Border protection and the Lords Supper: 4 – but what about 1 Corinthians 11?

Posted: February 17, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Church history, Discipleship, Pastoral issues, Theology

As a school teacher and later as a parent I have been witness to many attempts at reading, and I’m quite conscious of how difficult it can be to read and understand a written text. There are so many ways to misunderstand writing.

But I have to admit, of all the bad reading and failed reading attempts I have encountered over the years, the worst of all has been that of evangelical Christians when attempting to read the Bible. We evangelicals seem to be pre-programmed to misread Scripture. We do it habitually.

I won’t attempt here to go into the reasons for this, but one of the most spectacular examples (out of a pretty strong field of contenders) is what we have done with 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul writes about the Lord’s Supper.

This is the one and only Scripture we have relied on to construct our evangelical Lord’s Supper practice, with its emphasis on protecting the table from outsiders. Paul writes:

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.  28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 

To take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner is to ‘eat and drink judgment against themselves.’ (v.30).

Reading this passage we have traditionally heard St Paul saying:

1. only insiders and ‘approved people’ may participate’

2. outsiders or unapproved people who participate are doing themselves harm and incurring God’s anger.

3. it is therefore the duty of the church to warn off unapproved people or outsiders.

4. every participant is in danger of accidentally eating in an unworthy manner. This would bring down God’s judgement on them.

5. unconfessed sin would lead to an unworthy participation. But unconfessed sin is often invisible and may not even be recognised by the guilty person. Thus:

6. each participant should spend time in self-examination before the communion, in case there are any sins they have overlooked and not repented of.

Major emphasis: excluding outsiders and unbelievers from the table.

The main problem with this construction, however, is that almost none of it can be found in 1 Corinthians 11, the one and only proof text for our evangelical practice.

It is not that hard to find out what the apostle was actually trying to say – he’s clearer than usual in this chapter.

TomorrowWhat St Paul really said – about communion

  1. J –
    while 1 Cor. 11 contains the traditional words of institution spoken before the Supper, is it really accurate to say that “this is the one and only Scripture we have relied on to construct our evangelical Lord’s Supper practice”? Kinda thought there were a number of other places we read about this Supper and how it went down, like, say, the gospels which record the same event that Paul is referring to in 11:23-26. The problem with 1 Cor. 11 is that most of the book is one big rebuke of how messed up this church is at Corinth. So we have one clear instance here where Paul is setting down for them how they’re getting it wrong and how they need to correct their course. But i don;t think one can authoritatively say this is the “only Scripture” by which evangelicals base their practice of the Lord’s Supper on. That just isn’t the case.

    • J says:

      Wesley, you’re quite right, and my claim was not strictly accurate.

      In context in this series of posts, I was really meaning our practices to do with protecting the Lord’s table from outsiders and sinners. There seems to be really only one passage that we use for that.

      • I agree to some extent with your series. The Table is absolutely for sinners b/c we are *all* sinners and therefore stating that we should not partake if we have unconfessed sin or if we’ve had a bad week, etc. is unbiblical and wrong. That said, i don’t think that means that just anyone can come and take Communion.
        The reasons for this are many but i’ll just name a few:
        1. Why would someone who doesn’t love Jesus or believe in what the Supper symbolizes even *want* to partake? It is completely void of meaning or significance to someone who does’t love Jesus. It’d be like me joining in with some Satanists in a chicken sacrifice. I don’t believe in what they are doing and it has absolutely none of the meaning for me that it does for them. Why would i even want to participate in something that has no meaning to me?
        2. Every instance of the Lord’s Supper being practiced post resurrection is in the context of the gathered people of God/church service. Beyond that, 1 Cor. is written to a church. Now, i don;t believe for a moment that everyone in a visible church is truly saved. But it is meant to be a Supper eaten among family (of God) just as the Passover (the context of the last supper) was a family supper that Israel was to commemorate each year remembering their deliverance from Egypt.

        In other words, there is a much broader context including a great deal of the sweep of Scripture that would indicate that those who do not profess to love Christ should not eat at this table which pre-figures (in one sense) a future supper in heaven that they will also not partake of; do you think no one will be restricted from that table in heaven?

        All this said, it is sad to see unbiblical and manipulative standards placed on the table that just should not be there. Another interesting thought to consider is that Communion and Baptism and much less ordinances that must be followed and obeyed by Christians, but gifts from God to His church in order to minster, feed, strengthen His children.

