Worthiness to Recieve Communion

By: Rev. Gregory S. Neal

Real quick, take out your Bibles and turn to 1 Corinthians 11:20-34. I'll pause while you read. Here it is in the venerable KJV:

When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not. For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world. Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. And the rest will I set in order when I come. (1 Corinthians 11:20-34 KJV)

This has been a difficult passage of scripture for many faithful Christians, but not because of anything St. Paul actually said. The difficulty comes in vs. 27-30, and especially with the 29th verse as it reads in the King James Version: "For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily , eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body."

To put it simply, this does not mean that you have to be worthy to partake of our Lord's body and blood. "Worthy," in this passage, is used as an adverb, never as an adjective, and, as such, it modifies the act, not the actor. The manner of partaking is in question, not the one who is partaking. What we are called to examine is the way we are partaking, and our focus as we partake. While this may have a personal dimension, the worthiness to receive was never the question. The simple fact is that no one is worthy to receive the Lord's body and blood at Holy Communion. Indeed, we come to the table exactly because we are unworthy. All we have to do is receive in faith, focused on Christ Jesus, our Lord, and we will be receiving worthily.

Now, I understand that this is not how some pastors and/or teachers have taught this passage. On the western frontier it became common to hear a judgmental call for everyone to examine their spiritual lives, so that they Instead of having their congregations focus upon the worthiness of Jesus, sacrificed on the cross, preachers and teachers told their flocks that they had to earn admission to the table. They had to be "worthy" to receive, because if they ate of the table while being unworthy, they would profane the table and bring sickness and death upon themselves. As a result, thousands were made to feel guilty when they came, for they knew they were not perfect. And, of course, many refused to come to the table at all. This kind of thinking resulted in much of the closed communion rules which were very common until just recently. And it was, all of it, absolutely unscriptural.

Paul never said we had to make sure we were worthy before we received Communion. Only Christ is worthy. We are capable, however, of receiving in a worthy manner through faith in Christ. Indeed, as I have already said, it is because we are unworthy that we must receive. Our unworthiness makes it imperative that we receive, and receive frequently.

And this brings up another question. I am sometimes asked about the frequency with which one should partake of the sacrament. To put it simply, one should partake of the sacrament as frequently as possible, and as often as it is offered. I say this because I look upon the Sacrament of Holy Communion as a Means of Grace ... a gift through which I am reminded of the powerful love and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is through coming and receiving the Sacrament, frequently, that I am empowered by the mysterious Real Presence of Jesus to live a Christian life. Hence, if I go too long without Holy Communion I begin to get "spiritually hungry." To put it another way, I crave the Sacrament.

As the pastor of my congregation I am free to determine how frequently we receive communion; and, while I would love for us to celebrate the Sacrament every Sunday, I am also aware that the Holy Communion does not contain the same worshipful experience for some as it does for me. Hence, for now I have decided to take my congregation to the Table of the Lord on the first and third Sundays of every month in our morning worship services, and on most second and fourth Sundays in our evening service. This allows us a variety of worship styles AND it provides us with an increased opportunity to receive the Sacrament more frequently -- as our Lord Jesus Christ directed.

© 1993 Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.