Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to write on “Issues in the Church” that either aren’t talked about, ignored entirely, or that we want to contribute to the discussion on. Our goal with this series is to help our readers think through these issues from a biblical worldview with lots of practical gospel-application.
- Read the rest of the series here.
1 Corinthians 11:26-29, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 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.”
The sacrament of communion is one of the most important, yet most debated aspects of the typical worship gathering. Conversations surrounding the partaking of this sacrament are extremely broad, ranging from how often it should be observed, to what kinds of elements are permissible, to methods for how the body should receive it. The questions are endless: “Should we have tables in the back, or pass it out in the pews?” “Should we all take it at the same time, or let each person take it as she is ready?” “Should we use cheaper options, or is this such a sacred sacrament that we should use lots of resources on it?”
There is one question that there should not be any debate about in this conversation! That is the issue of “guarding the table” of the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul famously outlines some instructions about how we observe communion as a church body. Verses 23–25 are likely the most quoted verses during communion times throughout local churches. They are a recounting of the night of Jesus’s betrayal, the night He and His apostles would share their last meal together. He takes the bread, and later takes the cup, and asks the apostles to “Do this in remembrance of me.” But for some reason, we often neglect the important verses that follow. These verses are one of the many “therefore” statements Paul makes. Paul not only provides biblical truth but normally follows it up with biblical implications, using “therefore” to bridge the two. This “therefore” statement has much to teach us about how we should think about using discernment and caution in guarding and protecting the Lord’s Table. Here are a few principles that Paul identifies in this passage.
The Communion Table is Reserved for the Body of Christ
The definition of “sacrament” at its core is “an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace.” Notice the qualifier on the end of that definition – we externally observe sacraments precisely because they reflect what is internally a part of us. Because of this, when we think about partaking in communion as church bodies, we must be willing to make this sacrament totally exclusive to Christians. For an unbeliever to observe communion is for him to contradict himself; if sacraments are truly a sign of inner renewal, an unbeliever has no reason, nor right, to partake. Such an “unworthy” act would bring guilt to the unbeliever, bringing “judgment on himself” (1 Cor. 11:27, 29).
The burden of not partaking does not merely rest on the unbeliever. In fact, Paul would also argue that pastors and church leaders are equally responsible. While the unbeliever must abstain from the table, church leaders must protect the table. Any hint of endorsement or support of a church allowing unbelievers to participate in communion is not only unbiblical but worthy of punishment (Rom. 1:32).
The Communion Table Should Foster a Time of Evaluation
The unbeliever is not the only person who should take pause when it comes to partaking in communion. In verse 28, Paul outlines that each person should “examine himself.” This is a time of honest and authentic reflection individually before God, seeking to understand if they are fit for taking communion.
We know, of course, that none of us are indeed adequate enough or clean enough to take communion without a heart of sin. The point of communion, after all, is recognizing that by Christ giving His body and blood for us, that all of our sins are indeed atoned for. This time of examination, then, is not so much about determining if we are sinful, but rather, if our sinfulness is truly and wholly being offered to God. In other words, are we seeking repentance in all areas of our sin, or are there some ways in which we are holding back? Christians who hold sin back from God, to defiantly clutch it without confession while partaking in communion, is to mirror the unbeliever who partakes in the sacraments, the external acts of inward renewal. They are no better.
As church leaders, we have a responsibility to make sure we are guarding the table in this manner as well. This does not mean we have to open confession booths and force people through them. What it does mean is that we should share the importance of examining our hearts in preparation for communion. We should admonish the flock to repentance if that is what they need – that will be of far greater value than protecting them from the awkwardness of not picking up the bread and wine in lieu of confessional prayer.
The Communion Table is Altogether Sacred
“Sacred” is a word that can stir up uneasy feelings, because some people can mistake “sacred” for “mystical.” The view of transubstantiation, that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, in reality, is an example of this. Such doctrines should be rejected. However, there is still a sacredness of the table that we need to find again. It is not because the bread and wine are something magical, but rather because it is a wondrous combination of the somberness of Christ’s death with the joy of His resurrection. Because of this, we should approach the table with the utmost reverence.
What this means for church leaders is that we should protect the table not only from unbelievers, or the unrepentant but also the un-serious. The condemnation and drinking judgment on oneself that Paul refers to here cannot be taken lightly. It also means that in our efforts to present communion to the body, we cannot be flippant about it. We should think through where it belongs in the order of worship, what weeks it is being partaken. We should make a point to show the Body of Christ why we take this sacrament and the protection of the table so seriously. This is one of the clearest and most biblically-grounded ways we remind ourselves of Christ’s death and resurrection, and to treat it with flippancy has no place in the Church.
As Paul says, “Let a person examine himself” (1 Cor. 11:28). We should all be doing our best to examine ourselves when it comes to the Lord’s Table. We should examine our hearts, examine our methods, and examine how we are doing the work of preparing the table rightly for those who will be partaking. [bctt tweet=”The task given to church leaders is to shepherd the flock faithfully and according to the Bible.” username=”servantsofgrace”] Paying more attention to these verses will do us a world of good when communion on Sundays comes.