What (Actually) is Communion?

How this ritual meal evolved and what Christianity might be missing according to 1 Corinthians 11.

Tyler Kleeberger
Apr 2, 2020 · 20 min read

The Sacrament of Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.

Nothing rings with more elevation and sacredness in the Christian world than this act. Neither does anything reside on such surface-level understanding that has possibly caused Christianity to be missing something in this highly esteemed ritual.

The debates are glorious. Transubstantiation versus consubstantiation. Apostolic authority in serving the elements versus the congregationalist view of the priesthood of all believers. None of which captures my attention.

While it has taken on various meanings over time, the current abstract status appears confusing in light of its earliest accounts. My deepest frustration lies in the misunderstanding in the Passover roots of Communion, but I will save that discourse for another time.

My current agenda is to establish a re-understanding of what communion even is and what its function had been in the earliest witness in church history.

For that, we ought to explore what is likely the first account of Communion’s role in a church, specifically the church in a 1st century Greco-Roman city called Corinth.

Public Domain, “St. Paul Writing His Epistles” attributed to Valentin de Boulogne. Interestingly, Paul is writing what would become the New Testament with a bound, paper copy of the Bible. Hence, Paul was also a time-traveler.

The Corinthian Context

The first letter to the Corinthians is widely agreed to be written by the historical Paul and, rightly so, has been instrumental in ecclesiological formation throughout much of Christian history.

In slight contrast to some of Paul’s other letters, this ecclesiological formation seems to be Paul’s explicit purpose for the letter now known as First Corinthians (or, “One Corinthians” according to some people). An apparent response to earlier correspondence between Paul and the Corinthians, this letter is formulated as a confrontation to very specific issues within Corinth’s context.

Corinth was a trading hub because of its convenient location. Corinth was also host to the “Isthmian Games” which might draw clues to Paul’s “race” metaphor within this First Corinthian letter.

Corinth inhabited a location at which much was at stake because of Corinth’s metropolitan importance within first-century Rome and Corinth’s geographical and economic importance in the Mediterranean sphere of influence.

A rendering of ancient Corinth by “Realm of History”. Corinth was a high-culture, metropolitan and cosmopolitan hub in the context of ancient Greece in the Roman Empire.

For comparison, Corinth inhabited a very similar setting to 21st century America. As a result, Paul sets to straightening out theological, ethical, and, especially, episcopal failures of the Corinthian church.

After many specific selections that range through a narrative, rhetorical arc concerning the current problems with the Corinthian body, Paul culminates his confrontation to a specific instance of central importance, the Lord’s Supper, which also culminates the overarching force of his message concerning the letter as a whole. How the Corinthians handle this gathering will implicate the very essence of their identity as a church.

As we will see, that is what Communion is about.

The Corinthian Letter: The Rising Action to the Lord’s Supper

Division is a driving theme in the first letter to the Corinthians and, as a result, ordering the body is Paul’s main focus.

In a conflict-ridden and separated community, how will this body be ordered? Paul’s answer is that the church body will be ordered in the pattern of Christ, namely, Christ crucified. Leading up to the text on the Lord’s Supper that both embodies and emboldens the body of Christ through Christ’s body in one another’s bodies, Paul begins discussing the public gatherings of the Corinthian church in general with specific references to:

  • Hair (which Paul commends the Corinthians in how they’ve handled that conflict)
  • The household body and its role in the larger church
  • And issues of gender pertaining to their coming together as a church.

All of these discussions are fascinating, confusing, and reveal much more than you may think on the first read.

After this, references to the Jewish ancestry of this predominantly gentile conglomerate is made as a recommendation to learn from. This is an unusual claim to heritage as very few members of the Corinthian church would have been Jewish (yet Paul calls Israel their ancestors anyway). The Corinthians are to take Israel’s failures as a warning for their contemporary situation. Paul then moves from the general gathering to a specific concern that calls back a previous confrontation in the letter and alludes to the forthcoming focus that recapitulates Paul’s argument about the Corinthian body:

Eating idol meat.

