Dru Johnson’s outstanding essay “Moral and Ritual Knowing” is simply the latest entrée in his ongoing effort to demonstrate that ritual studies can serve the church in hearing and responding to Scripture. Focusing on the “ethical preparation” involved in the rituals of the Hebrew Bible, Johnson argues such preparation is “an essential feature of a ritual’s ability to ‘work.’” Such a claim opens up new vistas on the moral landscape of both the Bible and our own world. In this response, I want to ask how digging deeper into Johnson’s brief allusions to 1 Corinthians might deepen and extend the argument. 

RITUAL BECOMING IN CORINTH?

Johnson’s adaptation of Bell’s theory of ritualization is well-suited for exploring meals in 1 Corinthians. Paul writes to Christians whose lives prior to conversion were utterly determined by whichever rung they occupied in the imperial socio-economic hierarchy. Within this world, ritualized meals provided one primary way individuals came to know and discerningly act within that social structure. Through the embodied mechanics of the meal—where one ate, with whom, where one sat at the table, how the food got to the table, who ate which portions of it, etc.—meals shaped banqueters to know where they stood in the hierarchy and provided them with practical strategies for trying to move up within it. The social capital of wisdom and power could be gained, spent, or lost in the ritual performances of such meals, with serious socio-economic implications. 

Such was the world the Corinthians knew, and such was the world the Corinthians created and reinforced through their ritual meal practices. Indeed, such ritualized meals served as “structural apprenticeship[s]” that led to “the embodying of the structures of [their] world.”[1]

The problem? According to Paul, Christ had turned that world upside down through the cross and resurrection. Even more astoundingly, God had hand-picked the Corinthians precisely in order that they might participate in the destruction of that social hierarchy. “Look at your calling, brothers,” Paul writes.

not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are (1Co 1:26-28 RSV).

The rest of the letter makes clear that this “bringing to nothing” does not mean the literal death of the “higher ups,” but rather the “end [of] the world defined by the Corinthian categories of wisdom and power.”[2]

But even if the Corinthian Christians had some inkling of this in their brains, their bodies had been shaped by Corinthian ritual practice. Whatever facts they believed they knew about the cross, the strong and powerful in Corinth had long been habituated into the “wisdom of this age” (2:6; 3:19). The “logic of the cross,”[3]though, reveals such wisdom to be nothing more than immature foolishness. 

What then is the solution? Johnson’s work illuminates what otherwise might remain hidden: the Corinthians who think they are wise in this age must become fools so that they can become truly wise (3:18). And part of the way one becomes a “worldly fool” is by embracing a series of counter-cultural ritualized practices that shape the practitioner for the wise maturity needed to see the world and one’s neighbors through the lens of the cross. 

This is what Paul’s description of the eucharistic meal of 11:17-34 makes clear: the Corinthians gather for the worsebecause their meal is more Corinthian than Christian. Indeed, by ritually fostering Corinthian dispositions rather than cruciform ones, the church is ritually becoming Corinthian, rather than Christian. The solution is to reform their ritualized practice by a) discerning that one’s fellow congregants are members of Christ’s body, b) examining whether one’s behavior at the meals is mistreating others members, and c) welcoming one another at the meal.[4]The counter-cultural shape of this mutual welcome is further illuminated by 12:24: their meal ought to embody God’s own arrangement of the community, giving greater honor within the congregation precisely to those members that lack it in the culture at large. 

Johnson’s ritual interpretation thus proves as fruitful when reading Paul as when reading the prophets. Indeed, reading Paul in this way raises at least 3 areas for extending Johnson’s argument. 

PAULINE CONTRIBUTIONS TO RITUALLY-INFORMED INTERPRETATION

First, Johnson emphasizes the ethics of the back story of a rite’s biography, raising questions, for instance, about whether the first-fruits offered come from fields that welcomed immigrants to glean within them. This is deeply insightful. But Paul’s treatment of the eucharist places a different dynamic at the center: ethical failure at the culmination of the rite. Indeed, whereas Johnson suggests Paul critiques ethical behavior that occurred “apart from the meal,” based on the interpretation offered above, I would argue the Corinthians’ bad behavior occurs during the eucharistic feast. They despise the church of God and shame the poor in the way they arrange the chairs and measure out the portions.

