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No. 47: Presbyterian, Examine Thyself

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 47
Copyright (c) 1996 Biblical Horizons
September, 1996

Traditional Presbyterian theologians regularly cite 1 Corinthians 11:28 as an argument against the practice of paedocommunion. Children must be able “to examine themselves” before they come to the table. Supposedly this text demands a certain level of intellectual capability as well as the capacity to engage in self-conscious introspection, both of which, we are told, small children do not possess. Anti-paedocommunionists never get tired of reminding us that young children simply are not able to fulfill the requirement of “self-examination” required in 1 Corinthians 11. But does this text really require the kind of self-examination that Presbyterians have traditionally thought? To whom is the admonition to “examine oneself” directed? Does it actually require an ability to perform internal soul-searching and deep personal introspection to determine whether one is worthy to come to the Table? I think not. I think that this text has been overworked by anti-paedocommunionists. In fact, I am convinced that it actually works against the traditional Presbyterian practice of excluding infants from the Table. Traditional Presbyterian theologians need to examine themselves. Let me explain.

The verb Paul uses here is “to prove oneself” (dokimazo). To bring out the meaning of this word, it may be best to translate 1 Corinthians 11:28 as follows: “Let a man prove himself before he eats . . . .” I am convinced that in this context (1 Corinthians 10-12) it refers to the Christian’s behavior with respect to the unity of the body of Christ. The whole context of this admonition has to do with the unity of the church. All Christians participate in the body of Christ. Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:16b-17). The problem in the Corinthian church was that people were behaving at the Supper in a manner that contradicted the reality of the unity of their local church with each other in Christ. They were divided at the Table! They were therefore eating unworthily. “Unworthily” (anaxios) is an adverb that modifies the verb “eat.” Paul is not talking about checking to see if you are a worthy person before you come to the Table. He is talking about how you partake of the Supper. It refers to one’s behavior at the Table. The Corinthian church was eating and drinking in an unworthy manner, that is, in a way that did not evidence the unity of the body of Christ. Therefore, “let a man prove himself” refers to his manner of participation at the Table, or more broadly, to his relationship with the local body of Christ.

The admonition, “Let a man prove himself,” means: Let a man show that he rightly judges the unity of the body of Christ before he comes to the Table. Let his actions demonstrate to all (especially to the elders) that he is one who lives in a manner that manifests his unity with the brethren. The evidence of this “self-demonstration” would be the manner in which he treats his brothers in Christ, especially when he partakes of the sacrament � eating in a manner that demonstrates his unity with the body of Christ in the local church. This understanding of the verb “to prove” (dokimazo) can be established from the immediate context. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:19, “No doubt there have to be divisions among you in order that the proven ones (hoi dokimoi) may be made manifest.” The “proven ones” of 1 Corinthians 11:19 are those who have “proved themselves” in 1 Corinthians 11:28. I don’t believe that this passage requires an inward act of contemplating and evaluating one’s sins. It is does not refer to an internal, subjective individual act at all. Christ’s Table should be approached with demonstration of faithfulness, ecclesiastical faithfulness. Not just subjective contemplation, but objective demonstration of one’s behavior with respect to the body is demanded.

The next question is what does I Corinthians 11:29 mean? What are we being commanded to do at the end of the passage when Paul says, “For the one who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment upon himself, not discerning (diakrino) the body”? This answers the question, “How should one prove oneself?” The answer is that one should “judge the body rightly.” Again, according to the context, this most naturally means “to take cognizance of the whole church that is seated as one body at this meal” (Gordon Fee). The point is that we dare not approach the sacramental body when we are the cause of schism and division in the corporate body! The Corinthian church came to the “common” Table in groups or parties (1 Corinthians 11:21-22). The rich were over here with the best food and wine and the poor where over there with whatever they happened to be able to bring. They were eating the Lord’s Supper as a divided church!

I don’t see how (in context!) this command “to discern the body” can possibly be understood as a either 1) a failure to discern the location or mode of the flesh of Christ in the sacrament, or 2) a failure to reflect adequately on his death during the meal. The whole of 1 Corinthians is devoted to strife and conflict in the body of the church. Moreover, whenever the sacrament is mentioned, it is mentioned as both body and blood. Verses 24-25 set out both elements. Then verse 26 says, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup.” Verse 27 says, “whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner.” Verse 28 says, “and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Verse 29 says, “he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment.” It is clear, then, that if Paul were referring to discerning something about the sacrament, he would have written, “he does not judge the body and the blood rightly.” By saying only “body,” he clearly is referring to the body of the church.

