In a previous article, I began my treatment of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, a passage that is undoubtedly the most important piece of biblical evidence that has implications for the question of paedocommunion. In that article, I observed that the passage consists of four distinguishable sections: verses 17–22, which identify the problem in Corinth that characterized the church’s celebrations of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; verses 23–26, which contain the apostle Paul’s summary of the institution of the Lord’s Supper; verses 27–32, which provide instructions on the way recipients of the sacrament ought to receive the body and blood of the Lord, lest they participate in an “unworthy” manner; and verses 33–34, which return to the original problem that Paul is addressing in the Corinthian church and offer instruction on how the Corinthians should wait for each other when they come together to eat, lest they continue to experience the Lord’s judgment upon them. We considered the first two of these sections in our previous article. We now turn our attention to the last two sections, the first of which is most directly pertinent to the question of a proper participation in Christ by means of the sacrament.
How Participants Should Receive the Lord’s Supper (vv. 27–32)
In this section of Paul’s discourse on the Lord’s Supper, a noticeable shift takes place. No longer is the apostle simply focused upon the particular abuses that characterized the celebration of the Lord’s Supper by some members of the Corinthian church. Though these abuses remain the occasion for his treatment of a proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it is evident that the apostle now wishes to speak more generally of the manner in which all recipients of the sacrament are to receive the body and blood of Christ. Having recalled the words of institution for the sacrament, Paul sets forth some of the guidelines that must govern the believer’s reception of the sacrament. In this section of the passage, the apostle offers instructions regarding how the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated in a worthy manner. In the historic interpretation of the passage, these instructions have typically been taken to require the presence of an active faith-discernment on the part of those who come to the Table of the Lord. This section of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, accordingly, is of special importance to our evaluation of the paedocommunion position.
The shift that occurs in this section of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 is evident from the change in language that Paul uses. Whereas the earlier section, which described the problem in the church in Corinth, uses primarily the second person plural “you” (vv. 17–20, 22), this section shifts to the third person singular. Rather than directly addressing the Corinthian believers who were abusing the Lord’s Supper, Paul now uses the language of “whoever” (v. 27), “a person” (v. 28), and “anyone” (v. 29, a third person participle). Consistent with this usage of the third person, the apostle also uses third person verb forms and the third person reflexive pronoun “himself” (v. 29). The change in this section to the use of such third person forms has a significant bearing upon how the instructions of this section are to be understood. Though the apostle began his treatment of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 with a description of the inappropriate behavior of some members of the Corinthian church, he now moves to a series of general instructions that apply to all members of the covenant community.
The significance of this change in language is aptly stated by John Calvin in his commentary on the passage. According to Calvin, these instructions, though written in the context of a particular problem in the Corinthian church, provide instruction for the reception of the Lord’s Supper on the part of anyone who receives the body and blood of Christ.
Some people make it apply [i.e. the passage] only to the Corinthians, and to the corruption which had got such a hold in their midst. But my own view is that Paul, as he usually does, moves from that particular suggestion to general teaching, or from one example to a whole class. The Corinthians had one particular fault. Paul takes advantage of this to speak of every kind of fault to be found in the administration or receiving of the Supper.
The point of Calvin’s comments is that the instructions of verses 27–29 are applicable, not only in the particular circumstance that occasioned his remarks on the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, but also to any celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the part of any believer. They are not restricted to those whose celebration of the Lord’s Supper may reflect the kind of abusive practice that was evident in the Corinthian church. Whenever the Lord’s Supper is administered, believers are warned against an “unworthy” reception of the elements.
The opening sentence of this section makes clear how important these instructions are for a proper reception of the sacrament: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” By using the connective, “therefore,” Paul emphasizes the close connection between his prior comments about the Lord’s Supper and the instructions that he is now going to offer. The language of this transitional verse underscores the seriousness of an unworthy reception of the body and blood of Christ. Such an unworthy reception is tantamount to a profaning, or treating as unholy, the holy sacrament that the Lord instituted for the benefit of his people. When Paul speaks of an “unworthy” eating of the bread or drinking of the cup, he means to refer to the manner in which the sacrament is received. He does not mean to refer to the “worthiness” of the recipient of the sacramental elements, but to the way in which believers partake of the sacrament.
