Communion, Lord’s Supper: Taking it in an Unworthy Manner?

by Elizabeth Prata

EPrata photo

If you are a believing, regular church goer you more than likely take Communion. This ordinance established by Jesus involves eating the bread and drinking the wine. Some churches use pieces of bread, others use crackers or pre-made wafers for the occasion. Some use wine and others use juice. Some stay in their pews and are passed a large plate from which they pluck the elements, others walk to the front and pick them up themselves.

However you take Communion, it is a meaningful and important ordinance, one of only two the Lord Himself established for believers: the other being baptism.

We read about Communion in 1 Corinthians 11,

For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).

Taking communion as a believer means we are worshiping and reflecting on the risen Savior, His love and his body, broken for us to pay for our sins. We remember His sacrifice and as a result, in gratitude, promote His name for the salvation of the lost.

EPrata photo

Sadly, the church at Corinth was taking Communion in an “unworthy manner.” (1 Corinthians 11:27). They were having suppers together, fellowship, which was Ok, but as time went on they were feasting longer and more profanely, and getting drunk, and favoring the wealthy over the poor. (Probably because the wealthy brought better food). Though gratitude for His sacrifice should be our primary focus, as Christ’s model of breaking the bread and then giving thanks, saying “Do this in remembrance of Me” shows us, some of the Corinthians were actually profaning the event by their behavior. Paul called them out on it, and even mentioned that some became sick or even died as a result.

Are guilty of the body and blood of Christ. 1 Cor. 11:27.
Discern not the Lord’s body. 1 Cor. 11:29.
Are visited with judgments. 1 Cor. 11:30.

Source R.A. Torrey, R. A. (1897). The New Topical Text Book: A Scripture Text Book for the Use of Ministers, Teachers, and All Christian Workers

The Westminster Larger Catechism #171 explains how to prepare for taking the Lord’s Supper:

Q. 171. How are they that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper to prepare themselves before they come unto it?

A. They that receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, of their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayer. Westminster Larger Catechism

Now, it seems that though it is clear that the Lord’s Supper is a solemn and important event, some partakers in the Corinthian church were partaking of it unworthily. There was a consequence to their sinful activity- illness for some and death for others. It is clear from the passage that the illness and death were not a natural consequence, but a direct punishment from God. Paul wrote,

For the one who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not properly recognize the body. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number are asleep. (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Asleep was a euphemism for dead.

Is it true? Some who profaned the solemn occasion of the Lord’s Supper were deliberately given illness or even killed by God? Were they actually believers? Would He really do that?

It seems that Ananias and Sapphira were actual believers, and both were killed on the spot for profaning the house of God with their hypocritical lies. In another case, the Lord said that Paul was going to suffer for His name. (2 Corinthians 12:7; Acts 9:16) and He gave Paul a demon to harass him. (2 Corinthians 12:7). Hebrews 12:6 says that whom the Lord loves, He chastens. So, yes, the Lord sometimes inflicts direct punishment upon people with whom He is displeased. Of course, he also allows events to take their ‘natural’ course…such as homosexuals who come down with AIDS or drunk drivers to be in a wreck. He does punish, in love, but it is true that He punishes directly sometimes.

Barnes’ Notes says of the Corinthians taking communion in an unworthy manner, “The sense clearly is, that God had sent among them bodily distempers as an expression of the divine displeasure and judgment for their improper mode of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. That it was not uncommon in those times for God in an extraordinary manner to punish people with calamity, sickness, or death for their sins is evident from the New Testament; see the 1 Corinthians 5:5 note; Acts 5:1-10Acts 13:11 notes; 1 Timothy 1:20 note

Does He do this frequently? Well, we don’t know. Aside from the explicitly stated times in the Bible that we know were direct punishments, we don’t know the mind of God and can’t specifically assert this or that is due to the hand of God. Even Job, inflicted more than any other person in the Bible except for Jesus, never knew his pain was not due to sin. He never knew.

