God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 11:28-29 Communion fellowship
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, April 28, 2023
28 Let a person examine himself, and then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
When we teach our catechism students the proper examination for taking communion, we emphasize: (1) Am I sorry for my sins? (2) I believe that Jesus is my Savior. (3) I believe that this is his true body and blood. And (4) I want to amend my sinful life with the help of the Holy Spirit. But what if someone believes all of these things but is a member of a church that is not of our fellowship?
The fourth point, wanting to amend my sinful life, “implies and includes a firm desire to confess all the doctrines of Scripture in their truth and purity. Normally included, then, is serious consideration of where one holds denominational and/or synodical membership.” Taking the Lord’s Supper involves the communicant in a relationship with God, acknowledging in repentance that Christ’s true body and blood are really present for his forgiveness. And taking the Lord’s Supper also involves the communicant in a relationship with the others who are communing in that place. Therefore, participating in the Lord’s Supper is also a confession of faith: Faith in Christ, and a confession of one’s common faith with the others who are communing.
Our Lord has forbidden us to be in fellowship or to work together in fellowship with errorists. Romans 16:17 says, “Watch out for those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the teaching you learned, and keep away from them.” Our Lord commanded: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15), and again: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16,20). The ulterior motive of false teachers is not to be ignored. To say one thing but to mean another is a lie, pure and simple, and such men and women deceive their flocks. What they do is not for the good of the church nor to the glory of God.
Paul also said: “Even if we or an angel from heaven would preach any gospel other than the one we preached to you—a curse on him! As we have said before, so I now say again: If anyone preaches to you any gospel other than the one you received—a curse on him!” (Galatians 1:8-9). Putting up with someone who preaches a different gospel, a different spirit, a different Jesus, is never to a church’s credit (2 Corinthians 11:4). We do not want to be led astray from sincere and pure devotion to Christ the way Eve was deceived and led astray by the serpent’s cunning (2 Corinthians 11:3).
Therefore our position on refusing communion to those who are outside our fellowship (which is the ancient practice of the Christian church) is also a matter of not causing offense to our own members. Denominations that were once conservative and with whom we were once in fellowship, or were in serious talks over fellowship, have slipped into a broader and broader liberalism, denying that Christ is the only way to heaven, or even the existence of heaven. An individual member of such a church may not buy into any of their liberal teaching but maintains their membership for nostalgic or other reasons. Yet, they are “approving of what their forefathers did” (Luke 11:48), and their membership in a fallen-away church is a serious matter. Our refusal is a warning to them that the teaching they accept is false: it is our confession of faith, and an invitation for them to take a stand against their own church’s false teaching.
“Perhaps most vexing” wrote the sainted ELS Seminary President Ted Aaberg, “is the case of a conservative Lutheran, who still holds membership in his old church which has become increasingly liberal. Privately and informally he may stand with us confessionally, but one has to consider his formal membership too, and the danger of giving offense to others by his participation in the Lord’s Table with us” (A Young Pastor’s Concern Over Close Communion, LSQ XXII, No. 3 [September 1982] p. 75).
Finally, what is the “judgment” Paul warns about in verse 29? How serious a thing is this? He is going to expand on this in the next verse, but here we can say clearly and simply that the judgment he warns about is not a blessing. When someone takes the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (without faith, by denying Christ, or by denying fellowship), he does not receive blessings, but judgment instead. Strengthening faith and granting forgiveness is the purpose of the sacrament. Does anyone want to take it knowing that by doing so in his case, on account of unbelief, etc., that he will receive the opposite of a strengthened faith, the opposite of the forgiveness of his sins? Does anyone want to commune in order to weaken his faith? Heaven forbid! “I desire to do your will, O my God… I proclaim righteousness in the great assembly” (Psalm 40:8-9).
It is the role of the church to testify about the truth, “that special power and right which Christ gave to his church on earth: to forgive the sins of penitent sinners but refuse forgiveness to the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” (Small Catechism, Ministry of the Keys). It is not our place to question the will of God or the word of Christ. And we also want to submit to the leadership of our called ministers of the gospel. It is every Christian’s duty and privilege to learn about these things, to study them diligently, and to take them to heart. “Be submissive to those who are (your parents, pastors, and elders). Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (Small Catechism, Table of Duties; 1 Peter 5:5-6).
Pastor Timothy Smith