How Misinterpretation Can Lead to Bad Theology (Part 1: Communion)
If you have been around me for any amount of time and asked me a question about the Bible or a Bible verse, you have probably heard me say the phrase: "Context is everything." Many people's answers concerning Scriptures in question are often found in the context of surrounding verses. In today's meme driven culture that focuses on snatching singular verses out of context for the sake of producing doubt or shame in one's faith, this is an important truth to remember.
However, faithful and well meaning Christians, who only wish to build faith in Jesus Christ, have erroneously done the same and caused unintentional harm to the body of Christ because of misinterpretation of Scripture. This misapplying of the Scripture has a profound effect on a person's view of themselves, on their view of God, their ministry within the body of Christ and their worthiness of Christ's sacrifice.
Let me give a common example that is consistently misinterpreted:
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. --1 Cor. 11:27-28 (NIV84)
Many of us, myself included, have abstained from taking the elements of the bread and wine (or juice) because of a bad attitude or sins that we are mindful of that we have done since the last time Holy Communion was offered. We deem ourselves unworthy to take the Lord's Supper because of our actions.
Maybe we feel better about having the elements pass by because we were honest about our state before the Lord. Maybe we feel ashamed that we haven't lived a life worthy of the Lord and by extension unworthy of partaking in this sacrament that unites the body of Christ in the celebration of His sacrifice. Maybe it has been a long time since we felt worthy to take the elements. Maybe we never will be.
Do you see how defeating such an interpretation can be? If it is true, then it is merely one of the hard truths of the gospel of Christ that we must accept. But if it isn't, then we are placing an unnecessarily heavy weight of burden on believers that isn't warranted by the Word of God.
So the question we must ask is: Is this what this passage of Scripture actually means? Let's look at the context:
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For whenever, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.
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 of the Lord eats an 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.
So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions. --1 Cor. 11:17-34 (NIV84, emphasis mine)
The context of this passage is not about an unworthiness based upon personal conduct, but rather the lack of recognition of the Lord's Supper at all, as a group. The Corinthian believers had turned it into a feasting party where people brought food and drink, separated into their peer groups and partied among themselves, even to the point of drunkenness (v. 17-22). If some peer groups were poor, they had no food or drink. This point is further accentuated by the statement "anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (v. 29, emphasis mine). Their party was all about the festivities and the Lord was only recognized in name only.
However, well meaning Christians have changed the meaning of the passage to focus on the worthiness of the individual taking the sacrament of Communion. But the celebration of the Lord's Supper exists precisely because we were unworthy of it to begin with (Rom. 5:6-8). Those affected by this faulty interpretation unintentionally turn a grace filled celebration focused on His sacrifice into a personal driven condemnation based upon our apparent worthiness before the Lord. It changes the grace given through Christ's sacrifice into something we must earn in order to identify with it and partake of its meaning.
I believe this ultimately inches the Christian toward a legalistic, works oriented view of their faith in Christ. It is defeating. Think about how many in our congregations feel unworthy of the sacrifice of Christ because of a bad week (or bad morning) and see the sacrament of Communion as further judgment of their unworthiness. They don't want to eat and drink judgment on themselves. So they instead pass judgment on themselves, wondering if they are worthy of being in the positions of leadership/service they are in, even to the point of questioning their own Christianity because they fail so much and deem themselves so unworthy. The most egregious part of this type of thinking is that it has moved the Lord's Supper away from His sacrifice and onto our worthiness. The focus becomes us and not him, ironically, the exact same error that the people of Corinth made.
By contrast, the joy of the celebration of Christ's sacrifice and the contemplation of what that sacrifice means actually has the power to lead one to repentance in a way self condemnation never can. Paul, in making his case to the Romans concerning the unworthiness of all men (Rom. 1-3), states that God's kindness leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). By partaking of the elements, one comes face to face with the grace of Christ and His sacrifice for our sins anew. His broken body, which is for us (1 Cor. 11:24), His shed blood that represents this new covenant (1 Cor. 11:25), the proclamation of His death and the looking forward to His coming (1 Cor. 11:26) squarely keep the focus on His worthiness to be our Lord and Savior. It moves our heart to thankfulness for His indescribable gift. It challenges us to live up to what we have already attained, but can never earn (Phil. 3:16).
Only those who do not know the Lord or believers who fail to recognize Jesus' sacrifice during this celebration are excluded from this celebration and proclamation. Although we pray they too will someday join us.
So if you are a believer in Christ and have had a bad week (or bad morning) or even sinned so bad that shame blankets your soul, partake and remember His sacrifice. Be amazed anew at the grace of God displayed through Jesus on the cross for your sins and for mine. Be thankful for His kindness and may that kindness lead you to true repentance and renewal, not based on our worthiness, but on His.