After this introductory emphasis upon the seriousness of a proper participation in the sacrament, the apostle stipulates two distinct requirements for the reception of the sacrament: first, the participant must “examine himself” prior to eating the bread and drinking the cup (v. 28); and second, the participant must “discern the body” when he eats and drinks (v. 29).
The verb Paul uses to describe the first requirement for a proper reception of the sacrament has the general meaning of “to test something to determine its genuineness.” Each person who eats the bread and drinks the cup must do so only after he has “examined himself.” Though Paul gives no specific information regarding what such a testing or examining of oneself means, the verb he uses is found in a number of New Testament passages, including other Pauline epistles (see Rom. 1:28; 2:18; 12:2; 14:22; 1 Cor. 3:13; 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:8, 22; 13:5; Gal. 6:4; Eph. 5:10; Phil. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 3:10). The closest parallel to this passage is 2 Corinthians 13:5, where the apostle summons all believers to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?— unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” Another parallel passage, which also uses this verb with a reflexive pronoun, Galatians 6:4, speaks of the need for each believer to “test his own work.” The common sense of these passages is that the believer is obligated to examine his faith and conduct to determine whether it corresponds to what is expected of a person who belongs to Christ.
Though the idea of “self-examination” in verse 28 has often been freighted with the excess baggage of an protracted, introspective process of spiritual inventory-taking, the term only requires a responsible testing on the part of the believer to see whether his faith is genuine. When the believer tests himself, he must simply determine whether his faith and practice correspond to his status and profession as a member of the church of Jesus Christ. In the historic understanding of the Reformed churches, such self-examination looks simply for the fruits that belong to a normal Christian profession. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism, which reflects the consensus view of the Reformed churches, insists that only those believers whose faith exhibits the three elements that belong to a Christian profession should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. Genuine faith in Jesus Christ always entails a recognition of the believer’s sin and misery, a believing trust in Jesus Christ as Savior, and a resolve to live in grateful obedience. This insistence seems to be a reasonable application of the principle that believers should examine or test the genuineness of their faith in Christ before coming to the Table of the Lord.
The second stipulation in these verses—that the recipient of the sacrament participate in a way that includes “discerning the body”— also requires explanation. What does the apostle means when he speaks of “discerning the body” in order not to partake of the Lord’s Supper in a way that would bring judgment upon the participant (verse 29)?
In order to answer this question, it is necessary at the outset to observe that there is a slight difference in the textual evidence for verse 29. Most modern translations, which are based upon older manuscript evidence, do not have the words “of the Lord” after “discerning the body.” Older translations, like the King James Version, which are based upon the Byzantine or Majority text, include these words. Though the difference between these two textual traditions is relatively minor, it is possible to argue that the shorter text lends support to a particular reading of the passage that is favored by some advocates of paedo-communion. For example, some advocates of paedocommunion conclude that the shorter reading supports the idea that Paul is emphasizing only a kind of ecclesiological discernment. Rather than referring to the believer’s recognition of the “body of the Lord,” which was given as a sacrifice for sin upon the cross, Paul is referring to a recognition of the identity of the church community. The discernment in question is not Christological but ecclesiological.
According to this paedocommunionist interpretation, a proper recognition of who belongs to the body of the church fits more appropriately with the context. Since Paul is responding to the failure on the part of the Corinthians to recognize how all members of the body (rich and poor alike) enjoy full communion with Christ, the shorter reading of the text is most appropriate. When Paul stresses the need to receive the sacrament after a proper discernment of the body of Christ, he is calling the Corinthians to repent from the sinful divisions that marked their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In comparison to this reading, the longer reading of the text suggests that the “body” to be discerned is the actual body of Christ that was given as an atonement for sin and that is signified in the sacramental elements.