Thus, “judging the body” is parallel to “judging ourselves” (1 Corinthians 11:31). One fails to “judge the body” when one “despises the church of God” (1 Corinthians 11:22). Paul closes out the chapter with a summary exhortation: “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another . . . so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment” (1 Corinthians 11:33, 34). Paul does not summarize his warnings by reminding them to engage in rigorous, introspective self-examination before coming to the Table. He does not warn them against not participating in the Supper if they don’t understand the correct interpretation of the real presence of the body. What he does do is tell them to “wait for each other”! Act like a community. This entire passage is about the manner in which the church at Corinth eats the Lord’s Supper � they partake as a divided church. It is not about 1) children coming to the Table, 2) intellectually challenged people coming to the Table, 3) people partaking who do not know the difference between the Reformed, Catholic, and Baptist view of the presence of Christ at the meal, or 4) people coming to the Table without adequately reflecting upon the death of Jesus. It’s all about manifesting the unity of the church at the Lord’s family Table.

Let me close by trying to bring all this to bear upon the paedocommunion question. Are our children members of the body of Christ, the church? Why then are they cut off from communion with Jesus? Why do we eat as a divided body? Far from being a prooftext against paedocommunion, this passage judges traditional Presbyterianism as a church for “not discerning the body”! Why is it that when we come together as a church there are divisions among us? A great big ugly division is manifest at the Table between adults and children, members of the church and half-way members of the church. We are divided between those who are in the covenant (adults) and those who are halfway in the covenant (baptized little children). When the family of God gathers around the Table to eat dinner with the Lord, why are the youngest children excluded? Do they not belong to him? Why must they be told and sometimes forcibly hindered from eating and drinking with the One with whom they are covenantally united? Have they proven themselves to be schismatics or divisive? Do they fail to discern the unity of the body of Christ? If so, then by all means they should be excluded. If not, why are they denied access to the family Table? No, it is not the children who fail to discern the unity of the body of Christ; rather, we, the adult leaders of the church, are those who fail to judge the body rightly. We traditional Presbyterians have for too long “despised the church of God and humiliated those who have nothing” (1 Corinthians 11:22)?

The analogy with the family table is valid and powerful. All of my children eat dinner with the family, even my two-year old! They are all required to “prove themselves” before and at the table. They are all required to “judge the body” of the family. In other words, they are all required to respect the unity of the family, even the toddler in the family! If he fails to discern the unity of the family and starts throwing food at his fifteen-year old sister, then he is disciplined. He is learning what it means to have the privilege of eating at the table. He must prove himself. He must “discern the body” before and at every meal. If he refuses, he may need to be disciplined.

Now, I have heard a Presbyterian minister say that he has “never encountered a three-year old who is able to examine himself.” But I say that one-, two-, and three-year olds evidence their ability to discern the importance of the family meal in countless Christian homes every night. We begin disciplining our children at very early ages because we believe that they are capable of self-examination! Because they are members of the family, they are graciously invited to the table to eat. In the context of this gracious setting, as they grow up, they gradually and with increasing maturity learn what it means to behave in accordance with the privilege of family table fellowship. They are able to “prove themselves.” They begin to learn very early what is the meaning and significance of the family meal, and they learn how to behave in accordance with that significance. Surely, one can see the application to the Lord’s Table.

Now, according to the text of 1 Corinthians 11, who really are those who are guilty of not “discerning the Lord’s body”? Are they the little baptized children of the church who have not yet attained intellectual maturity, or those who bar such children from the Table? Who really is guilty of sinning against the “body of Christ”? Our covenant children or anti-paedocommunionist theologians? Who really ought to be fenced from the Table? Which members of the body have not “proved themselves”? Christ’s little ones or traditionalist Presbyterian theologians who continue to oppose the unity of the entire body of Christ, adults and children, around his Table? I am, of course, overstating the case somewhat. Nevertheless, if Paul’s fundamental concern is the unity of the body of Christ around the Table, and if his admonition to “examine yourself” is directed at those who divide the ecclesiastical body of Christ at the Table, then, in my humble opinion, traditional Presbyterian theologians have some serious self-examination to perform before they come to the Lord’s Table.