The concept of taking communion unworthily comes from a teaching by the apostle Paul to the believers in the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:17–34). Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is an act of worship meant to memorialize Christ’s sacrifice and reflect the love and unity among members of the body of Christ. But, in the case of the Corinthians, it was instead magnifying the divisions among them. As a result, some in the Corinthian church were participating in communion “in an unworthy manner” (verse 27). Their public worship meetings were doing more harm than good (verse 17).
Communion should honor Christ, but Paul gave this blistering indictment of the Corinthians’ practice: “So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!” (1 Corinthians 11:20–22).
The Corinthians’ communion services had become corrupted with selfishness, drunkenness, and discrimination against the poor. Participants were neither honoring God nor edifying one another in their celebrations.
In the early days of the church, Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper with feasts (Acts 2:46). Paul indicated that the Corinthians were favoring the wealthy and privileged but neglecting the poor. Some participants remained hungry while others got drunk. The Corinthians were publicly overindulging in their church services and discriminating against the poor. Their actions, Paul said, were equivalent to “despising the church of God” (1 Corinthians 11:22).
Paul then reminded the Corinthians how to properly observe communion, stressing that the central focus of the celebration is to remember Christ’s sacrifice and proclaim His work of salvation (1 Corinthians 11:23–26). In essence, when people outside the church observe a unified body of believers eating and drinking to remember Christ’s broken body and spilled blood, the message of the gospel becomes visible. Paul hoped that reminding them of the Lord’s simple and straightforward instructions would lead the Corinthians to correct their bad behavior.
After his reminder of what communion is all about, Paul said, “So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27, NLT). The phrase in an unworthy manner could refer, in general, to harboring unconfessed sin while participating in the Lord’s Supper. Confession of sin is a beneficial practice to prepare one’s heart for worship; in fact, we are told to “examine” ourselves before we partake of communion (verse 28). But Paul probably had something more specific at the forefront of his mind.
The “unworthy manner” Paul had in mind was most likely a failure to express the love and unity of the body of Christ—the problem he had just addressed. Those who selfishly promoted divisions in the church were guilty of a serious offense. They were dishonoring the very purpose of communion, which is to honor and remember the Lord’s work of salvation on the cross. Those who partake of communion in an unworthy manner are “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). That is, they are showing irreverence or contempt for that which is meant to represent the body and blood of Christ. They are not “discerning the body of Christ” (verse 28), which means they are acting indifferently toward communion, as if it were just another meal.
Paul went on to teach the Corinthians how they could avoid taking communion unworthily—by examining their motives and actions and making sure they lined up with the significance of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28). They were to perform this self-examination in preparation for eating and drinking to avoid bringing God’s discipline upon themselves (verses 29–31).
Paul stressed that the Lord’s Supper should be a time of celebration for the church in which Christians focus on honoring Jesus, exhibiting unity, and proclaiming the gospel of Christ’s salvation. The focus ought to be on others, and not on oneself. In this manner, believers avoid taking communion unworthily.