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?
When I first wrote this post, I originally wrote that because of persecution, there were probably no non-Christians there when the Christians gathered to worship (at least no professing non-Christians). But then I got to chapter 14, and Paul talks there about the possibility of non-Christians coming to their churches. So I’m not so sure anymore. It’s very possible that non-Christians were visiting the churches in Corinth.
With that in mind, 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 unbelievers in the congregation taking communion as well.
So 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.
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 consider the possibility of non-Christians also taking communion (an issue that strangely enough, Paul never directly addresses), here’s what I think the church needs to recognize: that if we offer communion to the unbeliever, it acts as both an invitation and a warning to them.
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 when the unbeliever examines himself, the question is not, “What will I do with my brother,” but, “What will I do with Christ?”
Perhaps then, that’s how the church should approach communion in a congregation in which unbelievers attend. As a challenge we give to them: “Here’s what Christ has done for you. What will you do with him?”