      • J says:

        Wesley thanks for thinking through this with me. Your first point is about psychology. My experience is that people do not divide neatly into believers and unbelievers. There are plenty of people we are ministering to who are on a journey toward Jesus but even they probably aren’t sure where they stand right now. We certainly aren’t sure. Can’t see faith in the heart!
        So there’s actually all sorts of people round here who want to take part in the Lord’s Supper. Not just clear, committed believers. Interesting, huh. Turns out things are a lot messier than I’d like them to be, in mission work.

        your second point, agreed the Lord’s Supper is always a church meal. No one’s questioning that. But whether that implies that outsiders are not welcomed to join in – that I’m not so sure about. You may be interested to notice that outsiders were permitted to share in the Passover meal in Israel.

        I’m not sure what the broad sweep is that indicates some people should be excluded when the church celebrates this meal.
        Maybe you’d like to say more about that?

      • One more thought came to me this morning:
        Also, the ordinances (or sacraments) are gifts God gave to His church, His adopted sons and daughters, specifically – not to the world in general. In my thinking, this is one of the key reasons that we don’t administer the Lord’s Supper (or baptize for that matter) those who do not profess to be a part of that family.

  2. J –
    Thank you for your cordial interaction with me as well; rare on the internet.
    1. agreed: people do not *always* divide neatly into believer and unbeliever, but, on the whole and in the increasingly secular contexts of the Western world, they pretty much do. Beyond that, whatever we can see externally, you have to admit that there is a very clear, decisive moment when regeneration takes place and someone is adopted into the family of God. That may not even be when *we* think it was, but, it is a clear transfer from death to life, darkness to light. So, yes, i suppose i am making a psychological point at one level, but i’m also making (trying to) a theological one: whatever we can see or not see, regeneration is not a process and someone’s conversion experience is often more of a progressive realization of something that has already taken place.

    2. As to outsiders being permitted to eat the Passover, yes, you are right. But look closely at what God says about their inclusion in Ex. 12:43-48. Foreigners and hired servants may be permitted, *but* they must first be circumcised. Circumcision, Rom. 4 tells us was much more than just a ethic identity marker, but a sign and seal of faith. Transfer that to NT and present day times, God Himself is the one fencing His table, not us. There are preconditions to taking the supper, viz. faith in the “Lamb” who was sacrificed and which we are commemorating in the Supper.

    3. As to the broad sweep, i am referring to conditional inclusion in places like Ex. 12 which is constant throughout the OT that the sign of faith, viz. circumcision, be given to foreigners who wish to be included in the blessing and promises of God, prefiguring the Gentile inclusion into the faith in the gospel in places like Isa. 42:6,7, Luke 2:32, Acts 10, Rom. 11, etc.) I guess a good deal of the sweep also has to do with what you think the Lord’s Supper is all about as well. If it’s just a part of the service where we remember what Jesus did and we just recreate the meal He ate to do that, then maybe it does;t matter who eats, for then it’s just an external show. But if the Supper looks back to the Passover meal which prefigures the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf; if it looks ahead to the marriage Supper of the Lamb when those who are adopted into God’s family will eat together in heaven with our God; and presently offering God’s grace to strengthen our faith and feed our hungry souls with His own flesh and blood, then it just can’t be something that anyone just walking in off the street who has no knowledge of and/or love for God or what He did can partake of. And all those things are not the creation of the church but what the bible teaches us about what the table means to Christians.
    Beyond that, Christianity in the early church was a persecuted religion and people were;t just inviting their un-saved friends to church to hear about Jesus. They were meeting in secret and identifying with Jesus (“the Way”) with great personal cost to themselves. So, it is also ridiculous to imagine unbelievers just checking out a gathering of Christians and eating the Lord’s Table with them. They would not want to incur the scorn and persecution for something they didn’t even believe in. That is one reason i find the whole inclusion of unbelievers or those who are “just checking this Christianity thing out” to be an anachronistic expression that would not have been true in the early church.

    I dunno. does any of that resonate with you?

  3. J says:

    Yes some of it does, Wesley.

    on 1., you’re right regeneration is not a process. But since it is invisible, for this discussion I think we’ll have to stick to the more visible matter of conversion. which is very often a process. So you end up needing to ask, at what point in that process is a person allowed to take the Lord’s Supper?

    On 2. I feel you’re overplaying your hand on circumcision. No one would really maintain that circumcision was evidence of faith, in Israel. They just all did it. In fact it was not even a clear identity marker, since many other semitic groups practiced circumcision, not just the Jews. Hittites, for example.

