A few years ago, I was privileged to serve communion to my mom. It was the first time that she had taken communion in decades. Why? She was scared—scared that if she ate or drank “unworthily,” she would eat and drink “damnation” to herself. She, like so many other careful and sensitive believers, has struggled with not feeling “good enough” in most areas of life. How, then, could she ever be “good enough” or “worthy” to eat and drink the body and blood of the Lord? It seemed safer to just abstain.
As a pastor, I have met others with the same struggle. They have been exposed to harsh, legalistic, performance-driven preaching that breeds fear, anxiety, and a false conception of God as an angry judge who is just waiting to strike them down. They lack assurance of salvation and so they do not feel worthy to partake.
My prayer is that this article will help someone else come to see the Lord’s Supper for what it is: the gracious gift of God; spiritual food and drink that nourishes our souls; a eucharistic (i.e., Thanksgiving) feast set before us by a loving Father; a marriage supper in which Christ comes joyfully to meet his bride at the altar; something that we should respect but never fear or avoid.
What Does it Mean to Drink Unworthily?
Fear of communion stems from a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 11. In the King James Version, verse 29 reads, “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”
To “drink unworthily” is to “not discern the Lord’s body.” Other translations make this even clearer: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (ESV). “For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (CSB).
Some think that this refers to those who fail to recognize/discern that the bread of the Lord’s Supper is a symbol of the body of Christ which was selflessly given for our sins, and thus are likely to act selfishly towards others. The context seems to support (or at least include) another view.
A few verses earlier, Paul says that when the Corinthians come together, “it is not for the better but for the worse” (1 Cor. 11:17), since their church was divided by various factions that exposed the disingenuous believers among them. He then writes,
20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 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? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
In the Corinthian church, the Lord’s Supper was practiced in the context of a larger meal, as it was with Jesus’s disciples at the Last Supper. But unlike the average church potluck where everyone shares what they bring, the wealthy members of the congregation at Corinth were feasting on the best food while the poorer members went hungry. By doing this, they were despising other members of the body of Christ (that is, the church).
The Bible makes the closest possible association between the body of Christ and the church. Paul did all things “for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24; cf. 1:18). “Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5:23).
The Bible also makes the closest possible association between the body of Christ and the communion bread: “This is my body” (1 Cor. 1:24).
The logic, I think, goes like this: “If you are despising the church of God (the body of Christ) and humiliating those (members of the body) who have nothing, you are unworthy to partake of the communion bread (the body of Christ), and God will judge you.”
A person is unworthy to partake of communion if he brazenly approaches the Lord’s Table after fueling division in the church and despising those who are poor and weak in the body.
In the previous chapter, Paul establishes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Communion is a time to enact our visible unity as one body. The many members of the church come around one bread, and because they eat one bread, they are one body. Because they all share a common “participation in the body of Christ” in the communion bread (1 Cor. 10:16), they are one body, one church.
A person is unworthy to partake of communion if he brazenly approaches the Lord’s Table after fueling division in the church and despising those who are poor and weak in the body. Of all the people I have known who were afraid to drink “unworthily,” none fit this description. They were not guilty of self-centered, divisive behavior. They were not at risk of getting drunk on the communion wine, like those crazy Corinthians. They were just confused.
What Does It Mean to “Drink Damnation” on Ourselves?
Suppose that someone does drink “unworthily.” Suppose that someone carelessly eats the communion bread without repenting for abusive behavior towards other members of the body. What will happen? Will they be damned—lost eternally in hell, without any hope of forgiveness?
If we keep reading, the question answers itself. Paul writes,
29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment [krima; “damnation” KJV] on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged [i.e., examined] ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged [krinō] by the Lord, we are disciplined [paideuō] so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
Yes, this is a serious warning. No, we should not brazenly approach the Lord’s Table when we are sinning against others in the body. But the krima (“judgment” ESV, “damnation” KJV) that someone eats or drinks on himself is not automatic damnation to hell. It’s the judgment of the Lord’s paideia (discipline), which has our final salvation as its aim.
When the KJV was translated in 1611, the first sense of “damnation” was “condemnation” (OED). It could also be used of public disapproval or sentencing to hell, but notice that normally additional modifiers are needed, like “damnation of hell,” “eternal damnation,” and so on. Other texts in the KJV that use “damned” or “damnation” that are equally misunderstood include Romans 13:2 and 14:23. Language changes, which is why, as the Protestant Reformers understood, we need new translations to avoid unnecessary barriers to understanding God’s word.
The krima (“judgment” ESV, “damnation” KJV) that someone eats or drinks on himself is not automatic damnation to hell. It’s the judgment of the Lord’s paideia (discipline), which has our final salvation as its aim.
Reading 1 Corinthians 11 in light of Hebrews 12 is enlightening. In fact, I turn to Hebrews 12 more than any other passage in Scripture when counseling believers who lack assurance and struggle with anxiety over their spiritual “performance.” Hebrews 12 explains how believers should think about and respond to the Lord’s paideia (discipline):
“the Lord disciplines [paideuō] the one he loves” … God is treating you as sons. … he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
If we brazenly eat the body (the bread) while despising the body (church), God will discipline us. That discipline may be very painful. In Corinth, God allowed some to become physically ill: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:30). But the purpose of this judgment is not our final damnation; it’s our final salvation! Paul plainly says, “when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32).
Christians should examine their hearts before they come to the Lord’s Table and repent of any sin in their lives, especially towards other members of the church, so that they can avoid unpleasant discipline. But if they go to the Table and are disciplined by God, it is because God is trying to bring them to their senses. He does not want his disciplined sons and daughters to give up, he wants them to repent, stand up straight, be healed, and keep pressing on in their lifelong pursuit of holiness. Since God’s discipline means that he is a loving Father who is serious about our holiness, Hebrews 12 continues,
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
Sadly, many believers have had the last part of Hebrews 12 pounded into them (“strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord”) before they have ever understood the first part (God is a father who lovingly corrects, not casts out, his children when they stumble on the highway of holiness).
In light of this, hasten to the Lord’s Table! Come with joy! Receive the gift of God in the bread and wine! Join the church in its happy anticipation of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb! And if you are disciplined, remember that it comes from the hand of a loving Father who, like kind earthly fathers, disciplines his children (even the stubborn ones) for their good.