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. ↩

Balancing Our Freedom with Responsibility: Looking back at 1 Corinthians 8-10 and Food Sacrificed to Idols

We’ve now closed out a section that seeks to talk about Christian freedom in the context of our responsibility to our neighbors. The conversation started with food offered to idols, talked of Paul’s right to be financially supported, and now has circled back to food and idols. Paul at times gives a statement that is clear, along the lines of “you can eat the food.” But that principle then has its exceptions. So as we read it, and this is especially true if we are only reading little bits at a time and not keeping the larger movements in our mind, it can be confusing because Paul will say, “Yes, but no, but yes, but no.”

To lean heavily again on Ken Bailey’s commentary, since he puts its so clearly in review, these last chapters tell us four things, and I’ll paraphrase:

  1. Eating meat offered to idols and eating in these temple-restaurants is OK. But it is only acceptable if you’re mature in your faith so as to understand that these idols are nothing, and as long as no one that doesn’t see things that way sees you. After all, you don’t, by expressing your freedom, want to cause anyone to stumble. (1 Cor 8)
  2. But what about eating and drinking not only at a temple-restaurant, but actually as part of an idol worship service? Well, Paul is clear cut on this one. No. That would be participating with demons. (First half of 1 Cor 10)
  3. Back to the food, if you buy it from the market, then you’re fine eating it at home, for the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. (1 Cor 10:25-26)
  4. If you’re at the home of an unbeliever, then eat up and don’t ask questions. But again, like in 1 Corinthians 8, be careful of your witness. If someone tells you that the food is offered to idols, presumably because of their concern about the issue, then don’t eat–not for your conscience but for the other. (1 Cor 10:28)1

The issue is not so much the food itself. Rather it is the witness we are making by eating it. While it may be a fine piece of food and it is the believers right to eat it, as long as the proper understanding is present, the more important element is how we can best love and serve our neighbors. If that means sacrificing a right, then so be it.


  1. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 291-292. ↩

To Eat or Not to Eat? The Question of 1 Corinthians 10

Dinner Plate

In reading 1 Corinthians 10:23-30, I found Ken Bailey’s commentary, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, very helpful. He again brings to focus the cultural writing style of Paul that differs from our own. We often put the point of greatest emphasis at the end, while Paul repeatedly in his letter puts it right in the center of his argument. Because of that, it can be a bit confusing. Here is Bailey on this passage, with the numbers in parentheses corresponding to the points Paul makes in the order they are found in Scripture:

This order confuses the modern reader. We are accustomed to:

On the one hand:

(1) Think of others and try to be helpful. (7) Don’t offend people. (2) Eat (or don’t eat) the meat you buy in the market for it is the Lord’s. (6) Do so to the glory of God. (3) At a meal in a pagan’s home eat whatever they serve you. (5) You are a free person, give thanks and eat.

But on the other hand:

(4) If someone whispers to you “This is idol meat, I am sure you would want to know,” then do not eat (out of respect for his or her conscience, no your conscience).[1]

Knowing the style in which Paul writes helps us to understand this section much better. It is easy to read it as though he is going back and forth, saying two things at once. But much of that is because we assume his argument builds linearly and concludes at the end. But his central emphasis, as it has been in past chapters, is seeking to love others and seek their good, rather than express our own rights or freedoms.


  1. Ken Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 285. ↩

Condition or Calling in 1 Corinthians 7?

There is a word that beyond 1 Corinthians 7 is used 11 times in the New Testament, and each of those times it is used to reference God’s calling of us in Jesus Christ. But in 1 Corinthians 7 it is translated as “condition.” For example, here is 1 Corinthians 7:20

Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.

This can cause the reader of this chapter, and specifically the section from verses 17-24, to think that God’s calling in our life means that we remain where we are, or that we remain in some social status. But Paul is telling the church that they should remain in their calling to which they are called. Ken Bailey in Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes paraphrases the section, focusing on one of the examples of slavery:

If you are caught in slavery, try to get free. If you are free–do not become a slave. Yet, if you are caught in this (horrible) institution you can yet find and carry out an assignment. You can exercise your gifts and respond to your call. If you are a slave do not look wistfully at me with my freedom and the privileges of Roman citizenship and say, “Of course the Lord can use him. But I am a slave–I can do nothing!” Don’t forget your calling, and never imagine that there is no calling for you because you are a slave. (Bailey, 219)

To the slave, Paul doesn’t want them to think that their slavery is the condition to which they were called. Don’t equate status to calling. They have a calling to which they were called, and even in slavery it is a calling that can be expressed.

