Unity in Christ’s Broken Body

Jesus prayed for Christian unity as a testimony to the truth of Christianity. He asked,

May they all be one,
as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You.
May they also be one in Us,
so the world may believe You sent Me.
I have given them the glory You have given Me.
May they be one as We are one.
I am in them and You are in Me.
May they be made completely one,
so the world may know You have sent Me
and have loved them as You have loved Me.

John 17:21-23

This text is essential for anyone interested in evangelism, for anyone interested in pursuing ecumenical discussions with Christians of other traditions, for anyone who wants to truly live soli Deo gloria (= for the glory of God alone).

There is nothing more glorifying to God than seeing those who claim His name–claim to be part of His body–functioning as one. But what do we unfortunately see too often? We see disunity; division; declarations of heresy, lack of orthodoxy, or wolfishness toward those who disagree with our often too-highly specific definition of what orthodoxy actually is. And (surprisingly?) this is nothing new. Look at what Paul had to deal with in 1 Corinthians 11.

Now in giving the following instruction I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you. Therefore, when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For at the meal, each one eats his own supper ahead of others. So one person is hungry while another gets drunk! Don’t you have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you look down on the church of God and embarrass those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I praise you? I do not praise you for this!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: On the night when He was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said, “This is My body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.”

In the same way, after supper He also took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant established by My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. This is why many are sick and ill among you, and many have fallen asleep. If we were properly evaluating ourselves, we would not be judged, but when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord, so that we may not be condemned with the world.

Therefore, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you gather together you will not come under judgment.

1 Corinthians 11:17–34

If you look at the very beginning of this passage, it becomes clear that the Lord’s Supper is an important point when it comes to seeing the unity Jesus talks about in John 17. Paul explains, “For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. There must, indeed, be factions among you, so that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” Paul heard about divisions in the Corinthian church, and he explains that of course this is the case, so they can recognize the “approved.” This is likely Paul being thick with sarcasm, though it is also possible that Paul is alluding to the final judgment, which becomes more possible in light of 11:31.1

What is important to note though, is that either way you understand this reference to divisions–whether sarcasm or an allusion to future judgment–divisions should not be present at the Lord’s Table. The whole concept of division is foreign to the Lord’s Table. Paul is either saying, “You fools who think divisions mark out true believers, cut it out!” or, “True. Divisions mark out false converts, but this isn’t a time to be divisive.”

This is proven by the course of Paul’s argument. He complains about some Corinthians getting drunk off the Lord’s Supper and neglecting the poorer members of the congregation. Then he reiterates Jesus’ words from Luke 22:19-20 on the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which requires a couple extra notes:

First, the first time in this section that we see the word body, is here: Jesus says, “This is My body.” This will be very important as we keep going today.

Second, it is extremely ironic what happens in Luke’s gospel right after Jesus institutes this meal. He points out a traitor in their midst, which very quickly devolves into an argument about who is the greatest among them (Luke 22:21-30). When we remember that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians before Luke wrote his gospel and that Luke and Paul were traveling companions, one is forced to wonder if God didn’t inspire this irony Himself.

But getting back into the flow of Paul’s argument, it is also worth noting that Christ’s singular body was given for “you all” (it’s a plural “you”). We should be finding unity around the Table. We should not be arguing and fighting about whose theology of the Table is the greatest!

But then Paul turns to the most misunderstood portion of his discussion:

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. This is why many are sick and ill among you, and many have fallen asleep. If we were properly evaluating ourselves, we would not be judged, but when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord, so that we may not be condemned with the world.

Therefore, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you gather together you will not come under judgment.

1 Corinthians 11:27-34

The first occurrence of the word body here is, again, specifically referring to Christ’s body. But it’s worth noting that Paul says that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord.”

Key in on that word “unworthy.” What’s it referring to? It’s certainly not referring to your theological position on the scale of symbolism vs. literalism of the phrase, “This is my body.” Rather, in context, it’s referring to verses 17-22. You take the Lord’s Supper unworthily when you abuse it, get drunk off it, and don’t allow all the members of Christ’s body to benefit from it. This is why Paul says that “whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. This is why many are sick and ill among you, and many have fallen asleep” (emphasis added).

The body he is referring to there is Christ’s body–the church–which is mystically a part of Christ Himself.

“You are what you eat,” the saying goes, and this is why it is important to partake of Christ by faith in the Lord’s Supper. This is also why Paul takes up the idea of the body of Christ as the members of the church in 12:12-26 and then moves into the topic of Christian love as the binding agent of Christ’s body in 12:31-14:1.

Paul is assuredly not saying that the Baptist’s symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper is the only worthy way to take the Lord’s Supper. And he is also definitely not saying that if the Baptist’s memorial view is wrong, then Baptists are in danger of getting sick and dying for holding that view.

What Paul is saying, though, is that we are taking the Lord’s Supper unworthily if we take it when we are not at peace with fellow Christians. Look at what Jesus said in Matthew 5:23-24,

“If you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Obviously, the emphasis in this passage is slightly different, but the heart is still the same.

So now we’ve come full circle. The division that almost inherently comes with the Lord’s Supper is entirely inconsistent with the heart of Jesus. It is a lack of love. It doesn’t show the world that we belong to Jesus, and as a result, it should make us question the genuineness of our faith. I’ll share three verses that should help make this clear, tie those verses together, and then make one final comment related to the proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper:

  • “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love.”
    (Galatians 5:6)
  • “When the Son of Man comes, will He find that faith on earth?”
    (Luke 18:8)
  • “Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold.”
    (Matthew 24:12)

If love grows cold, then it means faith isn’t working, and faith is most clearly seen through the uniting of typically hostile entities. Jews and Gentiles were the least likely to ever be unified, but Paul says they could be united through faith and love–in Christ (cf. Galatians 3:28).

Ultimately, if our partaking of the Lord’s Supper is not accompanied by faith, then it is worthless. Jesus said, “The Spirit is the One who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some among you who don’t believe.” (John 6:63-64)

This means that taking the Lord’s Supper apart from faith is completely worthless. It doesn’t help at all. And all expressions of the Lord’s Supper–Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc.–must have faith at the center, or else they are just eating bread and drinking juice/wine. And if faith is truly present, then this faith will lead them to be at peace with all their brothers and sisters in Christ, because faith works through love.

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Sola Scriptura
Sola Fide
Solus Christus
Sola Gratia

Thanks for reading


Footnotes

  1. See discussion in Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 857-860.

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