Five Theses Regarding the Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is an important part of church life. Sadly, much of what is taught and discussed about the Lord’s Supper does not focus on the things that Paul focused on. These theses hopefully will force others to think about the Supper in light of what Scripture teaches rather than just in light of our church traditions.

1. Most of the New Testament’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper is negative rather than positive. That is, most of the teaching of the NT tells us what not to do rather than what to do.

There really is very little teaching about the Lord’s Supper to begin with. The Synoptics mention the institution of the Supper (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20) in the context of Passover with John only mentioning the Passover meal and the dipping of the sop (John 13:21-30, in the context of the discussion about Jesus’ impending betrayal). These passages are descriptive, though Paul apparently saw them as prescriptive since he “hands them down” to the churches he establishes (see below).

There are a few passages in the Acts that mention the Lord’s Supper (assuming that the phrase “breaking (of) bread” in its various forms is a reference to the Lord’s Supper) such as Acts 2:42 and Acts 20:7f. These verses are descriptive rather than prescriptive in that they explain what happened more than they tell us what we should do, but they do give us some idea of what the Supper was like in the Apostolic era and thus provide a guide for our understanding of how they viewed the Supper.

Paul may be referring to the Supper in 1 Cor. 10:16-17 and he most certainly is referring to it in v. 21. Here he does not prescribe how the Supper is to be observed but uses the observance of the Supper to illustrate the ethical implications of idolatry.

Paul talks at length about the Supper in 1 Cor. 11:17-34. This passage is the longest, and only, sustained passage in the entire New Testament with prescriptive about the Supper.

In vv. 17-22, Paul gives negative teaching (telling them what not to do) to correct the misbehavior related to the Supper’s observance in Corinth. In vv. 27-34, Paul draws out the implications of an improper practice of the Supper.

These two passages surround Paul’s teaching of the Supper in vv. 23-26 (using the words παρέλαβον and παρέδωκα, words used to refer to the handing down of sacred teachings or traditions). The prescriptive teaching in these verses does not differ substantially from what is stated descriptively in the Gospels.

This leads to a conclusion which serves as the second thesis.

2. There are really only six verses in the NT that provide positive teaching about the Supper, that is, telling us what to do in the Lord’s Supper.

These six verses are as follows: 1 Cor. 11:23-26, 28, 33. As stated above, the verses in the Gospels state the institution descriptively. Even if we count them as prescribing what is to occur, they do not differ substantially from what Paul says in 1 Cor. 11:23-26.

The other two verses, 1 Cor. 11:28, 33, are certainly relevant for the church today, but note that they come out of Paul’s teaching to correct specific abuses at the church in Corinth.

These verses are all we have. Everything else we may deduce from these passages and their context must fall into the category of “inference.” We may draw true and reasonable inferences from these passages (and the passages given above), but we cannot claim that such inferences are “what the Bible actually teaches.” We must be honest and admit that such conclusions are inferences rather than the clear teaching of Scripture.

3. Paul’s teaching 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 has been interpreted in isolation from its context for so long that the proper interpretation is often regarded with suspicion as if it is “new teaching.”

These verses, especially v. 28, which is the heart of this particular portion, are interpreted in an individualistic fashion (probably because of Paul’s shift from the plural to the singular in v. 27) and application is usually made to call people to confess their sins committed throughout the week so as to avoid being unworthy to take the Supper.

Several things in particular are wrong with this interpretation and application:

(1) Paul does not say that one who has not confessed his or her sins is unworthy to eat. He says that one must be careful to not to eat “in an unworthy manner” (KJV has the awkward “unworthily” as does the heading in UBS). No one is ever truly “worthy” of partaking of the Supper but it is designed precisely for those who are unworthy. Anyone worthy of the Supper would not need it or what it represents. There is no one who fits that description.

(2) This interpretation and application fails to take into account the context. The first word in v. 27 is ὥστε which indicates logical consequence and is often translated “therefore” (NKJV; NIV has “so then”) though Thiselton suggests “consequently.” This clearly connects the teachings in this portion to what Paul has stated previously. To interpret these verses outside of this context, then, is to miss what Paul is telling us about the Supper. This will also result in teaching that, while it may be true (e.g., we need to confess our sins) is not what Paul intended with regard to the Lord’s Supper.

(3) Thiselton makes a good case for the expression “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” meaning “being held accountable for the sin against Christ of claiming identification with him while using the celebration of the meal as an occasion for social enjoyment or status enhancement without regard to what sharing in what the Lord’s Supper proclaims.” (emphases in the original)[1]

(4) The command to “examine oneself” (v. 28), then, provides the alternative to improperly taking the Supper in v. 27 and has reference to examining oneself to determine the genuineness of one’s motives for taking the Supper.

