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This regular feature is an attempt to provide an elementary Biblical analysis of various topics in Christian theology and practice. We anticipate that this and future contributions will be helpful in explaining fundamental theological issues to those who may be relatively unfamiliar with them.

Worthy Participation in the Lord's Supper

James Bordwine

Most contemporary Christians could not begin to understand the motivation behind the great historical debates on the subject of the sacraments. Men have been abused, condemned and even executed for the convictions they held regarding this doctrine. The modern Church has shamefully neglected the sacraments. She has become preoccupied with programs and numbers; she has not taught her children the significance of these means of grace. And the Bride of the Savior is suffering.

One aspect of the overall Biblical teaching on the sacrament of the Lord's Supper concerns how believers ought to prepare themselves for participating in the Lord's Supper. Though this type of question is sadly ignored in contemporary evangelical Christianity, earlier Protestants recognized the Biblical importance of the topic. In the Westminster Confession of Faith's summary of the Biblical teaching of the Lord's Supper (29:8), we read the following comment on worthy participation:

Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Him, so are they unworthy of the Lord's table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.
The condition of a man's heart determines how he receives the sacrament. Those who are of the household of God, who have been regenerated by the working of the Holy Spirit, are able to receive the elements of this sacrament by faith, thereby having communicated to them that grace which is therein represented. The ungodly, on the other hand, receive only the elements themselves and, in the absence of faith, cannot commune with Christ. This does not make the sacrament of no significance to them, however. Those who participate in the Lord's Supper in an unworthy manner are "guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation."

Scripture on Worthy Participation

Consider the teaching of Paul in I Corinthians 11 so that we might better understand this concept of worthy reception:
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly (vv. 27-29).
Here, Paul describes the possibility of taking part in the sacrament in such a manner as to incur guilt -- "an unworthy manner." There is more involved in rightly participating in this service than simply being there and eating the elements. The spiritual state of the one receiving the bread and wine can, apparently, have a negative impact on the proceedings.

Throughout the Bible, the attitude or true condition of the heart is held up as supremely important in matters involving man's relation to God. The Old and New Testaments teach that what a man says or does is important, but it is not nearly as significant as what he is inside. It is the soul, or heart, which must be pure. So in the observance of this sacrament, Paul teaches that one's heart-attitude is paramount.

We can identify the "unworthy manner" by considering the "Therefore" which introduces this verse. This word points us back to what Paul has just stated concerning the sacrament. Whatever mistake may be made, it is tied to what has been said concerning the meaning of the sacrament. He has taught that the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is, in part, intended to remind believers of their union with Christ and with one another. The sacrament relates the fact that believers are not just so many individuals coming together to eat, but are each members of the one, united body of Jesus Christ. When the apostle says that one may partake of the sacrament in an unworthy manner, therefore, he obviously has in mind one who would come to the Table of the Lord, receive the elements of the Supper, but not be properly aware of the symbolism, meaning, or significance of the very ritual in which he participates.

To receive the Supper unworthily is to receive it without understanding its meaning; it is to eat of the body and blood of Christ ignorantly. Discernment is required of those who come to the Lord's table; they are required to know what is taking place; they must comprehend what Christ's sacrificial death means to the believer and to the Church. If we participate in the Lord's Supper but fail to understand the meaning of the sacrament, then we participate in an "unworthy manner." To partake unworthily is to treat the Lord's Table like an ordinary table; to see no spiritual truth in what is taking place. This will always be true, by default, of unbelievers. It can also be true, however, of undiscerning believers.

Guarding Our Participation

In order to apply this teaching, we should remember Paul's criticism of the Corinthians earlier. When they came to the Lord's Table, they rushed and pushed, made sure they were fed and gave little or no attention to their brothers in Christ. Some were receiving the sacrament unworthily because they were failing to demonstrate its meaning in their conduct. Instead of love and concern for one another, some of the Corinthians were busily accommodating their own stomachs.

Due to the way in which we celebrate this sacrament in the modern Church, there is no danger of our behaving like the Corinthians; at least not exactly like the Corinthians. We can't imitate them outwardly, but we can easily duplicate the state of their hearts. We have to be careful that we sufficiently contemplate the sacrament to see all of its implications. We sit in the midst of dozens of others, many of whom are part of the great and glorious body of Christ. We cannot, we must not, fail to let the sacrament of the Lord's Supper speak to us about the unity and preciousness of that body. Only by the recognition of and meditation on the great truths contained in the sacrament do we rightly partake of it.

