Discernment or Death: The Interpretation of 1 Cor 11:27-34

In the discussion of the Communion without Baptism, at some point the discussion inevitably turns to—or at least towards—1 Cor 11:27-34:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some of died. But if we have judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another–if any one is hungry, let him eat at home–lest you come together to be condemned. (RSV)

What exactly is Paul saying here? I think sometimes th first section is pulled out of context—but. Paul is connecting unworthy reception of the Eucharist to becoming ill and dying and to waiting for one another.

What I haven’t seen recently in the debate is a sufficient unpacking of this cluster of thoughts. What’s the connection between reception and death? Paul is being allusive here. Is he alluding to a supernatural punishment for those who eat and drink unworthily? Is he alluding to a social problem in the community where some are sick and weak from lack of food and Paul is complaining that the social & ecclesial dimensions of the Eucharistic feeding are being lost?

How do you read what’s going on here?

8 thoughts on “Discernment or Death: The Interpretation of 1 Cor 11:27-34

  1. Matt Gunter

    Here’s how I’ve made sense of this:

    1 Corinthians 11 emphasizes the serious expectations that come along with partaking of the Lord’s Supper. That text is about how those who take part in the feast of Christ treat each other as members of the body of Christ. That is what discerning the body means. Unless we take seriously our belonging to and caring for one another, we have not discerned the body, and our communion is false — with one another and with Christ. Thus the Eucharist is as much an act of commitment and accountability as is baptism.

    William Cavanaugh puts his finger on the point:

    “The parousia is to be a time not only of redemption but of judgment, when the “world” — meaning that part of creation which refuses the sovereignty of Christ — will be overthrown. As the sacrament which anticipates the parousia now, the Eucharist is also placed in the context of judgment. Those who do not “discern the body” and become a member of Christ risk condemnation along with the forces that oppose Christ. The failure to “discern the body” refers not only to the body on the table but the ecclesial body as well.” (Torture and Eucharist, p. 235)

  2. bls

    Doesn’t all this follow – and refer back to – the several previous verses?

    Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

    For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for* you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

    It seems to me he’s referring to actual weakness and death, seeing it as an outgrowth of the lack of care this congregation has for one another, and for those who are hungry. For those who “humiliate those who have nothing”? This is the “unworthy manner,” isn’t it?

    I think Paul understands God’s law (however this is understood) as the way to health and life – so that disregarding it is perforce the way of sickness. You see this in many places – “the wages of sin is death,” for one well-known instance. I don’t think he sees it as “divine retribution,” but simply as the way the world works.

    I always understood that this section was about Paul’s teaching of the church’s understanding of the Eucharist to the Corinthians, who were not, in his view, celebrating it reverently or in the proper spirit. But I would like to know what the “waiting” is about….

  3. bls

    Here’s a little commentary I found on these verses. It supports Fr. Gunter’s point about judgement and the parousia.

    Here’s an interesting section from that piece:

    Verse 19 is another of the very difficult verses to interpret in 1 Corinthians. Chapters 1-4 had forcefully argued against divisions in the church. Now verse 19 not only seems to accept division but almost approves of it. The expression “there have to be” in the NRSV and NIV translates a Greek word meaning, “It is necessary.” The word was often used by biblical writers of necessity caused by God. One can even paraphrase the Greek text of verse 19 to mean, “It is the will of God that there be factions. . . ”

    There are several explanations that scholars offer for such confusing words. The first and easiest is simply that Paul was being sarcastic. Given the contentious nature of the Corinthian church some believe Paul was saying, “What else is new? Of course Corinthians have to fight about the Lord’s Supper, too!”

    Most recent scholars, however, do not consider Paul’s words in verse 19 to be sarcastic. Most refer to the teaching of Jesus found in Matthew 10:34-37 and one of the so-called “unknown sayings of Jesus.” The writings of Justin Martyr, an early Christian philosopher who died about A.D. 165, and two more obscure early Christian works quote a saying of Jesus not found in the gospels. According to these three sources Jesus taught, “There shall be divisions (schismata) and factions (haireseis).” The fact that the exact same Greek words for the divisions and factions are used has caused several prominent New Testament scholars to believe that Paul was aware of this saying of Jesus that was not included in the gospels and was applying it to the Corinthians in verse 19.

