I have noticed it has been a while since I posted one of my essays from my university days, so here is one I did on 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, and how to pastor someone who feels unworthy in taken part in the Lord’s supper.
This essay is going to look at the idea of people feeling too unworthy (especially in the Scottish Highlands and Islands) of taking the Lord’s Supper and how to pastor them to feel like they can take communion. This essay will do this by looking at 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 at what the Apostle Paul says about unworthiness and communion. Following that, this essay will then look at why people feel unworthy whether it is theological or psychological, then look at how to pastor them to show them that Paul is not talking about those with low self-esteem and, that if it isn’t about guilt in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, then how to get them to participate in this sacrament.
1 Corinthians 11:27-32
The Lord’s Supper passage in 1 Corinthians 11 officially starts at verse 17 and ends at verse 34. Verses 17-26 talk about what was happening in the Corinthian churches which was in a way abusing the Lord’s Supper. The rich or those of a high status would eat first and leave those who were poorer hungry. There was no sense of equality at the communion table which was becoming a problem because communion was a time where people could gather equally, eat the bread, drink the wine and remember what Jesus did for them. When Paul talks about remembering the covenant and the significance of the cup and the bread he stresses about the proclamation of the Lord’s death. He looks at Jesus’ death and then looks towards the day that He will return (v26).
Verses 27-32 is the part that really looks into what Paul says about being unworthy of taking part in communion. John Calvin would say that verse 27 is talking about people who eat unworthily ruin the pure and proper use of the sacrament. It is a form of abuse and that causes different levels of unworthiness and some people sin more severely than others. However, a sin is a sin. Verse 27 could also be reflecting how people were being divided and the Lord’s Supper mainly became a gathering for a meal rather than fellowship and remembering the Lord. Verse 28 talks about self-examination before taking part in this sacrament. Paul does not intend that we take this passage to say we should not participate in fact he says “and so let him eat”. Richard Barcellos quotes Malcolm MacLean that the self-examination happens before the supper (not the service) so any Christian who is unworthy can make amendments immediately. Verse 29 (as Calvin puts it) is Paul threatening the Corinthians with God’s judgement and punishment for taking the sacrament unworthily. This is because people do not feel much about committing the sin compared to the threat of being punished. Calvin also indicates in Verse 30 that there may have been some kind of plague or disease going around but it was something to do with God punishing them for taking part in communion unworthily. Charles Hodge agrees with Calvin here and adds that with those who are sickly that the term Paul uses “and many sleep.” Could mean that people are actually dead due to the judgement of God for their irreverent manner in celebrating the sacrament. Paul in verse 31 says that in a way if we judge ourselves first or examine ourselves before approaching the table of our sins then we should not be judged. Verse 32 is Paul empathizing the judgement that God will give us but it will be in a way that will discipline us. The punishment is like what a caring parent would do to help teach or protect their child. God would punish but not forget his mercy to us and does it out of concern for our salvation.
Finishing of (verses 33-34) Paul tells the Corinthians what they should do until he returns with more instructions. Verse 33 he goes back to the start about eating together equally. Verse 34 talks to those who may be hungry before so they are to eat something at home before meeting up for the meal so they will not be judged, so Paul here is saying how in one sense we can avoid judgement.
Unworthiness can come in many forms and ways. When it comes to the sacrament of communion many people do not take part in it as they feel unworthy either theologically or psychologically.
Theologically the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 can cause anxieties to people when it is focused on personal sin and our problems, so when we self-examine ourselves we look at the sin but someone who becomes too anxious could refuse to take the Supper because their sin seems so bad that they are nowhere near worthy to participate in the sacrament.
The feeling of unworthy can come from people saying you must have faith in Jesus’ words “for you” as it requires all of your heart to believe it if not you are unworthy of taking part of the sacrament. This can cause a lot of problems because if someone is having a particularly a bad day or having confidence issues, suffering from depression, or has low self-esteem but other times they were fine. Saying they should not take part because of a psychological problem can make them feel worse or even question whether they were actually worthy before (if they had taken it previously).
Scots confession would stress that it is partly the minister’s responsibility as well as the individual because the minister should make sure people are ready to go to the table by the minister’s public teaching and their personal contact. This makes it sound like only certain people are picked who seemed worthy enough before the service can take part rather than self-evaluation as Paul would say. In the Highlands and Islands, there was a time of discipline in the churches. This approach meant that the ministers would not celebrate the Lord’s Supper until the congregation seemed worthy enough to receive it. This is a good and a bad approach. It can be good because there is an assurance that those who are truly unworthy cannot take part without judgement. However, this means that those who were worthy could not take part until everyone else was ready. Taking part in the Lord’ Supper in the Highlands has a higher demand and that caused a lack of assurance compared to the Lowlands. There was a higher degree of Evidence of assurance in the Highlands. However, people still felt too unworthy. A reason for this could be when preachers would talk about 1 Corinthians 11:29 and the use of the word “damnation”, and the emphasis they give on how horrible it is and bring a terror people were afraid to take part in case they were unworthy and did not want to experience such a fate.
