethnic makeup, must “examine” itself and “discern” the ways congregational life privileges white culture and treats certain brothers and sisters as less than full members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:28–29).
Multiethnic congregations that follow Paul’s instructions have a unique opportunity to model for the rest of us how to rearrange our corporate lives. Then we can all embrace Paul’s instructions to “welcome one another” by giving special honor within our churches to those most likely to be marginalized in broader society. May we do so with courage and joy.
Michael J. Rhodes is an Old Testament lecturer at Carey Baptist College and an assistant pastor at Downtown Church, a multiethnic church in Memphis. This article is adapted from a paper in Studies in Christian Ethics 33.4 (2020): “Arranging the Chairs in the Beloved Community.”
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