One of the things I wonder is how Paul would view communion as it is taken in the church today, particularly churches that are say, fifty people or more in size.
Why do I ask? Because of the great controversy on whether to allow unbelievers to take communion or not.
Many churches say that unbelievers shouldn’t take it. Others say it’s okay. The church I attend goes with the latter judgment.
If I could go back in time, one thing I’d like to see is who was attending these communion feasts. Was it only Christians? Or were non-Christians there as well? At a guess, I would say there were only professing Christians in these gatherings.
We see this in Acts 5:12-13 where there were many people in Jerusalem that highly regarded the Christians but would not join them, probably for fear of persecution. And my guess is that was true of many places throughout the Roman empire. There were very few, if any places, where persecution was not a real threat, and this would probably tend to weed out from the church any who didn’t believe.
So for the most part, everyone who would take part in these communion feasts would be professing Christians, and Paul probably never had to deal with this issue of professing unbelievers taking communion.
That said, it’s very interesting what he says in verse 26 of I Corinthians 11. He says,
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
What’s interesting is that word “proclaim.” Almost every time it is used in the New Testament, it’s talking about the preaching of Christ and the gospel. And it seems to have the same sense here. When we take communion, we are proclaiming the gospel to people.
But to who? To ourselves? I suppose that’s possible. All of us need the milk of the gospel from time to time. But it’s also possible that Paul is recognizing that there were possibly unbelievers in the congregation taking communion as well.
Time and again, we see in scripture people that were counterfeit Christians. They looked like Christians, acted like Christians, but never were Christians (Matthew 7:21-23, Galatians 2:4, and I John 2:19 for example).
So even if we believe all the people taking communion were professing to be Christians, there were also probably people taking communion who were not truly saved.
What happens then when we take communion? Not only are we remembering what Christ has done for us, but we are also proclaiming his death to the unbelievers among us, hidden or otherwise.
We’re saying to them, “Jesus died for you. He is being offered to you now, that your sins might be forgiven and that you may have new life. What will you do with him?”
And what does Paul say about the person who takes that bread and wine but in their hearts reject the offer behind it?
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. (27)
Why? Because they have clearly been presented with the gospel and have rejected it.
Now to be clear, I don’t think this was Paul’s original meaning. The whole context of this passage is Paul dealing with Christians who are abusing the communion table to indulge in their fleshly desires while despising the poor among them.
Paul makes that especially clear in verse 32 where he distinguishes between the discipline of the Lord for believers taking communion wrongly and the condemnation of the whole world for rejecting Christ. Moreover, he never questions their salvation, but continues to call them brothers.
What Paul means by his words, then, is, “Examine yourself. Make sure that you take communion rightly. Treat your brothers rightly at the communion table so that you don’t drink the Lord’s discipline on yourself. By sinning against your brothers in this way, you are sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” (27-34)
But now as we lift this passage out of the context of a church in which everyone is claiming to be a Christian and putting it into the current situation where many non-Christian seekers are attending, Paul’s words become both an invitation and a warning.
By sharing communion with unbelievers, we are literally saying to them, “Here’s the gospel. Jesus died for you that your sins might be forgiven and you can have eternal life. Will you accept it?”
For those take the bread and wine in faith, they will be saved. But for those who don’t and persist in that unbelief, they are basically saying, “I understand exactly what Jesus has done for me. I reject it, and I now eat and drink judgment upon myself.” (29)
And so the words “Examine yourself” takes on a new meaning for the unbeliever. It’s no longer, “What will I do with my brother,” but “What will I do with Christ?”
And so perhaps that’s how the church should approach communion in a congregation in which unbelievers attend. As a challenge: “Here’s what Christ has done for you. What will you do with him?”