Q – I read what you wrote about communion and I have a question. You said in your answer that communion taken incorrectly can be REALLY BAD. Does that mean we could end up in hell if we take communion incorrectly?
Jim – Well, let’s start at the start. Here’s the passage that I was referring to –
“For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world. Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. And the rest will I set in order when I come.” (1 Cor 11:26-34)
To answer your question directly: no, I do not believe that this passage is teaching that taking communion incorrectly will result in eternal damnation. But, this passage is a very stern warning against taking the Lord’s Supper in a haphazard manner. And there are very real consequences involved.
The Church at Corinth had many problems, from abusing the gifts of the spirit to not dealing with sexual misconduct in their midst. The Apostle Paul wrote two letters admonishing and correcting them and still left other things to be dealt with upon his arrival. One of the problems among the Corinthians was that they had turned the Lord’s Supper into a feast where the wealthy brought plenty and ate in the presence of starving brethren.
“When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.” (1 Cor. 11:20-22)
The New American Standard Version renders that passage this way –
“Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.” (1 Cor. 11:20-22)
The Corinthian believers were apparently meeting and feasting together, then tacking the Lord’s Supper onto their meetings, rather than giving that ceremony the proper respect and reverence it deserved. So, Paul warned them of the risk they were running.
He started his warning with –
“For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
The act of partaking of the communion bread (which was originally the unleavened bread of Passover) and wine is a ceremony of remembrance, showing how the Lord died, gave His body to be punished in our place and spilled His blood for our redemption. That is why Jesus said, “This do in remembrance of me.” The communion commemorates the events that lie at the very heart of Christianity. So, it should be treated with due respect. The communion act ought to focus completely on what Christ did on our behalf. We should remember His suffering under the wrath of God as our substitute and how He willingly gave Himself to bear God’s wrath as our substitute. This is not something to be taken lightly or vainly. Consequently, whoever partakes of this ceremony “unworthily” stands guilty of that very body and blood. Those are very sobering words.
Now, it’s necessary to point out that this phrase is often misused and abused. All too often it is read, “Whosoever shall eat this bread and drink this cup of the Lord unworthy shall be guilty …”
But that’s not what Paul said. The word “unworthily” is an adverb. It modifies the action (the verb), not the actor. To replace “unworthily” with “unworthy” takes the focus off the manner of partaking and places it on the individual, measuring his or her personal worthiness. That’s a dangerous change of language because noone is worthy of the blood of Christ. He did not die for worthy people. He died for unworthy people who were incapable of saving themselves and who desperately needed a Savior. So, listen carefully when you hear people use or misuse that phrase.
So, the right question to ask at this juncture is, “Well then, how does a person partake of communion in a worthy manner?” Good question. Paul will explain.
“But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
We are to examine ourselves, not to see if we are worthy to partake, but to see that we are participating worthily – in a worthy manner. Paul defines eating and drinking “unworthily” as “not discerning the Lord’s body.” In other words, to take in an unworthy manner is demonstrated in not concentrating on the central issue; to wit “showing the Lord’s death until He comes.” The Church at Corinth was guilty of this very thing. They would eat, drink and be drunk and then take the bread and wine as though it were a light thing, as though the very act was sufficient whether or not they engaged their thoughts, hearts and conscience. Paul said that participating in the Lord’s Supper without giving it proper attention is to participate unworthily.
That, by the way, is why I do not believe in taking the Lord’s Supper at the end of every church service, or as a monthly ceremony tacked-on to the end of a service. The Lord’s Supper ought to be the central, primary reason for the meeting. So, I teach that it ought to be taken as a yearly ceremony, coinciding with Passover, just as the Lord originally instituted it.
And, to put a fine point on it, telling people to concentrate on their own “worthiness” takes the focus from where it should be – Christ’s work – and places it squarely in the wrong place – ourselves.
Anyway, that brings us to your question. Paul said if a person partook unworthily, he ate and drank “damnation to himself.” That’s an unfortunate translation on the part of the King James Version. When we read “damnation” we think of eternal punishment. But, in this sentence it is the Greek word “krima,” which denotes a decision made in response to a crime. Most other versions correctly translate that phrase “eats and drinks judgment to himself.”
