(1 Cor. 11:27) Taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). Later, he writes, “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). Of course, “sleep” was a common euphemism for “death” in first century culture (Jn. 11:11-13). This being said: Will God kill people, if they take the Lord’s Supper when they are “guilty” of sin or if they are “unworthy”?

RESPONSE: Several observations are in order:

First, the context of this passage is licentious sin and classism. In the greater context, the Corinthians were having sex with members of their own family (1 Cor. 5:1), having sex with prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:15-16), and getting drunk on the wine at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:20-21). To call this group licentious would be a massive understatement!

In the more immediate context, the Corinthians were setting up class divisions between the rich and the poor. As we argued in our commentary on 1 Corinthians 11, classism was being practiced in a flagrant and heinous way (see “Introduction to 1 Corinthians” under 11:18). That is, the rich believers were ostracizing the poor believers during this meeting. Therefore, they were treating this memorial of Jesus’ death with contempt and hypocrisy. God abhors outward, external religious ritualism (Mt. 15:8; Isa. 29:13). The Lord’s Supper is supposed to be an inward remembrance of Christ’s death for our sins (1 Cor. 11:24), not an event where we show our superiority over the poor or lower classes among us.

For a similar example of this, consider how severely Paul rebukes Peter for not having table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11ff). He writes that Peter was “not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). To Paul, this segregation of table fellowship was not just a mild sin, but an issue that affected the “truth of the gospel.” By showing classism or racism within the church, we are effectively denying the truth of our oneness “in Christ.”

Second, this passage is NOT saying that Christians who are “unworthy” should refrain from taking the Lord’s Supper. After all, every Christian is unworthy! David Garland[1] and Craig Blomberg[2] point out that the term “unworthy” (anaxiōs) is an adverb that modifies our action (“unworthily”), not an adjective that modifies us (“unworthy”). The difference is critical to grasp: Paul is not saying that these Corinthian Christians are “unworthy” of taking the Lord’s Supper; instead, he is saying that Christians who take the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” should refrain. That is, if they are going to be hypocrites, they should refrain from participating—otherwise, they will make a mockery out of this practice.

Third, God has the right to discipline believers. God disciplines us in a variety of ways (Heb. 12:5ff). Sometimes, God will simply give us over to sin in passive judgment (Rom. 1:24-28; arguably Heb. 13:4). But other times, he will actively judge us for sin—particularly for the sin of hypocrisy (Acts 5:5, 10) or pride (Acts 12:22-23). It is in this context that Paul says God will physically discipline members of the Body of Christ—even killing them—for serious sin like this.

Fourth, Paul is speaking to physical discipline—not divine judgment. Regrettably, the original King James Version translated this term (krima) in 1 Corinthians 11:29 as “damnation,” rather than “judgment” (as virtually all modern translations render it). However, Paul is speaking of physical judgment—not spiritual death. The word krima lacks the definite article. Mare writes, “It is ‘judgment,’ not ‘the judgment.’”[3] Therefore, while these Christians were dying, they were not encountering spiritual death; that is, separation from God for eternity. Paul writes elsewhere: “There is now no condemnation (katakrima) for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

[1] David Garland writes, “The adverb (anaxiōs, unworthily) refers to doing something that does not square with the character or nature of something (cf. Eph. 4:1; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12).” David Garland, 1 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 550.

[2] Blomberg writes, “‘In an unworthy manner’ in verse 27a translates the Greek adverb anaxios (‘unworthily’). Paul does not use the adjective ‘unworthy,’ which would have referred to a person’s character, but highlights instead the nature of their actions.” Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 198-199.

[3] Emphasis mine. W. Harold Mare, 1 Corinthians: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 260.