10. Worship and Communion in the Early Church (1 Corinthians 11)

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Communion stained glass window. Location unknown.

Perhaps one of the most quoted passages in the New Testament is found in 1 Corinthians 11. I'm speaking of the "Words of Institution" (11:23-26), which are recited nearly every time the Lord's Supper is offered, especially in liturgical churches.

1 Corinthians 11 discusses two topics -- (1) that women should be properly attired during worship (11:3-16) and (2) the proper practice of the Lord's Supper (11:17-34). Since the customs regarding appropriate dress for men and women vary according to time and place, we'll be moving rather quickly over verses 1-16, so that we can spend more time with Paul's teaching concerning the proper ministry of the Lord's Supper.

Paul's Example and Teaching (11:1-2)

"1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. 2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you." (11:1-2)

We looked briefly at these verses in Lesson 8, since they seem to conclude Paul's discussion of food offered to idols. In a sense, however, they also serve as a bridge to the topics he prepares to discuss in chapter 11.

Traditions Regarding Head Coverings (11:3-10)

The problem Paul seems to be addressing in verses 3-16 seems to be women in the Corinthian church participating in public worship dressed inappropriately, even scandalously. It was difficult for the new Christian faith to gain respect in Corinth. Christians were considered "atheists" since they didn't honor the traditional gods. Within a few decades, Christians were also rumored to be cannibals, based on a misunderstanding of the Eucharist. So it is important for Paul to avoid scandal concerning this new faith wherever possible.

The problem seems to be that the "spiritual women" in the congregation were exercising their new Christian "freedom" in ways that were bringing division within the church, and threatened to scandalize the church in the community at large. These women had thrown off their traditional head coverings worn during worship, and were worshipping bare-headed -- just like men!

To many of us in the West, the issue Paul is addressing seems silly. Acceptable attire for church in your community has probably changed several times since the beginning of the twentieth century. In California, where I live, both men and women often attend church dressed extremely casually -- though I've observed that the women dress less casually than the men. The prevailing view is that we can all come to God as we are, without the "pretense" of dressing up to impress others. In Kenya, where I've ministered several times, both men and women wear their very finest to church. They do so on the principle that it would be disrespectful to God to appear before him dressed in anything less than our best.

So before criticizing Paul's focus on head-coverings for women, let's understand that fashions in his day didn't change as rapidly as ours, were different for the wealthy than for the poor, and were different in the eastern Mediterranean than they were in the central and western Mediterranean. There is not enough evidence in ancient sources to conclude that Paul is advising conformity to Corinthian customs in this passage. So while we may see his conclusions as specific to the culture he is addressing rather than mandatory for all times and cultures, we can learn from the underlying principles.

Paul seeks to convince women to wear head-coverings during worship using four primary arguments.

  1. The argument from headship (11:3-6)
  2. The argument from order of creation (11:7-12)
  3. The argument from nature (11:13-15)
  4. The argument from established practice (11:16)

We'll consider each of these briefly. For further depth in this difficult passage, I encourage you to consult a recent detailed commentary.

1. The Argument from Headship (11:3-6)

Paul's first argument uses a play on words. Greek kephalē refers to the physical "head," as well as the ideas of the preeminence of the head over the body. Greek kephalē in some contexts refers to the idea of "authority" (as seen in the English word "headmaster"); in other contexts it refers to "origin, source" (as seen in the English word "headwaters"), as it is here.380

"Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God." (11:3)

Some have used 11:3 to teach some kind of spiritual "chain of command," though that is not what Paul is saying in this context. Instead of authority (crudely, "boss"), Paul seems to be emphasizing the "origin, source" aspect of kephalē.381 He seems to be saying that woman proceeded from man, just as Christ proceeded from God (as he argues further in 11:8-9).

Now Paul takes this argument a step further, with a play on words, where verse 4 uses kephalē first in the physical sense, and secondly in the metaphorical sense of "source, origin." This form of rhetorical argument was more persuasive to first century readers than to modern readers.

