What Does it Mean to Take Communion in an “Unworthy Manner”?

Lord's Supper

We read some strong words of warning in 1 Corinthians 11 about the way in which we approach the Lord’s Table and take communion. We are told:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

But what does it mean to eat the bread or drink the cup in an unworthy manner?

Paul writes in a style that often circles back around to a previous point. A great example is 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:2, in which he begins with his preaching of the cross–not his own wisdom, and returns to that same exact point. In this chapter he writes that the Corinthian community is splitting into factions when they have come to eat the Lord’s Supper. Some are going hungry, others are getting drunk, and because of that they really aren’t celebrating the sacrament (11:17-22). He then reminds them of the tradition that he has received and has passed on to them, giving us a picture of what happened “on the night when [Jesus] was betrayed…” (11:23-26). Then Paul returns to the point that preceded the words of institution (11:27-34). Paul critiques, puts forth communion as it should be, then goes back to critique. We might prefer to order this passage with the two critiques together, and then conclude with verses 23-26. In fact, reading it that way would make perfect sense. And in so doing it helps us to make sense of this “unworthy manner.” It is the same issue present in the earlier critique. Ken Bailey writes:

The key lies in the comparisons between sections A (11:17-22) and C (11:27-34). In section A the Corinthians had broken up into quarreling groups. Rich people came early, ate all the food and got drunk. The poor (who had to work) came later, found nothing to eat, remained hungry and were humiliated by being left out. The “church of God” (the entire Christian community) was “despised” in the process. This outrageous activity was clearly the “unworthy manner” that Paul was talking about. When this happened, the Corinthians were “guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” This was more than “disrespect for the elements,” although that was no doubt a part of what Paul was saying. Rather, such outrageous behavior was criminal activity against “the body” of Christ, this is, against the community what was his body.1

  1. Ken Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. 322. ↩

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