One way of pastoring someone who feels unworthy of taking part in the supper is to reassure them that even though we may perform a spiritual discipline like fasting, prayer, confession. We are nowhere near worthy to receive the body and blood of Christ. However by the grace of God (if our hearts are in the right place) then the Lord’s Supper can be very efficacious.
The situation earlier on whether someone has enough faith can also mean that anyone can take it who is either strong or weak in their faith as William Forbes said those weak or strong in faith can take it as long as they take the sacrament with knowledge, faith, penitence, love, thankfulness, and humility they are fine to participate. Another thing that could be added is that as long as they believe that Jesus died for their sins, He resurrected and defeated death and we have God’s grace to forgive us of our sins. This encouragement can help a person see that they can take part because they trust and believe even the basics.
In the Scottish Highlands, the Larger Catechism will allow any Christian who is lacking in assurance to go and take part in the sacrament. This can help someone because if they have been told constantly that it is their weak faith or low assurance then they can see that it has nothing to do with that and that it does not relate in with 1 Corinthians 11:27-32.
Finally, another possible way (especially dealing with problems with personal sin) is to look at the passage with the person and go through each verse and talk through what the verse is saying and what it means. This could hopefully make the person see that they are not under the same “unworthiness” as the Corinthians and that they can participate in the sacrament. This way could also help someone with anxiety about it to change their frame of reference to see that they are fine to take part.
In Conclusion, this essay has looked into a deeper understanding of what Paul was saying in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 by looking at the passage as a whole (verses 17-34) to get a better understanding. It starts by saying what the problems are in the Corinthian churches and that their biggest problem is division and using the supper as a feast rather than as Communion or a sacrament. The Corinthians were unworthy for these reasons to receive the bread and wine.
When it came to people feeling unworthy there were different factors. Firstly, theologically the verses were interpreted wrongly so people would misunderstand what Paul was saying, there is such an emphasis on sin and punishment it would make people feel too anxious or scared to take part in the sacrament. Secondly, psychological issues could have a factor to why people feel unworthy, (self-esteem, depression, confidence issues) so they do not take part but may have taken part before. Thirdly, in the Scottish highlands, there is a lot of emphasis on “damnation”, on the minister’s advice or influence on who should or should not take part and only doing it when the minister thinks the congregation is ready causes a lot of people not to take part due to the feeling of unworthiness. Also, stating a difference between the strong and weak in faith does not help those in need of comfort to be told they are too weak in faith.
Pastoring them can be a hard thing but encouragement is a good place to start. Sharing that we all fall short of worthiness but by grace, we can be forgiven and can take part can help. Assurance that no matter how weak their faith is it does not decide whether they can take part or not. Also going through 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 verse by verse and discussing each verse and what it means can help a person to see it in a different way and that the unworthiness there was something different from personal sin.
John Armstrong (ed), Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007).
Richard, C. Barcellos, The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace More than Memory (Mentor Imprint, Fearn, Ross-Shire 2013) pages 21-114
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), IV:540-585.
John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, (Oliver and Boyd Ltd. 1960) pages 236-257
CofS: The Lord’s Supper: An Appeal to the People of the Church of Scotland in the Highlands and Islands, prepared by the Panel on Doctrine (Edinburgh: 1968)
J. Cumming. ‘- Communion Table.’ (Lindsay and Blakiston,1855 – Digitized, 2009). https://www.google.co.uk/search?sourceid=navclient&aq=hts&oq=&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4PRFD_en___GB570&q=Communion+Table+(Google+eBook)
William Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967 ), 225-229.
David, J. Dunn, Going away Hungry: The Economics of the Eucharistic Worthiness, pages 260-274
Charles Hodge, 1&II Corinthians, (Banner of Truth Trust, 1988) pages 215-236
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), III:611-650.
Robert Letham, The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2001).
Malcolm MacLean, The Lord’s Supper (Fearn: Christian Focus: Mentor, 2009)
Keith Mathison, Given For You (P&R: Phillipsburg, 2002).
David Prior ‘The Message of 1 Corinthians’, (Inter-Varsity Press 1993) pages 178-191