Editor’s note: This post is part of a series, “Counseling and Communion.” This series of posts will examine the Lord’s Supper in relation to reconciliation, sanctification, and the hope of the gospel.
I am not advocating that anyone ever administer the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper in the counseling room. Please, please don’t do that.¹ Rather, aim your counselees’ attention at the next time their local church will observe the Lord’s Supper. Then instruct and encourage them to prepare to partake worthily and well. Does faith-filled, “worthy” participation in the Lord’s Supper seem pretty aloof from the problems of your counselees? It shouldn’t.
In God’s perfect design for his church — which is sufficiently revealed in his Word — the Lord’s Supper is meant to promote (at least) these three interrelated things: interpersonal unity, personal holiness, and gospel faith. Those should also be the dominant themes of your counseling ministry. I can’t think of a single “counseling issue” that doesn’t somehow belong under at least one of those three banners: reconciliation, sanctification, and the hope of the gospel.
How could you lead a counselee to derive from communion incentives toward unity, holiness, and faith? The Word of God is sufficient for this counseling endeavor: Teach through some of the Bible’s passages about communion. God’s Word will lead you, and your counselees, to make these connections.
This series of posts will examine the Lord’s Supper in relation to reconciliation, sanctification, and the hope of the gospel.
The Lord’s Supper and Reconciliation
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is the most substantial passage in Scripture concerning instructions for the Lord’s Supper. In it, Paul upbraids the Corinthians for what’s happening during communion. Their observances of the ordinance are so egregious they shouldn’t even really be considered instances of taking “the Lord’s Supper” in Paul’s mind (11:20). Yikes! He even tells them that they’re worse off for coming to church if this is the manner in which they take communion (11:17).
What’s going on in Corinth? There are “divisions” in the church (11:18). Not the unfortunately necessary kind of “faction” that shows who’s a genuine believer and who’s not (11:19), but rather a kind of separation amongst true believers; in this case the break is along socioeconomic lines (11:21-22). These actions amount to a despising of God’s church (11:22). Moreover, this expression of division directly violates the meaning of the Lord’s Supper because it contradicts what the Supper represents: the gospel (11:23-26). How? The gospel creates unity and reconciliation within Christ’s Church. Paul has already told the Corinthians that the Lord’s Supper symbolizes this unifying effect of the gospel (10:16-17). Unreconciled divisions fly in the face of the gospel, and so they shouldn’t be present at the gospel feast.
Other New Testament passages also teach this congruence between the gospel and Christian unity. Ephesians 4 urges Christians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, and specifies that charge first of all as humility, gentleness, bearing with one another in love, and eagerness to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (4:1-3). Only this kind of one-another treatment in the body of Christ jives with the truth that “there is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (4:4-6). In Galatians 2, Paul reports on a time he rebuked a fellow apostle because Peter “separated himself” from eating with the Gentiles (2:13). How did Paul describe this suppertime violation of Christian unity? Peter’s “conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (2:14).
We shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised at Paul’s strong condemnation of the Corinthians’ infractions at the Lord’s Supper. Neither should we be surprised by his authoritative prescription.
In 1 Corinthians 11:27, Paul describes their situation as taking the bread and cup of the Lord “in an unworthy manner.” Here’s the remedy: Let each person “examine himself” (11:28). More specifically, he needs to “discern the body” (11:29). He is urging them to consider what the Lord’s Supper illustrates as true about Christ’s “body” — the church — because of Christ’s sacrifice; i.e. they are made “one” (10:16-17). Each communicant needs to personally examine himself to see if he is living in a way that contradicts the gospel unity of Christ’s body (like the Corinthians were in 1 Cor 11:17-22).² Practically speaking, each member should ask himself if he is living unrepentantly in an unreconciled state with another believer in Christ, especially one who is in the same local body that will assemble together to take the Lord’s Supper.
Gregg Allison puts it well:
The self-examination is specifically for the purpose of detecting broken relationships, division-causing behavior, disrespect, and mistreatment of brothers and sisters in Christ. If self-assessment reveals these problems, the Christian should refrain from participating in the Lord’s Supper and act decisively and promptly to rectify the mistreatment of others and reconcile broken relationships.³
Please don’t press this admonition too hard. These Pauline instructions don’t disqualify everyone who has any degree of relational tension with another brother or sister. If it did, practically no one at your church could take the Lord’s Supper this Sunday. I think this especially pertains to those who are not desiring and trying to move toward reconciliation in light of interpersonal sin; they’re somewhat settled in their unreconciled state, not currently committed to pursuing forgiveness and peacemaking. Apply it along similar lines as you would Matthew 5:23-24 — “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
So there may come a point when you should tell a married couple in your counseling room, “If you aren’t committed to doing what it takes to reconcile with one another, please don’t take the Lord’s Supper on Sunday, as that would proclaim a lie about the gospel.” Wouldn’t that powerfully show how an unwillingness to forgive undermines a profession of faith in Christ? It would, just as God intended it (cf. Matt 6:14-15, 18:35). And he just might use that admonition to save a marriage, to the praise of his glorious grace.
On the other hand, how wonderful it would be if a couple would say to each other, “I’m committed to bearing with you in love. I want to try to walk in full and free forgiveness with you for the Lord’s sake, and for the gospel.” Then, they could take the Lord’s Supper beside each other in their local church’s next service (perhaps even looking at each other or holding hands), trusting that God’s grace toward them in Christ is enough to lead them to reconciliation and relational peace with each other, and is enough to forgive each of them for all of the ways their personal sin has disrupted that unity.
- For a very brief explanation of why not, see Bobby Jamieson, Understanding the Lord’s Supper (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2016), in the 9Marks “The Church Basics” series (ed. Jonathan Leeman). See especially chapter 8, “What Gathering May Celebrate the Lord’s Supper?” Here’s his thesis: “Only a local church, gathered as a church, is authorized to celebrate the Lord’s Supper” 41).
- Some believe that this reading too specifically focuses on that unrepentant sin which is not doing your part to pursue Christian unity and reconciliation (cf. Rom 12:18). Also differing from my position, many believe that “discern the body” (11:28) means one has to regard the fact that the bread of the Lord’s Supper really does symbolize Christ’s sacred sacrifice of himself (and thus not treating communion with the same cavalier attitude with which you view lunch).I’m convinced that is not the best way to understand this passage. Close attention to the broader context of 1 Corinthians 11:19-34 (and 10:16-17) soundly tilt the scales toward the view I’ve tried to articulate. This view is a well-represented opinion amongst modern evangelical scholarship. See, for example, Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), pp. 997-8, Gordon Fee in the NICNT, Craig Blomberg in the NIVAC, Ben Witherington in his Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Gregg Allison’s ecclesiology (see footnote 3 below), or Jim Hamilton’s article “The Lord’s Supper in Paul: An Identity-Forming Proclamation of the Gospel.” For dissenting viewpoints, see, for example, Leon Morris in the TNTC, Anthony Thiselton in the NIGTC, David Garland in the BECNT, or many older commentators, like Charles Simeon or John Calvin.Even so, one need not agree with my understanding of “discern the body” to demonstrate from 1 Corinthians 11 how the Lord’s Supper should be a powerful incentive toward reconciliation and unity.
- Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), in the “Foundations of Evangelical Theology” series, ed. John S. Feinberg; pg. 407.