So while it is always appropriate for believers to examine their hearts with regard to indwelling sin, and while such self-examination is not wholly inappropriate in the context of the Lord’s Supper, this is not Paul’s purpose in calling for the self-examination with regard to the Lord’s Supper.

Instead, this self-examination must involve an understanding of what the Supper means to help one avoid taking the Supper for purposes other than proclaiming its meaning not only with regard to Christ himself, but with regard to the rest of the body.

When we compare much teaching about the Lord’s Supper to Paul’s emphases, it is not hard to see that much of it focuses on things that Paul did not focus on.

4. Consequently, much of the teaching (historic and current) about the Lord’s Supper maintains different emphases than Paul’s teaching.

Much of the teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper has to do with issues such as who may properly partake of the Supper, what are the proper elements of the Supper (leavened vs. unleavened bread, wine vs. grape juice), and matters of personal holiness and confession of sin (the latter based on 1 Cor. 11:28).

Having been raised in church, I have been present at many Lord’s Supper services. I have heard many sermons on these various passages though, sadly, oftentimes the Supper is simply presented at the end of the Sunday evening service (or in the hour before it) and then usually without preamble or explanation.

Whenever these texts are preached, there is often more eisegesis based on tradition than actual exegesis going on. Most of the time 1 Cor. 11:27-32 is referenced or preached totally out of context (see above) and little attention is given to the necessity for unity in the church and the importance of approaching the table in humility which are the very things that Paul emphasizes.

5. Any attempt to justify number 4 (above) based on the last sentence of 1 Cor. 11:34 is an argument from silence at best and eisegesis at worst.

Not much needs to be said about this. Too many times I have heard teachers and preachers justify their own emphases by claiming that what they emphasize must be what Paul was going to say to them when he returned to Corinth. Such conclusions are dangerously presumptuous. If indeed Scripture is sufficient (as most conservative Christians profess), then one need not add to it in order to be healthy spiritually nor do churches need to draw the boundaries larger or smaller than the Scriptures do.

[1] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 890.


About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Church Ministry, Lord's Supper, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Five Theses Regarding the Lord’s Supper

  1. Paul Darko says:

    Is the lords supper opened to everyone or a specific people?

  2. Hey, Paul, thanks for reading and commenting. Your question is actually the reason why I began studying this issue.

    The church I pastor has traditionally practiced closed communion (where only members of that local church partake) but I was trained under close communion (where people of like faith and practice partake, i.e., people baptized by immersion after they have professed faith).

    As I began looking at the issue, at first to find Scriptural support for my view, I came to the conclusion that the Scriptures seem to focus on the meaning of the Supper for believers, not just for the church. This often gets confused because Paul talks about it in the context of problems in the local church. But notice that in his discussion of the Supper itself he says absolutely nothing about who is to partake.

    Now, one might reasonably infer that churches limited the observance to members of their own body but (a) Scripture doesn’t say that and (b) at least once, in Acts 20:11, Paul partakes the Supper at a church where he is presumably not a member. The implication is that Paul’s traveling companions (this takes place during one of the “we” passages) also “broke bread” with the church (“broke bread” is widely regarded as shorthand for taking the Supper).

    Some Landmarkers try to say that because Paul was an Apostle he gets a pass. I say that if Paul was an Apostle and if this was so important, wouldn’t he have abstained? And wouldn’t he have used the occasion to teach the proper observance of the Supper? And yet, no where is there any mention of this in Acts or 1 Corinthians.

    Since the meaning of the Super is for those who are saved (notice that baptism is also not mentioned) and the Scriptures make no mention of any limitation with regard to baptism or church membership I believe that anyone who has faith in Christ alone should be allowed to participate.

    Now I know what the next question will probably be: “How do we police that?” And the answer is: “We don’t.” Nowhere does Scripture give to the Church the authority to police the Supper in this way. That grows out of a medieval conception of the Supper as a commodity used to keep people in line and this conception was carried through the Reformation.

    Paul says clearly, “He who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks damnation to himself.” (1 Cor. 11:29) and “If we would judge ourselves we would not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31). Both of these verses places the responsibility on the one taking it, not on the church. In addition, nowhere in this passage does Paul say anything about the church policing it. He doesn’t appeal to the elders or the leaders of the church; he appeals to those who take it.

    That may be more than you wanted to know (and I think I’ve written my next blog post about this) but feel free to ask for any clarifications.

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