In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul exhorts the Corinthians in the strongest language to expel an unrepentantly immoral man from their congregation. In v. 11, he indicates that they are “not even to eat with such a one.” I would say that the majority of commentators see this as a reference to the Lord’s Supper. I think, however, that Paul has in mind a greater extent of separation.
Paul clarifies the sort of non-association he speaks of in 5:11 by telling the Corinthians they are “not even to eat together with (sunesthio) such a person.” The comparison to non-association with unbelievers in 5:9-10 suggests a fairly significant level of separation in 5:11: if the level of non-association Paul has mind were practiced regarding unbelievers, then it would be necessary for believers to leave this world. Thiselton rightly notes that, while the reference no doubt includes the Supper, the ascensive “not even” indicates a broader reference than merely the Supper ( The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC, 415).* In particular, the “eating” here likely extends to private meals taken together. It is commonly recognized that sharing a meal with someone has implications of acceptance of and/or obligation toward that person.1 This understanding is shown, for example, in usages of sunesthio in the Septuagint.2 It is further demonstrated in that one of the ways Israel was set apart from the nations was via special food laws which precluded table fellowship with the Gentiles.3
In Christ, however, all barriers to table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile believers have been done away. This was made clear in the circumstances surrounding Peter’s visit to Cornelius (Acts 10), and reinforced by Paul’s only other use of sunesthio (see Acts 11:3). In Galatians 2, Paul tells how Peter himself, under pressure from a delegation of Jewish believers, ceased to “eat together with” Gentile believers as had been his practice, and caused others to follow his lead. Paul “opposed him to his face” over this hypocritical practice, and rightly so, for he accurately perceived Peter to be in the wrong (2:11).
Strikingly, however, the Corinthians were not limited to eating with other believers, as Jews were for all practical purposes limited to eating with other Jews. It is clear that the Corinthians were allowed to eat with unbelievers, for Paul tells them that “if any of the unbelievers (apistos) invites you [to a meal], and you want to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no questions at all for the sake of conscience” (1 Cor 10:27).4 In 1 Cor 5:11, however, Paul commands withdrawal of table fellowship with the offender, not because the offender was a Gentile (although he likely was), but because he had professed to be a Christian and yet “lived like a Gentile.” Continuing in table fellowship with such a person would be tantamount to endorsing his lifestyle.
*Additional note, 4/14/09: Since compiling this post, I have come across an interesting article: Jonathan Schwiebert, “Table Fellowship and the Translation of 1 Corinthians 5:11,” JBL 127:1 (2008): 159-64. Schwiebert argues that “modern ideas about table fellowship” are “exerting an unwarranted influence on translators and interpreters of the text” of 1 Cor 5:11 (159). He argues that the Greek conjunction mhdev ought not be taken as ascensive (“not even”) as it typically is, but should be understood simply as a coordinate conjunction. Thus his translation of 5:11: “As it is, I wrote to you not to associate–if someone who is called a brother should be a pornos . . .–nor [not “not even”] to eat with such a person.” Or more simply, he suggests, “–do not eat with such a person” (162). That is, it is not that the Corinthians are not merely to disassociate, but are to take things to the next level by refusing to eat with the offender; but that “not eating with someone is parallel to, comparable to, and conceptually linked with not associating with someone” (162).
“. . . in the east, even today, to invite a man to a meal was an honour. It was an offer of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; in short, sharing a table meant sharing life.” J. Jeremias, New Testament Theology
(New York: Scribners, 1971), 115. See also S. Scott Bartchy, “Table Fellowship,” DJG
796; J. Behm, “esthio
2:693; Garland, Corinthians
, 189; Sara Covin Juengst, Breaking Bread: The Spiritual Significance of Food
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 49-60; Dennis E. Smith, “The Greco-Roman Banquet as a Social Institution,” paper presented as part of the “Meals in the Greco-Roman World Consultation” at the annual meeting of the AAR/SBL, Atlanta, Ga., November 2003, n.p. [cited 14 April 2007] (Online
); idem, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World
(Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 173-75. Thus we see the Pharisees appalled at Jesus’ meals with “sinners” (Matt 9:11 2
Mark 2:16 2
Luke 5:20; Luke 15:2).
2 E.g., because it was abominable to them, the Egyptians would not “eat together with” the Hebrews (Gen 43:32); at a sacrificial meal, Jethro “ate together with” Moses and others in common recognition of God’s mighty works on behalf of his people (Exod 18:8-12); as a rule, David will not “eat together with” the one who has a haughty look and proud heart (Ps 100:5 [Eng. 101:5]).
3 “By the time one reaches the New Testament era, keeping a kosher table was one of the top three or four boundary markers that visibly set Jews apart from their neighbours and kept them from most table fellowship with Gentiles.” Craig L. Blomberg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners, NSBT 19 (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2005), 39. Thus, before the visit to Cornelius, Peter’s vision of the sheet with unclean animals (Acts 10:9-16) was necessary to demonstrate that Jesus had “made all foods clean” (Mark 7:15-16), removing the divine barrier to table fellowship with Gentiles. Thus, too, Jewish believers from Jerusalem inevitably confronted Peter for eating with Gentiles (Acts 11:1-3). That this continued to be a live issue is seen in the fact that later in Antioch, Peter himself bowed to the implicit disapproval of a delegation from the Jerusalem and withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14).
4 “We indeed, brethren, for the sake of reproof, abstain from communion with our brethren, and do not eat with them, that they may be reformed? We rather eat with strangers, with Pagans, than with those who hold with us, if we have seen that they live wickedly, that they may be ashamed, and amend; as the Apostle saith, ‘And if any man obey not our word by this Epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.’ For the sake of healing others we usually do this; but nevertheless we often eat with many strangers and ungodly men.” Augustine, Enarrat. Ps. 101.7 (trans. Coxe, NPNF1 8:493).