Fed By Christ Or The Person Next To Me?

One of the recurring questions I get is about the meaning of body in 1 Corinthians 11:28. The question is whether “discerning the body” in Paul’s narrative refers to “being cognizant of the congregation” or to discerning Christ’s physical, actual body and blood, which, though ascended and at the right hand of the Father, are nevertheless communicated to believers, through the elements, by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit.

It is widely held now that body here has a sociological or horizontal reference rather than a theological and vertical reference; but the context, in my view, forces us to take it theologically, as a reference to the risen, glorified body of Christ.

It is understandable that folk are tempted to take “discerning the body” to refer to the congregation rather than to the risen, glorified, natural body of Christ. Starting in verse 18, Paul says:

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses 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 commend you in this? No, I will not. (1 Cor 11:18–22)

The passage begins with a stinging rebuke to the congregation. He has in view their gathering as the covenant assembly, as the visible, institutional church of Christ. Where the ESV says, “recognized” in verse 19, we can also translate that as approved. The sense is that the behavior of some in the congregation demonstrates real spiritual differences among them. Those who take the sociological interpretation of the following verses appeal to Paul’s exhortation to them not to abuse the Supper as a sort of debauched pagan feast. Certainly, it is true that was the issue. I do not dispute that. The remedy is plain: stop treating one another so badly (ironically, Christians, who ought to love their neighbors, are ignoring one another at the height of their fellowship!) and stop treating the Supper as if it were not the covenant renewal ritual. (I say renewal because whereas circumcision was a once-for-all event, Israel celebrated a feast every time they gathered as the covenant people.) Go home to eat and drink.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when 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 also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (vv. 23–25)

Paul’s instruction continues as he begins to lay out the ground of his charges and exhortations. The behavior of the Corinthian congregation is not in question. What is in question is Paul’s understanding of the ground of his exhortation and the ground of his concern over their abuse of the Supper. For Paul, the nature of the Supper is established in the institution. The crucial words are: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this . . . in remembrance of me” (v. 25). To say the cup is the new covenant is to invoke the covenant-making language of Gen 15 and 17. To remember, in the covenantal sense, is not to have a flashback or to feel sad (as at a funeral) but to keep or obey, as in the way Israel was charged to “remember” (Ex 20:8) the Sabbath. It too, according to the prophets, was a covenant between Israel and Yahweh.

In its nature, the Supper is Christ’s covenant with his people. It is a solemn ritual to be observed with the greatest awareness of the divine presence and holiness. As with all covenant signs and seals, its abuse is cause for divine displeasure and even sanctions on the covenant people of God.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.

That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (vv. 27, 30–32)

Note Paul’s therefore.” To eat or drink the Supper “in an unworthy manner” or “unworthily” (it is an adverb) is guilty of “profaning” (i.e., making common something that is sacred and to be regarded as such). What is it that they are making “common” (i.e., something ordinary, not set apart for worship)? Is it the “congregation” or the “risen, glorified, natural body” of Christ? To ask the question is to answer it.

In the institution, Christ said, “is.” The Supper “is” the new covenant. Just as in Gen 17, the sign and seal “is” the covenant. The sign and seal are to be regarded as so closely identified with the thing signified and sealed that we are to treat them as if they are identical. What is signified and sealed? Christ and his death for his people. Certainly, the congregation is not signified and sealed in the Supper. What is being “profaned,” by their behavior—the congregation or the risen, glorified, natural body of Christ? Clearly it is the latter. To say it is the “congregation” is to ignore the nature of the covenant of grace and Christ’s covenantal presence with his people.

Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself…So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come. (vv. 28–29, 33–34)

The ground of Paul’s concern and exhortation makes it clear that it is a theological matter with sociological or horizontal implications.

The call to discern the “body” (Soma) in verse 27 cannot be reduced to the sense: “recognize that there are other Christians present.” Remember, Paul is not now pressing the charge against the Corinthians. He is explaining the ground and gravity of their behavior at the Supper.

