The Misuse of the Lord's Supper
Tim Temple


There are some things that we can do, some actions that we can take, some attitudes that we can hold, which actually nullify the very thing that we set out to accomplish. I Corinthians, chapter 11, verse 17, says that that very thing can happen in one of the most common experiences in the Church, the observance of the Lord's Supper. Notice:

I Corinthians 11

17Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse.

If you look at that verse carefully, you will see that it is saying that there is a sense in which it would be better to not even have the observance of the Lord's Supper than for it to be done in the particular way that Paul is addressing the Corinthians about.

This whole chapter is about the Lord's Supper. We began our study of this chapter two weeks ago, and we looked at the first part of the first section. The first third of the chapter has to do with the misuse of the Lord's Supper, verses 1-22. In verses 23-26, we find the memorial in the Lord's Supper. In verses 27-34, we find the mental attitudes for the Lord's Supper. As you see, the first section of this chapter is about how this wonderful worship service of observing the Lord's Supper, and really our worship in general, can be misused.

Divisions Concerning Worship Services

The last time we looked at this passage, we talked about the fact that our worship can be nullified by something as simple as a lack of submission to authority in verses 1-16. As we come to verses 17-22, we are going to see another misuse of the Lord's Supper, something else that is very common in today's Church, and that is divisions among believers. Divisions among believers can actually nullify our worship service. The first thing that we want to know is what was the reason for the divisions that Paul is talking about? What area of church life was bringing about those divisions? The question is touched on in verse 17:

I Corinthians 11

17Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse.

Notice particularly the little phrase, “ye come together.” That little phrase was a commonly used term in the first century among those early Christians referring to a meeting known as “the agape feast,” “the love feast.” It is referred to by name in Jude, verse 12. It was a common term for their worship services. They would come together for a time of close fellowship, which included the practice of eating a meal together. There is not any detail given in the New Testament from historical records of that first century, but apparently it was their main worship service. There would be teaching of the Word; there would be singing. Those kinds of things are referred to from place to place in the New Testament, but the whole service is not described in its entirety. They would close the service with the observance of the Lord's Supper. If you would like to have more information about that, a very good Church history book is called, Christianity Through the Centuries , by E.E. Carnes. He has a whole section on that coming-together service. The terminology Paul used in the Greek here is consistent with that used in those histories. This is what he is referring to–really the Lord's Supper, but in general, their basic form of worship service. That is where the divisions were occurring.

Divisions in the church had to do with their worship services, so this is a very significant passage to think about in dealing with the lordship of Christ in the local church. The fact that this is where the divisions were occurring is underscored by the report of the divisions that is given in verse 18 and also in verse 21. In verse 18, we read:

I Corinthians 11

18For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it.

Skip down to verse 21:

I Corinthians 11

21For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.

Here is a reference to this worship service in which they ate a meal together. It was designed to demonstrate their fellowship with each other. It was designed as a means of promoting their worship and yet there were divisions there in that coming together. The word “divisions” in verse 18 is a translation of the Greek word schisma , from which we get our English word “schism”. It is also a root from which we get the term “schizophrenic”. It does not mean that any church which has divisions in it is a schizophrenic church, but it is that concept. It is that divisive. It is a schism or a schizoid personality–that kind of thing.

The Attitude of Selfishness

Back in chapter 3, we saw that there were groups in Corinth, cliques, little individual cells of believers who were gathered around different personalities. Evidently this had carried over even into their actual observance of the Lord's Supper and their formal worship services. Apparently even in those services, there was a very clear-cut division and distinction. Verse 21 gives us an idea of how that was happening. The specific illustration that he uses, in verse 21, is that some of them had more to eat than others, and they weren't sharing equally with each other.

I Corinthians 11

21For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.

The sense of verse 21 is that each person, or perhaps each family, was intent on their own eating to the extent that they weren't even looking around to see what their neighbors had or did not have. Their focus was on themselves. Their focus was not on those around them. Some of the wealthy people had so much food and wine that they could actually get drunk; and some of the poorer people really didn't have enough to eat. Some of them were coming to the service, but they were having to just go without food or eat very little while others had a sumptuous feast. The emphasis is not so much on the difference in the amount that they had, but on the fact that they were intent on meeting their own needs to the extent that they didn't notice the discrepancy between them. That is the sense of verse 21.

