Border Protection and the Lord’s Supper: 5 – What St Paul really said

Posted: February 19, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Pastoral issues, Theology

(continued from previous post)

1 Corinthians 11 should be easy. The apostle Paul goes to some trouble to explain the situation into which he is speaking, the problem in the Corinthian church which needs addressing. This explicit context is a great help in rightly interpreting Paul’s teaching. Sad then that the context is routinely ignored in most evangelical discussion of this passage.

So what was going on at Corinth?

There is a problem: “Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” (v.17)

Their gatherings have become unhealthy and unhelpful. How so?

To begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you;   v.18

The place where these divisions are really apparent is in the church community’s shared meal, when they gather to celebrate the ‘Lord’s Supper’ and remember Christ crucified together.

When you come together, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper.  (v.20)

What is happening that spoils the Lord’s Supper?

For at the meal time, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, so one goes hungry while another is revelling.   (v.21)

This behaviour is no small failing: in Paul’s view it is a weighty sin:

Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? (v.22)

The holy meal is the place where the cracks in the community are becoming apparent. And great offence is being caused there – an offence that pollutes or destroys the Lord’s table.

How this destruction happens is clear from what Paul has already said about the Lord’s Supper, back in ch.10.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?   Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.  (10:16-17)

The Lord’s Supper is all about us sharing in Christ’s body, expressing our unity together through a common loaf. So Paul here in ch.11 reminds the Corinthians that the Supper centres around the shared loaf, the body of Christ in which we participate:

The Lord Jesus…took a loaf of bread,  and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (11:23-24)

Now comes the punchline: the Corinthians’ behaviour tramples on this sacred meal and makes it a mockery:

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.  (v.27)

Here the ‘unworthy manner’ is understood to be the divisive behaviour which Paul has been at pains to expose, above. But in case anyone didn’t get it, Paul spells this out once again:

Those who eat and drink without showing consideration to the body [which they are participating in], eat and drink judgment against themselves.  (v.29)

Lack of consideration (me diakrinon) for the body, for the sacred identity of this gathering as the body of Christ – that is the ‘unworthy manner’ which brings judgement down on them.

What sort of judgement is this that comes from the Lord’s Supper?

For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (v.30)

It is affliction in the here and now, bodily illness: a fitting punishment for those who make the body of Christ unsound! Have these people been rejected by God for their sin?

when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.  (v.32)

God has not abandoned them: this is loving fatherly discipline of his children to rescue them from a destructive path. The afflictions are meant to prompt them to repent.

What would that repentance involve? What should the Corinthians do to heal their Lord’s Supper celebration and avoid bringing God’s judgement on themselves?

Check yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  (v.28)

They must make sure they do not eat thoughtlessly. They’ve got into unhealthy habits: they need to pull themselves up and stop it.

In particular they must start noticing the people around them at the meal, and caring for their brothers and sisters who have less than they do:

But if we considered each other, we would not be judged. (v.31)

The common translation, “If we judged ourselves…” is really not defensible here. Paul uses two different words in the sentence: diakrino and krino.  The repetition of the sound krino creates an epigrammatic, or catchy, slogan-like effect – but the two words have distinct meanings and need to be translated differently. What God does is krino – judge their divisive behaviour. What they must do is diakrino – consider each other during the meal. It’s the same word from v.29, above, about considering the body.

And it is not ourself we need to consider: it is all the others! ‘Each other‘ is a common enough way to translate heautous (cf. Ephesians 4:32) and is far preferable to ‘ourselves‘ in this context. In view is how they treat the others in the group.

In case Paul hadn’t made it absolutely clear, he now repeats his main message at the end:

So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. (v.33)

   – it could also be translated ‘welcome one another‘. The effect is the same: pay attention to the needs of the others and make sure they are included.

Inclusion is the key idea for the whole passage, and the heart of the Corinthian’s sin. They are excluding people from the meal that proclaims the unifying power of Christ’s death. Paul hammers home this theme relentlessly, so there can be no misunderstanding!

Now that we’ve done the hard work of exegeting the passage, let’s compare our findings with the standard evangelical reading we outlined yesterday. Does Paul really say any of those things we normally read in this passage? We summarised it as:

1. only insiders and ‘approved people’ may participate’ – Nope. Not seeking to limit participation.

2. outsiders or unapproved people who participate are doing themselves harm and incurring God’s anger. Nope. Outsiders are not mentioned at all. They are not the issue in this chapter.

3. it is therefore the duty of the church to warn off unapproved people or outsiders.  Nope. See on 2.

4. every participant is in danger of accidentally eating in an unworthy manner. This would bring down God’s judgement on them. Kind of. It is Fatherly discipline for believers that Paul has in mind. So this danger really only applies to backsliding believers.

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.   Nope. The offensive behaviour is not secret but public and obvious. Everyone can see it. 

6. So each participant should spend time in self-examination before the communion, in case there are any sins they have overlooked.  Nope. There’s no thought here of searching for a backlog of overlooked sins. There is just one sin in question: divisive behaviour at the meal. No lengthy self-examination required. No monasteries needed!

Major emphasis: excluding outsiders and unbelievers from the table.  Nope. The major emphasis is about the necessity of inclusion.

If the above exegesis is even half right, then our traditional reading of 1 Corinthians 11 is very nearly the reverse of what Paul was actually saying. We turn everything on its head and derive a policy of exclusion from Paul’s words about inclusion. Astounding!

If ever proof was needed that we are pre-programmed to distort and misread Scripture, this passage is surely that proof.

  1. J –
    can you flesh out a bit more what you have in mind by “inclusion” in this context? Are you referring to those who have unconfessed sin and feel “unworthy” to eat and drink? Or does your net swing wider than that to be inclusive of those who are not yet adopted sons and daughters of God?
    Also, how should we relate Paul’s clear teaching against divisions in this passage with 11:19? I haven’t figured it out yet myself and wondered where you landed on that as well.
    God’s peace.

    • J says:

      Great questions, Wesley.

      Two ways to answer your first question. Paul’s answer is, he’s not making those sort of distinctions about people spiritual status: he is assuming that everyone who comes to the meal should be treated the same, and deliberately included. That’s just hospitality rules, there’s no question of anyone examining anyone else or ruling some people out of the meal. All should take part together.

      Beyond this passage, for who should be included, the question would be, who did Jesus include at his table? On which see post 2 from this series: Jesus’ table manners. Worth noting that at the first Lord’s supper (which we re-enact every time), an unbeliever was present, was known, and was permitted to take part.

      11:19 is an interesting sentence. I tend to think it should be translated as a question: do there need to be divisions among you? is that really needed in order to show the rightness of those who are in the right?

      But I could be wrong…

  2. richardrglover says:

    Fascinating. What do you think this means for our practice of the Lord’s Supper? Simply that whoever is present may take part?

    • J says:

      What’s your view about what it means, Richard? I’d love to hear.

      Jesus actively went out and found people to share his table with. (see post 2 of this series) This was part of his way of drawing them back to God.

      I personally would feel strange doing that, actively encouraging ‘sinners’ to come and share the meal. Maybe too strange.

      So I don’t think I’m going to be ready to follow Jesus’ approach any time soon.

      Anyway it would cause too much resentment and division from within the faith community. We don’t like outsiders being included in our sacred fellowship. People would get angry. Some people might end up sending other people outside the camp to be crucified.


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