    What strikes me is how loose and open the passover laws are about outsiders. “When a stranger staying among you makes Passover to Yahweh – let all his males be circumcised and then he can and make it, and be treated just like the native born Israelite [for the purposes of the celebration]”. (my literal translation)

    Wow, that’s pretty open. Such a slight requirement. Anyone visiting Israel for a while can take part, no requirement to swear absolute loyalty to Yahweh, no test of faith, no swearing to give up foreign gods, he doesn’t have to become an Israelite or stay long term. He can come and go between countries. Just the basic sign of the devout respectable Semite needs to be there: circumcision. Then the visitor can celebrate it just like the Israelites did.

    On 3, I agree the Lord’s Supper ‘looks ahead to the marriage Supper of the Lamb’. I agree with you that it’s more than just a remembrance of Jesus’ death. But I’ve never read any hint that we believers need to defend or protect that ultimate marriage supper in any way. Rather it seems to me the emphasis is on its openness to anyone who wants to be part of it. Indeed on God’s eagerness to encourage everyone to come and join the celebration. “Go out into the fields and lanes…and make them come in!”
    I reckon it would be good if our Lord’s Supper practice reflected that reality. Rather than the defensive stance we currently display. We could say “this is the supper for anyone who wants to come and belong to Christ. You’re welcome, even if you’re an outsider.”

    On 3.5, it seems there was a category of ‘inquirers’ in the early church, people who hung with the Christians but hadn’t ‘signed up’. We read about them in 1 Corinthians 14, for example. I don’t imagine the Christians broke the cherished rules of hospitality and refused to share their meals with these people.

    • J –
      on point 1. agreed: one does need to decide (seeing as conversion is often seen as more of a process externally) at what point one one is to be admitted to the Supper. I would say, and i think 2000 years of church history would also say, that it is when someone believes in their heart and confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord, viz. at least *claims* to believe in the Jesus they are celebrating in the Supper.
      on point 2. as a Reformed Presby – which i think you said is your denominational affinity – i would respectfully say that your reading around/understanding of the covenant of circumcision is incomplete. A quick glance at Romans 4:11-12 would firstly reveal one of many instances where circumcision *was* a sign of faith. Beyond that, all the teaching in the OT regarding circumcision reveals that this was *exactly* meant also to be a marker, given by God, to signify His covenant people. It matters little if other groups in any point in history also circumcise their males; the bible says one purpose of it for His people was to mark them as His own covenant people. So, no, they didn’t “just do it.”
      Beyond that, to say that being circumcised as an adult is a “slight requirement” – particularly given the medical/surgical means at that point in history – seems to ignore a terrifying reality of what something like that would entail for any man 😉
      on point 3. i never said anywhere that we protect the marriage Supper of the Lamb; God is the One who does that, right? Your quotation of Jesus parable in Luke 14 is solely representing the wide open, non-racial, non-status referring, etc. nature of the gospel to all people, viz. the call to come to Christ for salvation goes out to all. So in one sense, yes, i agree that the invitation to the Supper is wide and broad. But we don;t get to jump to saying that b/c all are invited to the marriage Supper that all will a) want to come b) be permitted to come. So the gospel invitation is to be sent out to all, but the Lord’s Supper and the marriage Supper of the Lamb are not a one-to-one comparison, but rather, the first merely points ahead to the other.

      on point 3.5 – i think you overestimate the trump card of hospitality over orthodoxy. The early church would not have sacrificed the latter to avoid social awkwardness and making everybody feel welcome. I mean, just look at what a big deal it was even to have Gentiles preached to, cf. Acts 11.

  4. J says:

    Thanks for pursuing this issue, Wesley. It’s good to see you wrestling through it. Even if we don’t end up agreeing, I’m glad we’ve made the effort to get back to the NT and reconsider.

    On 1, you wrote in an earlier comment that you didn’t think someone with no trust in Jesus would even want to take the Supper. (At least that’s what I thought you were saying). So then, if someone wants to participate, might that not indicate some sort of faith in Jesus? Might it not be their way of beginning to confess that Jesus is Lord?

    We all have our ideas about who should take the Lord’s Supper. But I wonder if we need to make that decision for people? Could we just leave it up to them to participate when they want to. Does the church really have the authority to act as the policeman guarding Jesus’ table from undesirables? I know it has often done this. But I suspect we may have been going above our paygrade.

    on 3.5 I think you’re talking about orthodoxy of practice, when you say ‘hospitality over orthodoxy.’ I wonder how we should define orthodoxy of practice, if not by the example of our Lord Jesus? His table manners are what this series of posts is really all about.

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