I have a confession to make: I am a stickler for biblical context. Maybe it has to do with the first 30 years of my life spent in a denomination that used the Bible as a club or it might be the last 20 years spent among evangelicals, who accuse the cults of proof texting, but are not immune from succumbing to this error as well. Beware the rod in your own eye…
For the last six years, however, I have been learning from a Bible teacher par excellence. When it comes to studying the Bible, he overlooks nothing, comparing Scripture with Scripture and examining the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words. This window into the original language illumines questionable translations suggesting denominational or gender bias. In addition, this method of study reveals doctrines, long accepted by the church, which ignore the broader biblical context. As a result of this in-depth study, I approach Scripture with much more discernment. So between my background, this brilliant Bible teacher and the Holy Spirit, my radar is finely tuned to detect false doctrine.
Each month, when our church community celebrates the Lord’s Supper, a portion of I Corinthians 11 is read:
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. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:23-29 NIV)
Each time this passage was read, my radar signaled that something was amiss. I started to feel condemned but I knew that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and I am in Christ Jesus so I dismissed that thought. As I nibbled my matzoh and pondered Jesus’s death for me, I wondered what Paul meant when he said believers should not eat and drink in an “unworthy manner.” What did it mean to eat and drink judgment on yourself? Whatever it meant, I didn’t want to be guilty of it.
So I did what I have learned to do when faced with a biblical conundrum: I actually read the Bible. In fact, I read the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 11 and then some. I learned that the church of Jesus was radically different from the culture of the day, which emphasized class, race and gender distinctions. Those of high rank looked down on those of lower rank; men looked down on women; and Jews looked down on Gentiles. Think of the caste system of India, the treatment of women under radical Islam, and the racial tensions of the Deep South. Now all these Corinthian believers with their deeply entrenched flesh patterns of hatred and division were following one Messiah who was calling them to a completely new way of life—servanthood. According to Paul there was “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Their unity in Christ and His command to love one another was to put an end to their class and gender distinctions.
When these new believers gathered together, they met in homes and celebrated the Lord’s Supper as part of their communal meal. However, according to 1 Corinthians 11, some Christians arrived drunk and others gorged themselves at the buffet table. They were used to thinking of themselves first and took seconds and thirds before others even got their firsts, which left a fair number still hungry, probably those from the lower class. The “haves” helped themselves and the “have nots” didn’t get any. Paul noted that there were divisions among them. No doubt these divisions existed because these new believers were still living according to the pattern of their culture rather then the culture of Jesus where the first will be last and the last first. Transformation takes time.
When I talked about this passage with my husband, he summarized this situation in one pithy sentence: “The Corinthians weren’t playing nice in the sandbox.” So it is into this context that Paul says “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.” The unworthy manner that Paul was talking about was the flesh pattern that put self first.
Now that I was beginning to understand what Paul meant, I wondered how this applied to me as I remembered Jesus through the bread and wine. Since our community doesn’t celebrate communion during a whole meal, I didn’t think it applied… yet on a broader level I wondered if there were areas where I needed “to play nice in the sandbox” with my fellow believers. Was there an area where I needed to exhibit more self-control? (Ouch!) Was there an area where I could give deference to my brothers and sisters who “have not?” Are there times when I look down on other believers? (Am I convicting anyone else but me…?) If so, it is because I have forgotten that I was a “have not” who Jesus died for and I need to get over thinking that I am better than anyone else. I think this is why Paul mentioned Jesus’ sacrifice for us in this passage. As Paul told the Philippian believers:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-8)
In other words, Jesus had everything yet He gave it all up for the “have nots.” That’s you and me. So when we gather now, we need to be like Jesus and think of others before we think of ourselves, beginning with the dinner table.
So my biblical conundrum is now resolved. There will be no angst the next time this passage is read. However, this leaves me with another question: how should we celebrate Jesus’ body broken and blood poured out for us?
Geneva's book, Becoming His Beloved: Journey into the Father's Affection, is projected to be published in the spring of 2015.
GENEVA CHINNOCK is a writer and author of Becoming His Beloved: Journey into the Father’s Affection. Geneva has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a Master in Business Administration. In her spare time, Geneva loves reading, eating bacon and attending live theater. She lives in Southern California with her husband and blogs about matters of faith at TreasuredbyGod.com.