When Worship Dishonors God

1 Corinthians

Lesson Focus: This lesson is about the attitudes that are essential for meaningful Lord’s Supper observances and all other worship experiences.

Focus on Unity: 1 Cor. 11:17-22,33-34.

[17]  But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. [18]  For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, [19]  for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.

[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. [33]  So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another– [34]  if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home–so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come. [ESV]

[17-19]  Paul raises another, more serious issue regarding the Corinthians’ assembly and this time he begins on a reproachful note. He cannot commend them for what they are doing but instead reprimands them because of reports of serious abuses when they gather as a church. The verb come together also means ‘to assemble’ and occurs five times in this section [11:17,18,20,33,34]. Paul understands the Christian assembly to be unique in its purpose and substance. His accusation is that the meal that was supposed to be a sign of their integration and unity has become a flash point highlighting their inequality and alienation. This state of affairs, which could feed arrogance and nourish bitterness, makes him wish that they had no group meal at all. Their assembly is not simply a waste of time; it is downright harmful. The divisions that he is concerned about are not theological schisms. They are rooted in the socioeconomic gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ as 11:22 makes clear. The rifts mentioned in 1:10 become dramatically evident when they assemble to eat the Lord’s Supper. The potential for dissension within the community is evident. Most members had in common only their Christianity. They differed widely in educational attainment, financial resources, religious background, political skills, and above all in their expectations. A number were attracted to the church because it seemed to offer them a new field of opportunity, in which the talents whose expression society frustrated could be exploited to the full. They were energetic and ambitious people, and there was little agreement among their various hidden agendas. A certain competitive spirit was part of the culture of the church from the beginning. Paul views these divisions as nullifying the very purpose for gathering together for worship in the name of Christ. It contradicts what the Lord’s Supper proclaims as the foundation of the church: Christ’s sacrificial giving of His life for others. In verse 19, Paul is resigned that there will be factions within the church. But he sees these factions having a positive outcome for the prosperity of the church. God uses divisions within the church to mature leaders in the church as they learn to deal with adversity and opposition and as they think their way through these problems. Thus these leaders are recognized as genuine by the church. But these divisions are appearing at the Lord’s Table, a memorial which ought to exhibit oneness. This is why Paul is grieved and why he insists that worshippers approve themselves privately [11:28]: let them ensure that they are not divisive or heretical.

[20-22]  The Lord’s Supper celebrated by the Corinthians appears to have been a full meal in which the more affluent members may have supplied the bread and wine but each member brought his or her own food. The problem is that the affluent devour their own ample amounts of food in the presence of their fellow Christians who have little or nothing to eat. The disparity in the amounts that each one brings to consume results in one group being drunk and satisfied and another pinched with hunger. His own meal refers to individual persons or households bringing to the gathering their own meals prepared beforehand. The practice of “basket dinners” in which persons make up a dinner for themselves and pack it into a basket to go to another’s house to eat was well known. At the Corinthians’ common meal, they divided into two groups, the well-to-do and the “have-nots.” Each partakes what he or she has brought. Since some have more than others, the upshot is that those with more gorge themselves in the presence of others who are hungry. What Paul condemns is the callous behavior of the “haves” in front of the “have-nots,” which serves only to entrench the social disparity and remind the poor of their wretchedness. He does not encourage the wealthy to withdraw to their own private meals but admonishes them to feed the hungry during the community’s shared meal. Paul treats this state of affairs as something far more serious than a breach of social etiquette. They cannot label it the Lord’s Supper, he says, when they come together and act like this. It is their supper, not the Lord’s. It is not the Lord’s dinner because the Lord’s dinner is intended to convey to every participant that he or she is somebody precious to God. The Corinthians’ meal communicated to some that they were worthless nobodies. It was tainted by the deadly combination of indulgence and indifference. This selfish devouring of their own food contrasts with Jesus’ taking bread. Both “take.” The Corinthians take on their own behalf; Jesus takes on behalf of others. The Corinthians act selfishly; Jesus acts unselfishly in giving His life for others. The Corinthians’ actions will lead to their condemnation; Jesus’ action leads to the salvation of others. Each believer gets an equal share of the benefits of His sacrifice. That reality should be symbolized by what happens during the Lord’s Supper. Paul clearly addresses the “haves” in verse 22. In the ancient world the poor did not have kitchens in their tiny apartments and prepared their food on portable grills. Paul must be addressing those who have houses to eat in and presumably are heads of households. Why were some Christians oblivious to the needs of their fellow Christians? The answer is that they were too much at home in a culture in which contempt for the poor was typical of the wealthier class. The well-to-do were used to having servants stand around as they ate and also would have no misgivings about feasting in the presence of others who had nothing or had only inferior fare. Given the dinner conventions of the ancient world, they would have thought nothing of this inequity. Paul argues that they are despising and shaming God’s church. The primary focus is on horizontal relationships between Christians, but he reminds them that the people they spurn belong to God, and God will not take this lightly. If the predicament is simply their need to satisfy their gluttonous hunger, then they can stay home and eat. But to ignore a brother or sister in Christ at the common meal is unconscionable. Paul understands the church to be one large extended family, and all are expected to share their resources with others.