"4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. 5 And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head -- it is just as though her head were shaved. 6 If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head." (11:4-6)

Paul seems to be saying that for a man to pray or prophesy with some kind of head-covering would dishonor Christ (his figurative "head"), and that for a woman to pray or prophesy not wearing some head-covering would dishonor her husband or father (her figurative "head"). Some have speculated that a woman not covering her head meant she let her hair down loose, long hair flowing over the shoulders and back. This is possible, but far from certain. More likely the head-covering referred to was a veil or some kind of clothing.382 Just what it was we do not know. Any suggestions are mere speculation.

Paul says that to pray or prophesy uncovered would be just as shameful as if she had completely shaved her head! Indeed, it would have been humiliating for a woman to have shorn hair,383 but the widely cited "fact" that an adulteress would have her head shaved is based on flimsy evidence.384

Paul's point in this argument seems to be that not dressing appropriately for worship -- for either a man or a woman -- dishonors the distinction God has placed between men and women.

However, it's important to see that the thrust of this passage isn't the subordination of women to men. Women hardly participated at all in the Jewish synagogues. In this passage, Paul is declaring that women have just as much right to pray or prophesy in the Christian assembly as a man -- but only if appropriately dressed. We'll consider the nature of prophecy in further detail when we study 1 Corinthians 14 (Lesson 13).

2. The Argument from Order of Creation (11:7-12)

Now Paul moves to a second argument, the argument from the order of creation.

"7 A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God385; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. 11 In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. 12 For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God." (11:7-12)

Woman is the glory of man, Paul is saying, because according Genesis 2:21-23, woman made from man's rib. Apparently, in this argument, the woman's head should be covered to hide the "glory of man" before God. But so as not to reinforce male dominance, he notes that males and females are interdependent (11:11-12). Again, this argument probably had more impact in the first century than it does today.

Authority on Her Head (11:10)

Perhaps the key verse to understand here -- and the most mysterious -- is verse 10:

 "For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a [sign of] authority on her head."

Probably the words "authority" and "angels" were used in a letter of inquiry sent to Paul by the Corinthians, but without that context, we don't know exactly what Paul intended.

"Because of the angels" probably refers to Paul's belief that angels, as witnesses to the order of creation, attend worship services, and are "concerned that the ordering of things established at the creation is maintained," thus supporting Paul's argument from creation in verses 7-12.386 Two Qumran parallels seem to support this view.387

One important question is what it means for the woman to "have authority" on her head. The words "sign of" (NIV) or "symbol of" (NRSV) do not appear in the text and are an interpretation, not a translation. The noun is exousia, "authority," probably referring to "a state of control over something, freedom of choice, right (e.g., the 'right' to act)."388 What does it refer to here? Several interpretations have been suggested.

  1. Man's authority over the woman. This requires us (a) to take exousia, "authority" in a passive sense (which doesn't occur elsewhere in the New Testament); and to take the idiom "to have authority over" as an external authority different from the subject of the sentence, which likewise does not occur elsewhere.389 According to Jewish custom, a bride went bareheaded until her marriage, as a symbol of her freedom; when married she wore a veil as a sign she was under the authority of her husband. According to this interpretation, as confidently stated by the Living Bible, "So a woman should wear a covering on her head as a sign that she is under man's authority."
  2. Sign or means of exercising authority to pray and prophesy. Thus, the authority to pray and prophecy in public, previously denied to women in the synagogue, was now symbolized by the woman's head covering. This is attractive but speculative, since there isn't enough evidence in the text to support it. F.F. Bruce says,
  3. "The veil is not a sign of a woman's submission to her husband's authority, nor even of her social dignity and immunity from molestation; it is a sign of her authority.... In Christ she had received equality of status with man: she might pray or prophesy at meetings of the church, and her veil was the sign of this new authority."390

  4. Authority over her head to do as she wishes. This takes exousia in its normal sense and the preposition epi as "over," but it seems to contradict Paul's argument here.

Ultimately, what Paul meant here is rather obscure, which is problematic when people attempt to build doctrine on the basis of this verse.

