The Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians
In the last Briefing, I suggested that if you built your understanding of Christianity by studying the whole New Testament (except 1 Corinthians 10-11), you would not have any reason to think that Christianity involves a sacramental meal instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper, in which the bread and the cup are given symbolic significance. In this article, I want to ask whether the relevant texts in 1 Corinthians really change that understanding.
I remember a wise Christian teacher once telling me that we must not only believe biblical truth, we must also recognise biblical balance. Interestingly, this had to do with another issue about which 1 Corinthians is our only source, namely the Christian practice of speaking in tongues. He argued that it could hardly be central to Christianity if you could read the whole New Testament, and not come across it except in 1 Corinthians.
I have left our consideration of 1 Corinthians to last because my concern is to read 1 Corinthians in the light of the whole New Testament canon. We ought to be cautious with the assumptions we bring to the familiar material of 1 Corinthians, and be open to understanding the text in terms that make sense of the silence, as well as the teaching, of the rest of the New Testament.
Such a cautious approach is warranted with 1 Corinthians. A feature of the Corinthian letters is that Paul is responding to errors in Corinth which were better understood by him and by his first readers than they are by us.
Understanding Christian fellowship meals
A reasonable reconstruction of some aspects of the situation in Corinth would go something like this. In the pagan environment of the Corinthian church, and indeed in their own pre-Christian experience, there were religious meals that often involved food that was or had been sacrificed to idols. No doubt, all manner of superstition surrounded these meals. A question for the new Christians with such a background and in such an environment was firstly, what attitude should they have to these pagan meals, and secondly, what was the relationship between those pagan meals and the Christian meals?
Reading just a little between the lines of 1 Corinthians, some of the Christians may have been falling into the error of supposing that sharing in the Christian meal made them morally free. The meal (like many of the pagan meals) was a kind of screen behind which they could live as they pleased.
Paul’s response was:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation [“fellowship”] in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
1 Cor 10:14-17
The question is whether Paul is now referring to a Christian sacramental meal, which he contrasts with the pagan meals. Many take it that way and, if we had other evidence that such meals were part of early Christian practice, it would make sense. But it is equally possible that these words identify the Christian meals in Acts, not sacramental meals in any sense. Paul would then be pointing to the reality of Christian unity and fellowship, expressed in eating and drinking together, and based on our sharing in Christ’s death. The language he uses may be based on the Passover, but his point is that the “cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks” is not so much a literal cup as our “fellowship in the blood of Christ”; “the bread we break” is not so much the literal bread, but our “fellowship in the body of Christ”. Therefore, our Christian meals, which express our fellowship that is based in Christ’s death, bind us together and are an expression of our unity in Christ. We cannot deduce from this passage that the Corinthians thought of their meals as re-enactments of the Last Supper, nor that they necessarily gave symbolic significance to the physical bread and cup.
How Christians should not eat together
The errors of the Corinthians had a way of being multi-layered. If they were wrong in some of their thinking about Christian meals, they were wrong in some of their practice. How did the Christian meals go wrong in Corinth?
In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!
1 Corinthians 11:17-22
There is a great failure in the Corinthian fellowship. It is a failure of love, a failure to consider one another. Greed, rather than mutual service, rules. Their meals were not therefore Christian! It was not the Lord’s supper they ate, because their conduct was so unlike his. This is the first occurrence of the phrase “the Lord’s supper”, but it does not seem to be a well established name for a special kind of meal. Rather, Paul seems to mean that because of the self-centred behaviour of the Corinthians, the supper they eat cannot possibly be described as belonging to the Lord. “The Lord’s supper” in 1 Corinthians 11 is not the name of a ritual that has been invalidated by the Corinthian conduct. The Greek sentence can be translated quite literally: “When you come together, it is not to eat a supper belonging to the Lord…”. The problem is conduct unbefitting to a church claiming to belong to the Lord, not a failure to conduct a ceremony properly.
How Christians should eat
Now Paul corrects this behaviour by reminding them of the most memorable of all the meals that the Lord Jesus shared with his disciples:
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Here is the one account of the Last Supper in the New Testament that does look like the institution of a practice that is to be ongoing. However the account of the footwashing in John 13 (see Briefing #123) is reason enough for us to think again. We should notice the following points.
Firstly, taking note of the context of the passage, Paul quotes this tradition in order to teach the Corinthians not to be selfish and greedy at their meals. At Christian meals we are to remember Jesus and his death. How can you claim to be eating a Christian meal (a supper of the Lord) and not care for one another? In other words, the point of Paul’s reference to the last supper is not Jesus’ act of institution. The problem in Corinth was not that they were getting a ritual wrong. Paul’s point is that the last supper shows up how wrong the Corinthian’s behaviour was at their meals (note the logical connection between v. 22 and v. 23: “For …”).