33-34]  Paul counsels his readers to show courtesy when they assemble, just as they would in their private homes. Remarks are directed to the affluent who do not lack for food. If their behavior does not improve, the Corinthians will attract judgment. Given their frivolous attitude to sacred issues, the danger is that the communion meal will again provoke divine displeasure. Because what they eat privately is of no consequence to anyone, let them eat at home.

Put the Spotlight on Jesus: 1 Cor. 11:23-26.

[23]  For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, [24]  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." [25]  In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." [26]  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  [ESV]

[23-25]  Paul abruptly cites the tradition of the institution of the Lord’s Supper to reinforce his point. Paul does not intend to teach the Corinthians something new about the Lord’s Supper or to correct their theology of the Lord’s Supper. He cites this tradition only to contrast what Jesus did at the Last Supper with what they are doing at their supper. Paul’s recounting of the words that Jesus spoke over the bread and the cup focuses on what Jesus did on behalf of believers. The words of institution, This is my body which is for you, reminds them that Jesus gave His body up on behalf of others. The ensuing words, This cup is the new covenant in my blood, also emphasize Jesus’ sacrifice. The salvation celebrated in this meal comes at the price of His blood. The combination of the broken bread and the cup conveys the nature of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. The Lord’s Supper was a conscious imitation of Jesus’ Last Supper. The command to do this in remembrance of me, as Paul understands it, serves as a reminder to the church of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The memorial requires that Christians reenact ritually what Christ did at His last meal to betoken His death and to explain its significance. The repetition of the phrase in remembrance of me stresses the integral connection between the character of what they do at the Supper and Jesus’ death. What is to be remembered, as far as Paul is concerned, is that the crucified one gave His body and sacrificed His blood in an expiatory death that brings the offer of salvation to all persons. By partaking of the bread and the cup, they recall that sacrifice and symbolically share in its benefits. This conscious imitation of the Lord’s Supper expressed in this liturgical formula allows Paul to make his point forcefully. They are to imitate Christ’s example of self-giving. Everything they do in their meal should accord with His self-sacrifice for others. They should be prepared to give of themselves and their resources for others.

[26]  The statement in verse 26 is the key for understanding why Paul recites the Last Supper tradition. The for links this statement to what precedes. Eating and drinking are mentioned five times in 11:26-29, and this is what Paul wishes to emphasize more than the verbal repetition of the story of the Lord’s death. It is not what is said during or after the meal that concerns him, but what is said in the action of eating and drinking.  He is interested only in the fact that whenever you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. He believes that their actions in their meal do not proclaim the Lord’s death, which is why he says that their meal is not the Lord’s Supper. The emphasis is on the death of the Lord, Christ crucified, which explains its forward reference in the clause until he comes. For Paul, the Lord’s Supper should evoke Christ’s obedience unto death, the humiliating death on a cross. It should preach Christ crucified. If the Corinthians are proclaiming the Lord’s death in what they do at the Lord’s Supper, they will not overindulge themselves, despise others, shame them, or allow them to go hungry. Paul’s purpose here is not to develop fully a theology of the Lord’s Supper or to correct their theology. Rather Paul’s focus is on the past event in order to correct what the Corinthians are doing in the present at their meal: getting drunk and treating others with contempt. The Lord’s Supper is founded on the sacrificial death of Jesus for others, and the attitude that led Him obediently to that death should pervade the Supper for Christians ever after. The way the Corinthians conducted their supper, however, gave witness to a culture of selfishness and status-mongering. To conduct their supper in this way and to have the temerity to call it the Lord’s supper can lead only to their condemnation.

Examine Yourself: 1 Cor. 11:27-32.