The so-called "Covering Doctrine," popular in non-denominational Charismatic groups and elsewhere, uses the word "covering" to refer to which authority a person is submitted to. It contends that all people in the church need to be properly "covered" by God's "delegated authority" in the church. As you can see, it is a big stretch to use verse 10 to support anything like this doctrine. Certainly, we need to respect the spiritual authorities that God has put in place, but not in a servile manner.391

3. The Argument from Nature (11:13-15)

Now Paul moves to his third argument for women to wear a head-covering, the argument from nature.

"13 Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? 14 Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, 15 but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.392" (11:13-15)

Paul is arguing, that since women in his region of the world have an abundance of long hair as a covering, then God intends her to be covered. Of course, hair length of men and women varies from place to place; this is a culturally conditioned argument.

4. The Argument from Established Practice (11:16)

Paul concludes,

"If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice -- nor do the churches of God." (11:16)

This argument, used here and in 14:33 is the argument from established practice.

It is interesting that Jewish practice from at least the time of Maimonides (1135-1204 AD) was for men to wear a kippah, sometimes called a yarmulke. The Talmud states, "Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you."393 Even among Jews, appropriate headwear has changed over the centuries.

So what should we make of Paul's argument that women should wear head-coverings in worship? It seems to me that this issue is very much related to practices in Paul's particular culture and era, not an unconditional command for time and eternity. Since conditions and customs in other cultures may be different, we need to obey the principles of his injunction, not its particulars. The principle is that men and women should dress and comport themselves in worship in a humble, modest, and non-controversial manner. We are not to flaunt anything in our worship; we're there to put the focus on God, not ourselves.

Disorder in Corinth Regarding the Lord's Table (11:17-22)

Paul is still trying to correct anomalies in worship in Corinth. He moves now to problems with the Lord's Supper.

"17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In 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. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, 21 for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22 Don'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!" (11:17-22)

Apparently people in the congregation brought food to the meeting, which was used for the bread and wine as they partook of the Lord's Supper together. But in Corinth, there were several problems:

  1. Individuality not commonality. They didn't eat together, but each family went ahead and ate on its own, without regard to the others.
  2. Division of the rich and poor. The rich who could afford to bring food, weren't sharing with the poor, who sometimes could bring nothing. Slaves, for example, might not have access to food other than what belonged to their master. The poor were humiliated by not being able to participate in the Lord's Supper with the others.
  3. Excess. Some people brought and consumed so much wine at the meeting that they were getting drunk.

Talk about "out of order"! You can tell by Paul's tone that he is livid when he recalls the report he has received about this.

We can be rightly critical of the Corinthians' sloppy worship. But we can be thankful too. If they had not been out of order, we wouldn't have Paul's wonderful exposition on the meaning and celebration of the Lord's Supper.

The Words of Institution of Lord's Supper (11:23-26)

Verses 23-26 are known as the "words of institution," that is, Jesus' words at the first Lord's Supper that instituted or began the long tradition of the Eucharist that we continue today.

"23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 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.' 25 In 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.' 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." (11:23-26)

The Words of Institution are found in three other places, once in each of the Synoptic Gospels -- Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; and Luke 22:17-20. When you study these side by side you see numerous small differences between. In our passage, Paul probably passes on to the Corinthians what had become a standard recitation of these words in the church. Let's look at each of the phrases one by one.

Passing on a Tradition (11:23)

The words "received"394 and "passed on"395 ("handed on" or "delivered") are not just ordinary conversation, but technical terms describing the accurate conveying of the words of Jesus.396 Just as Paul received the Words of Institution (either directly from Jesus by special revelation,397 or more likely, by reliable tradition), so he passed them on accurately to the Corinthian believers and to the other churches he planted. We see a similar formal statement of handing on an apostolic tradition in 15:3.

Body and Blood (11:23b-25)

Notice that Paul passes on a rather structured and parallel form of the Words of Institution, repeating "in remembrance of me" twice.

It's quite clear that the purpose of the Lord's Supper is to remember the Lord's death for our sins as an historical event. Without the frequent remembrance of the Lord's Supper, Christianity can evolve into a philosophy of life, a set of guiding principles, far removed from the Person of the Savior. That was never God's intent.

