Where two or three are gathered in His name there are bound to be problems. The Corinthians had problems. In 1 Corinthians 11, the chapter where Paul wrote most about communion, there were problems, factions among the people. The Corinthians were having such obvious problems at the Table that Paul said it couldn’t really be called the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11:20).
There is a legendary phrase in 1 Corinthians 11:27 about eating the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord “in an unworthy manner.” The unworthy participant “eats and drinks judgment on himself” (verse 29), which could result in weakness, illness, and death (verse 30). Some pastors have turned “unworthy manner” into the focus and driven humble believers away from communion, which is also a problem.
Generally in our weekly liturgy we come to the Table in the attitude of the feast that it is. The Lord died so that we don’t face death. We come in thanks for salvation, not fear of judgment.
But obviously the instruction and warning needs to be given. “Unworthy” participation means that it doesn’t fit, it’s not a match with what’s happening. In brief, here are four unworthy ways.
- Unbelieving. The Lord Jesus Christ instituted the meal as a reminder of His body and blood, of His death for the sin of His sheep. It is a meal for those who actually believe what they are remembering.
- Unrepentant. It doesn’t fit to be in an ongoing pattern of doing what the Lord had to die to forgive. Communion isn’t for perfect people, but it is not for those who refuse to acknowledge their sin. That applies to non-Christians, to Christians out of fellowship, and in the extreme case for every person in 4th stage church discipline.
- Unbaptized. Believe/repent and be baptized, that’s the proper order (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; also examples in Acts 8:12-13, 18:8). Baptism is the first commandment for a disciple. While often reversed in ignorance, the right order is first, public identification with Christ in the water of baptism and then second, public sharing of the feast around the Lord’s table.
- Unwelcoming. I thought about mentioning this first, because it’s actually the problem in 1 Corinthians 11. There were divisions among the church, and some were humiliating others. The practicals of our practice make that harder, but you can still “despise the church” who drink wine, or eat gluten, or walk too slowly in front of you. This is a particular version of being unrepentant, but worth singling out as the actual opposite of communion.
Examine yourselves. Parents, teach your kids about this. If you’ve got family or friends visiting, talk to them beforehand.