“Unworthily” vs “In an unworthy manner” and preparing for Lord’s Supper

This document is my attempt to explain, with the support of a significant quote from a commentary, what…

a) … my concerns are about our understanding of preparing for the Lord’s Supper;

b) … is currently the commonly held understanding of 1 Corinthians 11;

c) … that understanding does to make the preparation forms obsolete;

d) … a violation of my conscience it would be to use them in their current form.

a) My concerns regarding a “special week” of preparing for Lords Supper.

Some areas have had the practice of putting people into an especially contrite frame of mind the Sunday before Communion is to be celebrated. I do not intend to go into a lot of detail as to why I disagree with that but will simply say that just as we are always to be ready to give a testimony of the hope we have, and we are always to be ready to meet our Maker, we should always be prepared to receive God’s grace in all ways it comes to us, but especially as it comes to us in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. I believe we are to be continually ‘examining ourselves’ and clearing our hearts, spirits and minds of ‘clutter’ and ‘offense’ that blocks us from fuller relationship with God the Father through Jesus his son and with our co-communers.

That cleansing or sanctification process is formally done every Sunday in the liturgy of confession and assurance, and it is expected that believers are always working to keep the relationship with God open themselves the rest of the week.

b) Our updated understanding of 1 Corinthians 11

Through recent language studies we have come to a more accurate understanding of what Paul is actually saying in 1 Corinthians 11. Study has revealed that, based on a mis-translation first done in the King James Version (KJV) a word that should have said “in an unworthy manner” was put as “unworthily.” Based on that mistake, the church went on a path of loading great fear of judgment on those who might take part unworthily. As a result, many incorrect ideas of what “unworthily” meant were added to people’s understanding and became part of the common practice of examining oneself.

After a very very briefly summarize chapter 11, I will share a long quote from Dr Gordon Fee’s commentary on the matter to help you see that I am not pulling this out of thin air.

The practical problem of division Paul begins to address in 1 Corinthians 11 at verse 17 is that the poor are left out of the full participation in the Lord’s Supper feast.

The root theological problem, made obvious in that practical matter, Paul tells his readers, is that they do not have proper respect for the fact that every believer is part of the on-living body of Christ, and if some are cut out, then the Lord is being abused. That explanation is found in verses 23 to 26.

The theological solution to the problem is that they need to “see” or “discern” or “recognize” the body of Christ as it lives on in all believers around them. He calls for a ‘self-judging’ or self-examination that involves each person checking their own beliefs and behaviour as to whether they are respecting the body of Christ represented by all believers coming to the table. The error of not recognizing the body of Christ is what this is all about. The solution is to recognize the body. Paul is talking about nothing more than that.

The practical solution to the division, Paul says, is to make sure you wait for each other and all celebrate and remember together, with equal access to the food and drink.

What follows is an extensive quote from a commentary on this passage:


1. The Problem—Abuse of the Poor (11:17-22)

2. The Problem—Abuse of the Lord (11:23-26)

3. The Answer—Discern the Body (11:27-32)

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. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

“With this paragraph, and the next, Paul now applies the point of vv 23-26 to their meals. Their Supper in the Lord’s honor is in fact dishonoring to him—in two ways: First, the “haves” have been abusing the have-nots by going ahead with their own private meals.” Second, they have thereby been abusing the Lord himself by not properly “remembering” him, especially in terms of the salvation he has wrought through his death, which was intended to make them one, not “divided” as their Supper does. The purpose of the present paragraph, therefore, is to correct the first abuse by warning them of the dire consequences if they persist in behavior at the Supper that reflects failure to understand its true nature.

