Discerning the Body: 1 Corinthians 11:29 and Paedocommunion

2002; this essay is also published at paedocommunion.com

He who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. [NKJV]

In a related article, “Examination and Remembrance,” I argued that the requirement for “self-examination” in 1 Corinthians 11:28, as well as the “remembrance” aspect of the Supper articulated in vv. 24-25, does not preclude the admittance of covenant children to the Lord’s table. I provided contextual evidence, both from within the chapter, the broader themes of the epistles, Paul’s word usage, and Old Testament concepts, to show that the issue in 1 Corinthians 11:28 is covenant-breaking. Coming to the table of the Lord while repudiating the faith through gross immorality and division means that the partaker is “eating and drinking in an unworthy manner."

This leaves the question: What does Paul mean when he speaks of “discerning the Lord’s body” (v. 29)?

Many traditional interpreters have claimed that Paul is referring to an ability to discern the body and blood of Christ, whether “in the elements” or at least, in the sacramental action as a whole. They assert that Paul is teaching that a certain amount of theological understanding is necessary before one may be admitted to the table. Whether this understanding is narrowly sacramental (e.g. the nature of the presence of Christ in the Supper) or construed more broadly (e.g. a theological understanding of Christ’s sacrificial death etc.), the implication is that small children do not have the wherewithal to meet the requirements to partake.

This view, however, raises certain questions. For example: how much knowledge does Paul require? The Church remains in confusion regarding the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to this day. Does this mean that the overwhelming majority of partakers are “unworthy"? How does that comport with Jesus command: “Eat of it, all of you"? After all, the New Testament provides no hint of extended catechesis prior to participation in the Supper. The baptized are Supper participants (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:13), and Paul baptized the Philippian jailer and his household when they had heard only one sermon (Acts 16:32-33).

In terms of 1 Corinthians 11, however, the difficulties with this popular interpretation are more profound still. The “narrow sacramental view” falls especially hard here, because the requirement to discern the body becomes disconnected from Paul’s overarching concern in the context: namely, divisiveness at the table (see 11:17-22).

The question that must be addressed is: What does Paul mean by “the Lord’s body"?

I believe that Paul is referring to the Church. The common objection to this is that Paul has referred to the “body and blood of the Lord” two verses earlier (11:27), clearly with reference to Christ’s own physical body. It is suggested that the apostle would hardly have gone from one usage of “body” to another in such a short space, without warning.

This objection, however, is not at all strong.

First, the phraseology does not match. When Paul is speaking of Christ’s physical body, he pairs body and blood, bread and wine (note 11:24-25, 27, 28; compare 10:16). In verse 29, however, Paul only says “body."

Second, Paul does make this same movement in usage just one chapter earlier:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. [1 Cor. 10:16-17]

In verse 16, the communion (communal participation) of the body of Christ is paralleled with the communion of the blood of Christ - clearly, “body” in the first instance refers to the crucified body. But in verse 17, Paul infers from this “one body,” i.e. the Church.

It is precisely this relationship between the crucified body and the Church body that undergirds Paul’s argument in chapter 11. Recall again the context: “there are divisions among you” (11:18). In 10:16-17, Paul has demonstrated that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper builds a body (the Church) for Christ out of His sacrificial death, the self-offering of His body and blood. Consequently, in ch. 11, Paul is parrying against those who are committing sacrilege against that self-offering by mutilating the Church.

It is noteworthy that, taking into account the newness of the Church, we do have a strong parallel with OT Israel. Sinning against the community of God’s people while participating in worship was sacrilegious. Particularly telling is Amos 4:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, “Bring wine, let us drink!” [Am. 4:1]

All this sin occurs while the “cows” are making sacrifices and offering tithes and freewill offerings (Am. 4:4-5).

Why is this passage so telling? Because the issue in 1 Corinthians 11 is drunkenness (11:21) and shaming those who have nothing (11:22). At the very table of the Lord, where the people of God celebrate His provision and their unity, the poor are oppressed while the rich revel. In this context, God administers judgment against His people:

I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noice of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. [Am. 5:21-24]

God pronounces woe to those at ease in Zion, who chant and sing, “but are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph” (Am. 6:1-6). In other words, worship is not a private act, but a communal one, one which affirms the people of God. Those who oppress the poor and come to worship are testifying against themselves (see also Is. 1:10-17).

It becomes apparent that Paul is not inventing a radically new requirement when he speaks of “discerning the body” in 1 Cor. 11:29. He is reaffirming the age-old mandate to “grieve for the affliction of Joseph,” to act justly as the community of God’s people. Apart from this, participation in the Supper, as was the case with the old covenant feasts, becomes an abomination which provokes judgment.

The telltale fact is that those old covenant feasts which carried the requirement of such discernment were feasts in which covenant children participated. When God prescribed a central place of worship (Deuteronomy 12), He mandated that “your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the heave offerings of your hand, your vowed offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks” were to be offered there (Deut. 12:6). These were to be offered with rejoicing by “you and your households” (12:7); “you and your sons and your daughters,” as well as other household members such as servants (12:12). Again:

You shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the LORD.... You shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter.... You shall observe the Feast of Tabernacles.... you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter.... [Deut. 16:10, 11, 13, 14]

Likewise, Passover was a household feast (Exodus 12:2) which was to be celebrated by “you and your sons forever” (Exodus 12:24). In this case, “sons” almost certainly refers to children, because the same word appears two verses later (where the NKJV translates it children): “And it shall be, when your sons say to you, 'What is this service to you....'” The fact of participation by “you and your sons” is in fact what prompts the sons' question.

The point then, is that “discernment of the body” is a requirement rooted in the old covenant sacraments and feasts. Since those rites included children, we have no ground to suppose that under the new covenant the same requirement will exclude children.

To the contrary, given Paul’s logic regarding the body of Christ and the sacrament in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, those who belong to the body belong at the table. Rightly discerning the body involves welcoming our children back to the table, because they are indeed part of the body of Christ; they are those “who have nothing,” and yet to whom belong the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:13-14). If we wish to heed the call to “discern the body,” repenting of our current habit of excluding the children of the covenant from the table would be a good place to start.

Fuller argumentation regarding 1 Corinthians 11 can be found in my book, Feed My Lambs, which devotes 35 pages to the passage, and focuses most extensively on verses 28-32.

— Tim Gallant

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