In context, “discerning the body” refers to discerning that Christ’s physical, actual body and blood are communicated through the elements.

If, in verse 24, “body” means “the risen, glorified, natural body of Christ,” then there is no reason for us to think that it now means “the congregation.” The meaning of “body” has already been established. This reading is strengthened by the reference to the “new covenant” in verse 25. Then, in verse 27, the case for a Christological or theological reference is only further strengthened when Paul warns about profaning the body and blood. These refer to Christ and not the congregation.

In this way it seems to me that the question of “discerning the body” in verse 29 is settled by context. When did Paul change the referent of body from the physical, natural, glorified body of Christ to a metaphor for the congregation? Certainly not in verse 28 when he enjoins the communicant to examine himself before coming to the table. I am not saying that there is no concern for the behavior of the congregation. Certainly there is; but Paul grounds his exhortation in theology not sociology.

The call to “discern the body” cannot be reduced to mean, “recognize that there are other Christians present,” as many seem to want to do today, sometimes in the interest of lowering the bar to the table. The Supper is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, and part of the promise of the covenant of grace is that Christ will be “with” his people (Matt 28:20) by his Spirit—and he is. He communicates himself to us by his Spirit, through Word and Sacrament. These are sacred covenant rituals with actual Holy Spirit-ual significance. For this reason, they are not to be shared by unbelievers. Those who were abusing the Supper in Corinth were showing (Paul used the language of “manifesting,” not “recognizing” as the ESV has it in verse 19) that they were not actually eligible for the Supper.

This meditation is not a call for believers not to come to the table. This is not a call to experience a second blessing before coming to the table. It is a call to repent and believe, to trust, to rest in and rely upon the finished work of Christ and, in that same trusting, resting, and relying, to unite oneself to a true church, and being so united, to come to the table of the Lord orderly and decently. This is also a call, however, to continue to fence the table from those who show themselves to be unbelievers, to recognize what transpires in the Supper, and not to reduce the weight and reference of Paul’s language to mere sociology.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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12 comments

  1. Why either/or? Why not both? Does not the failure to recognize the Body in my brother or sister imply my failure to discern the risen Christ’s presence, too?

  2. Is it possible that this shallow horizontal view of the Lord’s Supper by many evangelicals is due in part to the wide ranging view of communion. At one extreme is the Roman church and it’s insistence on a magical transformation of the bread and wine directly (though not visibly) into body and blood and some protestant-challenged Lutherans with their “in with and under” consubstantiation (though they may not use that word)? At the other end of the spectrum are many mainline protestant denominations and most evangelicals who view the Supper simply as a memorial meal, not a sacrament. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear a pastor in one of these congregations to skip over the words in 1 Cor. 11:25, “…this cup is the new covenant in my blood…” and simply say, “…do this in remembrance of me…”

  3. Dre. Clark I did indeed read your article. I do not question the priority Paul gives to the glorified body of Christ. But chapter 11 follows chapter 10, in which Paul surely stresses the body that is the church. I believe he tells us that we cannot have the individual divine-human body of Christ without the body which is his church. Yet we have that admittedly secondary body only through the ascended body of the Lord.

    • Dan,

      The question is this: what to what does “μὴ διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα” refer? What is the positive evidence from the text, in context, that σῶμα refers to the congregation? Yes, communion necessarily and properly occurs in a congregational setting but Paul has already established what σῶμα signifies. Where does he change that signification to include the congregation? That conclusion can’t be assumed or merely asserted. It must be argued from the text itself. I did that in the article.

  4. I preached through 1Cor., an exercise that involves close-reading of the letter from beginning to end, and extended engagement with the flow of St.Paul’s thinking and purposes as they are mediated through his prose. There is internal structure to the letter, and rhetorical employment of terms–some which exhibit a technical character, other which demonstrate the natural flexibility of language.

