In a nutshell 1 Corinthians is concerned with factionalism and paganism in the church of God at Corinth.
The first, factionalism, is revealed as the focus of Chloe’s report in the first chapter and taken up in chapters one through four. After addressing some other topics-mainly purity: sexual , marital, meat offered to idols-Paul returns to divisions again in Chapter 11.
It is interesting that Paul’s teaching on the perversion of the Lord’s Supper by the Corinthian believers comes after his mentioning pagan banquet halls and altars, for the Corinthian believers were falling into their pre-conversion, pagan patterns of banqueting when partaking of the Lord’s supper.
Even pagan writer’s such as Plutarch bemoan the “rich lording over the poor” at in the banquet halls. Where the rich would be served by the poor (slaves) and within the rich there was a seating arrangement to show finely discerned degrees of status. Plutarch presents a view of a better arrangement in his humanistic Banquet of the Seven Sages.
Paul condemns their practice of socio-economic stratification and cliquishness during their so-called agape feasts. Paul declares that if the rich are humiliating the poor it is certainly not the Lord’s supper/meal/feast they are eating.
The rich Corinthian believers seem to have had an overly vertical conception of the Lord’s Supper, so when Paul directs them to discern the body this is not incipient transubstantiation but instructions to discern the body-that-is-the-church.
As Paul comments elsewhere on the body and jealousy, here we might likewise insert “certainly the noble parts will not starve the feet and legs so that they atrophy and die”. Paul insists that at the table of the Lord every member of the body is to be equal.
If the rich are so weak that they cannot wait for the poor to arrive1 then they should eat before the gathering so that they can wait on the poor for the meal of the Lord. This is not to say that the solution is to have a sliver of cracker and a sip of wine, that is everyone starves together, but that in the feast/meal/supper of the Lord the priority should be on the poor getting their fill of the food that the rich provide.
Whereas the earlier discussion of divisions in 1-4 is primarily on cults of personality, this division (which is more important for our context) is over the withdrawal of association from the poor by the rich.
In addition to chapters five, six, and seven’s focus on reforming a formerly pagan sexual ethic, chapters eight through fourteen (overlapping with the factionalism in eleven mentioned above) reform a pagan mindset of worship.
Roman Corinth was a pagan city, and the church there seems to have been majority converts out of paganism, for example see the discussion in chapter 10 of pre-conversion practices by the letter’s addressees of idol worship and pagan sacrifices. This leads to their worship of Yahweh being influenced and corrupted by a pagan worldview.
Ecstatic speech, here ‘speaking in tongues’2, was, and is, not limited to Christian practice. Speaking in tongues was a hallmark of both the indwelling of God’s spirit and of the daemonic3 possession of oracles in the Greco-Roman pagan world.
The Corinthians in their over-realized eschatology latched onto the ‘already’ to the exclusion of the ‘not yet’. The took the regeneration and resurrection of the gospel promise to have already occurred in the pouring out of the spirit and thereby rejected a future physical regeneration, physical resurrection of the dead4. The Corinthian believers were especially enamored with the more ostentatious, self-centered gifts of the spirit.
Backing up to chapter 12 were the discussion of gifts begins, in the context of unity Paul states that the primary gift is teaching. Teaching is an other centered gift. This is carried through chapter 13, the love chapter, and into 14 where un-interpretted tongues are decried as the least of all gifts, and the most self centered.
Contrary to pagan worship where divine madness and ecstatic speech, glossalia, were celebrated, in Christianity Paul writes that worship is to be rational, of both spirit and mind. He asserts that it is better to keep quiet than to confuse visitors with displays of irrationality. Paul directs the Corinthian Church to limit tongue speaking at their gatherings, to only allow one person at a time to speak, to only allow glossalia if someone present is able to interpret it.
Order is more important than tongues, so is the interpretation which completes it, and prophecy which is better still. This is not to be taken to say that Paul denies the indwelling of God’s spirit or gifts of the spirit-he “speaks in tongues more than any”-but rather to remember that our focus should be on building up the body not glorifying one part.