  • The body, in the form of bread, represents Jesus' physical body "which is for you."At the original Last Supper it was unleavened bread baked for the occasion of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and Passover. Today all kinds of bread are used, from pellets and wafers to round loaves of bread and cubes of white bread. It doesn't really matter.
  • The blood, in the form of wine, represents Jesus' physical blood shed for us, which recalls a New Covenant, a new way of God dealing with his children. More on that in a moment. Today churches use wine or grape juice (a hold-over from the Prohibition Movement). That doesn't matter either.

In the twentieth century some people used to complain that there were "too many songs about the blood" -- and in the era of gospel songs there were many. In response, some groups tried to de-emphasize the blood. But, dear friends, as offensive as it might be to some, Jesus wanted us to continually remember his death for our sins by partaking of his body and blood.

For many centuries Christians have argued about the words, "This is my body/blood." Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have insisted that Jesus was teaching that the bread and cup he was holding were his actual body and blood through transubstantiation. Protestants, however, believe that Jesus was holding bread and a cup to indicate that they should represent his body and blood in their memory.

In any case, we should not consider the elements as a "mere symbol." They are much more than that, as we saw in Lesson 8 on 10:16-18, where Paul taught that partaking of the elements involved a "participation" (koinōnia) in Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The actual nature of this is a mystery, but very real.

It is clear that a prime purpose398 of the Lord's Supper is as a "remembrance." Anamnēsis, means "remembrance, reminder, recollection." This isn't just a passive memory, but an active "reliving of vanished impressions by a definite act of will."399

Christ's Death Is an Atoning Sacrifice

When we consider the Lord's Supper it is clear that Christ's death is not being viewed as a martyrdom, but as an atoning sacrifice to God.400 Matthew's account of the Lord's Supper contains the words:

"Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 25:27b-28)

The concept of sacrifice goes back to the Old Testament.

"The life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life." (Leviticus 17:10‐11)

Because the Last Supper apparently took place on Passover eve, Jesus was seen as the Passover Lamb. In fact, at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, his cousin John the Baptist had proclaimed, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The Apostle Peter wrote:

"For you know that it was not with perishable things ... that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect." (1 Peter 1:18-19)

When we partake of the Lord's Supper we are remembering Jesus' death for our sins on the cross.

Note: Believers differ on some of these topics. Be loving in your responses, even though you might disagree.

Q1. (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) Why is it so important that we continually remember Christ's broken body and shed blood? In what sense do you believe that the bread is his body? That the wine is his blood?

The New Covenant in My Blood (11:25b)

The Words of Institution contain a reference to the cup as a "new covenant."

"This cup is the new covenant in my blood." (11:25b)

In the Old Testament, a covenant is "a solemn commitment guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both covenanting parties."401 Covenants were often ratified by signs, a solemn oath, and a meal. Sacrifice was often part of the process of ratifying a covenant, also.402 We see a number of covenants in the Bible: God's covenant with Noah,403 Abraham and his descendents,404 Moses and the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai.405

At the ratification of God's Covenant with the people of Israel, commonly known as the Mosaic Covenant, we read that Moses:

"... took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, 'We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.' Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, 'This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.'" (Exodus 24:7-8)

Unfortunately, it wasn't long before the people of Israel broke this covenant -- not once, but time and time again over a period of hundreds of years. There was the need for a new covenant to deal with the sin of God's people. God promises a New Covenant through Jeremiah the prophet:

"'The time is coming,' declares the LORD,
'when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,'
declares the LORD....

'For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.'" (Jeremiah 31:31-32, 34)

For hundreds of years, pious Jews had looked forward to this new covenant. Imagine the excitement of Jesus' disciples around the table at the Last Supper, when Jesus uttered the words:

"This cup is the new covenant in my blood...." (Luke 22:20)

The new covenant was ratified by Jesus' death on the cross for our sins, and received on our part by repentance and faith. To enable us to live under this covenant, God has poured out his Holy Spirit to live within us.

It seems clear by Jesus' words at the table that the Last Supper was a kind of covenant meal, where Jesus introduces the New Covenant in his blood:

"Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'" (Matthew 26:27-28)

Each of the apostles are invited -- even commanded -- to drink of the cup, binding them to this covenant. Whenever we celebrate the Lord's Supper we are sharing a Covenant Meal at Jesus' Table. We eat his Bread and drink his Wine, and so renew our commitment to the New Covenant he established so many years ago.

