Discerning the Lord’s body

“He that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.”

The apostle Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians 1Cor 11:29

There are various interpretations of this text and its neighbouring context.

Christian exegesis

There is a difference between exegesis and Christian exegesis because there are specific biblical principles employed in Christian exegesis that secular interpreters discount. The most obvious one is that Christian biblical exegesis employs the unity of Scripture as having one Author, the Holy Spirit 2Tim 3:16, and therefore prophesy about the future is not only possible in Scripture but, indeed, it is the hallmark of divine Authorship Isa 46:5,9-10. This inevitably means that a secular exegete will not interpret Scripture as a Christian exegete will, for he will not admit the principles of divine inspiration 2Tim 3:16 and divine preservation Ps 12:6-7 of the biblical text nor that prophecy about the distant future is possible.

Polemical exegesis

There are other forms of exegesis. Polemical exegesis occurs when a passage has become so controversial that the polemics or dispute over its meaning and application has obscured its real meaning. The concept is not difficult to understand. If a wrong application is made of a biblical text then a dispute will arise. Such is the desire to prove the relevant applications that the polarised debate refocuses attention and exegesis on one or other outcomes rather than the meaning of the text, which is obscured by the polemics. There are many examples in Scripture – this text is one of them. Further, its misinterpretation and its misapplication led to burning at the stake. The 16th-century Protestant Reformers in Europe challenged the Roman Catholic teaching about the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. For several centuries the error had been cemented into public teaching that the bread and wine was changed by the Roman Catholic priest into “the body, blood, soul and divinity” of the Lord Jesus Christ, called transubstantiation ‘changing the substance’ of the bread and wine. The bread was then lifted up by the priest for the congregation to see and he said to the people: “Behold the Lamb of God.” The bread was then worshipped as God. This was correctly challenged by the Reformers as 1. unbiblical exegesis, the wrong meaning drawn from Scripture, 2. idolatry, by worshipping a piece of bread and 3. deifying the humanity of Christ, by teaching that His human body was present in many places at the same time. It became the touchstone to identify a Protestant and if a person would not confess the “Real Presence” of Christ in the Roman Catholic mass then he was reckoned to be a Protestant heretic. For holding this one doctrine many Protestants were tortured or burnt at the stake by civil authorities egged-on by Roman Catholic authorities. Inevitably the subject of ‘discerning the Lord’s body’ became a matter of great importance, and polemical exegesis about ‘the real presence’ overshadowed and obscured ‘the real meaning’ of the biblical passage.

The whole debate focused on discerning the ‘real’ presence or the ‘spiritual’ presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. The Protestant interpretation contrasted with the Roman Catholic doctrine so that  the Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 96 What is the Lord’s supper? answers: “The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.”  The phrase “not after a corporal and carnal manner” is in contrast to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation.

The Protestant emphasis is thus put upon discerning “by faith” Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine and partaking of Christ’s benefits “by faith” and “not after a corporal and carnal manner”.

The Roman Catholic interpretation of “discerning the Lord’s body” was ‘the real presence’ of Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity, in the bread and wine.

Resolving polemical exegesis with contextual exegesis

These distinctions are important but this polemical debate has focused our attention on the completely wrong thing when it comes to exegeting this passage.  Rather, Paul means that by their sectarian attitudes in eating separately from each other 1Cor 11:21 they were failing to discern that the Corinthian believers from whom they ate separately were the Lord’s body.  The divisions among them 1Cor 11:18 and 1Cor 1:11-13 manifested itself in their manner of eating separately from each other.  By doing so, they were dividing the body of Christ 1Cor 1:13, and thus Paul says categorically that “this is not to eat the Lord’s supper” 1Cor 11:20.

Paul does not say that they are ‘failing to discern the Lord’s blood’ but His body, because his point is that the Lord’s body refers to the community of believers as the Lord’s body on Earth. The church is Christ’s body on Earth – ‘He is the Head of the body, the church’ Col 1:18. It was this body that their partisan behaviour did not recognise nor discern. Instead of failing to discern by faith the Lord’s body in the bread and wine, Paul means that they failed to discern by faith the Lord’s body in the gathered believers. They failed to discern their Christian brethren in Corinth as “the Lord’s body”, resulting in a divisive and party spirit and behaviour.  This is the context of the passage, and the first epistle to the Corinthians begins with this very theme about their party behaviour in its first chapter. Their divisiveness manifested itself in their attitudes and even in the Lord’s Supper.

Jam 2:1-9 deals with this party spirit, in which James chastises a Christian congregation that displays partiality towards individuals. When you finish a meeting, the congregation breaks into little groups. Are you welcome among certain groups or do you feel unwelcome? Why so? Was the Lord’s Supper not intended to encourage and teach unity around the Lord’s atoning death for each of His brethren, the dishonourable ones as well as the honourable, not only His suffering for them and but also His longsuffering of their sinful behaviour? The Lord’s Supper is intended to remind us that as Christ suffered for His brethren, so we are to bear with each other and with each other’s sinful failings as He does with us.

The Lord’s Supper should show the unity of Christian brethren in a congregation.  Paul chastises the Corinthians that, instead, their behaviour highlighted the divisions among them, “not discerning all the brethren conjointly as the Lord’s body”, so that he concludes that their behaviour was “not the Lord’s supper” 1Cor 11:20. Just as Paul reformed the Lord’s Supper in Corinth, the need continues to the present.

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