Paul’s passage from 1 Corinthians 11:27-34, particularly verse 29 – “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”– has historically triggered fear and uncertainty in some individuals. Even in the present, this text often leads people to abstain from communion out of fear of being unworthy.
Unworthy behavior, not an unworthy person
It is important to emphasize that Paul is not referring to an unworthy person but to unworthy behavior during the communion. “Unworthy” is an adverb that describes the verbs “eat” and “drink.” He is concerned about a manner of eating and drinking where the “body of Christ” is despised, not about an unworthy person.
The context indicates that he is addressing inappropriate and unloving behavior. In Corinth, the communion had turned into a meal where everyone ate and drank what they had brought, without consideration for others and without regard for the communal celebration, leaving one to remain hungry and others drunk (verse 21). In this setting, both the present Christ in the communion was disregarded because the meal was not distinguished from a regular satisfying meal, and the other hungry Christians were also neglected.
In contrast, a worthy reception of communion involves a proper understanding of the sacrament, brotherly love, and a desire to partake in Christ and His community. Those who meet these criteria are deemed worthy to participate in the communion.
In the history of Protestant churches, Matthew 5:23f has become a criterion for assessing participation in communion, even though this passage does not specifically address communion participation.
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5, 23f)
This tradition has also solidified in other churches. Those who partake in communion must examine whether a brother or sister has anything against them. In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus actually demands believers to first reconcile with their brother, resolving any anger, before fulfilling their duty of offering sacrifices. It is about forgiveness. Jesus wants to emphasize that believers should always be willing to fundamentally change their attitude towards others – that is, to forgive and reconcile. Reconciliation and love take precedence over ritual sacrifices because reconciliation with God presupposes reconciliation with one’s brother (e.g., Mt 6:12, 14; 6:38; Mk 11:25). However, this actually has nothing to do with communion.
Now, this text has become a criterion for assessing communion participation. The problem arises when this criterion leads people to stay away from communion due to disagreements or because they don’t want to get along with others. Whether one participates in communion or not, reconciliation is always desired and demanded by God.