Secondly, the silence of the rest of the New Testament, and the different wording of the Gospel accounts of the last supper are good reasons not to jump to the conclusion that Jesus was here instituting a sacramental meal. The key expressions are “Do this in remembrance of me” (exactly the same words as in Luke 22:19, and the earlier comments on these words apply here), “whenever you drink it”, and “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup”. Does this mean “whenever you re-enact in some sense this last supper”, or “whenever you eat bread and drink from the cup together (i.e. as often as Christians share a meal together) you are to remember the basis of your fellowship, Jesus death, and act accordingly, and thus demonstrate the power of his death until he comes again.”? An understanding along these lines seems to suit the context well, and certainly fits with the rest of the New Testament.
Here is an expanded paraphrase of verses 25-26 according to such an understanding:
This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink, do so with a view to remembering me. For whenever you eat food and drink from the cup (i.e. whenever Christians share meals together) you proclaim the Lord’s death (such meals are—or should be—demonstrations of the gospel) until he comes (when we will eat and drink with him in the fulfilment of the Kingdom).
Paul’s words are solemn. The un-Christlike behaviour of the Corinthians is an affront to the Lord who has died for them:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 11:27
“An unworthy manner” is illustrated by v. 21: “as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk.” This calls for self-examination and behaviour at the meal should be changed in the light of that examination: “Let a man examine himself and thus eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (see 1 Co 11:28).
The seriousness of the Corinthian misconduct is emphasised: “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement on himself.”
(1 Co 11:29). The best way to understand these words is from the context. Eating and drinking “without recognizing the body”, therefore, is what the Corinthians have been doing in their disregard for one another. The “body” here is the church (see 10:17). So serious is the self-centred conduct that Paul believes God has already visited judgement on some of them (v. 30).
This understanding of Paul’s words is supported by his conclusion (vv. 33-34). He is talking not about a meal that is different from other Christian meals, but “whenever you come together to eat” (v. 33). The practical consequence of his argument, including the account of the Last Supper, is that if you are famished, eat something before you come so that you can consider the needs of others when you get together (v. 34).
It seems reasonable to conclude that, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is not referring to a special meal to be distinguished from other Christian meals and to be regarded as something instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper. Rather he is applying the account of the Last Supper to the behaviour of Christians towards one another whenever they meet as a church (see v. 18).
So what about the sacrament?
If the evidence of the New Testament does not lead to the conclusion that Jesus instituted a sacramental meal which the church kept from the beginning, when did the sacramental meal develop? The earliest description of such a sacramental meal comes to us from the writings of Justin Martyr, around AD 150 in Rome. There are two brief references to such a meal in the writings of Ignatius (early 2nd century). The latter already shows signs of developments well removed from New Testament thought: “…the Eucharist is the flesh of our saviour Jesus Christ…”, “…bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death…”. If, as I have been suggesting, there was not necessarily a sacramental meal in the church of 1 Corinthians, it seems that by the end of the first century, at least in some circles, Christian meals had developed in a sacramental direction, probably under the influence of another understanding of 1 Corinthians 11. This would parallel a number of other early departures from New Testament thought.
The pressing question for today’s Christians is, if it is not certain that Jesus instituted a sacramental meal, what attitude should modern Christians adopt to the well established church practice? On this I will make the following comments.
- It would be wrong to make the sacrament the centre of church life, or to elevate it above other gatherings of God’s household. Whenever we meet together, we do so on the basis of Christ’s death for us, and our conduct must be shaped by Christ’s self-sacrifice. Our gathering must “proclaim the Lord’s death”. The principles and warnings of 1 Corinthians 11 should be applied to every Christian gathering. The Lord’s Supper must not be put in a class by itself.
- However, an over-reaction would also be wrong. Consider the analogy of the Lord’s Prayer. It is likely that Jesus did not intend the Lord’s Prayer to be recited word-for-word by Christians. It was a model for all prayer: “This, then, is how you should pray”. That does not mean that it is wrong for Christians to have remembered the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and use them, and treasure them. It cannot be wrong to pray that prayer, even if Jesus’ intention was not quite that! Likewise the Lord’s Supper, as conducted in evangelical churches, can be a great gospel occasion. To eat and drink together in such a way that we remember the Lord’s death is a good thing to do! To do this by remembering the Last Supper, and even modelling our meal to some extent on that occasion, can be very helpful indeed. Furthermore, the rich gospel content of the Lord’s Supper liturgies, such as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, is a wonderful heritage. We ought to value every means by which we can bring the death of Christ to the centre of our thinking, and make his sacrifice the basis of our fellowship.
- We must beware of ritualism. An activity becomes a ritual when it is valued chiefly because of its familiar repeated form. The idea that the Lord’s Supper is based on Jesus’ command “Do this in remembrance of me”, sometimes is distorted into ritualism. “Do this” is understood as a command to repeat a formal action, and we can be satisfied that we have “done it”. However we will not be much better than the Corinthians if we regularly “attend” the Lord’s Supper, but disregard the people there (remember 1 Co 11:29!).
- It would be an imbalance to devote ourselves to the sacramental meal but neglect real meals together. Christians should share meals together, and they should be gospel-demonstrating occasions. Our behaviour towards one another, modelled on the Lord’s selfsacrifice, should proclaim his death.