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Church Discipline and the Lord’s Table

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Posted by Ro Mody, 20 Jun 2018

Ro Mody examines at 1 Corinthians to see what Paul has to say about church discipline and the Eucharist.

Recently, the whole topic of church discipline has been publicly discussed. Bishop Rod Thomas has suggested that given the rubric of the Book of Common Prayer talks about “unworthy reception” of the bread and the wine at Holy Communion, couples in active same sex relationships might be gently advised to examine their consciences before coming to the Lord’s Table.

For many, the whole idea of church discipline and excommunication is a harsh, unloving, and judgemental act that ought not to be practiced in the Church of England. Rather, the church should be inclusive and tolerant of the lifestyles of its church members. Yet, our authority and our practice in these matters is the Word of God, the Bible, and I want to look at what Paul has to say about church discipline and the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians.

The Reasons and Purposes of Church Discipline in 1 Corinthians 5
In 1 Corinthians 5-6, Paul deals with a number of ethical issues.  Indeed, these chapters have been summarized as being about “moral issues which demand a clear-cut verdict (Thiselton, 381). In 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Paul develops an argument for church discipline in serious moral cases. Paul talks about the case of a man who is in a sexually immoral relationship with his step-mother (5:1). The church ought not be tolerant or complacent in such as case, as it was, but rather to be shocked and expel the immoral man from the fellowship of the church: “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Cor 5:2).

The reasons for the church exercising discipline by excluding this sexually immoral man from church fellowship are two-fold. First, since the immoral man will be outside the fellowship of the church, he will understand his guilt, repent, and so “his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord” (1Co 5:5.) Secondly, church discipline will enable the church to regain its holy and distinct character in its celebration of Christ, the true Passover lamb: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:7-8.) Here, given the allusions to the death of Christ, it is legitimate to argue that Paul implies that the sexually immoral man ought to be excommunicated. Discipline ought to be seen as a positive thing both for the salvation of the man and the purity of the church.

Unrepentant Life-Styles and Church Discipline in 1 Corinthians 6
In chapter 6:1-11, Paul goes onto more examples of moral failures in the life of the church. In 6:1-8, Paul deals with the case of rich church members taking poorer church members to secular courts, probably in civil cases. Paul is outraged, and his purpose is to point out that the church is perfectly adequate to exercise discipline and execute justice in cases of dispute between church members: “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?” (1 Cor 6:2)

Having established the case for church discipline, Paul goes on in 1 Cor 6:9-10 to deal with cases of the sinful lifestyles of church members. These lifestyles may imperil their salvation, if there is no repentance. He says: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,* nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Paul’s point is not about the entrance requirements into the Gospel or church. He is not saying that a one-off sin, which we regret, will jeopardize our salvation, or even that a besetting sin, which we battle against all our life, will exclude us from the saving blessings of God.  Rather, Paul’s real intention is to warn us that a long-term, continuous, unrepentant life of sinful activities and habits will result in the loss of salvation. Why? Because unrighteous lifestyles, by definition, have no place within the righteous Reign of God which requires and empowers life-change. (Thiselton, 439).  Indeed, he could not be clearer, he asks rhetorically if church does know that “the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9.) He begs the church not to “be deceived” into thinking that all lifestyles are acceptable in God’s Kingdom. Among such unrighteous lifestyles are idolatrous involvement in the worship of other religions, same-sex activities, and theft. The implication, given the context of church discipline in chapters 5-6, is that the church should exercise discipline in cases of all unethical, unrepentant, lifestyles.

I once had a conversation with a church member about these verses. She objected to Paul’s view that same-sex behaviour and acts may result in a loss of salvation. She said to me, “after all, if I steal a Mars Bar, I won’t go hell, will I?” I replied “No, you won’t. But what if I saw you stealing a Mars Bar and told you that stealing was wrong, and you replied that I had no right to judge you, and that you loved Jesus, but that you liked Mars Bars, and decided to keep stealing them? What if your stealing of Mars Bars continued for many years, despite numerous warnings, would I not be right to conclude that you had not really understood the Gospel?”

The Conduct of the Lord’s Supper and Church Discipline in 1 Corinthians 10-11
Having established the case for church discipline in serious ethical cases, Paul goes on to tackle abuses in the church in their participation of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. In Corinthians 10: 21-22, Paul warns that those church members who participate in both idol feasts and the Lord’s Supper will incur the wrath of Christ: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1Cor 10:21-22.)

In chapter 11, Paul goes onto deal with the issue of abusive conduct at the Lord’s Supper. Some in the church of Corinth were treating poorer church members without any social standing in the community with contempt, when the Lord’s Supper was celebrated as a real meal in houses. The church’s conduct of the Lord’s Supper showed “divisions” in the church, the body of Christ, because they ate the meal in a way that divided the church into haves and have-nots (1 Cor 11:17-23.)

In 11:27-32, Paul’s point is about discipline, given the vocabulary of worth, guilt, examination, discernment, judgement, discipline, and condemnation.  Paul’s concern is with those who eat at the Lord’s Table “in an unworthy manner” (11:27.) In the context, the “unworthy manner” with which they conduct themselves means doing something which does not square with the character of the Eucharist as focused on the cross, around which the church is united. This “unworthy manner” makes one “guilty” or liable before God, the final judge, for this abuse. Participation in an “unworthy manner” risks “judgement,” and even sickness and death (1 Cor 11:27, 29.) Eating and drinking the Lord’s body and blood has implications that no other eating and drinking has (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 550).

Therefore, Paul directs that church members should, in 11:28, “examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” This self-examination or self-recognition involves testing themselves and “discerning the body” for their genuineness before God does.  If not, and they cannot pass this test, then church members ought not to participate in the Lord’s Supper and, rather eat at home “if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home” (1 Cor 11:34.) Thereby, we avoid the possibility of judgement by unworthy reception at Lord’s Table: “so that when you come together it will not be for judgement” (1 Cor 11:34.)

Again, Paul’s concern is both for the individual and the church. The unworthy reception risks judgement, and therefore there must be self-examination, which positively disciplines us so that “we may not be condemned with the world” (11: 32.)  For the church, the conduct of the Lord’s Supper must proclaim the Gospel, not our own preferences (1 Cor 11:26-27.)

In 1 Corinthians, Paul strongly argues for church discipline (including excommunication) in serious ethical matters of a variety of unrepentant behaviours and lifestyles. The process of discipline starts for all of us with self-examination, but it may continue, for those who refuse to repent, with exclusion from the fellowship of the church, sickness and death, and, ultimately, end with loss of salvation. Yet, Paul’s purpose is kind, gracious, and loving: he wants all of us to examine ourselves, the offender to be restored, and the church to be holy, united, and pure. Given what God says in 1 Corinthians, the Church of England would do well to put loving and biblical church discipline into practice for the sake of its members and the glory of God (1 Cor 11:1.)

Yet we must not forget the Good News. Those with sinful lifestyles can be redeemed by the blood of Christ, be made holy by the power of the Spirit, and welcomed into fellowship to remember the Lord’s death at Holy Communion: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11.)

* The ESV translates two terms in the Greek which probably refer to those who take passive and active roles in same-sex acts. See Garland, 212-215 for a discussion.

David Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003)
A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

Rev. Dr. Rohintan Mody is New Testament Lecturer at the Evangelical Theological College of Asia, Singapore.

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