Women caring for a sacrificial bull. Culture Club/Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The two interacting concepts in this discussion are the perspective of rights that come from knowledge (which Paul has explicitly challenged several times) and the ethical action of eating food sacrificed to idols — both of which are indicative of Paul’s upcoming proposal on the Lord’s Supper and both of which seem to set up Paul’s focal point of that meal.

I hope my point so far is clear — you can’t understand the discourse on Communion without reading it in line with the larger argument the author of this letter is making.

The contrast here is the everyday social and religious life in Corinth and how it relates to pagan culture versus the demands of being a part of Christ’s body. The socio-cultural landscape specific to Corinth has given certain knowledge and rights to certain individuals. Everyone thinks they are the authoritative intellects (sound familiar? Have you scrolled through Twitter lately?) Some members of the community, therefore, have alluded to their knowledge as a means of accessing certain self-centered rights at the expense of the larger community.

Paul’s confrontation, again, is to compel unity, oneness, and ordered differentiation (diversity isn’t the problem. In fact, diversity seems to be a benefit. A lack of unity within their diversity is, however, a problem).

The prescribed posture is one that may know about rights, but that also willingly forgoes those rights by discerning differences and building up others through love. The foreshadowing of Paul’s largest concern in the letter is becoming more transparent.

Paul is claiming that this knowledge does not justify flagrancy with community members and, in fact, their holding onto their rights is tearing the community apart. As will be true concerning the Lord’s Supper:

In this rising action of Paul’s letter, the Corinthians are forced to wonder if they are playing fast and loose with Christ’s body.

Spoiler alert — they are.

Paul has them right where he wants them as he approaches the boss-level conversation on Communion.

Corinth and the Question of Community

The text moves into a demand to give up one’s rights for the sake of the supposedly weaker members of the community. What is done with perceived rights has the potential to unfold in a cruciform pattern or a selfish one.

Rights versus community are becoming more and more mutually exclusive in the Communitarian perspective that is coming to light in the letter.

As an alternative, Paul pleads that they imitate him. He draws his life from Christ and, therefore, exemplifies this pattern as evidenced by the rights he has given up as an apostle.

These are the prescribed alternatives to using their knowledge and rights to get their way.

Love must modify rights for the best interests of all.

Yet, Paul does not leave this ethic in the abstract, but particularizes it in the experience of food. Meals, apparently, are at the heart of the Christian community and, as meals are also formative in the pagan culture surrounding this church, a decision must be made for which identity will be chosen based on what kind of meal one participates in. Paul now moves to criticize the Corinthians that, rather than keep the meal of the Lord’s death, they have functioned antithetically to the cruciform body.

Setting Up the Institution of the Lord’s Supper — First Corinthians 11

The Corinthians have turned this meal referred to as the Lord’s Supper into something more akin to a gentile festival where the socially deprived or economically dependent latecomers are treated differently (1 Cor 11v11) and where the ones enforcing this failure don’t seem to care (1 Cor 11v12).

If love is supposed to modify their freedom and rights, they have failed to love and, as such, Paul no longer commends them for their gatherings saying that they do more harm than good (1 Cor 11v17).

Can I just say that I love that line?

Their church services suck and do more harm than good.

Honestly, how better off would we be if some churches just didn’t even meet anymore?

Why is this the case for Corinth? Because the very body that they are claiming to participate in is actually being dismissed at the very meal where that body is meant to be formed.

In the opening of the specific text in question (1 Corinthians 11v17–34), Paul offers some details as to what is going wrong. Splits occur, the meeting involving the Lord’s Supper does not amount to eating the Lord’s Supper, and one devours their meal while another goes hungry and another is drunk (1 Cor 11v17–22).

Within this situation, Paul implicates two categories of members in the church — the “haves” and the “have nots”.