    And then also there’s this section, too:

    Scholars have long been convinced that originally the earliest Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper as the climax of a church meal. It was thought that the problem at Corinth was that the rich brought far more and better food for the church fellowship meal and some of the poor may not have been able to bring any. The rich then insisted on eating their own food and the poor had nothing; a pretty sorry excuse for a church fellowship meal.

    Recent studies in social customs have helped us understand why this strange division along lines of rich and poor might have happened at Corinth. Since this was long before church buildings were built the Corinthians would have been meeting in the houses of the members. Even in the larger homes of that time the dining area would not have accommodated more than 15-20 people and the Corinthian church was larger than that number. It was the normal custom of first century Roman banquets to rank the guests by their social standing and seat the highest-ranking people in the dining room. People of lower rank were scattered throughout the rest of the house. Roman literature shows that it was not at all unusual for the highly regarded guests in the dining room to receive much nicer food than those in the other rooms.

    Also, at the banquets the guests in the dining room were treated to ample servings of the finest wine while others were given a lower grade. Paul’s complaint is that communion is not a private party held in the host’s home. It is the Lord’s Supper. Christ is the host and his customs must prevail not the social customs of Corinth. At the Lord’s Supper everyone is treated alike because Christ does away with all the social distinctions that divided people of the first century (see Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11).

  4. Derek Olsen

    The line that bls and Fr. Gunter are advancing are the standard reading of the text in modern academic circles. That is, the passage must be interpreted within its literary and historical context. The literary context is rooted in Paul’s great theological metaphor of the Church as body. Thus, the multivalent reference to “discerning the body” is understood in a more social than sacral way. The historical is the more complex because there is so much that we *don’t* know about early Christian worship.

    I think that this modern academic interpretation is an important level of meaning for what we do with this text. But isn’t it true that there are other readings current in the church that affect the debate?

  5. bls

    Could you talk about some of these readings, perhaps? I’m completely ignorant of them.

    I would like to point out that “the Law” was very, very strong on protection of the weak, too, so it’s not really out-of-line to assume that’s what Paul is referring to here. The Psalms, as you know, are full of this – the protection of the poor, and of widows and orphans – and let’s not forget our great Vespers Canticle, either!

    “He has filled the hungry with good things,: and the rich he has sent empty away.” This could be metaphorical, I suppose – but since it’s totally in line with the Torah, and with the Prophets and the Writings, for that matter – there’s no real need to go there, is there? This IS a real and true theme throughout Scripture – and I’ve always understood that Paul was addressing real and concrete issues in Corinthians.

    Well, obviously you know more about this – but do share what you know! I always like picking your brain…. ;)

  6. bls

    (And also: 1 Corinthians 13 is about to show its face:

    “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

    Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

    Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”

    Seems to fit well with the “social rather than sacral” interpretation. This is a passage that refers, I’d say, to love for other people (given the second paragraph above especially) rather than, say, love for God or Christ. But again, I’d be really interested in hearing what you know about this passage! You’re one of my primary sources….)

  7. Derek Olsen


    Here’s how Conzelmann (famous German dude of the last generation) treats v. 30 in brief in his commentary: “Instances of sickness and death are consequences of offending against the sacrament. Is Paul thinking of a magical effect of the substance or of material consequences of guilt, divine punishment? The context shows that he is in fact thinking of punishment of this kind. His teaching is no concerned with the elements but with conduct and punishment.”

    Earlier interpreters, I recall, do interpret the sickness and death as what Conzelmann refers to as the “magical effect of the substance.”

    Let me say too that this more magical understanding is more pronounced given the KJV text: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” The central difference here is the that the KJV has “Lord’s” whereas modern editions do not. The reason is that Paul’s use of “body” (soma) is ambiguous. Early scribes didn’t like this ambiguity. So, while our earliest and best texts of the Pauline letters don’t contain “Lord’s”, later editions do and even our early good uncial texts from the 4th and 5th centuries have it “corrected” in.

    Thus—the traditional way to interpret Paul’s use of soma as seen in the scribal witness is to interpret it regarding the presence of Christ in the sacrament. Paul’s intention was, I believe, more ambiguous and was intended to refer to both the presence of Christ in the sacrament *and* to the presence of Christ in the gathered community (I think it’s a both/and here.)

  8. bls

    Hmm, that’s interesting. I will need to look over the references to the Eucharist in Paul again, but I’ve never thought of him as a “Real Presence” (let alone a Transubstantiation!) kind of guy.

    And I didn’t know about the “magical effect” thinking at all….

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