Well, finally carved out the time to get this up. For my money, this passage has been fundamentally misunderstood (or maybe under-read), which has led to a lot of misunderstanding about the Lord’s Supper. I think you’ll be surprised at what it says. Please note the underlining.
17 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.
Paul notes right away that when the Corinthians get together for the Lord’s Supper, something is amiss. Something is going on that he cannot commend or approve of.
18 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, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.
Paul’s charge is straightforward. When the Corinthians meet for the Lord’s Supper, they are doing something that invalidates it as being a true observance of the Lord’s Supper. Paul alludes to a factionalism problem, but then he gets more specific.
21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 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.
This description may seem odd until one realizes that, originally (just as at Passover and the Last Supper), there was a meal associated with the Lord’s Supper. We know from ancient descriptions of what the early Christians did that a “love feast” was tied to the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Paul describes how the Corinthians were abusing the situation:
- Paul says that “each one goes ahead with his own meal” – apparently, some were bellying up to the table and eating their fill and others got neglected and went hungry. Additionally, this bit of information let’s us know that a good amount of food was present-enough to fill a number of people as a regular meal (to the expense of others). Paul was angry that certain people were being humiliated when they tried to participate in the meal. He can’t commend the behavior.
- Some people were getting drunk. Again, this is evidence that a good amount of wine was present-not just one cup full for people to pass around. This was a meal spread out for the people in the church.
23 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, 24 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.” 25 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.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Several items to observe here:
- Paul’s language clearly links his understanding of the Lord’s Supper to the Last Supper, not John 6, which isn’t connected to the Last Supper.
- Paul says he had received this instruction directly from the Lord. This is noteworthy in that, if you go back and look at the gospel accounts of the Last Supper, there is a command to “take and eat,” but only one (Luke 22:19-20) has the command “do this in remembrance of me.” In fact, this is one of only two comments or commands in the New Testament about WHY we are to observe the Lord’s Supper. One wonders why we have come up with so many reasons to observe the Lord’s Supper.
- The other reason we are to observe the Lord’s Supper is to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” This eschatological (end times) element of the Lord’s Supper is mentioned in all the gospel accounts of the Last Supper.
27 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. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Here’s where we get into especially disputed territory. What does it mean to eat and drink “in an unworthy manner”? Why should we examine ourselves? What does “discerning the body” mean? With respect to what should we judge ourselves so as to avoid being disciplined by God with sickness and even death? Just about everyone (but not all) I’ve read in evangelical circles on this assumes that the issue is unconfessed sin in the heart of the partaker, and so teaches that we need to confess sin before partaking, or make restitution with a wronged brother before partaking. Obviously, those are good ideas and the right thing to do in general. I have no problem with them. I do have a problem with this being the point with this interpretation of what the Paul was talking about for two reasons: (1) Paul says nothing about the need to confess sin before partaking, or making sure we’re right with God-that has been imported into the passage; and (2) it ignores what Paul has just told us is the problem: the manner in which the Lord’s Supper was being abused.
I would submit to you that Paul actually tells us what he means by partaking “unworthily,” and once we understand that, the rest falls into place. Eating and drinking in an unworthy manner means conducting the Lord’s Supper in the manner Paul just condemned: taking too much food so that others go hungry and getting drunk. The Greek word “unworthy” (ἀναξίως; anaksiōs) is the opposite of the word “worthy (ἄξιος; aksiōs). The word aksios means “deserving praise or commendation; worthy of being well received or commended; acceptable”). It doesn’t mean something like “sinful” or “backslidden.” The word in 1 Cor 11:27, then, means “unacceptable; not deserving commendation.” What has Paul just NOT commended? The way the Lord’s Supper was being abused.
If we accept this idea, that committing the kinds of abuses Paul specifically describes is what Paul means by eating and drinking in an unworthy (unacceptable, uncommendable) manner, what about the rest of the passage?
- We ought to “examine ourselves” = make sure you aren’t guilty of these abuses; don’t be hypocritical here; listen to what the apostle has said and obey it.
- If we take heed – if we don’t use the Lord’s Supper like a smorgasboard so that our behavior results in people going away hungry, or we don’t get drunk-then God will not have to discipline us.
- “discerning the body” = assessing the needs of those (the body of Christ at Corinth = the Corinthian church) who have come to the feast and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
I know this sounds simple-maybe too simple-but it’s what’s actually in the text. How can I/you be sure? Look at how Paul finishes up his discussion of the Lord’s Supper-he tells readers what he’s thinking, and so answers the questions raised above:
33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, WAIT FOR ONE ANOTHER– 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home-so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
The phrase “it will not be for judgment” is important. It is the same word (krima) here that Paul used in the phrase, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Paul is referencing his earlier warning here, and the way to take heed to this warning is (a) not to pig out before everyone gets a chance to eat; and (b) if you’re that hungry-eat at home first so that the poor don’t suffer humiliation.
To wrap up the topic, I would submit to you that the purpose of the Lord’s Supper is very simple: To remember the Lord’s death until he comes. That’s it. Everything else that has accrued around this doctrine does not derive from the text; it derives from the writings of theologians, which are historically conditioned. Catholicism wants to filter the whole thing through John 6, and then literalize that. Luther didn’t want his doctrine to be what the catholics said, but what the catholics taught was what he knew. He tried to steer a sort of middle course, but the end result is reading far too much into the purpose of the Lord’s Supper. Baptist and others may have avoided that baggage, but have added their own, making the Lord’s Supper into some sort of confessional rite. Many have forbidden children since they have taught you get grace (for various purposes) in the rite (which is nowhere said). But I would submit that everyone, including children, can partake and remember how Jesus died on the cross and that, someday, they will get to observe the Supper with the Lord himself present when he returns. It might just capture their imagination a bit.