Dale Martin articulates the socioeconomic setting of the Corinthian church by building off of Gerd Theissen’s work surrounding Greco-Roman dinner parties as a template for the Paul’s discussion in this part of the letter. The “haves” would be able to arrive early because of their control over their time and begin the meal at their own leisure.[1] Thus begins the separation that allows some to be full while others are hungry. Further, the status differentiation would implicate the separation being confronted at these meals. In keeping with Greco-Roman dinners, the host could decide seating based on the honor of the guests, usually in the form of a three-sided table called a triclinium. The “haves” would have been the ones with the houses able to host such gatherings and, therefore, dictate the seating process. Those closest to the host would have access to better food and drink as well as more quantity of both.[2] As noted by Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, there is also evidence that Roman houses would not be big enough to fit all of the assembly in one room. Therefore, this Eucharistic gathering would have various rooms filled with people and separated according to their status and level of importance.[3] Anthony Thiselton furthers this point by saying,

Moreover, by allowing to “the other” only second-class hospitality in the atrium rather than first-class comfort and service in the host’s triclinium…the proceedings defeated the very proclamation of the Lord’s Supper…for the love of the other, the outsider, and “the weak” which characterize the death of Christ was thrust aside.[4]

The point of contention that acts as the driving theme throughout the entire letter is obvious here. In fact, the division, separation, selfishness, and elitist antagonism that Paul has been confronting since his greeting seems to climax in this rhetorical moment.

What, then, is Paul’s purpose for including what has become known as the Institution of the Lord’s Supper?

The Real Point of Communion (According to Paul)

Much devotion, liturgy, and formation has resulted from this text, but there is a larger point at stake — one that is less theological than it is an ecclesiological (or, church identity) ethic.

As described by Martin,

…the primary problem addressed by Paul has little to do with a proper ‘sacramental’ attitude towards the elements of the Lord’s Supper but is instead one of schism within the congregation based on social status differences.[5]

As Paul dictates his perspective on the Eucharistic gathering in 1 Corinthians 11v23–34, his stance becomes obvious in light of previous discussions. He begins this “Institution of the Lord’s Supper” with reference to all gatherings being done in this pattern as opposed to the pattern embodied in their divisive claim to rights.

This pattern that he references, then, is in contrast to the negative ethic Paul has been confronting for eleven chapters.

In the tradition that was from the Lord, they are to proclaim the Lord’s death with Paul emphasizing that anyone who eats or drinks in a way that is not fitting will be held accountable. Therefore, the Corinthians are to examine their genuineness before they consume the meal unless they eat and drink judgment on themselves by not recognizing what categorizes the body as different.

Much discussion has been given concerning the difficulty of translating this section of text. However, the ideas become illuminated when held in symbiosis with Paul’s rampant confrontations preceding and leading to this moment.

Eating Unworthily, Eating Condemnation, & Categorized as Different

First is the language of eating in a way that is “not fitting” or eating “unworthily” that does not “discern the body” and, therefore, “eats and drinks condemnation (judgment) on themselves.” (1 Corinthians 11v27–29).

This will be the interpretative key to how Paul views the essence of this meal.

  • What does it mean to eat and drink in a way that is not fitting?
  • How does this affect what the point of this meal is?
  • And what genuineness must be examined so as to avoid participating in the meal in a way that brings judgement on oneself?

Essentially, how is someone supposed to participate in this meal in a way that recognizes what categorizes the body as different?

Martin deduces that the Corinthians, because of their lifestyles amidst one another, “…are ingesting the material of self-destruction,” and “…consuming their own condemnation.”[6] He specifically goes on to parallel that, in conjunction with the previous discussion on idol meat, the fear would be that participants would receive pharmakon, a toxic poison in association with the mysticism of the food. In other words, eating idol meat may incur daimon.

Is it so that eating Christ’s body might produce a similar toxic effect on the community?[7]

Is this why Paul later mentions, “For this reason, many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”? (1 Corinthians 11v30). Martin believes this is the connection that results from unworthy consumption:

Contrary to traditional sacramental interpretations of this passage, Paul is not concerned that the Corinthians are not exercising a proper attitude of piety toward the sacramental elements or that they are disputing a certain doctrinal position on the nature of the elements. But contrary to other Protestant interpretations, Paul’s assertion that certain Corinthians are getting feeble or sick or dying is not merely a metaphorical statement about some spiritual malaise or a reference to judgment that is casually unconnected with the eating. The overall context indicates that Paul is very much concerned about the Corinthians’ bodily state. And what he means by eating and drinking unworthily is related to the body — in this case, the body of Christ. Paul focuses his argument on the fracturing of the church, the body of Christ. His solution to the problems surrounding the Lord’s Supper is a social one: heal the fragmented body and restore unity.[8]

Unworthiness consists in participation in the destruction of the integrity of Christ’s body.