Was Paul married or single?

Many people have wondered what was Paul’s marital status. Given his role within the Jewish community it is likely he would’ve been married. But what we read in his letters indicates he was single. That’s just about as much as my previous studies have shown me. Then I read this in the commentary I’ve been studying during our 1 Corinthians reading plan:

Orr and Walther [two biblical scholars] make a strong case that Paul was a widower. They write, “Jewish leaders holding the position attributed to Paul in the New Testament ordinarily were married.” But Paul is clearly traveling without a wife (9:5). Apparently his wife had died. Greek has a word for “widowers” (kheros), but that word does not appear in the New Testament time period when Koine Greek was in use. Later in this passage when Paul discusses the “unmarried,” (7:25) he uses the traditional Greek word for “virgin” (parthenos). In the present text [1 Corinthians 7:6-9] he discusses “a-gamois and widows.” The natural way to read the text is to see these two words as a pair and understand that Paul is writing about “widowers and widows.” Orr and Walther translate a-gamois literally as “de-married” and explain that in this passage it means “widowers.” Paul uses this word three times in this chapter. All of them can best be understood as mean, “once married, now not married.”

Ken Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. 204.

I thought this was pretty convincing. What do you think?

The Sins Paul Warns the Church About in 1 Corinthians 6

Shifting his focus back from our response to sin within the body (and how we should not bring these matters for judgment before the unbelievers), Paul now returns to the matter of sin itself. He lists out certain behaviors that, like treating the courts as though they are the highest authority, are inconsistent with the life to which Christ has called us.

Paul has already met head on the issues of divisions, jealousy, and strife in the church. Also, the issue that everyone has reported to him of a man sleeping with his father’s wife has been addressed. Now in chapter six he presents a longer lists of sins.

It comes after a stern warning, “Do not be deceived.” We all have a great ability–great in its scope, not great in benefit–to deceive ourselves. It is an awful power that we have. We are skilled at rationalizing behaviors and thoughts, causing ourselves to believe what we do is right and appropriate. The world and its values can set the tone for what we come to think is right. There are even those in the church, in Paul’s day and in ours, that come along teaching something very different from what we see in Scripture. Paul often in his books is having to counter false teaching and warn them of its presence. So here he warns them not to be deceived and then reminds them of what is unrighteous behavior.

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
(1 Corinthians 6:9–10)

Make no mistake about the type of town Corinth was. Paul indicates the Corinthians took part in this behavior as he follows this line by saying bluntly, “such were some of you.” These would be just the types of behaviors many were familiar with and had taken part in, and now they were likely to be tempted to fall back into old patterns. But also take note that Pauls says, “such were some of you,” indicating that old patterns were broken and healing was manifest in this community. All this because of what we read in the end of verse 11, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

This list is not unlike the sins that Paul lays out in Colossians 3:5,8.[1] In both places the list breaks down into two sections of five.[2] The first five in both places seem to relate to sexual sins, even with idolatry as “idolatrous worship in Corinth involved sacred prostitution with the priestesses of Aphrodite/Venus.”[3] The emphasis on sexual sin, both heterosexual sin and homosexual sin, clearly stems from the problems that are damaging the community of faith in Corinth that have come up in the previous chapter.

In both 1 Corinthians and Colossians the lists continue with another set of five. In 1 Corinthians 6 they are: thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, swindlers. This is a list tailored to this church as we have already read of their defrauding each other in the courts–a form of the first and last sins in the list. We haven’t read yet, but will in a later chapter, about their issues surrounding the communion table. In chapter 11 Paul mentions that some are getting drunk at the meal while others go hungry because other greedily take all the food. We can safely assume that a church that is already factious will most likely give way to insults (revilers) when excessive drinking is thrown into the mix. Ken Bailey summarizes how this list is so well-suited for this church:

Behind this list of ten sins lie aspects of three problems in the Corinthian church: stealing and their misuse of the courts, their sexual misconduct, and irregularities at their Eucharistic meals.[4]

Again Paul wants to remind them not of their sins, but of their former sins. He wants them to remember these as their past ways and focus on who has accomplished this work in them. If we are washed, sanctified, and justified, then we can be free from this sin.


