The Unworthy Manner

In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is recounting the institution by Jesus to His disciples in the upper room of what today we call the Lord’s Supper.  It is the partaking of bread and wine (or juice) by the church body to remember the sacrifice Jesus made to secure the salvation of those who call on His name as the Savior (Isa. 53:11-12; Joel 2:32).

Paul writes “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged“…”So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.” (1 Cor. 11:27-31, 33-34).  It is this passage and it’s common interpretation by a number of Christians which I seek to address.  I realize my interpretation is not widely held but I believe it is biblically accurate.

The traditional interpretation of the Corinthians passage suggests Paul is instructing the believer to examine himself in that there are no unconfessed or knowing continual sin in his life.  That this makes the Christian “unfit” to take part in the Lord’s Supper, that there are personal qualifications which must be obtained to worthily partake.  To partake in a worthy manner is to “be right with God”, to have repented of continual sin not harboring any “pet” sins.  And that one must abstain from the Lord’s Supper until he is fit to do so, for partaking in an unworthy manner is eating and drinking judgement on oneself.  Additionally, in order to partake one must be a professing believer.  But, is this really the idea Paul is attempting to convey?

In order to come to an accurate conclusion as to the message Paul is teaching we must take the entire passage into account.  We will examine the passages both before and after which will give us the proper context and therefore a proper understanding.

“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.”  (1 Cor. 11:20-22)

Immediately prior to the passage in question Paul is addressing a group of Christians who are gathering together apparently for the Lord’s Supper.  He describes the situation to be that the people are treating the Lord’s Supper as an ordinary meal and getting intoxicated on the wine, though they think they are doing the Lord’s Supper, they are not.  The church is being reprimanded for not having their meal at home.  The next verse (v. 23) goes on to say Paul had previously delivered to the Corinthian church the Lord’s Supper.  The phrase “shall I commend you in this?” indicates that the church is engaging in what it deems is the Lord’s Supper but the behavior is unacceptable for the event.

Next is Paul’s received tradition of the ordinance: For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which 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 He took the cup also 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. (1 Cor. 11:23-26).  Here Paul is recounting the tradition he had received from Jesus which he had previously passed to the church at Corinth.  Paul is reviewing what the Lord’s Supper actually is.  That it is symbolic of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood on the cross which is the institution of the new covenant, and that it should be done in remembrance of Jesus, contrasting what the church was doing with what it actually is.

Following the review of what the Lord’s Supper is, Paul further writes: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged”…”So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.” (1 Cor. 11:27-31, 33-34).  Paul here is giving a warning to whoever is partaking of the Lord’s Supper.  It is a warning as to the consequences of wrongly participating in the ordinance.  Eating and drinking in an unworthy manner brings judgement to the one doing so.

Let me just quickly summarize the entire passage before moving on.

  • Paul describes that though some of the members of the Corinthian church are eating and drinking what they describe as the Lord’s Supper, they are treating it like an ordinary meal.  Diving right into the food, some even getting drunk.
  • Next Paul recounts what the Lord’s Supper actually is meant to represent.
  • Then Paul concludes with a warning to anyone who participates without examining themselves, that it is to be done in unison, and anyone who wishes to eat a meal to do so at home.

I do not believe the traditional interpretation is the correct one.  In fact the idea to examine yourself as it is understood by the traditional view is completely foreign to the text.  Throughout the text Paul is admonishing the church for a faulty understanding of the Lord’s Supper.  First he condemns their party-like behavior, then  re-explains what the supper actually represents, and lastly he goes on to warn the people about misjudging the evening’s intention, that they are not judging rightly what it is they are doing.  The traditional view interrupts the text by introducing the notion that Paul has changed the subject mid-passage from the church member’s behavior and failure to understand what the Lord’s Supper is all about, and shifted it to an inward examination of your personal continual and unconfessed sins in your life.  In fact the end of the passage clearly tells you that you avoid the judgement by eating at home if you’re hungry.  That it is the food and what you are understanding the food to be, a meal or the rememberance of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.  This would be the perfect opportunity and the proper place for Paul to say the partaking would be unworthy unless the believer would carefully examine themselves for personal ongoing and unconfessed sin, and that doing so would avoid judgement.

I believe this (unintentional) mistake is due to repeated isolation of the description of the Lord’s Supper in verses 23-26, and the beginning of the passage warning against partaking in an unworthy manner in verses 27-29.  Since taken as a whole starting at verse 20 and continuing all the way through verse 34, one can see Paul is admonishing the church about the behavior they are exhibiting while they are participating in the Lord’s Supper and a warning against doing so irreverently.  Pauls uses the term “therefore” when beginning his ‘unworthy’ discourse he is literarily linking the passage above describing the church’s behavior and the proper description of the representation of the Lord’s Supper so that the following commentary about what is unworthy is the behavior and thus the warning of Paul about judgement; and how to avoid the judgement by simply correcting the behavior by eating your meal at home, since the Lord’s Supper is not intended to be your meal.

While I agree only believers ought to participate in the Lord’s Supper, it is not explicit in the text and is an idea imposed upon it rather than drawn from it.  This does seem to be stating the obvious, since under what circumstance would an unbeliever desire to participate?  However since I do not believe the traditional view has rightly interpreted the passage concerning unworthy partaking, I also do not believe the partaking unbeliever is bringing judgement on themselves by doing so.

I believe if you were to read over the entire passage a few times, the understanding I lay out will come to bear out as the proper interpretation concering the ‘unworthy’ passage.  Taken as a whole Paul is clear about his admonishment, clarification, and warning and correction to the church.  No bible passage should be read in isolation.  In fact you should never read a bible verse .  All context trickles down from the larger scope of a passage to understand the individual verses.  Every passage has a certain flow of thought the author is attempting to convey.  If your understanding-or mine for that matter-of a verse seems out of place in the overall idea of the paragraph, it is probably the wrong understanding.

Any Thoughts?

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