This insight pushes us to ask about the ethics that occur at the center of the rite’s biography. To take a Hebrew Bible example, when considering the tithe and firstlings feast described in Deuteronomy 14:22-27, with Johnson we might explore the refusal to allow the immigrant to glean in one’s field as an ethical failure that occurs at the outer “edges” of the rite. Our exploration of the eucharist, however, pushes us to consider also violations that could occur at the very “center of gravity” of the ritual, such as neglecting to include the immigrant at the feast itself. 

Second, drawing on the “back history” of a rite’s biography, Johnson emphasizes the way that a rite can be “counterproductive.” He emphasizes this in terms of the way a rite might fail to shape the practitioner to know. But Paul’s implied suggestion that the Corinthians’ eucharist actually shaped them for the worse pushes us to reflect further on the ritually-shaped future biography of the ritual practitioner. 

The ritual failure at the Lord’s Supper doesn’t just leave practitioners ignorant, it habituates them into vice. The ritualized bodies created at a “for the worse” eucharist are disposed to reinforce a socio-economic hierarchy based on wisdom, power, and good breeding, rather than participate in its abolishment through counter-cultural mutual welcome. This insight allows us to reflect further on the way that a “for the better” meal practice could habituate the Corinthians into virtue.  

For instance, having apparently defended the cause of the disenfranchised for 16 verses, in 11:34a, Paul declares “if anyone is hungry, let them eat in the house, so that you all might not gather unto judgment.” Many scholars have followed Theissen in understanding this as Paul’s compromise with the Corinthian elite.[5]“Ok, ok,” Paul seems to say, “you can oppress the poor on your own time. Just keep that behavior out of church.” 

Gordon Fee is closer to the mark, writing:

As with the issue of slavery in Philemon, Paul attacks the system indirectly to be sure, but at its very core. Be a true Christian at the table, and the care for the needy, a matter that is always close to Paul’s heart . . . will likewise become part and parcel of one’s life.[6]

Johnson’s ritually-informed interpretation allows us to clarify this dynamic; without becoming true Christians through their ritualized practice, the Corinthians quite literally cannot become the sorts of people capable of addressing the socio-economic malpractice of Corinthian society. But a “for the better” eucharist will re-shape them for faithfulness at the table and beyond. This interpretation, then, invites us to give greater attention to the moral future of the ritual practitioner in our consideration of the biography of a rite.

Third and finally, Johnson admits that considering rituals as “loaded with the presence of God himself” might be right to consider, but that this isn’t Scripture’s own focus. Attending to 1 Corinthians may force Johnson to reconsider the relationship between God’s presence and rituals performed in order to know, or, to say the same thing another way, the interplay between divine and human agency in ritual formation. Christ’s presence and work in and through the eucharist is emphasized repeatedly in 11:17-34, in the reference to the elements as Christ’s own body and blood, in the identification of one’s fellow congregant’s with the body of Christ, and perhaps most clearly, in the reference to Christ’s presence in judgment on their “for the worse” eucharist.[7]

Christ’s presence, though, is clearest in 10:16-17, where Paul declares that the meal they participate in is a koinonia-participation in the blood and body of Jesus. Because of this, Paul declares, “we who are many are one body, for we all share from the one loaf.” 

Here Paul clearly points to the straightforwardly observable ritual function of the meal. As with meals around the ancient world, to sit at the group’s table simply was to be a member of that group, with all the ritualized formation entailed. But at the same time, because this fellowship is with Jesus himself, this socially observable meal is also the apocalyptic site of transformation, the practice of a community rescued from the reign of sin and living under the lordship of grace.

