1 Corinthians 11.27-29The argument here is that communion should be closed so that people might be protected. For if we allow people to take communion in an unworthy manner they will be eating and drinking judgment upon themselves. Closed communion, then, is paternalistic in intent, protecting the spiritually immature from hurting themselves.
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.
Two responses. One quick and less deep. The other more deep and more important.
The quick response is simply to note that we eat and drink judgment on ourselves. We might call this the libertarian response to the paternalistic practice of closed communion. That is, it's not the church hierarchy's job to protect people from themselves, passing judgment about who can or can't take communion. As if the clergy were morally pure enough to make such a call.
Thankfully, this is not what we see in the text above. We don't see the clergy inserting themselves between the people and the Lord's Table. What we see is a judgment that we bring onto ourselves.
But while that's an important point it doesn't get to the deeper issue. Yes, while it is true that the judgment we face is a judgment we bring onto ourselves, this doesn't make communion any less dangerous. And if communion is dangerous then shouldn't people be warned so that they don't unwittingly take the meal in an unworthy manner and bring judgment upon themselves?
In short, sure, communion isn't closed but shouldn't it at least have a warning label?
I do think communion should come with a warning label. The question is, what should the warning be about?
Most advocates of closed communion suggest that the warning label should be about moral purity and piety. In this view taking a personal moral inventory is what Paul means when he says "everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat the bread and drink the cup." That is what I was taught growing up. Before taking communion I had to sit there, inventory my sins and feel remorse.
To be clear, I do think it's important to make moral inventories of our lives, to feel remorse and to repent. I try to do this everyday. It's called examen in Ignatian spirituality.
So I don't want to suggest that examen isn't a part of Christian spiritual practice. I just don't think that examen is what Paul is taking about in 1 Corinthians 11. Communion isn't a practice of moralistic introspection, it's a communal practice of welcome and grace.
I believe this becomes clear when we step back and look at the larger context of 1 Corinthians 11 (and the overall context of the book).
So let's look at the context of Chapter 11. Why is Paul giving instructions about the Lord's Supper? A few verses before the passage above Paul tells us:
1 Corinthians 11.17-22Paul's concerns here are all communal, how the body is welcoming (or, rather, not welcoming) and honoring each other. When they "come together as a church" there are "divisions." Because of these divisions the celebration of communion is not the Lord's Supper. That's key. What makes something "the Lord's Supper" is a lack of division.
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
Okay, then what sort of division are we talking about? Doctrinal or theological divisions? Personal moral lapses during the workweek? Nope. Paul is speaking about divisions of honor and shame. We read words like "despise the church" and "humiliating those who have nothing."
Ponder that. Paul says that the meal the Corinthians were eating was not the Lord's Supper because they were, in the way they practiced the meal, humiliating, despising, and shaming the poorer members of the church. This is the context we need to have in mind when we go on to read Paul's exhortations a few verses later about "discerning the body" before taking the Lord's Supper. The body here is the communal body of Christ gathered around the Table.
This communal reading of body is supported by noting that immediately after his remarks about the Lord's Supper in Chapter 11 Paul moves into his famous body-metaphor in Chapter 12: "the body is not made up of one part but of many." And even that discussion is about honor and shame. Many have tended think Chapter 12 is about the diversity of spiritual gifts in the body. But that's not Paul's main concern. His point isn't that we all have different gifts. We certainly do, but the problem is in how we honor and shame various gifts. Note the honor and shame focus in Paul's culminating assessment in Chapter 12:
1 Corinthians 12.21-26I think the key to understanding Paul's comments about "discerning the body" in regards to the Lord's Supper is found right here. Note how Paul has circled back to the concern he floated in Chapter 11, the concern over "division." This suggests to me that Paul's is still here thinking about the Lord's Supper deep now into Chapter 12. As more evidence of this note the parallel between Chapter 12's concern over honor and shame with what Paul started with in Chapter 11: "You despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing."
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
The weaker, less presentable parts of the body--the poor in the church at Corinth--were to be given special treatment and care. These "shameful parts" of the body were to be given greater honor "so that there should be no division in body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other."
Again, note how the divisions in the body are about shaming and honoring.
This, then, is at the root of Paul's claim that the Corinthians were eating and drinking judgment upon themselves. The Corinthians were taking the Lord's Supper in a way that was shaming other members of the body. The meal, meant to be a sign of a body where "each part has equal concern for each other," had become the exact opposite, a location of humiliation, shame, and exclusion. Thus the meal itself, in all it was supposed to represent, stood in judgment of the Corinthians. In eating a meal of inclusion while engaging in acts of exclusion the Corinthians had judged themselves. Their own actions had condemned them.
And with that in mind, let's go back to the issue of open versus closed communion.
Is communion dangerous? Should people be warned about their participation?
Yes and yes. But those answers, in light of what we've just discussed, do not mitigate against the practice of open communion. In fact, I'd argue that open communion is better positioned here relative to closed communion given the particular warnings we need. More, I'd argue that the fact that communion requires a warning presupposes its openness. Why warn if communion is closed and safe?
So, yes, open communion is dangerous. People do need to be warned, as Paul warned the Corinthians, that if you take this meal of inclusion while shaming, humiliating and excluding others then you've brought judgment upon yourself. You're being a hypocrite as your ritual actions in the Supper are not being supported by your lifestyle. In taking the Lord's Supper you are professing that you have "equal concern" for others, that you give "greater honor" to the least of these. Thus you bring judgment upon yourself when you shame and humiliate others, when you fail to discern and care for the many parts of body of Christ. Especially the most shameful parts.
So, yeah, people do need to be warned about that. People need to be told what the meal symbolizes and the expectations it places upon us. If you shame and humiliate "the least of these" you shouldn't eat the bread and drink the cup.
And if you do eat the meal while shaming and humiliating others, the welcome of Jesus--symbolized in the meal--will stand in judgment against you.