Understanding the precise problem that Paul addresses concerning the Lord’s Supper in the Corinthian church is difficult. Clearly, the poorer members in the church were suffering humiliation at the Lord’s Table, as we see in today’s passage (1 Cor. 11:22). However, Paul does not say exactly what this entailed.
Looking to the social customs of first-century Corinth, commentators have largely agreed that the issue likely involved Christians of a higher social status imposing class distinctions in the context of worship. The earliest Christians met for worship in the homes of members, with the larger homes of wealthier believers often preferred because they could accommodate more people. Even the largest homes, however, probably could not fit an entire church in one room if the congregation had more than thirty people or so. Early Christian worship often combined a full meal called a “love feast” with the worship service and the Lord’s Supper, but believers had to be spread out among several different rooms. Furthermore, communal meals were of great social importance in the ancient world, and one’s proximity to the host at a meal said much about one’s status. In a meal where guests were spread out over several rooms, the most-honored guests would sit in the same room as the host, and they would receive the best food as well.
Apparently, something like this was happening in the Corinthians’ celebration of the Lord’s Supper—the members were spread out across various rooms during the “love feast,” and the owner of the home where the feasts were being held would give a place of honor to wealthier believers, leaving the poorer congregants to eat the leftovers in another room—if there was any food left. Slaves and day laborers who made up the poorer class would arrive later than those of a higher class, and it is possible that at times there was little if any food remaining for them to eat.
So, at the Lord’s Supper, where our unity is to be prized, little unity was taking place. Some ate nothing, while others gorged themselves (v. 21). The material impoverishment of the poorer believers was thus highlighted, bringing shame on them (v. 22). Little wonder, then, that Paul says they were not actually eating the Lord’s Supper (v. 20). When we conduct ourselves in worship contrary to the Lord’s design, we are not actually worshiping God no matter how much we might claim otherwise.