Paul’s aim in 1 Cor. 11:17–34 is to correct an error in the church at Corinth. In vv. 17–22, he states the error, and in vv. 23–34, he provides the solution. To rightly interpret the verses that state Paul’s solution to the error, one needs to know exactly what the error is that he’s addressing.
Paul describes the error as eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper in “an unworthy manner” (v. 27). So the error had to do with their manner of observing the Lord’s Supper. The solution to this error is briefly stated in v. 28, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” To understand what Paul means by self-examination, one needs to interpret this statement in light of the error in the church that Paul is seeking to correct.
How exactly were the Corinthians eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper in “an unworthy manner”? They were observing the Lord’s Supper in a way that created divisions or factions among them (v. 18). As a result, the church was divided into two groups: one group which had plenty of food to eat and drink (the haves), and the other group which had nothing to eat and drink (the have nots). The haves were selfishly feeding themselves until they were completely full, while the have nots were left with empty stomachs. “One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (v. 21).
The haves were sinning against the church. They were treating their brothers and sisters in the Lord with contempt. So Paul sternly rebukes them, “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” (v. 22).
By their selfish behavior, the haves were depriving their brothers and sisters not only of ordinary food that would nourish their bodies (note: the Lord’s Supper was an actual meal at that time) but of the sacred food that would nourish their souls. By selfishly feeding themselves and leaving nothing of this sacred meal for others, they were cutting them off from the blessed communion in the body and blood of Christ that they would have received by participating in the meal (10:16).
Their division of the church into factions and deprival of one group of saints of these spiritual benefits was an outrageous sin against the church, against the sacrament, and against Jesus Christ himself, who died for all the saints and who gives his body and blood through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper as spiritual nourishment for the soul of every believer. Thus, the haves were sinning against the spiritual realities signified by the bread and wine, namely, the body and blood of Christ. By eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, they were “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27).
Consequently, they were being disciplined by God with infirmities, illnesses and even death (v. 30). It is important to note that those who were punished by God in this way were genuine believers. Their punishment was not eternal condemnation. To the contrary, they were being disciplined by their heavenly Father, so that they would not be condemned along with the world. The divine punishments that they incurred were temporal judgments not eternal (v. 32).
If the error at Corinth was that they were observing the Lord’s Supper in a manner that created divisions among the church, and the solution to that error was self-examination, then what exactly does self-examination mean?
It must mean that they should examine themselves with respect to the particular problem that Paul has articulated. Paul instructs them to examine themselves with respect to the divisions in the church created by their manner of observing the sacrament. Paul is saying to them, “Examine yourself with respect to these divisions. Are you guilty of selfishly feeding yourself and leaving your brothers and sisters with nothing to eat? If so, then repent. Seek God’s forgiveness, and seek their forgiveness. And don’t do it again. Don’t participate in the Lord’s Supper in that unworthy manner.”
If the problem that Paul is correcting is division, then the solution to the problem is don’t create these divisions when you eat the Lord’s Supper. Instead of feeding yourself to satisfaction and leaving nothing left for your brothers and sisters, wait for them and make sure they also have food to eat. That’s essentially what Paul says in v. 33, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” But what if someone is starving and he can’t wait for the other Christians to arrive? Well, he should eat something at home before coming to church. “If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together, it will not be for judgment” (v. 34).
In context, therefore, self-examination means to examine your conduct with respect to the unity of the church and with respect to the other members of the body of Christ. If your conduct is such that you have eaten more than enough to satisfy your hunger and have left others with nothing to eat or drink, then you have partaken in an unworthy manner.