It has been awhile since I made a YouTube video and thought it was about time! I chose a passage of scripture that for pretty much my entire Christian life I have seen misused in the context of a communion service. Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and please be sure to share this post if you liked the video, so more can see it! (below is a transcript if you'd rather read it than watch it).
In this video I want to talk about what I think is a very misunderstood and misused passage in churches today. So let’s dive right in.
Depending on how often your church practices communion, inevitably the words from 1 Corinthians Chapter 11 is read. Verses 17 to 22 states this:
“But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.”
So here’s the scenario — when the early church got together to celebrate the Lord’s supper it was a communal meal together. Churches today don’t really do this anymore, rather it has become a part of a larger service, usually with just a small piece of bread and a small cup of wine or juice. But the early church wasn’t that way - They got together for a full meal - just like Jesus and his disciples. Now the problem was that they were not actually sitting down together as a church. Because of the divisions in the church - whether the divisions were over loyalties to one apostle or another, or social and class divisions - when they were coming together some people were having their fill, thinking that it was just about the food, and not the communion that they were to have together with the Lord. So some people came early, ate and drank too much or all of the food, and then later groups would come and not have anything or very little. Paul tells those people who were eating everything and drinking everything, “you despise the Church of God and humiliate those who have nothing.” This was the context under which Paul wrote this passage. This was the problem he was addressing.
Paul states in the next few verses: "“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
So here’s where the English language fails us a little, and consequently we don’t fully hear what Paul is saying. You see, in English the word “you" can be either singular you, or plural you (as in you all). That’s why I like to tell my students when I teach them Greek to use the word “y’all” for the plural form. So look at this passage again and let me show you where you is plural. “I also delivered to y’all”, “which is for y’all,” as often as y’all drink it,” “as often as y'all eat this bread,” “y’all proclaim the Lord’s death.” Paul is reminding the reader’s that the practice of the Lord’s supper is a Congregational practice. It’s not something that should be subject to the whims of certain individuals or groups. He’s reminding them that right from the beginning this was an act done together as disciples of Jesus. And of course at the very end, he emphasizes that the act, done together, is the proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes. The implication of course, is that what the Corinthian church was doing was not properly proclaiming the Lord’s death because they weren’t doing it together.
So now we get to the misused portion in many of our churches. Paul continues and says: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself … So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home. (1 Corinthians 11:27–29, 33–34, ESV)
So as you can see, now that we’ve understood the context, Paul’s correction makes sense. I’ve underlined and bolded – "so then my brothers when you come together to eat wait for one another.” Paul has told us in the previous verses what the “unworthy manner” was – Eating to get your fill as if it was just a common potluck dinner, instead of together as a congregation proclaiming the Lord’s death. Readers today have misunderstood the "unworthy manner" because of not understanding the context, and of course this one line “let a a person examine himself” has come to be used very differently.
For Paul, "let a person examine himself," was his reminder to remember what communion was really about, "to proclaim the Lord’s death together." He was reminding them that it is a communal act, and was so since its inception. So he was telling them suppress your appetite, and eat together. But today in most churches, we ignore the original context of this one line. We tend to under-emphasize the communal aspect of this meal. Obviously most churches today don’t actually do a communal meal, And even in the way that we do take the bread and the wine, it is often more of a solo practice done in the presence of the church - and I think churches today would do well to find creative ways of making this more of a communal act. But most importantly, we have pulled this one line, “let a person examine himself," and we use it to ask the individual congregation member to see if their heart is right with the Lord, if they feel worthy, prior to partaking in the bread and the wine. This is clearly not what Paul was saying. First off, what exactly does it mean for my heart to be right with the Lord? I would wager to say that if you feel worthy to take the Lord’s supper, as in you are worthy of this free gift of salvation, then your heart is in fact not right with the Lord! Just think about the very first Lord’s supper – Jesus sitting around with his disciples, knowing full well that Judas was about to betray him, Peter was about to deny him, and the rest of them are going to flee. None of them were worthy, and yet he passed out the bread and wine anyway. But most importantly, in individualizing this passage to be about the individual congregation member and how they might be feeling or living in that moment and whether they have dealt with their sin or not, ignores the whole point of what Paul was saying the Lord’s supper was about. This wasn’t an individual act from the Christian to God. It is a communal proclamation of the Lord’s death.
So what is the proper use of this passage in the context of the of communion today? First of all we need to recognize that most churches are not at all in danger of doing this in the unworthy manner to which Paul was referring. It might be that your church does do communal meals every time you practice the Lord’s supper, and if that is the case good on you because you are practicing it just like the early church did. But most churches aren't, so this danger no longer applies. We of course need to remember what Paul was actually talking about. And to use this passage properly in our churches today we need to: 1) remind the congregation that this is a communal, and joyous!, proclamation of Christ’s finished work on the cross. 2) we need to remind believers that they have been made worthy by Jesus himself and commanded to partake. I emphasize the believer portion because this is a practice specifically for born-again believers, and we have been commanded by Jesus himself to do this together. And finally 3), we need to stop misusing the line about examining oneself to reflect on their individual worthiness. None of us are “worthy” of God’s grace, it is a free gift! If every one of us, including every pastor who administers communion on Sundays, were to truly examine their hearts to see if they were worthy – well, no one should be taking communion! Luckily, it is not about you and your righteousness, but rather Christ and his.