Paul might therefore push Johnson to think more deeply about how to integrate an account of the observable ritualizing processes with an account of God’s own presence and agency within these same rituals. This, I suggest, will require us to move beyond reliance on ritual studies alone.[8]But for all the reasons Johnson has articulated so powerfully and so well, it need not, indeed cannot, involve leaving ritual studies behind

Michael J. Rhodes is Assistant Professor of Community Transformation at the Memphis Center for Urban and Theological Studies. He is the co-author, along with Robby Holt, of Practicing the King's Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Baker, 2018) and is currently completing a PhD dissertation on moral formation and economic ethics in biblical meal texts. 


[1]PierreBourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropologytrans. Richard Nice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 91.

[2]Alexandra Brown, The Cross and Human Transformation: Paul’s Apocalyptic Word in 1 Corinthians(Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), 163.

[3]Patterson argues that the translation “logic of the cross” is to be preferred over “word of the cross” so as not to miss the “active, moral function” suggested by the phrase (Jane Lancaster Patterson, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors of Sacrifice in 1 Corinthians and Philippians [Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2015], 125-6).

[4]I have argued all of this in greater detail in Michael Rhodes, “‘Forward unto Virtue’: Formative Practices and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,” Journal for Theological InterpretationII.1 (2017). 

[5]Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, ed. and trans. John H. Schutz (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1982), 164. 

[6]Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev.NICNT(Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 2014), 603 (italics added).

[7]This last element reminds us of another ritualized practice in 1 Corinthians, the practice of church discipline, which Paul summons them to practice when they are “assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus . . . and with the power of our Lord Jesus” (5:4).

[8]Careful readers will rightly suspect that I believe certain strands of the theological tradition of the virtues may provide assistance in drawing the insights from ritual studies together with an adequate account of divine agency in moral formation. Indeed, this is part of the task I am attempting in my dissertationentitled “Formative Feasts: Practices and Economic Ethics in Deuteronomy’s Tithe Meal and the Corinthian Lord’s Supper.”

Next Conversation

Dru Johnson’s outstanding essay “Moral and Ritual Knowing” is simply the latest entrée in his ongoing effort to demonstrate that ritual studies can serve the church in hearing and responding to Scripture. Focusing on the “ethical preparation” involved in the rituals of the Hebrew Bible, Johnson argues such preparation is “an essential feature of a ritual’s ability to ‘work.’” Such a claim opens up new vistas on the moral landscape of both the Bible and our own world. In this response, I want to ask how digging deeper into Johnson’s brief allusions to 1 Corinthians might deepen and extend the argument. 

RITUAL BECOMING IN CORINTH?

Johnson’s adaptation of Bell’s theory of ritualization is well-suited for exploring meals in 1 Corinthians. Paul writes to Christians whose lives prior to conversion were utterly determined by whichever rung they occupied in the imperial socio-economic hierarchy. Within this world, ritualized meals provided one primary way individuals came to know and discerningly act within that social structure. Through the embodied mechanics of the meal—where one ate, with whom, where one sat at the table, how the food got to the table, who ate which portions of it, etc.—meals shaped banqueters to know where they stood in the hierarchy and provided them with practical strategies for trying to move up within it. The social capital of wisdom and power could be gained, spent, or lost in the ritual performances of such meals, with serious socio-economic implications. 

Such was the world the Corinthians knew, and such was the world the Corinthians created and reinforced through their ritual meal practices. Indeed, such ritualized meals served as “structural apprenticeship[s]” that led to “the embodying of the structures of [their] world.”[1]

The problem? According to Paul, Christ had turned that world upside down through the cross and resurrection. Even more astoundingly, God had hand-picked the Corinthians precisely in order that they might participate in the destruction of that social hierarchy. “Look at your calling, brothers,” Paul writes.

not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are (1Co 1:26-28 RSV).

