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. You can read part 1 of this series here.
Although Paul addressed the Lord’s Supper most explicitly and extensively in 1 Corinthians 11, the subject had already come up in chapter 10 (as we’ve already seen) and also, less conspicuously, in chapter 5. Paul’s instruction in those chapters certainly helped to inform what the Corinthians understood as “worthy” participation. What do those passages contribute to the discussion? Preparing for communion should include the pursuit of holiness broadly speaking, not just regarding interpersonal strife. Participation in the Lord’s Supper isn’t for those who willingly cling to known sin in unrepentance, including sins beyond unforgiveness and heels-dug-in disunity.
In chapter 10, the Lord’s Supper comes up in the context of this exhortation: “My beloved, flee from idolatry” (10:14-17). Specifically, the Corinthians should refrain from taking part in any of their city’s pagan feasts. They shouldn’t be present participants in these demonic “worship services” and eat what is explicitly offered to idols there. It’s probable — though not impossible — that this specific situation won’t come up in your counseling room. But the broader principle of the passage’s exhortation (10:14 — flee idolatry) applies to us nonetheless.
We should not take the Lord’s Supper if we don’t want or plan to give up hobnobbing with idols. Jesus requires that all of his people — visibly represented by all who take the Supper — be exclusively devoted to him as their Lord and God. The Lord who saves is a jealous God (10:22). The gospel of grace always comes with this ethical entailment: You shall have no other gods (cf. Ex 20:2 gives rise to 20:3).
Everyone will come to the Lord’s Table with some degree of idolatry staining his record from the previous week because every sin is somehow a transgression of the first command (cf. Eph 5:5, Col 3:5, Jas 4:4, etc.). Nevertheless, no one should pull up a chair at the Lord’s Table if they’re holding onto hopes and plans for their idolatry to continue. No one comes to the Lord’s Table perfect (If you are perfect, you don’t need what the Lord’s Supper represents). We are simply required to come repenting.
1 Corinthians 5 also connects the Lord’s Supper and the pursuit of holiness. In that fifth chapter, Paul urges the congregation in Corinth to exercise church discipline on a man who is living in unrepentant sexual sin (5:1-5). After this general appeal, the apostle starts using the language of unleavened bread, Christ our sacrificed Passover lamb, and the “festival” that commemorates and celebrates these things (5:6-8). I believe that Paul is thinking in verse 8 about the Lord’s Supper (at least in part), the Passover feast that Jesus Christian-ized for his disciples. At the very least, Paul alludes to the ordinance with his command¹: “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (5:8).
The most direct application of this teaching is that the professing believer who refuses to repent of his sin should receive church discipline (5:9-11) and thereby be “purged” from the congregation (5:13). The essential expression of church discipline is excommunication (ex-communion-ication.); he is barred from the Lord’s Table. Paul gives the order directly: do “not even eat with such a one” (5:11), which, in context, has primary reference to the Lord’s Supper and the church-wide fellowship meals that early Christians frequently held in conjunction with the ordinance (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-22)². Unrepentant sinners like these will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10)³, so they should not share in the Lord’s Supper that anticipates the kingdom (cf. Matt 26:29).
The church celebrates the Lord’s Supper in an “unleavened” way by taking it without the unrepentant member. No doubt, this injunction also serves as an admonition for all members to repent. All communicants should seek personally to “celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil” (5:8).
The grace of God in Christ both enables and requires that Christ’s people say, “No,” to ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12). So if you have a counselee who says, “I know this course of action is sinful, and yet I have plans to go ahead with it anyway, or plans to do it again.” You should respond, “For Christ’s sake you need to cancel those plans. Otherwise, please let the plate and cup pass you by on Sunday.” If the spiritually obstinate one actually heeds that biblical counsel, the experience of being an “outsider” at the gospel feast will powerfully dramatize the real spiritual dangers of his walking in unrepentant sin.
The Lord’s Supper sends forth a strong admonition to all church members to repent. At the same time, the Lord’s Supper sends forth that call to repentance as an incredibly gracious invitation (cf. Isa 55:7), one that is extended by divine mercy again and again and again.
- Of course, the command has broader implications for the whole Christian life.
- Some commentators find this interpretation overly specific, e.g. Leon Morris in the TNTC: “Do not even eat will refer primarily to ordinary meals (cf. 2 John 10), not to Holy Communion, though that, too, would be forbidden.”
- There is a striking correspondence between the lists of 1 Corinthians 5:11 and 6:9-10. This conceptual overlap makes a powerful point about the importance of church discipline.