Let’s let Barnes explain whether this happens today or not and the lesson we should take from it:

“God often visits his own people with trial; and though they are his children, yet this does not exempt them from affliction and discipline on account of their imperfections, errors, and sins. The “practical lesson” taught by this is, that Christians should serve God with purity; that they should avoid sin in every form; and that the commission of sin will expose them, as well as others, to the divine displeasure. The reason why this judgment was inflicted on the Corinthians was, that there might be a suitable impression made of the holy nature of that ordinance, and that Christians might be led to observe it in a proper manner. If it be asked whether God ever visits his people now with his displeasure for their improper manner of observing this ordinance, we may reply:”

“(1) That we have no reason to suppose that he inflicts “bodily” diseases and corporeal punishments on account of it. But,”

“(2) There is no reason to doubt that the improper observance of the Lord’s Supper, like the improper observance of any other religious duty, will be followed with the expression of God’s displeasure, and with a spiritual blighting on the soul. This may be evinced in the following modes:”

“(a) In hardening the heart by an improper familiarity with the most sacred and solemn ordinances of religion.”

“(b) Increased coldness and deadness in the service of God. If the ordinances of the gospel are not the means of making us better, they are the means of making us worse.”

“(c) The loss of the favor of God, or of those pure, and spiritual, and elevated joys which we might have obtained by a proper observance of the ordinance.”

“There is no reason to doubt that God may make it the occasion of manifesting his displeasure. It may be followed by a lack of spiritual comfort and peace; by a loss of communion with God; and by a withholding of those comforts from the soul which might have been enjoyed, and which are imparted to those who observe it in a proper manner. The general principle is, that an improper discharge of any duty will expose us to his displeasure, and to the certain loss of all those favors which might have resulted from a proper discharge of the duty, and to the tokens of the divine displeasure. And this is as true of prayer, or of any other religious duty, as of an improper observance of the Lord’s Supper.”

Not to scare the dear reader unduly. Here is Matthew Henry to comfort and reassure us:

But fearful believers should not be discouraged from attending at this holy ordinance. The Holy Spirit never caused this scripture to be written to deter serious Christians from their duty, though the devil has often made this use of it. The apostle was addressing Christians, and warning them to beware of the temporal judgements with which God chastised his offending servants. And in the midst of judgement, God remembers mercy: he many times punishes those whom he loves. ~Matthew Henry

John Calvin also reminds us of how we can take the Lord’s supper worthily:

So, the best and only worthiness which we can bring to God, is to offer him our own vileness, and unworthiness, that his mercy may make us worthy:

  • to despond in ourselves, that we may be consoled in him
  • to humble ourselves, that we may be elevated by him
  • to accuse ourselves, that we may be justified by him

We are also to aspire to the unity which he recommends in the Supper; and, as he makes us all one in himself, we are to desire to have all one soul, one heart, one tongue.

If we ponder and meditate on these things, we may be shaken, but will never be overwhelmed by the consideration of this vital question, “How shall we, who are devoid of all good, polluted by sin, and half dead, worthily eat the body of the Lord?” We shall rather consider that we, who are poor, are coming to a benevolent giver, sick to a physician, sinful to the author of righteousness, in fine, dead to him who gives life.

The worthiness which is commanded by God, consists especially in faith, which places all things in Christ, nothing in ourselves, and in love, which, though imperfect, may be sufficient to offer to God, that he may increase it, since it cannot be fully rendered.The Lord’s Supper was not instituted for the perfect, but for the sick and weak, to stir up, excite, stimulate, exercise the feeling of faith and love, and at the same time correct the deficiency of both.

Amen! Above all, the example of death or illness of the profaning Corinthians at the Lord’s Supper remind us that we have a loving Father as our Savior, but He is also Holy the Ancient of Days, and properly to be feared. He is above all, El Elyon – The Most High God.

Further Reading:

GotQuestions: Taking the Lord’s Supper Unworthily

Ligonier: What is the Lord’s Supper?

Short book: The Lord’s Supper: Answers to Common Questions, by Keith Mathison