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Partaking “in an unworthy manner”

Brent Thomas posted yesterday on the question of “fencing the table” at communion, and while the comment thread on his post has gone down the path of fencing based on doctrinal fidelity (ah, those Calvinists!), I’ve been more thinking about it from my evangelical perspective, and the idea of partaking “in an unworthy manner”. (Thanks to my brother Andrew for batting around some thoughts with me.)

1 Corinthians 11 is the relevant passage here:

17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

23For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. 34If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

Now, in the churches I’ve been in, the pastor typically instructs the congregation something along these lines before communion is served: “take a minute quietly, examine your heart, ask God to reveal sin to you that needs confessed, then confess and partake. Don’t take it unworthily.” And while these are good instructions, I’m not sure they’re actually the point of the passage.

The problem Paul is addressing with the Corinthians isn’t that there are a bunch of unrepentant sinners partaking of communion (which undoubtedly there were), but rather that people are coming and gobbling up the food in a haphazard, flippant, gluttonous fashion, not recognizing, as Paul says, that this is the body of the Lord. They’re not taking it as a serious remembrance. Paul’s corrective summary in verse 33 doesn’t say “repent of your sins before you partake!” – rather, it says “wait for each other”. Paul is emphasizing the corporate nature of this sacrament, something that the Corinthians seem to have forgotten.

I don’t want to discount the need for examining our hearts as we come before God in worship – in Matthew 5:23-24 Jesus says to go make things right with your brother before you come to the altar to sacrifice to God. But I’ve talked to people who told me “you know, I thought about it, and I remembered something I needed to settle with another person, so I let the elements go by and didn’t partake”, and this, to me, seems to be entirely missing the point.

Partaking of the bread and the cup in communion is a reminder of the sacrifice that gave us salvation. In giving us salvation, God calls us to repent and believe, even knowing full well that perfect repentance won’t ever happen for us this side of eternity. In communion, God calls us to remember the death of His Son, with the same heart of brokenness and repentance that is working in our salvation, even as He knows that each of us will go back out and willfully commit sin.

To put it another way: communion isn’t intended to be for Christians who’ve somehow managed to get everything cleaned up. In examining ourselves, we should quickly recognize that we wretched, miserable sinners desperately need Jesus’ blood to cleanse us every day. And in partaking, we should not fear that we’ve somehow forgotten a sin and so God is going to smack us, but rather should be humbly thankful for the awesome gift we have been given.

Painting by Kjersti Timenes.


  1. Luther puts this as follows (in the Small Catechism):

    'That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words “for you” require all hearts to believe.'

    In other words, as you've said in your post, the point is not that we come to the altar perfect and free from sin. (If we did, we wouldn't need what's on offer there – the forgiveness of sins – anyway!) Rather, we come believing the promises that Jesus makes to us there.

    • Thanks, John. That seems so obvious, and yet it's something that the evangelical churches that I've been in seem to have missed. Frankly, there's a bunch of fuzziness surrounding the Lord's Supper in our (lack of) tradition. It verges toward being just something we do from tradition rather than something we do because we really understand what's going on. Or maybe I've just been clueless for thirty years. (It's possible.)

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