The “haves” of Corinth, by reinforcing social distinctions in the church, divide the church. They are quite literally tearing apart Christ’s body by opening the body to these splits and, presumably, then opening their bodies to disease and death.[9]

You cannot eat a meal meant to inform selfless love and communal unity while separating, dividing, and being at odds with one another. Martin furthers this interpretation, stating:

By promoting the dissolution of Christ’s body (the church), the Strong at Corinth render their own bodies vulnerable to the pharmakon of Christ’s body (the bread). Their schismatic actions alienate them from the true body of Christ by tearing apart that body. The body of Christ that they consume is now an alien agent that brings disease and death rather than health and salvation to their own bodies…and they consume their own condemnation.[10]

While the interpretation connecting the Eucharist with disease and death requires more discussion, it does help make sense of Paul’s inclusion of such a statement within the Institution of the Lord’s Supper.

However, it is Martin’s larger emphasis, on the meaning of eating unworthily that helps draw meaning into Paul’s point of this text.

Anthony Thiselton forces this view of the body further. Thiselton heightens the importance of connecting this text with the previous problems enumerated throughout the letter, particularly by Paul’s allusion in 11v18 on their division.[11] Specifically, Thiselton writes that this is about,

…the theme of disrupting the community and undermining the nature of the cross by self-affirming insistence on individual or group “freedom,” “rights,” and “celebration” continues the issue which dominates 8:1–11:1.

This emphasis on ecclesiological ethics and its connection with the rest of the letter is furthered,

The focus on proclaiming the Lord’s death, therefore, serves as a parallel to the central point in 1:18–25: if the cross stands as “the ground and criterion” of what it is to be an apostle and a Christian believer…then the splits of chs. 1–4 undermind the heart of the gospel. It is the same with this meal.[12]

Remembering the Lord’s death and eating in a manner that is worthy and that does not bring condemnation is not a matter of worship or ritual, but of conduct and lifestyle.

What Does Paul Mean by “Body”?

This invites a discussion on the use of the Greek word soma in the text, usually translated as “body.” Specifically in its use of “…discerning the body.” (1 Cor 11v29).

  • What is the body that Paul is discussing?
  • Is it the Eucharistic substance of bread?
  • Is it the actual body of Christ?
  • Is it the Church as Christ’s body?
  • Or is it the body of the Christian(s) individually involved?

Dale Martin argues that it is all of the above.[13] If this is the case, then Paul’s emphasis on discerning the body makes this meal a confrontation and elucidation on everything Paul has been discussing up to this point.

This meal becomes a tactile representation of Paul’s ecclesiological ethic and the climax of how this ethic will be embodied in the Corinthian church.

Discerning the various soma that are interchangeably involved means

  • A proper handling of the elements and respect for the nature of Christology involved.
  • Being liable for the presence of Christ’s body that one is interacting with.
  • Understanding the significance of a united church body and properly treating the social entity in respect for its bodily function.
  • And appropriately treating a neighbor as a means of properly discerning the body.[14]

Paul’s beliefs about the nature, role, and execution of the church becomes more and more evident within this analysis.

Understanding why this text would climax the narrative arc of his ecclesiological confrontation becomes more obvious, as well.

Discerning the Body — What Communion is (Actually) About

We are left with an attempt to understand what exactly Paul is trying to say and how we might transpose this intentional message to our different contexts today.

If Thiselton’s comments on 1 Corinthians 11v29 maintains accuracy, one way of articulating Paul’s focus is to, “Recognize what categorizes the body as different.”[15] If the specific point of the selected text is to examine our own genuineness in relationship to the meal, it may serve Paul’s larger purpose of doing so as an example of what responding to being this different body means while also implying the necessity of participating in this meal as being a microcosm for what will ultimately define and form what it means to participate in this kind of community that is inherently different from communities in which Corinth is surrounded.