Now, there’s another word we have to look at in this phrase, as well. It’s the word “discerning.” Paul said that people would eat and drink judgment to themselves by not “discerning” the Lord’s body. That is the verb form of the Greek word “diakrino.” The root of that word is “krino,” which means “to distinguish, to decide judicially, to try, condemn or punish.” So, “diakrino” means “to separate thoroughly, to oppose or to discriminate.” Consequently, the NASB renders 1 Corinthians 11:29, “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.”
So, here’s the point. If we do not take the time to properly judge our own actions and intentions when taking the Lord’s Supper, then God Himself will judge. We can avoid the judgment of God by actively discerning the proper manner of partaking and acting accordingly.
So, the next logical question is, “What sort of judgment does God render?” Paul answers –
“For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” (1 Cor 11:30-31)
Paul argued that weakness and sickness had come upon some within the Corinthian Church as a result of their haphazard approach to Communion, and some had even died. These are temporal punishments. These are not spiritual forms of condemnation. They are judgments that played out in the bodily health of the person being judged. But, it is not judgment unto eternal condemnation or damnation. Paul makes it obvious, although his point is somewhat obscured in the KJV translation.
When Paul wrote, “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged,” he used two different Greek words, both translated “judge.” The first is “diakrino,” which was rendered “discerning” in the previous verse. The second is “krino,” which does mean, “to condemn, try or punish.”
So, Paul’s point was: if we use good discernment when approaching the Lord’s Supper, we will not risk punishment at God’s hand.
So, the logical next question is, “So, what is the purpose of God punishing people for taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner?”
Paul continues –
“But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.” (1 Cor 11:32)
Again, we need to get familiar with the Greek terms. Paul wrote, “When we are judged (krino)” – meaning, when people do partake in an unworthy manner and suffer under God’s physical punishment – “we are chastened of the Lord.” In other words, God’s judgment is corrective. It’s a form of discipline in order to stop the wrong behavior. But, it does not result in ultimate condemnation.
Paul continued the contrast by writing, “…that we should not be condemned with the world.” The word translated “condemned” in that phrase is the Greek “katakrino.” The Greek prefix “kata” adds weight or force to a word, denoting the ultimate or final judgment and determination of God. That’s the sort of judgment the world falls under, as opposed to the Church, which remains in God’s grace.
So, here’s the summation. The people of God, the blood-bought, redeemed saints, are never in danger of eternal punishment. But, just as Hebrews 12:6 says, whom the Lord loves, He chastens and He scourges ever son whom He receives. God does not give up on His people when they sin. He corrects them. He judges them in temporal ways in order to halt their faulty behavior.
But, we need to emphasize that this is one of only two instances in the New Testament where we read of God personally intervening into the activity of the Church and bringing death and sickness as a punishment. The other is when Ananias and his wife decided to lie about their giving.
What does that tell us? It tells us that God is very zealous for the Lord’s Supper. It is very important in His eyes. And, He’s willing to make people sick, or even dead, in order to preserve the sanctity and priority of that act. I take those warnings very seriously. To me, if God took this much care to instruct His saints about the proper manner of approaching the Lord’s Supper, then we really ought to pay attention.
So, to finish his instruction, Paul told the Corinthians that when they did come together for the purpose of taking the Lord’s Supper, there was to be no air of superiority on any man’s part. In fact, they were to wait on one another. They were to serve one another. They were to treat each other as equals and every man was to act as a servant.
If they were hungry, they were to eat at home. By doing this, Paul said that they would avoid “krima,” God’s judgment. The rest, he said, he would deal with when he arrived.
So, that’s the long answer. The short answer is, “No, Paul was not saying that Christians who fail to properly partake of Communion are therefore damned eternally.” What he did say was that God takes the Lord’s Supper very seriously, so we should too. And, if we do not treat it properly, God will act like a faithful Father and correct His children.
Hope that helps.
Yours in Him,