But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. (1 Corinthians 11:28, KJV)
1 Corinthians 11 is a much discussed passage on the topic of worthy and unworthy reception of the Lord’s Supper. In this passage, Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for partaking of the Supper unworthily. The question at the crux of this debate: what does that mean? What constitutes unworthy reception, particularly in the context of this passage? Some feel that this passage suggests that there should be standards of understanding, age, and discernment so that communicants in the congregation know what they doing when they come to the table. There’s also the issue of discipline; the Lord’s Table is where church discipline becomes most manifest in the church. Yet, how do we know if a young child (let’s say a 1 1/2 or 2 year old) is in heinous sin worthy of discipline? Even asking the question becomes ridiculous but that’s part of this discussion, unfortunately.
Some take unworthy reception to mean that the divisions within the church at Corinth were what constituted a failure to discern the body (v.29) and by this body they mean the church. It wasn’t discerning the body in the elements but rather discerning who was in the church. It will be admitted that there were divisions; the text certainly says that. It will also be admitted that these divisions were spiritually harmful to the community. However, was this the only principle about which Paul was teaching? Not to have divisions?
There is more to this text. The verses that also needs to be dealt with are verses 20-21 and 33-34. Verse 20 states that the church did not eat the Lord’s supper. Verse 21 tells us why: “For in eating everyone taketh before other his own supper”. If you go forward to Paul’s correction of this in verses 33-34, he says “when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. And if any man hunger, let him eat at home.” Between these verses, what does Paul do? He states the words of institution when Christ gave this sacrament to the church in verses 24-26; concluding that “whosever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” (v.27). He reminds the church that they are eating not just bread and wine, they are spiritually feasting on Christ’s body and blood.
Therefore, this is a sacred observance, not a profane observance as the Corinthian church had made it. The Church at Corinth was celebrating the supper as a common meal; Paul was saying they were not eating the true Lord’s Supper, but by calling it the supper they were partaking unworthily. He then commends to them that they should eat at home if they are hunger (take a common meal) so that they do not treat the sacred meal as a common one, simply eating when they are hungry.
So, what does this passage look like in outline?
- The church was not partaking of a true supper (v.20)
- They were eating when they were hungry, treating it as a common meal (v. 21)
- Paul reminds them of the sacredness of the meal, that they are partaking of Christ’s body and blood (vv.24-26).
- You must, then, understand what you are eating; it is a sacred observance. Wait for another and don’t eat it like a common meal to fulfill your hunger. Otherwise, you be met with judgment (vv.27-34).
Thus it appears that reception of the Lord’s Supper requires an understanding of the communicant of what it is that he is receiving. Otherwise, it is profaning the meal. If we look at the broader context of this section of Corinthians, it would be unnecessarily narrow to insist that Paul was speaking only of the divisions in the church.
Not only does my exegesis above point to a different conclusion but even if we grant that the passage is about the divisions in the church, Paul throughout Corinthians is using the specific problems within the Corinthian church to point to greater principles that transcend the specific conflict in Corinth (see Calvin’s Commentary on this chapter for more). You can see headcoverings teaching greater principles of earlier in this chapter. Meat offered to idols becomes an occasion to discuss Christian liberty (chapter 8). He uses questions about marriage to discuss principles of chastity and uses circumcision to teach about keeping the commandments of God (chapter 7). He uses fornication in the church to teach about discipline and purging sin from the community (chapter 5). More general principles are being applied to those specific situations. What Paul is talking about, more generally, is partaking in an unworthy manner, which means this: eating in such a way that you don’t understand that you are partaking of the body and the blood of our Lord.
Children, who cannot examine themselves nor can be examined on this point, are unable to discern the Lord’s body. Even if they are, by faith, that cannot be determined. Thus, we cannot make the extraordinary circumstances the norm for our practice, especially when we have biblical data that suggests a different interpretation than allowing children to the table.
I will end with Calvin’s commentary on this chapter which demonstrates that this is not just my own interpretation but the interpretation of other Reformed men:
He now reproves the abuse that had crept in among the Corinthians as to the Lord’s Supper, in respect of their mixing up profane banquets with the sacred and spiritual feast, and that too with contempt of the poor. Paul says, that in this way it is not the Lord’s supper that is partaken of — not that a single abuse altogether set aside the sacred institution of Christ, and reduced it to nothing, but that they polluted the sacrament by observing it in a wrong way. For we are accustomed to say, in common conversation, that a thing is not done at all, if it is not done aright. Now this was no trivial abuse, as we shall afterwards see. If you understand the words is not as meaning, is not allowable, the meaning will amount to the same thing — that the Corinthians were not in a state of preparation for partaking of the Lord’s supper, as being in so divided a state. What I stated a little ago, however, is more simple — that he condemns that profane admixture, which had nothing in it akin to the Lord’s Supper. – Calvin, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:20