Participating in the death of Jesus and identifying with the cross of Christ is Paul’s call to the Corinthians to confront the kind of church they are called to be.

This is their ecclesiological identity.

The way in which they engage with this meal will determine their effectiveness in that participation.

How we do this today is of equal importance and much can be gleaned by learning from Paul’s descriptiveness.

Cruciform Pattern of Living & Belonging

Practically, Paul ends the text by encouraging the Corinthians to wait for one another as a means of properly discerning the body (1 Cor 11v33).

This would require the “haves” to modify their behavior to mitigate their status differentiation if they are to begin looking like this body. In first century Corinth, this is the explicit example Paul gives as a requirement for properly participating in communion.

That is the standard for engaging the sacrament.

That is how one discerns the body and genuinely takes in a crucified body to become part of the crucified body!

Not quite the demands we hear today.

However, the status differential and cultural context of the powerful being able to get to the gathering early and become overstuffed and drunk may not directly apply in a modern setting. The pattern of Paul’s vision that seems to be the requirement for this meal — of behaving in a way that reverses normal cultural expectation and lives out this communal pattern of cruciform ethics — might be applicable. Which, in and of itself, seems to be the point of the entire Institution of the Lord’s Supper:

This text, indeed, is about a corporate, ecclesiological, Christianity-defining ethic.

Communion is about looking like Jesus, together, as the intended image of God that the whole world is meant to exist in.

The Logic of the Meal — A Crucified Body of Self-Giving Unity

If the words of institution are to address the problem of division just as Paul’s words in the beginning of the letter on the cross are meant to address the division of the community, then we are invited to question how our communal body today reflects the Eucharistic crucified body.

If it looks like the idolatrous meals of Roman culture that are full of gluttony, exclusion, denying participation, and elevating the status of some at the expense of others, then we will certainly eat and drink judgment on ourselves. Unless we share our lives in replicating the pattern of Jesus’ death, then we are ingesting something that will expose our own condemnation.

The response of the cruciform community should be the opposite of the selfish elitism that dominates our contemporary world as a seemingly social mandate; for the logic of this meal is the self-giving that brings life, not the self-asserting that brings death.

As we have seen, this text is about unity — a specific kind of unity that patterns itself after Jesus’ life and, therefore, his death. It is the invitation to give up our rights in a communitarian ethic.

When we make demands, when we elevate the self at the expense of another, we are not keeping with the shape of the body — for this body is a crucified, selfless body that we are taking into our body so that our bodies will become the form of that crucified body as a part of the form of a crucified collective body.

To not only believe, but participate in this is the point of the meal.

When we eat in a way, practice economy in a way, relate to each other in a way, and, generally, conduct our lifestyles in a way that is not in keeping with that body, it judges and exposes us.

When we do live in the pattern of this cruciform body, the meal informs our continuation of being that body. Not only is this to be the heart of our ecclesiological life, but it is also a pattern that ought to condition the emanating life of the individual and the community together in economic practice, political practice, relational practice, and in the driving imagination of the community for who it will collectively be in the world.

Being shaped by the body of the Lord should look a particular way and, therefore, create a particular kind of world.

The meal serves as a means of defining us in that way so we might accomplish this identity and this role.

Taking the Meal Means Discerning This Body

Not only does this have implications for how we approach the sacrament of communion as this should be the examination which precedes every Eucharistic event and act as the tactile expression and response to our ethics as a corporate community, but this message from Paul should also dictate the very identity of the church, its purpose, and its ensuing effects in the world.

To take communion is akin to taking a vow.

It is a commitment to take in this body and this blood so that it becomes our bodies and our blood, together, for the ongoing good of the world.

If Paul’s letter is still Scripture, that may be the invitation of these words today.

What This Means For Defining Who is a Christian

Further, if this is not about believing certain things, but about whether or not we demand a lion’s share of the resources or whether or not we prioritize the weak and make sure everyone has enough, then we may need to challenge who and who is not discerning the body.

