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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #27: When does a believer take Communion in an unworthy manner?

I am taking a short break from examining Jesus’ good news of the kingdom to continue to speak to the subject of Communion. Years ago I hosted a vigorous discussion about Paul’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper with a group of pastors from different traditions. At stake was the request of one pastor to serve Communion to the shut-ins at the town’s only nursing home, since he felt the weekly service we all took turns leading was their true ‘church’ now. One of my friends suggested that this would constitute taking Communion in an ‘unworthy manner’ since other pastors in the room (including the requesting pastor) did not believe the same things about Communion.

Paul, who was a Hebrew of the Hebrews and also a Pharisee before his conversion, understood the covenantal aspect of the Lord’s Supper better than the people who made up the Corinth church. Some of these people were evidently wealthy enough to be able to host a congregation in their homes. Following the customs of the time, they would put on a supper for their close friends in the church, but also allow the poorer members to show up to observe (that is, watch their betters eat) the meal—they were there for the ‘entertainment’ and not the food. And so they were excluded, since the wealthier members considered their dinners as having the Lord’s Supper together.

Paul did not think so. He spoke forcefully, “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.” (1 Corinthians 11:20-21) This exclusion of others who were present and not offered a morsel to eat was not merely repugnant because it smacked of snobbishness. It went against the very nature of Communion as a covenant meal. Sharing in Communion meant that, “We belong. We are included.” Communion, at its heart, was about being in Jesus’ community—in communion with God and all the others in covenant with Him.

They had twisted it to mean, “We are special. We can retain our social distance and be Christian at the same time.” Draw a direct line between this rebuke and what Paul is saying about taking Communion in the following verses.

“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” 1 Corinthians 11:27-29

Paul’s concern was that these wealthy members were actually guilty of sinning against the covenantal sacrifice of Christ. Their treatment of fellow believers for whom Jesus died was what Paul saw as taking Communion in an unworthy manner. Their unworthy manner divided the church into factions—the haves and the have-nots… or the theologically correct and the incorrect, for that matter—and chose to ignore the fact that Jesus has now made us one body through the good news of the kingdom. No superiors. No inferiors. All equal at the foot of the cross.

You cannot call this shared meal Communion and at the same time exclude members of your covenantal family. To do so is stating that you know of whom God approves better than He does. That is what is unworthy. It invites judgment from God.

“So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.” (1 Corinthians 11:33) This is what it means to be the body of Christ. Our covenant meal includes rather than excludes people who are different from each other, because through the cross, they were made family.

-Steve Smith