In my judgment, it is likely that the shorter reading of the text of verse 29 is correct. However, I do not believe that the shorter reading supports the claim of some paedocommunionists that the discernment Paul has in mind is primarily ecclesiological. In the immediate context of verse 29, Paul refers on two occasions to the body of Christ, first in reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper (v. 24), and then in reference to the sacramental eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ (v. 27). Both of these references to the “body” are references to the body “of Christ,” which is signified and communicated by means of the sacramental elements of bread and wine.
Since the sacrament is a means of communion with Christ, it requires believing discernment of the body of Christ that was given as a sacrifice on behalf of his people. Because the sacrament is a means of remembering and proclaiming Christ’s sacrificial death until he comes, those who receive Christ in the sacrament must do so in the way of an active recognition of his body. Minimally, the recipient of the sacrament is obliged to “evaluate” or “recognize” that the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ that were given for the forgiveness of his people’s sins. The verb that the apostle uses has the simple meaning of engaging in an act of “discrimination” or “recognition” of Christ’s body that is so wondrously signified and communicated to believers as they receive the sacramental meal of the Lord’s Supper. The paedocommunionist argument that this discernment refers only to an ecclesiological identification of those who belong to the covenant community does not do justice to the immediate context of this verse.
After stipulating these requirements for participation in the sacrament, the remaining verses of this section of 1 Corinthians 11 (vv. 30-32) return to the particular circumstances of the Corinthian church. Once more the language is in the second person plural (“you”). Because of the sinful practice in the Corinthian church, Paul tells the Corinthians that they are suffering the judgment of God (“That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died”). The failure on the part of some of the Corinthian believers to judge themselves correctly, has resulted in their being subjected to the Lord’s judgment. This judgment is not an irrevocable condemnation, but an instance of God’s severe mercy that they should heed in order not to fall under the condemnation of the world.
Exhortation for the Future (vv. 33–34)
The concluding section of Paul’s discourse on the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 is directed especially to the Corinthian church. Just as in the preceding verses (3032), the apostle returns to the sinful practice of some of the Corinthian believers and offers a word of admonition to them. Since this section of the discourse is not as directly pertinent to our interest in the question of paedocommunion, we will only briefly comment on its teaching.
In these verses, the apostle Paul notes that the antidote for the sinful divisions of the Corinthian church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper requires two things: first, when the Corinthian believers come together to eat, they must “wait for one another”; and second, those who are hungry should “eat at home” rather than in the context of the church’s gathering for the celebration of the sacrament. Since the Table of the Lord represents the communion that believers together enjoy with Christ, the Corinthians should eat or drink together. The Corinthians must not eat and drink without first waiting for each other, lest the communion they enjoy with the Lord be violated by their divisive spirit. If the Corinthians persist in their divisive pattern of behavior, they will only continue to suffer the judgment of the Lord. In order to avoid the Lord’s judgment upon them for their sinful abuse of the Table of the Lord, the Corinthians are summoned to a pattern of conduct that does not belie the significance of the sacrament as a means of fellowship with Christ.
Though 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 does not stand alone within the context of the biblical evidence for the proper administration and reception of the Lord’s Supper, it is a passage that speaks to this subject more directly than any other. No other passage provides as direct a witness to the manner in which recipients of the body and blood of Christ are to be admitted to the Lord’s Table. Even though this passage does not speak expressly to the question of the admission of children of believers to the Table of the Lord, its implications for this question are apparent. In order to clarify these implications, I will conclude my treatment of the passage with several observations.
First, it is clear that the apostle Paul’s consideration of the Lord’s Supper in this passage is prompted by a particular circumstance in the Corinthian church. The passage begins by identifying a divisive spirit that characterized the celebration of the sacrament among the Corinthian believers. The occasion for Paul’s appeal to the words of institution of the sacrament, and his instructions regarding a “worthy” reception of the sacramental elements, was the divisions that marked the behavior of some of the Corinthians when they celebrated the sacrament. These divisions belied the union and communion with Christ that is so wondrously symbolized in the Lord’s Supper. For this reason, the apostle soberly warns the Corinthian believers that such behavior has and will cause the Lord’s judgment to fall upon them.