We are invited guests at Jesus' table where we share intimate table fellowship. And we are instructed to renew the covenant he has made with us on every occasion when we drink the Cup of the Lord. What an honor! What a privilege! What a joy!

"May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." (Hebrews 13:20-21)

Q2. (1 Corinthians 11:25) What does the phrase mean: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood"? What is the old covenant? What are the provisions of the New Covenant?

Proclaiming the Lord's Death (11:26)

Verse 26 is not part of the Words of Institution, but a comment upon them. Let's look at this sentence in detail:

"For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." (11:26)

"Proclaim" (NIV, NRSV) or "shew" (KJV) is katangellō, "to make known in public, with implication of broad dissemination." The word is frequently used in the literature of public decrees.406 Every time we partake of the Lord's Supper, we hear a clear explanation of Jesus' death for our sins. In our day, when unbelievers are sometimes present at the Lord's Supper, they hear the gospel, and though they are not invited to partake, they gain understanding into what Christ's death means for them. Just like baptism is an enacted proclamation of cleansing from the old life and resurrection to a new one, so the Lord's Supper is an enacted proclamation of Christ's death and atonement for our sins.

We can expect to partake of the Lord's Supper up until the time of Christ's return.

Q3. (1 Corinthians 11:26) In what way is the Lord's Supper a proclamation? To whom is the proclamation made? Why is this important? What happens to the church when its proclamation shifts to a different central theme?

Self-Examination and Confession at the Lord's Table (11:27-32)

Paul has given them a proper understanding of the meaning of the Lord's Supper. It is possible to approach the Lord's Table in an "unworthy manner."Now he teaches them about the solemnity and holiness with which one should approach the Table. How can we prepare ourselves to partake of the Lord's Supper?

"Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner407 will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord." (11:27)

Notice that Paul doesn't suggest that we are unworthy to partake of the Lord's Table. That goes without saying. It is a table of grace, pure and simple. What he is saying is the way in which we partake must be worthy of the event we are remembering -- the death of Christ for our sins and for our salvation.

Sinning against the Body and Blood of the Lord (11:27)

What does it mean to sin "against the body and blood of the Lord" (verse 27). It means to commit an act that is disrespectful of this holy meal, in this case, by eating of it in a careless fashion, without a thought of slighting others in the congregation. The Lord's Table, as it is called in 10:21, is holy and demands our reverence. If we sin carelessly and then expect to partake of the elements depicting Christ's suffering and death for our sins, we are hypocrites. In the Old Testament, the priests had become casual towards holy things and were rebuked for it:

"You place defiled food on my altar.
But you ask, 'How have we defiled you?'
By saying that the LORD's table is contemptible." (Malachi 1:7)

As terrible as it is to sin "against the body and blood of the Lord," we must realize that it is no more or less sinful than other sins against fellow Christians. And all are sins against Christ himself (8:12; Matthew 25:31-46).

Examining Our Hearts (11:28)

Therefore, prior to partaking we need to stop and examine our own sins, hearts, and motives.

"A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup." (11:28)

"Examine" is dokimazō, "to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine," often used of assaying the genuineness of metal.408 Fee sees the meaning here as "to discern, distinguish as distinct and different."409 To partake of the Lord's Supper without any self-examination, without any reflection, is to consider that Christ's death has no particular meaning for me. It's just something I do when I go to church.

Jesus, too, encouraged reflection when we come to worship God. Here are a pair of verses -- one from Matthew, one from Mark -- that serve as the flip side of each other:

"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24)

"And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins." (Mark 11:25)

The Didache, a late first-century Christian document, says in the context of the Lord's Supper:

"But every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. But let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned...."410 (Didache 14.2)

It is significant that the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous includes these steps:

  • "Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  • Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

(Were you aware that the 12 Steps were developed by evangelical Christians?) It is one thing to acknowledge a sin. It is another to repent of it as wrong and seek to make it right, if possible.

