The Original Meaning of Self-Examination in 1 Corinthians 11

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.

Leave a comment



Shane

1 year ago

I agree with your explanation of the text. I wonder though, shouldn’t we seek to apply the principle more broadly? If the immediate context required the Corinthians (and thus us) to not take the Lord’s Supper in a way that creates divisions in the church, aren’t other ways of taking the Lord’s Supper just as contrary? For example: partaking in pagan worship and still taking the supper, or denying the exclusivity of Christ and the gospel and taking the supper, or living as those who love the world rather than Christ and the church but taking the supper.

So then the principle would be that we avoid taking the supper in ways that undermine its nature and purpose, examining ourselves to make sure we aren’t doing that.

Glen Clary

1 year ago

Indeed, there are other ways of taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. I plan on following up with another post that explores whether self-examination may be applied more broadly. I think it can be. But I do want to raise some concerns about how that has been done. In fact, I will try to demonstrate how some approaches to self-examination work at cross purposes with the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Stay tuned.

Jordan McCord

1 year ago

Glen, thank you so much for this post. I agree with the commenter above that it can be applied in a broader manner but what exactly did Paul have in mind when he was penning 1 Corinthians 11? You seem to have answered that very clearly from the text.

It is this understanding of 1 Corinthians 11 that can open the door for people to reconsider paedocommunion in the reformed world. I do believe it needs to be reconsidered and it just takes looking at the text in it’s context the way that you do in this post. This is, after all, the most important text of the discussion (on both sides). We should not be hogging the bread and wine excluding our children the way the Corinthians were bogarting the bread and wine in their days excluding those who might have showed up a little later than they.. different circumstances, same sin.

Thanks again for this.

Glen Clary

1 year ago

Thanks, Jordan, for the kind words.

I am not an advocate of paedocommunion. But I know that paedocommunionists use this interpretation of the text, which I agree is the correct interpretation, in favor of their position.

If anti-paedocommunionists, like me, are going to make a compelling case for our position, then we need to step up to the plate and do it.

What I think we need to avoid in this debate is a biblicistic appeal to a single text of scripture or even to a series of texts. Our theological system as a whole should be brought to bear on the issue of paedocommunion because–whether we are for it or against it–it’s going to have an affect on our system of theology beyond the narrow question of sacramentology.

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