Advocates of paedocommunion properly emphasize this occasion for Paul’s discourse on the Lord’s Supper. However, the argument of some paedocommunionists that this occasion limits the application of Paul’s instructions only to believers who are guilty of a like spirit of divisiveness is unduly restrictive. No competent interpreter of the passage denies the particular occasion that prompts Paul’s instructions. The question remains whether Paul takes this occasion to provide more general instructions regarding the celebration of the sacrament by all believers whenever the sacrament is administered.
Second, an important feature of this passage is the transition that Paul makes from a description of the particular problem in Corinth to general instructions regarding a proper reception of the sacrament. Though advocates of paedocommunion often insist that Paul’s appeal to the institution of the Lord’s Supper (vv. 23–26) and his teaching regarding a worthy reception of the sacramental elements (vv. 27–29) only address the particular problem in Corinth, the language Paul uses suggests otherwise. It seems clear that Paul wants to use the occasion of the Corinthian abuse of the Lord’s Supper to stipulate general guidelines for the way any believer should receive the sacrament. This means that Paul is not simply calling some Corinthian believers to repent of their particular sin of divisiveness in celebrating the sacrament (and perhaps others today who are guilty of a similar offense). Paul is calling them to repent, to be sure. But he is also giving instructions that apply to any believer on the occasion of any administration of the Lord’s Supper. The instructions of this passage have, accordingly, general application to the church’s celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The passage provides a rich description of the manner in which the new covenant sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is to be administered.
Third, in the most important section of this passage, the apostle stipulates that anyone who receives the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament must do so after he has “examined himself” and only in the way of a proper “discerning” of the body of Christ. In our exposition of these stipulations, we noted that they place no extraordinary burden upon those who come to the Table of the Lord. They do not oblige recipients of the sacrament to engage in a protracted process of introspection to determine whether they are genuine believers. Some advocates of paedocommunion represent this kind of extraordinary, protracted process of self-examination as the historic view of the Reformed churches. Though this may seem to lend support to the paedocommunion case, it amounts to a kind of “straw man” argument. The normative understanding of these requirements in the Reformed churches is that the believer is expected to test the genuineness of his Christian profession before partaking of the sacrament. Such self-examination amounts to no more than a testing of his faith by the biblical standard of what belongs to a true Christian profession. Furthermore, the “discerning” of the body of Christ is not some kind of highly intellectualized exercise that exceeds the competence of many believers. It amounts to a simple recognition of the body of Christ that is signified in the sacramental elements of bread and wine.
Since true faith always entails a basic knowledge of what the Scriptures teach about Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross for the sins of his people, it is not surprising that those who remember and proclaim Christ’s death in the sacrament do so in the way of a faith-recognition of the body of Christ. These requirements for the reception of Christ in the sacrament are the basis for the historic insistence of the Reformed churches that those who are admitted to the Table of the Lord be professing believers. The children of believing parents are instructed in the Word of the gospel in order to prepare them to profess the kind of faith that is able to receive Christ sacramentally. The reception of Christ in the sacraments is not a witless, unintelligent act on the part of those who participate. Only those who have examined themselves in the faith, and who have rightly discerned the body of Christ (and the implications of the one body for the unity among believers), should come, remembering and believing Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross. These requirements are precisely the ones that have led the Reformed churches to insist upon a profession of faith as the occasion for a covenant member’s reception at the Table of the Lord. Such a profession of faith principally confirms that the covenant member can eat and drink the body and blood of Christ with “the mouth of faith.”
For these reasons, I remain convinced that a proper reading of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 provides sufficient warrant for upholding the historic view and practice of the Reformed churches. This passage constitutes a clear and compelling constitutes a clear and compelling piece of evidence against the position of those who advocate the admission of all covenant children to the Table of the Lord, and who reject the need for a proper, public confirmation of their faith.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.