The rest of the letter makes clear that this “bringing to nothing” does not mean the literal death of the “higher ups,” but rather the “end [of] the world defined by the Corinthian categories of wisdom and power.”[2]

But even if the Corinthian Christians had some inkling of this in their brains, their bodies had been shaped by Corinthian ritual practice. Whatever facts they believed they knew about the cross, the strong and powerful in Corinth had long been habituated into the “wisdom of this age” (2:6; 3:19). The “logic of the cross,”[3]though, reveals such wisdom to be nothing more than immature foolishness. 

What then is the solution? Johnson’s work illuminates what otherwise might remain hidden: the Corinthians who think they are wise in this age must become fools so that they can become truly wise (3:18). And part of the way one becomes a “worldly fool” is by embracing a series of counter-cultural ritualized practices that shape the practitioner for the wise maturity needed to see the world and one’s neighbors through the lens of the cross. 

This is what Paul’s description of the eucharistic meal of 11:17-34 makes clear: the Corinthians gather for the worsebecause their meal is more Corinthian than Christian. Indeed, by ritually fostering Corinthian dispositions rather than cruciform ones, the church is ritually becoming Corinthian, rather than Christian. The solution is to reform their ritualized practice by a) discerning that one’s fellow congregants are members of Christ’s body, b) examining whether one’s behavior at the meals is mistreating others members, and c) welcoming one another at the meal.[4]The counter-cultural shape of this mutual welcome is further illuminated by 12:24: their meal ought to embody God’s own arrangement of the community, giving greater honor within the congregation precisely to those members that lack it in the culture at large. 

Johnson’s ritual interpretation thus proves as fruitful when reading Paul as when reading the prophets. Indeed, reading Paul in this way raises at least 3 areas for extending Johnson’s argument. 

PAULINE CONTRIBUTIONS TO RITUALLY-INFORMED INTERPRETATION

First, Johnson emphasizes the ethics of the back story of a rite’s biography, raising questions, for instance, about whether the first-fruits offered come from fields that welcomed immigrants to glean within them. This is deeply insightful. But Paul’s treatment of the eucharist places a different dynamic at the center: ethical failure at the culmination of the rite. Indeed, whereas Johnson suggests Paul critiques ethical behavior that occurred “apart from the meal,” based on the interpretation offered above, I would argue the Corinthians’ bad behavior occurs during the eucharistic feast. They despise the church of God and shame the poor in the way they arrange the chairs and measure out the portions.

This insight pushes us to ask about the ethics that occur at the center of the rite’s biography. To take a Hebrew Bible example, when considering the tithe and firstlings feast described in Deuteronomy 14:22-27, with Johnson we might explore the refusal to allow the immigrant to glean in one’s field as an ethical failure that occurs at the outer “edges” of the rite. Our exploration of the eucharist, however, pushes us to consider also violations that could occur at the very “center of gravity” of the ritual, such as neglecting to include the immigrant at the feast itself. 

Second, drawing on the “back history” of a rite’s biography, Johnson emphasizes the way that a rite can be “counterproductive.” He emphasizes this in terms of the way a rite might fail to shape the practitioner to know. But Paul’s implied suggestion that the Corinthians’ eucharist actually shaped them for the worse pushes us to reflect further on the ritually-shaped future biography of the ritual practitioner. 

The ritual failure at the Lord’s Supper doesn’t just leave practitioners ignorant, it habituates them into vice. The ritualized bodies created at a “for the worse” eucharist are disposed to reinforce a socio-economic hierarchy based on wisdom, power, and good breeding, rather than participate in its abolishment through counter-cultural mutual welcome. This insight allows us to reflect further on the way that a “for the better” meal practice could habituate the Corinthians into virtue.  

For instance, having apparently defended the cause of the disenfranchised for 16 verses, in 11:34a, Paul declares “if anyone is hungry, let them eat in the house, so that you all might not gather unto judgment.” Many scholars have followed Theissen in understanding this as Paul’s compromise with the Corinthian elite.[5]“Ok, ok,” Paul seems to say, “you can oppress the poor on your own time. Just keep that behavior out of church.” 

