I want start today by briefly remembering where we are in the story of I Corinthians. If you remember from your I Corinthians study guide Paul opened the letter addressing things that were reported to him orally. But in I Cor 7 he began to address issues that the Corinthians wrote to Paul. So that is where we are in the letter. In this section of the written reports Paul is going to begin by addressing issues that are taking place in their corporate gatherings. Listen to what Paul says in I Cor 11.2. Paul wants them to maintain the traditions he delivered to them.
Before we begin to address that I want to make sure we briefly discuss the idea of “traditions”. For some of you that is a ugly term, because you think of rigid, close-minded, people who do certain things without any good reasons. Traditions are followed by people who just blindly follow things they don’t understand or care to understand. Others love traditions. There has been a resurgence for traditions among young evangelical Christians. But my hope it is not because of some way they make them “feel”. For instance, I had a friend who left our church, and when we asked him why, he said, “because I really like the music and how it makes me feel.” When we went over the significant theological differences he said he didn’t really care about that all that much.
Friends that is also dangerous. If anyone here today has deep convictions then you have a tradition you follow. It was probably delivered to you. The likelihood of anyone here today has ever come up with an original thought is very slim. Christianity is a tradition with traditional beliefs and practices. That is something I can live with because I understand the why, and my hope is we will get more of that why today.
Theme: The line between right and wrong in our church gatherings must be carefully considered through the Word of God.
1. Consider what our cultural traditions say about God—I Cor 11.3-16.
I Corinthians 11.3-16 is one of the most confusing/controversial texts in the NT. But simply put, I believe the heart of what Paul is trying to do is address how some cultural traditions have bearing on the way they think through corporate worship. It is really that simple, so let’s look at it in a little more detail.
The issue the Corinthian Christians are bringing is about whether or not women need to wear head coverings in corporate worship. One of the things we need to better understand this tradition is why the women in Corinth did and did not wear head coverings. Men and women actually dressed very similar in Corinth, so this was one way to distinguish yourself from a man. The only women who did not wear a head covering were women who were mistresses of high class officials, temple prostitutes, slave women, and women convicted of adultery.
Therefore, the first I think we need to understand here is Paul is not addressing this issue because he believes every church in church history needs to have women cover their heads in corporate or private worship. But Paul is addressing again what he has been dealing with for quit some time—he wants us to consider how our decisions or Christian liberty will affect others around us. Just because we can do something does not mean it is helpful. For instance, I have met many people who believe they are free to hang the confederate flag from their house, put it on their car, get it as a tattoo, or whatever. They are but they are not strongly considering how that might make others feel. I mean the fear that runs through my blood when I see it is paralyzing. Not only am I afraid for my life, but also the life of my wife and children.
As Paul addresses this wisdom issue of head coverings he recognizes we need biblical or theological informed principles to help through these issues of Christian liberty. We think to through what our decisions will say about God. READ I Cor 11.3—Here Paul reminds the reader that there is order in everything that flows from God. David Prior in his commentary says, “The husband is no more superior to his wife than God is superior to Christ.” Having different roles in the family unit, society, or any other arena does not determine your worth, value, or influence. Christ chooses to submit to the Father the way a wife chooses to submit to her husband or a congregate chooses to submit to their elders. Paul is saying the head covering was a cultural way for the Christian women to say we would affirm the belief that submitting to our husbands is rooted in creation and was not designed by sinful men.
Now why can they say this? Because of what Paul talks about in I Cor 11.7-10. Both men and women were made to reflect the image of God for the glory of God. This is also rooted in created order. When Paul says, “a man...is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man,” he is actually trying to say they have the same design but one came before the other. When you read Gen 2 you learn the man came before the women, but Gen 1 tells us they were both made in the image of God, therefore, both were made for the glory of God. Women can submit as a part of divine instruction in order to bring glory to God.
Paul is making a connection to their personal worship and the worship of others. If they pursue the worship of God, if they more concerned about what their actions will say about God, then they will help others worship Him more. The challenge for us today is we do not live in a culture that would celebrate women who are submitting to men. They would see this as evidence of male chauvinism. Another example of men oppressing women. But I believe that does not mean we change our tradition, but we try to figure out more creative cultural ways to make it appealing to others.
Paul is giving some very practical advice here. He wants the women of the church to dress in such a way that would communicate their theological convictions. How many of us, both men and women, are thinking about God when we considering what we will wear? Paul wants us to consider what our cultural decisions say about God, and the head covering issue is a practical example from our ancient sisters and brothers at the church in Corinth.
2. Seek to understand the meaning of our Biblical traditions—I Cor 11.17-34.
The next major issue address Paul address in their corporate is less of a cultural one and more of a biblical one. Listen to this radical statement he says—READ I Cor 11.20. When the Corinthians were coming together to take the Lord’s Table or Communion Paul essentially says, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but it is NOT Communion”. Why does he say this?
As this letter has progressed Paul is VERY discouraged by all the division that has arisen among the Corinthian Christians. They are no longer pinning leaders’ teachings against each other, but literally practicing traditions that are excluding people in their corporate worship services(I Cor 11.18). The rich were not allowing the poor to partake in the Lord’s Supper, because they were not bringing anything to contribute to the meal. And it did not stop there. The wealthy believers were getting drunk on the wine that was brought for Communion during Communion (I Cor 11.20-22). Essentially the wealthy were continuing the cultural customs of Corinthian dinner parties. In a Corinthian dinner party you would only invite those in your social status and it was expected people would be getting drunk. Those who were wealthy more than likely were trying to convince the poorer Christians they were theological doing the right thing. One could hear them saying, “we want to be missional, let’s keep this cultural custom so I can invite my non-Christian friends.”
In the pastoral epistles Paul warns young pastors that there will be people who will come into the church who bring about empty and profitless arguments about minor theological issues. They can take issues that are very clear in Scripture and twist it toward their own ends. Many of these people do not have genuine concern for the church—God is not impressed with their loud voices, so neither should we.
In I Cor 11.23-26 Paul reminds them of the tradition that was taught to him, and he taught to them. Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is meant to do a couple of things. First, it is to regularly remind us of the Lord’s sacrifice (I Cor 11.26). Second, it is to regularly remind us that the Lord will come again—we are patiently awaiting his return (I Cor 11.26). Finally, Paul has already told us that Communion is meant to be a meal symbolizing our unity in Christ—READ I Cor 10.17.
All of these symbols are meant to remind us of our covenant to God and each other. Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is a regular covenant renewal service. There were certain ceremonies the Israelites practice on a yearly basis to remember the redemption God provided for them in the Exodus, like the Passover. Communion is our NT covenant meal that reminds of our redemption. Therefore, Paul warns us in I Cor 11.27-34 that this meal is not meant to be taken lightly. We are not to treat it like we would any other meal—READ I Cor 11.33-34. This is a special meal. This meal is meant for us to examine our beliefs and our practice—READ I Cor 11.28. No one will be perfect as they take this meal, but when we are not examining ourselves then we will not receive healing. This why Paul writes—READ I Cor 11.30. As we regularly take this meal together it is an opportunity for us to examine ourselves in light of God’s Word. Examine yourself, listen to the Spirit in those areas He is calling us to repentance, and then once again celebrate the costly grace available to us in our Lord Jesus Christ.