For many centuries the Roman Catholic Church has required regular confession to a priest as a prerequisite to taking communion. Done sincerely, confession can aid in spiritual growth and victory over sin. Protestants have often taken sin much too lightly. In the context of sickness resulting from unacknowledged sin, James exhorts confession and repentance, so there might be healing (James 5:16).

Confession to another human, such as an accountability partner, is a powerful way of helping us deal squarely with our sins. But we can also confess our sins to God alone and receive forgiveness (absolution) of our sins (1 John 1:9; Psalm 32:5; 51:2-5). No matter how confession is made, confession and repentance are absolutely necessary to growth in the Christian life. When we bury our sins, we stagnate, falter, and are subject to our Father's loving but firm discipline.

If we know we are living with unrepented sin, is it more respectful of Jesus not to partake of the Lord's Supper? Yes, it is more respectful, but it is stupid! We are subject to God's discipline for hanging onto sin whether or not we take communion. There is a time to repent and come clean, and let the chips fall where they may. The Lord's Supper is a reminder to us that now is the time to examine ourselves, this is the day to get back on the right path. Paul writes:

"As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain.... I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation." (2 Corinthians 6:1)

Q4. (1 Corinthians 11:28) What kind of self-examination at the Lord's Table is appropriate? How do confession and repentance fit with self-examination? How do confession and repentance serve to bring spiritual health and character change?

Discerning the Body (11:29-30)

The danger is to partake of the Lord's Supper without recognizing and repenting of known sins. This was the problem in Corinth. And Paul says it was a major reason for the sickness many had experienced.

"29For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body [of the Lord]411 eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep." (11:29-30)

"Discerning" (KJV, NRSV) or "recognizing" (NIV, NJB) the body is diakrinō, "to evaluate by paying careful attention to, evaluate, judge," here, "recognize."412 The word also occurs in the next verse.

To understand verses 29-30 we need to understand what "the body [of the Lord]" refers to. There are two possibilities:

  1.  "Body" refers to the Eucharistic elements, that is, the bread and wine which represent Christ's body and blood. The meaning is thus that the communicants -- that is, those taking communion -- are judged for not recognizing that they are partaking of a sacred meal, and must act accordingly towards one another, caring for the needs of the poor and those who come in late.
  2. "Body" refers to the church, the "Body of Christ." The meaning is thus that communicants are judged for not discerning the needs of other members of the Body of Christ, that is, the congregation.

The main argument for "body" as the Eucharistic elements is that the most immediate uses of the word "body" are clearly referring to the Eucharistic bread representing Christ's flesh. "Body," according to this view, would serve a kind of "shorthand" for "body and blood."413

The main argument for "body" as the church is that references to "body" in the immediate passage are to "body and blood" together, not to "body" by itself. There is a clear reference to "body" as the church in 10:17 -- "Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." Since 10:16 clearly uses "body" in a Eucharistic sense, we know that Paul can freely mix these metaphors within the same topic.414

Of these two interpretations, I'm more inclined towards the first. Certainly, the Corinthians' sin here consisted of not recognizing the needs of the poor, but this is partly because of their sloppiness in not recognizing the sacred meal they were eating.

Judging Ourselves (11:31-32)

Now Paul calls upon those partaking of the Lord's Supper to "judge themselves."

"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." (11:31-32)

"Judge" is diakrinō, that we saw in verse 30, "to evaluate by paying careful attention to, evaluate, judge."415 In other words, we are to examine our hearts, and then evaluate what we see. If the Lord reveals a problem, then we are to repent of it. That's what it means to "judge ourselves." If we fail to do this, God will do the judging and we will be "disciplined" (NIV, NRSV), "chastened" (KJV) as sons and daughters. The word is paideuō, from the realm of child rearing (from pais, "child"). It means, "to assist in the development of a person's ability to make appropriate choices, practice discipline," here, "to discipline with punishment."416 The writer of Hebrews quoted Proverbs 3:11-12 to his readers, using this word:

"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." (Hebrews 12:5-6)

When they go astray, God's children are "disciplined," not "condemned417 with the world." God is raising us as children. He is not going to cast us off and condemn us to hell when we sin. But, unless we get our act together, we're going to feel his wrath! Either discern your own sins and repent of them, or get ready for a "whipping in the woodshed," that's the choice we're given. This discipline can be severe if we resist it, resulting in sickness or even premature death.