“Because the paragraph has a long history of being read at the Lord’s Supper independent of its original context, its interpretation has also been independent of that context, a problem that is increased by some inherent difficulties with the language. The entire paragraph is dominated by “judgment” motifs, some of which are wordplays not especially easy to put into comparable English. Furthermore, the crucial term (“body”) in the crucial sentence (v. 29) is ambiguous enough so that the point of the whole argument is frequently missed altogether, or at least in its main emphasis. The argument in context seems to go as follows:

“Paul begins (v. 27) by picking up the language of vv. 23-26, but now in the form of a severe warning that those who eat as they are doing, “in an unworthy manner,” will be liable for the very death that they are rather to proclaim as salvation at this table. That leads to the proposed remedy: self-testing before eating (v. 28), les they come under divine judgment (v. 29). The “unworthy” eating of v 27 that brings judgment is now described as eating “without discerning the body,” meaning the church (as in 10:16-17; this after all, is the point of the whole section). This is followed by a prophetic pronouncement (v. 30) that some current illnesses and deaths are present expressions of such judgment, brought about by their failure to discern the body. The argument then concludes (vv. 31-32) with a considerable wordplay on “judgment” themes, in which Paul basically repeats the point of vv. 28-30. On the one hand (v. 31), if they were to “discern themselves” (cf. v. 28), they would not be experiencing the present “judgments” of v. 30; on the other hand (v. 32), the present judgments mean that they are being “disciplined” so that they will not come under the final “judgment”–condemnation with the world.

27 “With the strong inferential conjunction “so then,” characteristic of the argumentation of this letter (see on 3:7), Paul proceeds to apply what he has just said about the meaning of the words of institution in v. 26 to their abuse of the Table: “Whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Partaking of this meal “in an unworthy manner” is what the entire section is about. Unfortunately, this adverb was translated “unworthily” in the KJV. Since that particular English adverb seems more applicable to the person doing the eating than to the manner in which it is being done, this word became a dire threat for generations of English-speaking Christians.”

4. The Answer—Wait for One Another (11:33-34)

Main quoted sections above are from pages 558 to 560 of “The New International Commentary on the New Testament” FF Bruce Editor, Gordon D Fee author

The Outline above covers pages 531 to 567 of “The New International Commentary on the New Testament”

It is important that you know this is the above understanding of this passage that is currently taught at Calvin Theological Seminary.

c) Our Forms for Preparation are based on that mistaken translation.

Even our most recently written form for preparation for Lord’s Supper, the 1981 edition on page 976 of the Silver Hymnal, is based on that mistaken KJV translation. And so we read there, in the second sentence, a direct quote of that former understanding: “We are taught that eating and drinking unworthily brings judgment upon ourselves.” Our current, corrected understanding is that Paul only was talking about one particular manner of eating and drinking, namely a manner that disregarded the have-nots. That disregard was tearing apart the body of Christ in that congregation. It is very important to realize that all other layers of self-examination that have been understood to be implied by that idea of partaking “unworthily” are not proper to tie to this text. There is no basis in the text itself to do so.

So, even the first sentence of that 1981 form is misleading, calling for “us to examine ourselves before God.” Paul is only talking about one specific kind of self-examination here. In 1 Cor. 11 Paul is not including examining ourselves for whether we are deeply aware enough of our sinfulness, whether we are repentant enough, or anything other than one specific issue: Do we see the body of Christ in our fellow believers? That is all the discerning he calls for.

d) It would be a violation of my conscience to use the form.

So, I’ve just shared that one point which is my main objection to using the preparation form. Given my current understanding of 1 Corinthians 11, it would be an offense worthy of a millstone around my neck to use this form as written and heap burdens on people with a fear of judgment. That fear might keep them from fully experiencing God’s grace and spiritual and meaning-laden nurture as offered in the communion meal.

Since the “heapings of scorning” self-examination we once tied to this passage are removed, and since I think scripture calls us for constant readiness, I in fact see no need to do much more than remind people a week before communion that it is coming and give them something specific to reflect on.

e) Conclusion

My understanding has always been that as Christians of Reformed persuasion, we are always looking to the Word alone, not ritual or superstition or tradition alone, to find the meaning of our worship practices. And when we now see that we have been off track, we reform our practices to align with the principles of scripture. So it is time to do away with the parts of this that are based in mistaken understanding.

Pastor Pete

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