Unworthy Communion

By Mike Mazzalongo Verse: I Corinthians 11:17-34 Posted: Sun. Oct 23rd 2011
Paul outlines proper conduct in public worship with regard to the Lord's Supper.
11:27 – 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.

Has it ever dawned on you that there may be times when we take communion in a way that is displeasing to God; in a way that causes us to be guilty of sin rather than washed clean of sin?

In I Corinthians 11, Paul rebukes a situation in the Corinthian church that was causing them to partake in an unworthy manner.

Unworthy Communion in Corinth

As we will read in a moment, Paul has received news about the conduct going on at this church. Among other things: there was competition for leadership, sexual immorality, and disorder between men and women in regards to teaching and position.

In this passage we get a glimpse of what problems they were having in the area of public worship, especially in celebrating the Lord's Supper.

Vs. 17 – But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse.

This verse is a bridge from the last set of instructions about veils and maintaining proper order between men and women. He says here that they have created disorder not only with the veil issue but with the next issue concerning the Lord's Supper as well.

Vs. 18 – For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that division exist among you; and in part I believe it.

It is interesting to note that Paul makes a distinction here about "coming together as a church."

Individual members are Christians and members of the church wherever they are but there is a special entity that is created when individual Christians consciously come together as "a church." Three brothers getting together for coffee and fellowship are all members of the church but they do not constitute "a church" when they get together. 10,000 people converge at a Christian college to hear speakers and share fellowship. They belong to the body but they are not a congregation. Christians can be together without being "a church."

What transforms a fellowship of Christians into a gathering of "a church" are the rules that guide their purpose and conduct during their meeting.

Christians are always supposed to act in a holy and proper way but when they gather as "a church" there are some procedures, goals and activities that they are required to have and do that are not required when they meet in a casual way.

  • There are no elders that oversee and direct a college lectureship, but if the same group decides to be "a church" they must select elders who will guide and oversee the group.
  • No communion is served at a lectureship, but if the group were "a church" they would need to prepare and serve the Lord's Supper on Sundays.
  • Lectureship has no duty to preach the gospel, care for the sick, etc., but if this group were to meet as "a church" they would be duty bound to carry out these tasks.

So if these brothers who are members of the church get together for coffee, all they have to do is have coffee. If they want to pray and encourage each other that is fine, and the Lord is among them, but they are not "a church." If these three brothers decide they want to be "a church" then they are required to function under the guidelines given by Jesus and the Apostles.

Paul is addressing this issue with the Corinthians. When they come together as "a church" they are bringing in many practices that are improper even outside the context of church life, let alone dragging them into the activity of the church.

Vs. 19-21 – For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you. Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first, and one is hungry and another is drunk.

He mentions four things that are improper not just in the church but outside the church as well.

  1. Division – There are cliques and groups that are not in fellowship or exclusive to one another.
  2. Competition – Different groups are supporting different leaders who are jockeying for position, like politics.
  3. Unkindness – What was supposed to be a love feast (fellowship meal) becomes an occasion of offense. They usually had their gathering in the evening because many were slaves and had duties seven days a week. They would have an evening meal as part of their fellowship, and called this a "love feast." The wealthy who had food came early and ate, the slaves who had no food, who had to work until sundown, arrived hungry and too late to eat.
  4. Revelry – Again, what is supposed to be a love feast turns into a pagan feast of excess where people get drunk. In New Testament times, Christians often shared a meal and had communion as a part of that meal. This was probably due to the fact that communion was instituted by Jesus during the Passover meal.
Vs. 22 – What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.

This verse is used by many to say that we are not allowed to eat in the building, and I respect those who feel this way and would not pressure them to go against their conscience, however, in those times the Apostles commented and participated in these love feasts (Paul did at Troas, Acts 20:7). Their teaching was that there should be true love and proper conduct during these times, not that the agape meals (what they were called) should be abolished.

In verse 22 Paul rebukes those who have been unkind. He doesn't say that you cannot have a love feast/agape meal (today: fellowship meal) rather, he instructs those who can't share or who can't wait for the participation of all to eat at home.

Vs. 23-26 – 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.

In these verses he reviews with them the purpose for the meeting and the meal in the first place: Jesus Christ. It's not about food or drink; it's not about who's first or who receives honor. The purpose for the church to gather is to honor Jesus Christ by sharing the Lord's Supper. The love feast is supposed to reflect the unity, love and nourishment of the entire body. What they were doing was the exact opposite.

Paul tells them that when they gathered together as "a church" it was for the express purpose of making a public statement that they were disciples of Jesus Christ. Communion was a silent witness of who they were and what they expected to happen. They were spoiling their witness by their conduct during the love feast. Paul tells them that if they can't do it correctly, they should stay at home to eat.

Paul now warns them about the possibility of taking communion in an unworthy manner, and the consequences of this.

Vs. 27 – 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.

A person who takes communion normally does so to signify that the body and blood of Christ removes their sins. To take communion improperly, as they were, has the opposite effect: it adds another sin to their charge. This is such a serious sin that Paul compares it to actually being guilty of crucifying the Lord all over again by their actions.

Vs. 28-29 – 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.

He warns them to examine their conduct and avoid the judgment and condemnation that comes with the behavior they have been involved in.

"Judging the body" can mean:

  • Discerning or understanding that the communion represents the Lord's body, and to take the elements that represent the Lord's body in an improper way is an offense against the body these elements represent.
  • Discerning the nature of the church (the body) as a loving and holy fellowship. To act improperly in or against those is an offense against the head of the body: Jesus Christ.

Either way, taking communion unworthily is an offense to God in Christ, as well as His church.

Vs. 30 – For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.

In that time the displeasure of God for this offense seemed to be manifested by illness and death in the church. These people had gifts of healings but because of their conduct, their gifts were not working, many were struck with illness and death.

Vs. 31-32 – But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.

If they conducted themselves properly then God would not punish them. However, if they are being punished, they should submit to it because God ultimately wants to save their souls.

Vs. 33-34 – So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.

Paul does not abolish the love feast, he merely gives instructions concerning it. If you can't wait for each other, eat at home and avoid condemnation and punishment. Keep the love feast, just make sure you do it properly by keeping the love in the love feast.

Summary

A few lessons about this passage:

  1. In order to be "a church" we must follow the instructions for worship, organization, work, etc. outlined in the New Testament. Christians who gather together in one spot do not automatically constitute "a church or congregation."
  2. It is possible to take communion in an unworthy manner today by acting improperly towards Jesus and His body, the church. To proclaim the Lord's death as a silent witness by taking communion, but giving a witness of disbelief by your actions and words each day is to bring judgment on yourself. Communion is a silent way to say, "I believe," your lifestyle the rest of the week needs to match your witness on Sunday. Would someone believe that you have taken communion on Sunday by the way you act on Monday?
  3. Acting unworthily towards the body of Jesus. The Corinthians were judged because they treated their brethren badly and acted badly in the assembly. How can we refuse to support the church, not serve the church, speak badly about the church, neglect our responsibilities in the church, act in a disrespectful way at church (bad speech, practice our bad habits, act foolishly during worship) – and then take communion? Perhaps our lives would go better in our day if we judged the body rightly.
  4. Communion is the true "love feast." Remember that they ate together to signify that they were one body, that they loved each other and that they were all growing in Christ. I believe it is permissible to eat together in the building because they did it then; however, let's remember that their love feast was there to prepare them for the true love feast which was communion. Let's have our fellowship dinners, but let's remember that they should be about love, sharing and growth – not just about convenience and food.
Reading Assignment:  I Corinthians 12:12