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.
Tomorrow: What St Paul really said – about communion