Can someone outside of Christian intellectual ascent discern the body?

Well, are they doing those things?

Are they shaped in the pattern of the crucified body?

If we take Paul’s theology seriously, belonging to the body and taking on this identity may not reside in our heads, but in our hands.

That is our litmus test for a human’s belonging to what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. This text may have more to say about inclusion than how we include one another in the internal community of the church. It may force us to ask questions on how we include those we may not consider part of the church in the first place, but who may also be manifesting this body in the world — which is the whole point.

What This Means For Christian Communities Looking Different

Conversation can also emanate from this text around the Christian practice of meals in particular.

The distance between our agricultural system and the Eucharist may be confrontational if we take Paul’s words seriously. Not only do we often fail to connect our church meetings and various other mediums of church representation with the cruciform pattern of belonging (rarely does church marketing and content look different. In fact, beyond using the label “Christian” very little categorizes many churches as different according to this different body), but when we reduce the Lord’s Supper as described here in Paul’s letter to a short section of a service so we can get home for our next scheduled activity, we make it even harder for people to connect what we are calling bread and wine to the goods of life that make for salvation.

Part of our task in response to this text may be to restore the knowledge and connection of what we put in our mouth when we remember the Lord’s death.

The goods of life embodied in the meal, the economy behind them, and the act of sitting and sharing such goods may actually implicate our ability to imagine what is real and what this body might really look like.

This is especially true in an economy and, by extension, a church culture that has allowed the disappearing of the links between where our life comes from and how we consume them.

Is there a relationship between our daily bread and the bread of the crucified Jesus?

Do the agricultural practices that sustain our life have something to input into our practice of being that kind of body?[16]

Is it more important to have a meal that displays this different kind of ethic in community than properly reciting sacramental liturgy?

Paul may be inviting us to see this as the case.

The Point of Communion (In a Short Word)

Whatever specific perspectives we entertain from this text in our contemporary world, one impetus seems to transcend cultural context.

The generalizing point of Paul’s invitation in the Lord’s Supper is that:

When we live as an ecclesiological body, does the world see this cruciform pattern put on display?

The answer to that question will indicate whether or not we have discerned the body as our ecclesiological identity and whether or not we still uphold this letter as an indicator of our ethical ideal.

The answer to that question will tell us if we are actually participating in Communion.

Citation References:

[1] Martin, Dale. The Corinthian Body. (Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 1995). 73–74.

[2] Ibid. 73–74.

[3] Achtemeir, Paul. Green, Joel. Thompson, Marianne Meye. Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology. (Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2001). 344.

[4] Thiselton, Anthony. The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians. (Eerdman’s Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 2000). 849.

[5] Martin. 190.

[6] Ibid. 190.

[7] Ibid. 190.

[8] Ibid. 194.

[9] Ibid. 194.

[10] Ibid. 196.

[11] Thiselton. 849.

[12] Ibid. 851.

[13] Martin. 195.

[14] Ibid. 195.

[15] Thiselton. 892.

[16] These thoughts were initially informed by Dr. Tommy Givens at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2012.

The Bible Archives

Examining the Bible for a scholarly yet accessible guide to what the Bible actually says.

Tyler Kleeberger

Written by

Pursuing what it means to be human so as to build the best world possible. Practical ethics through in-depth exploration. Becoming Human: tylerkleeberger.com.

The Bible Archives

Whether you’re a beginner or a skeptic, exhausted with modern Christianity or wanting to explore the text more fully — this publication aims to untangle and clarify what the Bible actually says and share a free education for anyone wanting to know more about the text.

Tyler Kleeberger

Written by

Pursuing what it means to be human so as to build the best world possible. Practical ethics through in-depth exploration. Becoming Human: tylerkleeberger.com.

The Bible Archives

Whether you’re a beginner or a skeptic, exhausted with modern Christianity or wanting to explore the text more fully — this publication aims to untangle and clarify what the Bible actually says and share a free education for anyone wanting to know more about the text.

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