Divisions in the early church. Just their problem or ours, too?

By Terri Fullerton

The Greek word eucharisteo (I give thanks) is a term which refers to one of the central traditions in the Christian faith. It is the ongoing commemoration of the last supper Christ had with his disciples before his crucifixion. It’s intended to be a time of thanksgiving and remembering the sacrificial and redemptive work of Christ accomplished by his death and resurrection.

In the early church, issues came up as Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians try to become the united, multi-ethnic people of God. Like us, they run into problems that were destructive and divisive to the body of Christ.

In his letters to the communities in Corinth and Rome, Paul addresses the divisions that are bringing more harm than good (1 Corinthians 11: 17, 18). For Paul, this is a pastoral and ecclesial issue that needs correction. The Lord’s Supper is to focus on Christ with discerning hearts prior to sharing in this meal. It is to bring unity with Christ (1 Cor. 10: 16) and with each other as siblings in the body of Christ. The one bread and one cup stand for the unity of the Church (Phil. 4:1).

Paul points out that some of the Christians in Corinth are not gathering for the Lord’s Supper but for their own appetites (21), at the banquet meals common in the time-period. Some, likely the poor and marginalized, are going without (being excluded) while others (likely the wealthy hosts) are getting drunk off the wine. It was bringing shame and destruction rather than building up one another up and bringing glory to God. Paul reorients the community to the words and command he received: Christ took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said, “This is my body. Do this in remembrance of me.” (23-25). He reminds them that Christ took the cup and proclaimed that it was the new covenant in his blood, and to remember the Lord when they partake of it. (25). He exhorts them to examine their own hearts before sharing this commemorative meal because some are weak, sick, and have forgotten the purpose. At the heart of the Lord’s Supper is the belief in Christ’s salvific death and resurrection. By participating in this communal meal, believers testify to God’s faithfulness through his Son in the past, present, and future.

Paul’s letter to the house churches in Rome addresses a different issue but it is also causing division and harming table fellowship. In the early church, the Lord’s Supper was part of gathering for meals. Again, the eucharist was to bear witness to the new family Christ inaugurated, to show the world how the Jew and the Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free could get along because of Christ’s love. However, like the churches in Corinth, they are not sacrificially loving one another.

The Strong (Gentile Christians) were holding status over the Weak (mostly Jewish Christians) who had just returned to Rome after being expulsed by Claudius. There were disputes over the food laws with the Strong eating “unclean” food and disregarding what was important to the Jewish believers. The Strong are influenced by having the power and status over others, an influenced by the culture of the Empire. The Strong are behaving in such a way as to exclude their Jewish brothers and sisters. The Weak respond with great judgment and divine-like wrath. They just really despise each other. Table fellowship has become full of quarrels (14:1) and contempt (14:3), rather than focusing on the Lord and what he has done, is doing, and will do for the believers who remain steadfast. Paul states that each one is to be faithful to his or her own conscience regardless of the issue (14: 5-6) of food and holy days.

Paul admonishes them to accept, welcome, and love one another for they do not live for themselves alone (14:7). He compels them to love God and one another, as Christ loved them.

The disruption and division in the early church communities is both their problem and our problem. While we do not judge one another over food laws, we do withdraw and judge one another over social turmoil, political party, racism, sexism, sexual orientation, masks, etc. We seem to always have a targeted enemy, though we often fail to see who the real enemy is for it’s not “the other.” The line that strikes me in Romans for our context and contemplation is this “Do not for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.” (14: 20) While we often don’t often have issues over food laws or Sabbath, we have our own issues causing great division.

What is our food issue? Is it our political party? Views on racism? Women in leadership roles at church? What area do you and I need to examine that is causing more harm than good? I wonder what Paul would say to us today?

Do not for the sake of _________ destroy the work of God.

The kingdom of God is not about food; but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit of God (14: 17, 18).