  1. Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. 176-77. ↩

  2. In many translations of 1 Corinthians 6 the the first five sins listed appear as four since two items in the list are often combined into one: homosexuality. The Greek reads, oute malakoi and oute arsenokoitai, which refers to two partners in a homosexual relationship.  ↩

  3. Bailey, 178. ↩

  4. Ibid, 179. ↩

What Hinders Our Understanding God’s Truth?

Earlier in chapter one Paul mentions that the church had been having issues that caused divisions. Some were claiming to be of Paul, some followed Apollos, and still other Cephas or Christ. Having dealt with it briefly in the first chapter, Paul returns to it now in chapter three of 1 Corinthians.

With two homilies on the wisdom of God (in the cross and through the Spirit) firmly in place as a foundation, Paul is ready to take a second look at how his readers should see Paul, Apollos and Cephas.[1]

Ken Bailey summarizes what we’ve been through so concisely. Paul sees their issue and it isn’t just division. These divisions reveal a spiritual immaturity. Paul has to lay a groundwork for them to understand the wisdom of God and their actions impede such understanding. Paul says that he cannot address them as spiritual people, rather they are infants needing milk. Again Bailey is insightful here. It isn’t because the Corinthians are not smart enough that they can’t understand, it is because of their petty infightings and jealousies. Bailey writes that we tend to think that all it takes to acquire truth is “a good mind and a willingness to work hard… Paul disagrees.”[2]

When there is strife the people are acting merely human. Paul wants something more. He doesn’t want more praise or more followers for himself. He wants them to see Paul, Apollos, and Cephas for what they truly are. Once again from Bailey:

The Corinthians thought that when they declared themselves to be “of Apollos” or “of Paul” that they were making complimentary statements about their champions. No, replies Paul, be creating these divisions you are saying nothing about us–you are talking about yourselves, and what you are is not flattering! Do not imagine that we are pleased![3]

Beginning in verse five he begins to try to set them straight with two short parables.


  1. Kenneth Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 120. ↩
  2. Bailey, 122. ↩
  3. Bailey, 123. ↩

To Whom Was Paul Writing?

The opening of 1 Corinthians sets the stage for what will follow in Paul’s letter. [1] This is not unique to this letter, but is often how Paul works. So it is good to spend this week making sure we’re on the same page before we digest any more.

One key question, which may sound obvious, is, “To whom is this letter addressed?” Is it simply to the “church of God in Corinth”? If so, is this letter very limited in its application to just the pastoral setting of that one church in that one city long ago?

Or is this letter to this church, and in response to its needs, as well as to “all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”? Is Paul addressing the Church (big C) as he addresses this Corinthian church (little C)? Because if he is, then his intent is larger and his teaching more dynamic as it applies even to us today, living centuries later.

Some scholars take the first view and see 1 Corinthians as an “occasional” letter very much written in response to the particulars of Corinth and its people. One commentary I’m using in studying this book is Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes by Ken Bailey and he offers an alternative. He doesn’t think Paul was quickly jumping from thought to thought as he addressed the particulars of Corinth–the issues he heard either by letter or word of mouth. Rather he sees a well-organized structure to 1 Corinthians and that the questions of Corinth are fit into Paul’s outline, and not that his outline is based first on their questions.[2]

Understanding a broader audience for Paul, we are now able to continue into the letter keeping our eyes open to what he wants this church, and all churches to understand and believe about our Lord Jesus Christ.


  1. This is why I’ve made the opening lines our memory verse. While others may pack more punch, the opening lines will benefit us throughout our reading. I posted this a week or so back, but this visualization may help you to memorize: 1 Corinthians 1:1-3 ↩

  2. Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians., 23-26. ↩