Do Not Take Communion in an Unworthy Manner.
In 1 Corinthians 11:27, Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians to not take Communion in what he calls an “unworthy manner”. In the following two verses, Paul warns the reader to examine himself and to “discern the body” before eating the bread and drinking the wine. What exactly does this mean? I’ve had many well-meaning Christian friends who believe that this means we are to pass on communion if there is sin in our lives that hasn’t been dealt with or some kind of big, unconfessed sin. However, I don’t agree with this view. Not only does this view take these verses out of context, but it completely misses the point of communion in the first place.
Let’s first look at the context of this 1 Corinthians passage. Up to this point, Paul had been addressing the profoundly un-Christian disunity in the Corinthian church.
The Context: What is happening in the Corinthian Church?
1. Divisions over who they follow. Paul mentions this in a couple of places. Instead of being united under the gospel of Christ, they divide into factions based on who brought the gospel of Christ.
2. Boasting in their “freedom” to sin. The Corinthians were living in blatant sexual sin and boasting in their freedom to sin. They were also doing benign things that were morally offensive to others and using it as an opportunity to rub it in their faces to prove their “superior” faith in their freedom in Christ.
3. Fellow Christians suing one another. Fellow Corinthian Christians were going to the courts to settle their disputes. Paul reminds them that we, the saints, will judge the world. If we follow the Prince of Peace, shouldn’t we be the experts on settling disputes rather than the world?
Now with that context in mind and returning to the passage at hand (1 Cor. 11:17-34), what were the Corinthians doing that made their manner of communion “unworthy”? What would make it “worthy”?
What is an unworthy manner?
1. Sowing disunity. Paul begins by saying that when they came together, they were actually more divided because they were using it as an opportunity to make their separate allegiances known. Their divisions only became more evident. They were not unified in Christ.
2. Self-indulgence. They were using communion to serve their physical appetites, something it was never meant to do. Paul says, “If you’re hungry, make a sandwich in your own kitchen. It’s not a time to serve your own appetites, it’s a time to proclaim the Lord’s death.” They were not eating the Lord’s Supper; they were eating their own supper.
3. Attempting to prove moral and theological superiority. Some of these groups were eating all the bread and drinking the wine until they were drunk while others received nothing. Some believed they were more “worthy” of communion than others, so they hoarded the elements for themselves. Paul says that through this they were both hating and humiliating their fellow Christians.
What is a worthy manner?
1. Understand that you are not worthy. This is a paradox. Jesus gave us many paradoxes: The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, etc. Another one of these paradoxes is that it is the humble who will be exalted, and only those who approach the Lord’s table humbly are worthy to partake.
It sounds really holy to say that we passed on communion because of sin in our lives. However, this comes from a belief, however so small, that we have the ability to clean ourselves up before we approach Christ.
But the problem with this idea is that we will never be cleaned up enough or “confessed up” enough to deserve the body and blood of Christ. The whole point of communion is to remind us that we are wholly unworthy of the status Christ has purchased for us.
In our good weeks, communion reminds us of the grace of God that strengthens and sanctifies. In our bad weeks, communion reminds us of the grace of God that cleanses and forgives.
Communion should never be avoided because we’ve sinned because this implies that we only take communion when we are at an acceptable level of sinfulness. It should always point to Christ and not our own righteousness. It should not divide Christians and place them on pedestals or in pits; we are all on level ground at the cross. We are all sinners who fall immeasurably short. To take communion in a worthy manner means that we realize that we are all equally unworthy of the broken body and shed blood of Christ.