Reforming Worship: More at Stake Than Common Courtesy and Public Politeness

On Sunday mornings at our church in Indianapolis, I often noted the presence of two people who regularly attended worship. A man in his early sixties, dressed in an expensive, conservatively cut suit, was CEO of what was then the Allison Division of General Motors Corporation and a vice president of the parent company. Seated near by was a woman, dressed in casual discount store attire, who was an hourly wage earner in a nearby GM assembly plant.

During the week, they participated in the Indianapolis system of privilege and power in very different ways, but on Sundays (at least while they were in church) they came close to being equal. They could sit any place they wanted. Both had full access to the communion table. Each one was invited to contribute to the church’s ministry and mission “as they were able.” In meetings of the congregation, both could speak freely on the basis of their faith and convictions.

Even in that mildly progressive congregation, however, gender discrimination was still practiced which meant that the man could have served as elder while the woman would not yet have been granted that responsibility. In later years, this aspect of congregational practice was altered to accord more fully with Paul’s declaration that in the church barriers caused by race, gender, and social setting are set aside and all are equal before Christ and with one another (Galatians 3:28).

The tension between culture and Christian community is the central issue in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence, which contains the New Testament’s most sustained exposition of worship. In their book In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed devote a long chapter to this discussion, using the title “Who and What Controls Your Banquet?” At the heart of Paul’s exposition, they write, are two visions of moral community and two theologies on which these visions are based. (To read more about these two theologies, check my column posted April 19, 2011.)

The two visions are labeled patronal and kenotic. The patronal vision was the defining form of Roman civilization. It maintained a highly stratified social structure and gave unswerving allegiance to the Roman system of military pacification as the basis for social cohesion. The divinized emperor was seated in splendor at the high point of the patronage system and he distributed power and privilege down the pyramid. It was a harsh “trickle down system” fully legitimated by the public rites and ceremonies which so integrated patriotism and religion that the two could not be distinguished from one another.

In Corinth, some of the highly placed were members of the church and they were imposing the customs from their public life on life in the church, thus preserving radical discontinuities between rich and poor, slave and free, male and female. Paul was passionately opposed to what they were doing.

Paul’s alternative to the patronal community imposed from the outside, according to Crossan and Reed, was the kenotic community that was the direct outgrowth of the life that Jesus had lived. It had came to its fullest expression in the meals Jesus had shared with his friends, especially in the meal they ate together on the night that he was betrayed. The foundational theology, eloquently expressed in one of the ancient church’s hymns (Philippians 2:6-11), was that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The church, Paul says, is the community of people who follow Jesus to the fullest extent that life allows.

While Paul conceded that highly placed Christians might continue their participation in the stratified and unjust systems of public life, these practices were not to continue when they were in the church. There, the basic principles of Christ were to be followed with scrupulous care.

To make his point, Paul restated a set of words that were basic to the life of the church where he had become a Christian (Antioch). We refer to them as “the words of institution” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). He also recommended practical changes in the order of worship for the church in Corinth.

As it works at accommodating worship to culture of our time, every congregation will do well to heed the warning with which Paul concludes his most direct discussion of worship. Crossan and Reed make the point this way: “Still the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, the central symbolism of Christianity’s divine responsibility for a shared earth, was fractured badly at Corinth, and Paul knew it. Those terminal warnings about illness and death, judgment and condemnation (11:27-34) indicate very clearly that much more was at stake than common courtesy and public politeness.”

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One Response to Reforming Worship: More at Stake Than Common Courtesy and Public Politeness

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Thanks Keith for this continuing conversation — we have from the beginning wrestled with social stratification in the church and in our worship.

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