What does it mean to eat and drink “worthily”?
The church has variously interpreted the term “worthily.” A primary misunderstanding has been to read the term as an adjective rather than an adverb. Some believe they must be “worthy” to approach the supper, that is, they must have lived a pure, exemplary life before coming to the table. Indeed, some church traditions have emphasized the need for extensive introspective examination or ecclesial examination (e.g., examination by a Pastor) before coming to the table, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. It can be a good practice. Nevertheless, it may unintentionally create a culture where many refuse to eat the supper because they feel “unworthy” due to their weaknesses or they may not come to the table unless they receive sanction or absolution from another.
But the word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:29 is “unworthily” or “in an unworthy manner.” The adverb describes the way in which a person eats; it does not describe the status of the person who is eating. In one sense, everyone is unworthy to approach the table. No one deserves to sit at the king’s table. Everyone should approach the table with humility and gratitude, and we must never approach the table out of a sense of our own worthiness. We are not worthy, if we mean by that we have secured a place at the table because of our goodness.
Unfortunately, this has led many people to stay away from the table because they are unworthy rather than approaching the table under God’s grace and mercy. Luther’s words are particularly helpful in this connection (and many Protestant traditions often later functioned like Luther describes as “under the pope”):
But suppose you say, “What if I feel that I am unfit?” Answer: This also is my temptation, especially inherited from the old order under the pope when we tortured ourselves to become so perfectly pure that God might not find the least blemish in us. Because of this we became so timid that everyone was thrown into consternation, saying, “Alas, I am not worthy!” Then nature and reason begin to contrast our unworthiness with this great and precious blessing, and it appears like a dark lantern in contrast to the bright sun, or as dung in contrast to jewels. Because nature and reason see this, such people refuse to go to the sacrament and wait until they become prepared, until one week passes into another and one half year into yet another. If you choose to fix your eye on how good and pure your are, to work toward the time when nothing will prick your conscience you will never go…He who earnestly desires grace and consolation should compel himself to go and allow no one to deter him, saying, “I would really like to be worthy, but I come not on account of any worthiness of mine, but on account of thy Word, because thou hast commanded it and I want to be thy disciple, no matter how insignificant my worthiness”…If you are heavy-laden and feel your weakness, go joyfully to the sacrament and receive refreshment, comfort and strength.
When we feel unworthy or despair over our “worthlessness,” this is the moment to run to the table to receive grace, mercy, and encouragement. We don’t stay away from the table but we run to it when we are burdened with guilt and grief.
At the same time, we should eat and drink “worthily.” The specific context in 1 Corinthians 11 is the divisive character of the assembly. The rich are eating without the poor. The assembly is divided by socio-economic factors. The Corinthians ate “unworthily” when they ate in groups opposed to each other or divided from each other. Paul does not suggest some kind of private introspection as a resolution to this problem. On the contrary, eating “worthily” is a communal concern. The church eats and drinks “worthily” when it eats and drinks as one body.
Unfortunately, some think “unworthily” refers to the private thoughts of the individual. Believers eat and drink “unworthily” when they do not, for example, sufficiently concentrate on the death of Christ, or they do not “discern” the body of Christ in the bread, or they do not meditate in silence, or they let their mind wander during the passing of the elements, or they do not reflect on their sins and ask God’s forgiveness. In other words, “unworthily” becomes a bottomless pit into which we can throw anything that we think is inappropriate during the Lord’s supper.
We define “unworthily,” then, by our preconceived ideas of what we think the supper is. This move means we must first have a good theological understanding of the supper before we decide how “unworthily” might be applied in our contemporary setting. Thus, if we think the supper is a silent, private, meditative act of piety, then we would eat “unworthily” if we acted in a way that violated that piety (including “singing during the Lord’s Supper,” “talking during the Supper,” or engaging in communal prayer or reading during the Supper).
Contextually, the emphasis of “unworthily” is communal. It eats the supper in a way that denies the gospel which the table is to proclaim. To eat “unworthily” is to eat in a way that undermines the gospel. In Corinth, they denied the gospel through their economic factions where the rich ate before and without the poor. They also denied the gospel by sitting at two tables—the table of demons and the table of the Lord (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). Though they ate at the table of the Lord, they denied the gospel through their immorality and idolatry.
“Unworthily,” then, is not a matter of private psyche at the moment we bite down on the bread. The consequence of that perspective is that we oppress ourselves with interminable questions (“Am I thinking about the death of Christ?” “Am I too distracted?” “Did I pray?” “Should I read a scripture?” “Did I drink damnation to myself because I had to pay attention to my children rather than the bread?” “Can I pray with a friend during the Supper?” “Can I speak with the person next to me about what I am experiencing in the Supper?” “Can we sing during the Supper?”).
Rather, it is about the manner of eating in relation to the community and our lifestyle. Do we eat with a double mind? Do we eat in commitment to the Lordship of Jesus as his disciples? Do we eat with prejudice and bias against another group within the church (racial or socio-economic)? Do we eat knowing we will pursue our own interests on Monday through Saturday? Do we eat on Sunday knowing we will deny the gospel through our lifestyle on Monday by cheating in our business, committing adultery, or denying justice to minorities? To eat “unworthily” in such way is to eat and drink condemnation.
Fundamentally, to eat “worthily” is similar to living “worthily” (Philippians 1:27). When we live, we must live out and embody gospel values as disciples of Jesus. When we eat, we must eat in a way that embodies gospel values as disciples of Jesus. The table must reflect the gospel; it must embody the character of its host. When we sit at the table in a way that denies the gospel, we eat “unworthily.” We eat “worthily” when we embody thegospel at the table, and at the table we are received by God’s gracious host, Jesus the Messiah and we experience the communion of the Holy Spirit as we eat and drink with Jesus at table in the presence of the Father.
 Martin Luther, “Large Catechism,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 471.
**Adapted from John Mark Hicks, Come to the Table (Leafwood Press, 2001)**