The Lord’s Supper: Executed at the Table?

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Archangel Michael and the Rebel Angels by Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640)

In my post The Lord’s Supper: Examine Yourself I looked at the entire passage of Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 to determine what he really means by examine yourself. Paul’s basic message is to examine yourself at the time of the Lord’s Supper in regard to your love and concern for the brothers and sisters around you, taking note of the well-being of the body of believers.

But there is another passage here that causes much confusion, and controversy; mainly verse 30:

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Cor 11:27-32)

This is often interpreted to refer to the ones who are not discerning the body: God is upset that they are doing their own selfish thing and not caring for others at the Lord’s Supper meal-gathering, so he will discipline them by causing them to become weak, sick, or even execute them.

While the above interpretation is the majority understanding, I want to offer another interpretation that holds weight based on context. Just as in my previous post, revealing the context of Paul’s instructions gives interpretive power here, too.

Remember that the entire occasion for Paul writing this Lord’s Supper instruction is because of how those who had plenty were treating those who had nothing:

21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? (1 Cor 11:21-22)

Those who had nothing were going hungry and being neglected. Because Paul mentions the poor who were being neglected as the main occasion for his writing, it makes sense that this emphasis carries weight through his entire Lord’s Supper instruction. Paul also ends his entire instruction on the same idea of the occasion for his writing:

33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. (1 Cor 11:33-34)

When considering the overall context of Paul’s instruction, a couple possible interpretations emerge.

When Paul says in verse 30, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” is this the description of God’s judgment for the offenders, or is it referring to the poor who are neglected?

And who are the “many of you”? The offenders, or the neglected poor?

Further, what does the “that is why” refer back to? Does it refer back to eating and drinking judgment on oneself? Or does it refer back to the neglect of the poor?

A possible interpretation here which is supported by the context is that Paul is referring to the ones who are being overlooked. In other words, as a result of the Corinthians not taking care of one another, many are weak, ill, and some have died.

It is the poor who are most likely to be weak, sick, and even perish from a lack of proper nutrition and health care. The poor are the ones who are most likely at risk in their general well-being.

This would lend support to why Paul was so shocked at the Corinthians’ behavior, and asked if they “despise the church of God”. They were claiming to be Christians yet were ignoring the central tenants of the faith. They were allowing the less fortunate to go hungry, be weak, ill, some even to the point of death.

While the immediate context of the sentences that come directly before and after verse 30 give reason to think it refers to the offenders alone, the greater context of Paul’s instruction give weight to referring to the neglected poor.

Something to consider is it is not out of Paul’s writing style to interject sentences mid-stream that do not necessarily relate to the sentences directly before and after, or anything at all in the paragraph for that matter (perhaps Peter said it best: 2 Peter 3:15-16).

Whether this is what is actually going on with verse 30 in our current text is not certain, but it would not be surprising if Paul momentarily switched gears to comment on the result of the poor being neglected in the church. After all it is why he is even writing in the first place.

Was God executing Christians for participating in communion in an unworthy manner because they were neglecting the poor in the church? With this interpretation, one must also believe that God was executing some of the Corinthians in a way that appeared natural, so natural in fact that no one knew what was happening—Paul had to tell them. Everyone gets sick at some point. And people die every day from many illnesses and diseases. Especially in this ancient time when health care was nothing like what we have today. Is the point of Christian discipline to encourage the afflicted to repent, or is there a point when God just kills a person? Is there room in the understanding of God’s discipline for Christians in the New Testament age to include ultimate execution?

And with this interpretation, is God still doing this today? How would someone know if his or her flu or cancer was the result of taking communion in an unworthy manner or some other sin? If this were applied to the modern-day church, how many Christians today would be perpetually weak and ill, and some even dying?

And with the interpretation that Paul was referring to the neglected poor, then how heartbreaking to think that Christians were neglecting the poor in their churches to the point of their even dying from lack of care. Do Christians neglect the poor and needy in their churches today? Does the average Christian know or concern himself or herself with who has such needs in their own church?

At the end of the day, I cannot say for sure which interpretation is the correct one. This is one problem with working with an ancient text where there is ambiguity or lack of understanding due to many possible reasons, and the author is not around anymore to ask. There are some things in the Scriptures that are hard to interpret for a variety of possible reasons. But this should only encourage us to constantly seek the truth, and not be afraid to ask hard questions, and test multiple angles of understanding, even when things seem difficult to understand.


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