"That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep." (11:30)

Practical Advice (11:33-34)

Paul gives them this practical advice in conclusion:

"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. And when I come I will give further directions." (11:27-34)

Instead of rushing to wolf down their food, they're to wait until everyone is present and is served something. To do else is to desecrate the Holy Meal of which they are partaking.

1 Corinthians: Discipleship Lessons from a Troubled Church, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

We have examined in some detail Paul's teaching on the Lord's Supper. But just to understand it isn't enough. Now we are called to live our lives before God with thanksgiving for his sacrifice and humble appreciation for his forgiveness. The Lord's Supper is designed by our Lord to both nourish us and cause us to grow in him.

My prayer for both you and me is that Jesus' intention for his Supper might be fulfilled in us, in our congregations, and in our world -- now and until Jesus' return in glory.

"For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (11:26).


Father, we have partaken of your Holy Table unworthily so often. We've partaken without thinking. We've partaken with sins in our hearts. We've partaken without realizing that in the bread and the wine we are participating in Christ's sacrifice and renewing our covenant with him. Please forgive us. Help us in the future to use the occasion of the Lord's Supper to really commune with You, in Spirit and in truth. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." (1 Corinthians 11:1)

"For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night 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, 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.'" (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

"For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." (1 Corinthians 11:26)

"Therefore, 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. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup." (1 Corinthians 11:27-28)

"If we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment." (1 Corinthians 11:31)


380. For a deeper discussion of "head," see my discussion of kephalē in Ephesians: Discipleship Lessons (JesusWalk, 2006, 2010), pp. 134-135, and an article, "Headship (kephalē) and Submission (hupotassomai) in Ephesians 5:21-33" (https://www.jesuswalk.com/ephesians/kephale-headship-ephesians.htm).

381. Fee, 1 Corinthians, pp. 501-504. The only suggestion of "authority" (exousia) in the passage is in 11:10, where it probably refers to a woman's authority, not her husband's.

382. The phrase "with his head covered" (NIV, KJV, ESV), "with something on his head" (NRSV) is three words: kata kephalēs echōn, literally, "having (something) down/over (his) head." The preposition kata is probably used here in the sense of location that is relatively lower, "down from something," here, "hanging down from the head, as a veil (kata, BDAG 511, 1a). Where this rare phrase occurs in other literature it seems to indicate some kind of clothing, rather than one's hair (Fee, 1 Corinthians, pp. 506-507. Fee cites the Septuagint translation of Esther 6:12 and Plutarch, Moralia 200F). The Vulgate translated exousia as thought it were kalumma, "veil."

383. Deuteronomy 21:12; Aristotle, Thes. 837.

384. Tacitus (Germania 19) describes an incident in barbaric Germany, probably because it was different from Roman practice.

385. M.D. Hooker (p. 414): "The man, according to Paul, is the image and glory of God.... He ought not to cover his head simply because he ought not to hide the glory of God."

386. M.D. Hooker, "Authority on her head; an examination of 1 Cor  XI.10," New Testament Studies 10 (1963-64), pp. 410-416, her quoting from p. 412. See Ecclesiastes 5:6; Matthew 18:10; Hebrews 1:14. Bruce (1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 106) notes, "By discarding the veil, Corinthian women were ignoring the tension by existence in Christ at a time when 'the form of this world' has not yet passed away completely (cf. 7:26-31)." Alternative approaches might be (1) to translate angelos as a non-supernatural "messenger," people sent to observe and report (so ESV margin); or (2) to see the angels as evil "sons of God" (Genesis 6:2) who would lust after the uncovered women or harm them, though this seems to be too much of a stretch.

387. 1QSa 2.8f and 1QM 7.6.

388. Exousia, BDAG 352, 1 and 7.

389. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 519.

390. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 106. He follows the exegesis of British New Testament scholar Mona Dorothy (M.D.) Hooker. Hooker argues, rather obscurely, that since a woman's head-covering is designed to efface man's glory in God's presence (verse 7), then with man's glory hidden, the veil is now a symbol of her authority under God to pray and prophesy (pp. 416-17).

391. Other verses used to support this doctrine are: 1 Chronicles 16:22; Romans 13:1-7; Hebrews 13:17; Ephesians 4:8-16; Matthew 8:5-12; 2 Timothy 2:11-12; 1 Samuel 15:22-23; 24:6; Numbers 23:23; and 1 Peter 2:13-14.

392. "Covering" in verse 15 is peribolaion, "'that which is thrown around,' an article of apparel that covers much of the body, covering, wrap, cloak, robe" (BDAG 800).

393. Shabbat 156b.

394. Paralambanō, "to gain control of or receive jurisdiction, take over, receive" (BDAG 767-768, 2bγ).

395. Paradidōmi, "to pass on to another what one knows, of oral or written tradition, hand down, pass on, transmit, relate, teach." (BDAG 761-763, 3).

396. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 548.

397. Galatians 1:12.

398. "In" is the common Greek preposition eis, with the idea of motion into a thing or towards a goal. Here it is used to denote a purpose, "in order to," or for the purpose of remembrance (BDAG 288-291, 4f).

399. Johannes Behm, anamnēsis, upomnēsis, TDNT 1:348-349. BDAG 68.

400. For more on this see my book, Lamb of God: Jesus' Atonement for Sin (JesusWalk, 2011). www.jesuswalk.com/books/lamb.htm

401. Paul R. Williamson, "Covenant," DOTP 139-155.

402. Genesis 15:9-10, 17; Jeremiah 34:18. Elmer B. Smick, berît, TWOT #282a. Joachim Guhrt, "Covenant," NIDNTT 1:365-372.

403. Genesis 6:8; 9:9-17.

404. Genesis 15:18; 17:2-21.

405. Exodus 19:5; 24:7-8; 31:16; 34:10, 27; etc.

406. Katangellō, BDAG 515.

407. "Unworthy manner" (NIV, NRSV), "unworthily" (KJV) is anaxiōs, "in an unworthy/careless manner" (BDAG 69). To partake in such a fashion is to live lower than their calling to "walk worthy of the gospel" (Philippians 1:27; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Colossians 1:10; Ephesians 4:1; 3 John 6).

408. Dokimazō, BDAG 255-256. Walter Grundmann, dokimos, TDNT 2:255-260.

409. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 564.

410. Bruce notes that the last phrase is a possible reference to the sacrifice referred to in Matthew 5:23-24 cited above (1 & 2 Cor., p. 115).

411. There is a textual variant here. The NIV and KJV render the phrase "the Lord's body." But the earliest Greek manuscripts (followed by the NRSV, NASB, NJB, etc.) omit "the Lord's," which was probably included by an early copyist to help explain the word "body."The earliest Greek manuscripts omit "the Lord's," including p46 Aleph* B C* 33 1739 copsa,bo etc. Later manuscripts include it: Aleph2 D F G K P Ψ most miniscules it syrp,h,pal goth arm, etc. The United Bible Societies committee give it a {C} degree of certainty ({A} is highest, {D} is lowest). Metzger (Textual Commentary, p. 562-563) argues for the "shorter reading" saying, "there appears to be no good reason to account for the omission if the words had been present originally."

412. Diakrinō, BDAG 232, 3a.

413. Barrett (1 Corinthians, p. 275) concludes, "Though the verse remains problematical and uncertain, it is best, in view of the parallelism between verses 27 and 29 ... to interpret 'the body' (29) in light of 'the body and blood of the Lord' (27), which is now taken up in shorthand form." Leon Morris (1 Corinthians, p. 164) agrees.

414. Fee (1 Corinthians, pp. 562-564) argues this position convincingly. Bruce (1 & 2 Cor., p. 115) seems to adopt this interpretation.

415. Diakrinō, BDAG 232, 3a.

416. Paideuō, BDAG 749, 2bα.

417. "Condemned" is katakrinō, "pronounce a sentence on someone after determination of guilt" (BDAG 519).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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