    “Body” falls into the latter category, as it rather self-evidentially can refer to both a single whole (often of a person, repeatedly so in chs. 5-10; and esp. in Jesus’ self-reference at the Last Supper, which Paul quotes), as well as a composite formation of a whole from individual elements (a metaphor explicitly used by the apostle to make one of his arguments in the epistle in ch.12).

    Reference to the church-as-body in 10:17 is one instance of background to later use of the term “body” in relation to the Supper; however that background ought not be simplistically imposed upon ch.11, as if it was the single most vital contextual use of σῶμα in the letter (ignoring the other 10X) prior to 11:29. Ch.11 begins with one of the letter’s major structural transitions. Liturgical issues–first in relation to the word but then more significantly to problems with the sacrament–addressed by Paul in ch.11, are afterward put by him into the wider perspective dealing with absence of real unity within the church in chs.12-14. Even so, within ch.13 (close context) then later still in ch.15 when next the term is encountered several times, the σῶμα is once more specific to individual persons.

    It seems to me, Paul trades on the personal meaning of “body of Christ” in 10:16 to refer (briefly) in v.17 to the body-metaphor as regards the congregation. He then returns in the latter portion of ch.11 to the personal meaning of the body in the phrases “this is my body,” and “discerning the Lord’s body,” before again moving from that concrete reference to the extensive metaphorical elaboration on the meaning of the corporate body, which he concludes exclaiming, “you are Christ’s body,” 12:27.

    That’s two cases of moving from particular to general, using the same subjects; one short and illustrative at the end of ch.10 closing out the epistle’s discussion of Christian liberty, its uses and its limits; leading into a new major section of the letter, where Paul uses the same move to a more deliberate and expansive treatment of both the Supper and Christian unity, the former intended to be a true sign of the latter (rather than the farce it was becoming in Corinth).

    It is on the basis of the particular meaning found at the first reference, that the second derives extra force. 1Cor.11:29 is not an implicit reference to the corporate body, but an explicit repeat of the same personal reference as 11:24 and 27. Remove the personal (of Christ), individually enfleshed meaning from the context of the section on the Supper, and that proportionally weakens the communal and metaphorical use of “body” in the following section. That use is punctuated at the end by the explicit connection in the term “Christ’s body.” The implicit connection is finally made explicit, a glorious rhetorical flourish.

  5. It’s a great concern to know you are watching over souls as one who must give account. So I understand the need for caution and warning signs to not touch the mount.
    In consideration of fencing and proper respect for the body by observing the sacrament, what are we to do with the fact Christ served the elements to Judas Iscariot? And it like those that died from touching Sinai, seems from 1Cor11:30 Christ himself takes care of policing and judgment and execution of sentences on those that eat and drink unworthily.

    I’m not advocating for unbridled open communion.

    There is a level of intimacy and personal knowledge of one another we miss with our fast-food drive through process of observance.

    If you look at the prescription for the original Passover feast, it was like a lock-in. It took all night. No one was allowed to go out of the blood sprinkled door.

    And yet Judas left early.

    Does that not speak to the issue that the signs and seals do not universally unite all to whom they are administered in a substantial way to Christ?

    • 1. We administer communion based on profession of faith. That Judas received the Supper is no warrant for not fencing the table but it does indicate the mixed nature of the visible, Christ-confessing covenant community prior to the judgment.

      2. The elders need to make a good-faith effort to fence the table.

      3. I don’t know what you’re assuming re a “drive by” communion. Is this a reference to a walking communion? I’ve refused to commune some as they approached the table.

      4. We shouldn’t correlate the Passover to the Supper 1:1. The Supper is subsumes all the feasts, not just the Passover.

      5. Yes, the sacraments do not create the reality they signify. They signify & seal.

  6. Drive by meaning those who don’t take the supper seriously enough and are just rushing through and checking a box in a self focused way.

    I should not have said our.

  7. No question that soma in chapter 11 refers to Christ himself, but in 10:17 it refers to the congregation, doesn’t it? And Paul doesn’t expect us to leave that behind when we come to chapter 11, does he? That is why I used the term, “both.” Maybe there is a better way to say it.

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