It is Sunday morning, and the time has come to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. To set the tone, an elder reads the famous account in 1 Corinthians 11:23–26. But before serving the elements, he continues with verses 27–29:

So then, 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. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. (1 Cor 11:27–29, NIV 2011)

He urges the congregation to “examine themselves” in case they have any unconfessed sin in their lives, lest they partake in an “unworthy manner” and bring “judgment on themselves.” You are left wondering, “Am I worthy to take part?” You may abstain, or you may take part with trepidation.

The gospel proclaims that you are worthy and welcome if you are a born-again child of God. With the best of intentions, your elder has misused 1 Corinthians 11:27–29. He has misapplied the passage because he failed to discern the grammar, section, and theology contexts. Let’s examine each one briefly.

1.    He misunderstood the grammar

Not many of us consider grammar one of our strong points, but it is essential. The Greek word anaxiōs in verses 27 and 29[1] is an adverb, which the KJV translated with the English adverb “unworthily.” For centuries, Christians read weekly, “whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily” (KJV). Pastors and their congregations misunderstood this. They thought it meant you were an unworthy person, but it literally meant you were doing it in an unworthy manner. Modern translations have tried to correct this by translating it “unworthy manner,” but the misunderstanding persists.

2.   He misunderstood the cotext

It’s not a typo—we do mean cotext, referring to the surrounding paragraphs (i.e., the section context). If we read verses 17–34 together, it is clear that the Corinthians were doing it in an unworthy manner.

The only biblical explanation of how to observe the Lord’s Supper, Paul begins by condemning them. He says their celebration of the Lord’s Supper does more harm than good. He develops his argument in four movements: their divisive conduct (vv. 17–22), the institution of the Lord’s Supper (vv. 23–26), the need for examination (vv. 27–32), and conclusion (33–34).

The Corinthians celebrated the Lord’s Supper as a meal referred to as a “love feast” (Jude 12; 2 Pet 2:13). However, they were abusing it (vv. 17–22). How exactly? The key word is “divisions” (vv. 18–19; cf. 1:11–12; 3:4; 4:6–7); the phrase “come together” reinforces it. The nature of the division was so severe that Paul claims it is no longer the Lord’s Supper that is being celebrated (v. 20)—their selfish, divisive conduct has turned it into something that is not recognisable as a Christian love feast.

What were they doing? They were allowing social, class, and economic distinctions to divide them. The wealthier members of the church were feasting while others went hungry. Paul was indignant—“do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” (v. 22). If all they are thinking about is food, why don’t they eat at home?

The “unworthy” (11:27) participation—selfish, divisive behaviour along socioeconomic lines—brings judgment (v. 29). The call to “examine themselves” had nothing to do with looking for hidden sins in their hearts (v. 28); it was a call to reconsider their way of handling the meal because it showed their disregard for the body of the Lord, the church (the point of the whole section, cf. 10:16–17).

Paul concludes by telling them how to have a love feast that honours the Lord’s body (vv. 33–34). They should wait for one another, and all eat together. To “wait for one another” (Greek: allēlous ekdechesthe) has connotations of receiving one another, showing hospitality. Every child of God is an equal at the Lord’s table. They must show proper Christian hospitality and humility, eating at home if need be, so that their time together does not shame their brothers and sisters in Christ (v. 34).

3.    He misunderstood the gospel

At the heart of Paul’s gospel is the truth that all are sinners, pardoned on the basis of Jesus’s merits. He put this powerfully in Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” On the one hand, we are all unworthy to fellowship with the Lord because we all have sin in our lives. On the other hand, we are all worthy because Jesus atoned for our sins. If you are in Christ, you are welcome at his table. A deep grasp of the gospel is a safeguard against misunderstanding many Scriptures, including 1 Corinthians 11:27–30.

In conclusion, can any born-again child of God be unworthy to share in communion? No! Paul was not talking about unworthy people, but about unworthy practises. A careful analysis of 1 Corinthians 11:29 in its biblical context does not support the view that it is a call for personal introspection to determine whether one is welcome at the Lord’s table. While it may seem harmless to encourage people to examine their hearts before they approach the communion table, it is a violation of the gospel to imply that we are welcome in the Lord’s presence based on our merits.

[1] The earliest manuscripts do not have it in verse 29, but we will not delve into that now.


Short Bio: Kevin, who is the Principal of SATS, obtained his first doctorate from Stellenbosch University and his Ph.D. from SATS. He has a deeply insightful approach to theology and has already made a significant contribution in his relatively short career.

Short Bio: After serving as the General Manager of Sulzer SA 1989–2007, Jose left the corporate world and dedicated himself to theology, earning his MTh in Biblical Studies. He has served as a lecturer at SATS since 2007, during which time he has also been actively engaged in course development. Jose is married to Isabella; they have an adult daughter, Candice.