When I was a young boy, two things stood out to me at the communion table. First, I knew it would be a long service because the pastor had no intentions of shortening his sermon for communion. Church would end no earlier than 12:15 instead of 12 noon.
The second thing I recall is a strange sense of fear. In his deep voice, the pastor would always make a strong point of I Corinthians 11:27-30 from the King James Version…
“Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.”
Get sick or die?
Like most protestant pastors, following the lead (unfortunately) of many commentaries, he stressed the need to be careful not to come to the table with unconfessed sin. Thus the call to examine ourselves lest we eat “unworthily.”
The focus, of course, turned inward as each person searched his or her soul for unconfessed sins. “In remembrance of me” got lost in the self-preserving, individualistic concern for protection from “damnation” (whatever that meant). Who wants to get sick or die?!
The apostle Paul would be deeply troubled by the way we have misunderstood and misapplied his teaching in I Corinthians 11. Many years later, I was studying this text and noticed that most commentators went right to this widely held misapplication instead of hearing the words in their actual context.
A protestant confessional booth?
The old translations of I Corinthians 11:27 align with the pattern of the KJV: “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily...” Most newer translations, however, capture the intended meaning better: “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner…” (ESV)” Small difference? Not really. Jesus alone has made us worthy.
In some ways, focus on “the worthiness of the participant” has turned the table into a kind of protestant confessional booth. “Let a man examine himself” becomes the opportunity to engage in a kind of introspection that actually promotes a violation of the primary concern raised in I Corinthians 11.
The “unworthy manner” of original concern was one of individualistic focus that sinfully violated both the unity of the body and care for the needy. It was a very specific issue being addressed in context. The concern related to the fellowship meal they shared at the time of remembrance. The verses surrounding the portion recited at communion (vv.23-32), provide clarity as to why Paul wanted them to examine themselves, and why some among them were weak, sick, and dead.
Paul wrote, “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?” (vv. 20-22).
Make the connection
The important connection is between the words used in vv. 23-32 and the final exhortation: “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.” (vv. 33-34).
Communion was never intended to be turned into what the protestant Church has made it over the years. We have turned it into an intense soul-searching effort to find and name unconfessed sin lest we partake as one unworthy. This emphasis actually facilitates the individualism that was at the root of the sinful division of the Church.
When Paul warns, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (v. 29), the body is the Church, the people of God. Failure to discern the body had to do with sinful disregard for the needs of others.
The focus required was on others, not myself. I must come to the time of remembrance in a way that promotes love and unity toward the body of believers. When I make it about me and my needs, I sin against the Lord. His sacrificial death brings us together in unity. To celebrate its remembrance in a divisive manner offends the sacrificial love of our Savior.
A strange question
You might ask, “Should we be unconcerned about remembering the Lord’s death with unconfessed sin in our lives?” Strange question. We should always and immediately confess our sins! Confess them preferably before gathering! The bread and the cup are a remembrance of Him (Jesus), not about protecting me from judgment! What I remember about Jesus is how he took away my sin as the lamb of God and how he sealed and secured my standing with God for eternity. More importantly, I remember this with my fellow believers who share in Christ with me.
There are other ways we could eat in an unworthy manner. A better example would be forbidding from the table those who are not living in harmony.
The violation of the unity of the Church and care for the less fortunate was the unworthy manner being addressed. Read the context. For an excellent handling of this text, see Gordon Fee, First Corinthians (NICNT).