[27]  Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. [28]  Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. [29]  For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. [30]  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. [31]  But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. [32]  But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.  [ESV]

[Garland] [27-29]  Paul returns to the Corinthian problem at the Lord’s Supper with an oblique warning about those who eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner. The adverb unworthy refers to doing something that does not square with the character or nature of something. To eat the Lord’s Supper in a manner that violates its purpose to proclaim the Lord’s death makes one guilty for the death of the Lord. Guilty is a judicial term which means that the Corinthians are answerable to God, the final judge, for this abuse. They become responsible for the body and blood of the Lord. Paul’s logic is this: The Lord’s Supper proclaims the Lord’s death. Those whose behavior at the Lord’s Supper does not conform to what that death entails effectively shift sides. They leave the Lord’s side and align themselves with the rulers of this present age who crucified the Lord. This explains how they make themselves so vulnerable to God’s judgment. They cannot treat this meal as a pleasant gathering of friends. It is fraught with spiritual peril if they treat the meal or those gathered for it in a cavalier manner. They will incur God’s judgment. The divisions in Corinth that Paul mentions in 11:19 reveal a deeper, far more serious divide. The divide is between those who incarnate the cross of Christ with their self-sacrifice and those who put Christ to death again with their self-centered feasting. He insinuates that the Corinthians violate the spirit of the meal, which remembers Christ’s self-sacrifice, by eating it unworthily. Although no one is worthy of the Lord’s Supper, one can eat it worthily. Paul gives three key tests to decide whether one is eating worthily. The first test appears in verse 28. All are to examine themselves. All must remember that Christ’s atoning death was necessary because of our sinfulness. Participation in the Lord’s Supper entails anticipation of the Lord’s judgment. Consequently, the Supper is to be eaten in an atmosphere of self-examination. They are to test their genuineness before God does. Those who may imagine themselves to be the dignitaries and want to make sure that others recognize their higher status should check their pride at the door. They must examine themselves at this meal in light of Christ’s sacrifice for all. The cross offers a different standard for who can claim to be notable. The genuine Christian recognizes that there are no class divisions at the Lord’s table. No one is distinguished at this table except One, but all are honored together as His distinguished guests as the body of Christ. All are blameworthy before God, and yet all are forgiven because the sins of all have been transferred to One. A second key test is implied in verse 22 and it concerns how one relates to brothers and sisters in Christ. If one partakes of the Lord’s Supper with indifference to them, it is no longer the Lord’s Supper. To eat the Lord’s Supper worthily, one must recognize that all Christians, rich and poor, are joined together in Christ, share equally in His blessings, and should be treated worthily. The third test requires discerning the body [11:29]. Those who do not discern the body place themselves in dire jeopardy by eating and drinking condemnation on themselves. The question is, What is it that the Corinthians do not discern? The body is probably shorthand for the body and blood of the Lord in verse 27. The elements of bread and wine represent the crucified Lord and make this meal holy and different from any other meal. Discerning the body means recognizing this uniqueness and that the elements represent Christ’s death for them. A proper understanding of what these elements represent should change the Corinthians’ attitude and behavior toward others. It reminds them of their dependence on Christ and their own interdependence and should cause them to share their own provisions with others at the meal who have little or nothing. Paul is arguing that when they recognize fully the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ, remembered in reenacting the Last Supper, they will act compassionately toward their brothers and sisters in Christ.

[30-32]  That is why marks a shift in argument as Paul applies the general truths of 11:27-29 specifically to the situation at Corinth. Real suffering in the flesh is the divine warning bell that should awaken the Corinthians to the dangers of their practices. Paul probably has heard of these deaths from the same ones who told him of their divisions, and he connects these events to their improper handling of the sacred Lord’s Supper and to God’s judgment. Paul does not identify who or how many have become sick or have died. For his argument to have force as a threat, one would assume that the readers could readily identify those who were sick or have died as guilty of despising and humiliating their brothers and sisters at the Lord’s Supper. In verse 31, Paul offers a means of escape from this judgment with a call to the correct judging of oneself. Correctly examining themselves would remedy their mishandling of the Lord’s Supper. It also would prevent them from being condemned in the final judgment. Joining in the Lord’s Supper in the spirit of the world that put Christ to death means that they will be condemned with the world. Eating the Supper with the spirit of Christ means salvation and requires loving behavior toward others.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What are causing the divisions in the Corinthian church? What effect are these divisions having on their participation in the Lord’s Supper?

2.         Concerning the Lord’s Supper, Jesus commands us to do this in remembrance of me. What are we to remember? The next time you partake of the Lord’s Supper, focus your thoughts on these truths.

3.         How were the Corinthians eating and drinking in an unworthy manner? What are the three tests which Paul gives to determine if one is eating worthily?

4.         What does Paul mean when he tells us to examine ourselves before partaking of the Lord’s Supper?

5.         What does Paul means by discerning the body? What effect will this discerning have on one’s attitude towards others?


1 Corinthians, David Garland, Baker.

The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, Inter-Varsity Press.

1 Corinthians, Peter Naylor, Evangelical Press.

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