The Larger Catechism can help us at this point:

Question 171: How are they that receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper to prepare themselves before they come unto it?

Answer: They that receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are, before they come, to prepare themselves thereunto, by examining themselves of their being in Christ, for their sins and wants; of the truth and measure of their knowledge, faith, repentance; love to God and the brethren, charity to all men, forgiving those that have done them wrong; of their desires after Christ, and of their new obedience; and by renewing the exercise of these graces, by serious meditation, and fervent prayers.

To rightly participate in this sacrament, we must be certain that we are in Christ; meditate on its meaning; think of our Christian conduct and determine to improve in areas of weakness; be in an attitude of forgiveness toward those who have wronged us; and we must pray.

Perhaps it sounds as if we must be nearly perfect before we receive the elements of the Supper. To this concern, the Larger Catechism says: "One who doubts of his being in Christ, or of his due preparation to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, may have true interest in Christ, though he be not yet assured thereof; .... He is to bewail his unbelief, and labor to have his doubts resolved; and, so doing, he may and ought to come to the Lord's Supper, that he may be further strengthened" (Q. 176).

This truth is an important aspect of the theology of the Lord's Supper. We must not downplay the fact that this sacrament is able to strengthen the weak and suffering soul.

Consequences of Unworthy Participation

The second phrase of I Corinthians 11:27 gives the result of partaking of the sacrament in an unworthy manner: one becomes guilty "of the body and blood of the Lord." This means that one stands in the place of those who crucified the Savior. In failing to recognize the significance of the sacrificial death of Christ, as portrayed in the sacrament, the sinner behaves as a scorner and transgressor (v.28).

Paul warns that judgment awaits the one who does not heed his warning in this letter (v. 29). The one who comes to the Table and does not rightly comprehend the basic truths of the sacrament "eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly." That which is intended for good becomes a cause of wrath. The one who fails to understand that this sacrament speaks of the unified nature of the Church of Christ and who, therefore, is missing the point of this observance, is partaking of it unworthily. He has not rightly comprehended the body of Christ nor, by way of implication, has he understood his place and responsibility in that body.

We should note two significant points in Paul's discussion: first, the time for preparation or self-examination, whatever that might involve, is before the sacrament is taken; second, the responsibility for this preparation rests primarily upon the recipient.

This is not to say that the worshiper alone is responsible for his state when receiving the sacrament. We see Paul acting as an instructor to the Corinthians in this context. As the Church developed, the officers naturally assumed a role in this procedure. Ministers and elders took up the task of teaching the people as the Church became more organized and could devote its time to regular preaching and training. They informed the people in all areas of Christian conduct; especially in the matter of the Lord's Supper where a proper understanding of its basic meaning is essential. This Biblical practice continues today (although the degree of the involvement of the minister and/or elders varies from one church/denomination to the next).

Fencing the Lord's Table

According to its nature, the sacrament of the Lord's Supper is not to be offered indiscriminately. It is intended for those who have cause and ability to commemorate the sacrificial death of the Savior. Therefore, the Church is obligated to protect the integrity of this sacrament by making it available to discerning believers only. This care is exercised by the Church, to whom the sacraments were given, in two ways. First, by the right preaching and teaching of the word, the minister and elders instruct their congregation regarding the meaning of the Lord's Supper and set down the guidelines for participation. Second, through the exercise of discipline, the elders uphold the teaching of the Bible so that, as nearly as is possible, only those who are entitled to the sacrament receive it. This protection of the Table is not optional. We must remember that Paul introduced the factor of judgment in the above discussion. The potential for divine retribution for the abuse of this sacrament should be more than sufficient to convince us that some method of supervision is mandatory.

Modern evangelicalism minimizes Scripture's clear and precious teaching regarding the Lord's Supper and, therefore, does not even consider questions regarding worthy participation. According to Scripture, we ignore such teaching to our own peril.


James Bordwine is an Instructor of Old Testament Studies and Historical Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, South Carolina, and pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church, Newland, North Carolina.
Dr. Bordwine is now pastor of Westminster Church, Vancourver, Washington. 1-17-95
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