Gordon Fee is closer to the mark, writing:

As with the issue of slavery in Philemon, Paul attacks the system indirectly to be sure, but at its very core. Be a true Christian at the table, and the care for the needy, a matter that is always close to Paul’s heart . . . will likewise become part and parcel of one’s life.[6]

Johnson’s ritually-informed interpretation allows us to clarify this dynamic; without becoming true Christians through their ritualized practice, the Corinthians quite literally cannot become the sorts of people capable of addressing the socio-economic malpractice of Corinthian society. But a “for the better” eucharist will re-shape them for faithfulness at the table and beyond. This interpretation, then, invites us to give greater attention to the moral future of the ritual practitioner in our consideration of the biography of a rite.

Third and finally, Johnson admits that considering rituals as “loaded with the presence of God himself” might be right to consider, but that this isn’t Scripture’s own focus. Attending to 1 Corinthians may force Johnson to reconsider the relationship between God’s presence and rituals performed in order to know, or, to say the same thing another way, the interplay between divine and human agency in ritual formation. Christ’s presence and work in and through the eucharist is emphasized repeatedly in 11:17-34, in the reference to the elements as Christ’s own body and blood, in the identification of one’s fellow congregant’s with the body of Christ, and perhaps most clearly, in the reference to Christ’s presence in judgment on their “for the worse” eucharist.[7]

Christ’s presence, though, is clearest in 10:16-17, where Paul declares that the meal they participate in is a koinonia-participation in the blood and body of Jesus. Because of this, Paul declares, “we who are many are one body, for we all share from the one loaf.” 

Here Paul clearly points to the straightforwardly observable ritual function of the meal. As with meals around the ancient world, to sit at the group’s table simply was to be a member of that group, with all the ritualized formation entailed. But at the same time, because this fellowship is with Jesus himself, this socially observable meal is also the apocalyptic site of transformation, the practice of a community rescued from the reign of sin and living under the lordship of grace.

Paul might therefore push Johnson to think more deeply about how to integrate an account of the observable ritualizing processes with an account of God’s own presence and agency within these same rituals. This, I suggest, will require us to move beyond reliance on ritual studies alone.[8]But for all the reasons Johnson has articulated so powerfully and so well, it need not, indeed cannot, involve leaving ritual studies behind

Michael J. Rhodes is Assistant Professor of Community Transformation at the Memphis Center for Urban and Theological Studies. He is the co-author, along with Robby Holt, of Practicing the King's Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give (Baker, 2018) and is currently completing a PhD dissertation on moral formation and economic ethics in biblical meal texts. 


[1]PierreBourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropologytrans. Richard Nice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 91.

[2]Alexandra Brown, The Cross and Human Transformation: Paul’s Apocalyptic Word in 1 Corinthians(Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), 163.

[3]Patterson argues that the translation “logic of the cross” is to be preferred over “word of the cross” so as not to miss the “active, moral function” suggested by the phrase (Jane Lancaster Patterson, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors of Sacrifice in 1 Corinthians and Philippians [Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2015], 125-6).

[4]I have argued all of this in greater detail in Michael Rhodes, “‘Forward unto Virtue’: Formative Practices and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34,” Journal for Theological InterpretationII.1 (2017). 

[5]Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, ed. and trans. John H. Schutz (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1982), 164. 

[6]Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev.NICNT(Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 2014), 603 (italics added).

[7]This last element reminds us of another ritualized practice in 1 Corinthians, the practice of church discipline, which Paul summons them to practice when they are “assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus . . . and with the power of our Lord Jesus” (5:4).

[8]Careful readers will rightly suspect that I believe certain strands of the theological tradition of the virtues may provide assistance in drawing the insights from ritual studies together with an adequate account of divine agency in moral formation. Indeed, this is part of the task I am attempting in my dissertationentitled “Formative Feasts: Practices and Economic Ethics in Deuteronomy’s Tithe Meal and the Corinthian Lord’s Supper.”

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