When’s the Last Time You Went to the Circus?
IT’S EASY TO scoff at the ancient Corinth church of Christ. Her assemblies, dare I say it–were something of a circus. And yes, there is evidence to support that troubling claim.
First of all, two or more brethren were speaking simultaneously during the preaching (1 Cor. 14:6-18; 26ff). It’s challenging enough today to really listen and worship during a sermon, but imagine having to do so when more than one speaker is talking–and each of them is transmitting God’s word in a foreign language–a language which you’ve never studied. “Honey, what did you get out of today’s sermon?” “I didn’t get anything out of today’s revelation because I couldn’t understand it…”
Second, Corinth’s confusion wasn’t just limited to what came out of the pulpit or Bible class. Division, fracture and schism permeated the local church body in a myriad of ways (1 Cor. 1-3). Paul said, “For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you…” (1:18).
These divisions were most evident, of all places, at the Lord’s Table (vv. 19ff). I can’t call it “communion” (1 Cor. 10:16), because what Corinthian was doing at that period of worship was anything but communing–either among themselves or with the Lord (11:17, 20; cf. Mat. 26:29).
Some members were eating ahead of of other members (v. 21). And it’s not just that everybody wasn’t eating at the same time, it’s that some members were eating while others were actually going hungry.
Imagine attending a congregational dinner-on-the-grounds on an empty stomach while watching some of your own brethren eating to the point of over indulgence–even drunkenness (v. 21b). This obviously wasn’t what Christ had in mind when He said the church was to come together on the first day of the week to partake of His body and blood (cf. Mat. 26:26-29; cf. Acts 20:7). Corinth failed to understand that fact and made the unfortunate mistake of combining the common and the spiritual. She had mixed what we call a potluck (e.g., love feast–Jude 13) with the Supper of the Lord.
Back at the very first Lord’s Supper, after Jesus and the twelve finished the Passover, the Lord instituted the commemorative feast in order to help the future church focus on the real Lamb of God (cf. Exo. 12; John 1:29). Corinth, despite apostolic teaching to the contrary (1:4-5), had amalgamated a meal for the belly (from the Passover) with a meal for the heart (the Lord’s Supper).
The saints not only misunderstood the proper form of worship, but they also held improper views about the heart and spirit of worship. Yes–there was activity, but that activity was shallow and self-centered rather than Christ-centered. Yes, they were coming together (11:17, 18, 20, 33), but it wasn’t coming together in an effort to honor the risen Lord, share in His spiritual blessings, and announce His inevitable return (11:26). The church at Corinth was coming together for, “gulp,” judgment (v. 34).
It was clownish. Circus-like. It was the Big Top. A spectacle. Carnal as opposed to spiritual. “Me” instead of Christ in the limelight.
Of course, Corinth, at least initially, didn’t possess divinely-ordained, written-down documentation in completed form. At that time frame in the churches’ early history, the Word existed in mortal vessels–people–as the Spirit gave them utterance (2 Cor. 4:7; 2 Pet. 1:21).
But we don’t have that excuse today, do we (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3)? We have the complete, inspired revelation of God (Jude 3). Which means, of course, that we don’t struggle today at or with the Lord’s Supper, right? When we gather as the church, we always do it just as our Savior prescribed. Right? A few, sincere brethren might chime in and day, “But Mike, we’ve got it right–we have unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine, and we’re a sound church because we observe the Lord’s Supper just as Jesus authorized.” Maybe. Maybe no.
The biblical word translated “sound” (1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Tit. 1:9; 2:1) means healthy; it’s where we get our English word “hygiene.” Friend, may I ask some probing questions about the Lord’s Supper for your personal introspection? (NOTE: If the questions I’m about to ask aren’t applicable to you personally, then drop this in the waste paper basket and go on about your day, but if you do discover that I’m stepping on your toes, in the interest of your eternal soul, please give this some honest thought and repent of when and where you’re failing.
- When we rush through the Supper like a McDonald’s drive-through and regularly treat it like something to be checked off our to-do list, can we really say were sound?
- When we harbor ill-will and hard feelings toward fellow saints and we talk about them behind their backs without actually going to them one-on-one for reconciliation (Mat. 18:15-17), can we consume the bread and fruit of the vine and then honestly say we’re healthy in God’s eyes?
- When we habitually come late to the services, shake a quick couple of hands, fail to bring, much less open our Bibles, consume the elements of the supper with little or no personal inspection, and then hurry out of the assembly early to get to a ball game or the beach, are we really so deluded to think we possess healthy souls?
- When we partake of that small bit of unleavened bread and the contents of the tiny plastic cup while members of our own church family are quite literally starving for attention, love and some needed gesture of compassion, how are we not participating with Corinth in the circus?
- When our minds are consumed with temporal matters and we only offer God a momentary flash of gratitude at the supper, while widows are brokenhearted, single parents beg for physical assistance, and teenagers aren’t receiving spiritual and moral guidance outside of the pulpit, is it accurate to categorize ourselves as sound in the faith?
- When we eat the bread and drink the cup and then head out to the local buffet while simultaneously feasting on roasted preacher and/or broiled elder, can we truly argue we’ve done so with Christ’s authority (Col. 3:17; Gal. 5:15)?
- When we consume unleavened bread and fruit of the vine at the table, but then work behind the scenes to get rid of the current preacher so that we can a new one that we like, is spiritual well-being a reality in our lives?
Sure, Corinth is easy pickings. She was the worst-case scenario of carnality at the very time when we she should have been spiritual. She had turned sacred worship into a selfish stage of self-aggrandizement. Her assemblies were Barnum and Bailey. “Turn the lights on me. Ladies and gentlemen–let me direct your attention to the center ring–where I speak first (or at the same time you do), while I follow Paul, or Peter, or Apollos (or Jame, or Frank, or Bob), and where I eat the loaf and drink the cup while simultaneously devouring (or neglecting) my kind in the Lord.” You get the point.
The Lord’s Supper is when saints in the Lord are to lovingly commune with the Lord and His church. “When we meet in sweet communion…” “Hearts are brought in closer union…”
It’s not my purpose to injure by beloved church family–either here or abroad, nor do I have an ax to grind with any particular member–past or present. I’m simply saying we have to get the supper right (John 4:24). We. HAVE. To.
And to do that, some of us may need to close the circus, grab the scalpel of the word, engage in serious heart surgery (11:28-34; cf. Psm. 139:23), and then make genuine amends. Paul said, “Let a man examine himself…” That’s what Corinth needed two-millennia ago; that’s what many of us need today. Only then can we truly be healthy.