Unworthily: Merit or Manner?

A. J. Higgins

It was not a good week. No fall or major stumble, but very little time was devoted to reading God’s Word, and even less time to prayer and communion. You feel that your soul is cold and devoid of anything fresh to bring in thanksgiving to the Lord. Now it is Lord’s day and that verse in 1 Corinthians 11 is haunting you: "He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself" (1Cor 11:29 Newberry). So you decide to stay home and not go to the breaking of bread. You feel unworthy of being there.

Maybe your week wasn’t that bad, but there was a misunderstanding with another believer and you are aware that you did not act in a Christlike manner toward her. How can you possibly, so unlike Christ in your own life, go to remember Him? You feel so unworthy. As a result, you decide to stay home.

Is this a right understanding of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11? Is the Spirit of God addressing our merit here? A right appreciation of grace will make me realize that at my best moment, I do not merit a place at the Lord’s Supper. None of us "deserves" to be there. We have not earned a seat among His people. We are there by grace alone. Paul, then, is not speaking about being worthy or unworthy to eat and to drink. If it is not "merit," then what is it to which he refers?

A reading of the context will make it clear that Paul is speaking of the manner in which they were partaking. They had lost sight of the meaning of what they were doing. They had failed to see that in partaking of the emblems they were remembering the Lord in His life and death. The supper had degenerated into a class struggle between the "haves and the have-nots." It had become an opportunity to display abundance over against the lack of the poorer believers. The supper which was intended to show oneness, was highlighting a division.

To balance this, we should never accept as normative going to a breaking of bread (or any other gathering) barren and cold, with little to offer. Hearts need to be warmed and forgiveness and apologies made and accepted between saints. But Paul’s teaching was not given to tell believers when to stay away. It was given to tell them to partake with intelligence as to the meaning.

"Let a man examine himself," does not refer primarily to an inspection of my behavior and actions, but to a clear understanding of the meaning of what I am about to do. Other Scriptures underline the principle of "clean hands and a pure heart" (Psa 24:4) when we approach the Lord. 1 Corinthians 11 is teaching the need for clear vision as to the manner and meaning of what I am doing. When faced with, "Should I go?" we should always adjust the person, not abandon the practice.

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