This kind of attitude is the very opposite of Christlikeness. What does it mean to be like Jesus Christ? As we have already heard, He did not mean to hold onto that which was His. Present with the Father in Heaven, He was in the form of God, and yet He did not consider that something to be grasped and held onto, but willingly gave that up and came to earth to take our place on the Cross. That is what Christlikeness is. The Corinthians were nullifying the very service that was meant to hold Jesus Christ up and remind us of Him by being so unChristlike that they didn't even notice the needs of those around them. They were totally intent on their own observance.

Results of Divisions

The results of those divisions are listed in verses 19 and 20. Oddly enough, the first result is a good one in a sense. Paul says that things like this help us to distinguish between the mature and the immature in our group. Look at verse 19:

I Corinthians 11

19For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.

When you think about it, that is an odd statement. “There must also be factions among you so that those who are approved may be recognized among you.” Problems and disagreements inevitably arise from time to time in any group of Christians. In fact, that is really the basic subject of the whole first Corinthian letter–that there can be divisions among us. The important thing is not the divisions so much as how we deal with those divisions. God doesn't cause those divisions, but He does allow them to take place. One of the reasons that He allows them to come is this: It forces us to think through our doctrine. If you have a disagreement with another believer, if you are a mature believer, you will go to the Scripture and try to see if you are wrong. The godly, Biblical handling of disagreements forces us to look at ourselves and to look at the Word of God. Paul says, “There must be factions among you that those who are approved may be recognized among you.”

On the basis of this passage and others like it, the problems that result in the splitting of a church, and that happens tragically often, are the problems where the disagreeing parties were unwilling to look at the Word of God and were unwilling to bring their disagreements before the Word of God or, having brought them before the Word of God, were still not willing to give up their own viewpoint. Paul says this distinguishes between the mature and the immature. As we deal with the Scripture, we will see sooner or later who is right and who is wrong. Very often in disagreements like this, we will discover that both are out of line with the Scripture, that both parties need to make some adjustments here and there. The mature will make those adjustments. They are those who are approved. Why are they approved? Not because they are any better than the other party, but because they are willing to bring their lives into line with the Word of God. Those who are approved, those who are mature, will be made manifest. If the disagreement is serious enough, and if one or the other of the parties is unwilling to make adjustments in his life to the Word of God, that immature party may eventually leave the church.

Necessary Adjustments In Attitude

Let me quickly say that I am not saying that anyone who leaves a church is immature or out of fellowship or in the wrong; but on the other hand, to be honest and to deal truthfully with the Word of God, I have to tell you that sometimes that is the result of a disagreement. An immature believer who is not willing to bring his life into conformity with the Word of God, to bring his attitudes into conformity with the Word of God, will ultimately leave that group. There are many other reasons for leaving, but that is definitely one reason people leave a church. You see, that has a purifying effect. It gets rid of those who simply don't want to go along with doctrinal teaching. So Paul says, “When you have a disagreement in a church, don't let yourself get all down in the mouth about that and think, 'Oh, this is a terrible thing.' It is a difficult thing; it is an unpleasant thing. But God allows that to happen from time to time to purify the group, to force us to look at ourselves and to look at the Word of God and to force us to make the adjustments that are necessary.” I have yet to see the case where there were adjustments that needed to be made on both sides of a disagreement when it is honestly brought before the Word of God.

Paul is saying in this passage, “When we don't bring those disagreements to the Word of God, when we are not willing to make those kinds of adjustments, when those divisions are allowed to continue even into our worship services, even into the eating of the Lord's Supper, then the effect is to actually nullify the service.” Look at verse 20:

I Corinthians 11

20When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper.

Take that verse in its context, because if you don't take it in its context, it doesn't even make sense. The word “therefore” refers to the verse above where those divisions and those disagreements are not brought to the Word of God. What He is saying is, “If you are not willing to bring those disagreements to the Word of God, if you are not willing to see whether you are mature or immature, if you are not going to deal with this, then when you come together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper.” In other words, in God's eyes, you are just going through the motions. You may call it the Lord's Supper; you may call it the worship service, but in God's eyes, you might as well not have come. You haven't come to eat the Lord's Supper in God's eyes. In fact, verse 17, as we have already seen a couple of times, indicates that it would be better to not even have the observance at all than to have it like this.

There is a very important implication there. The chapter is about the Lord's Supper and the specific application to the Lord's Supper, but in the early Church and in our services, the Lord's Supper is an integral part of the worship service; so I think in a broad application we could say that to come to the worship service thinking that your ideas and attitudes are the only ones approved by God is to nullify the whole purpose of coming to church. Let me ask you something today: Are there those with whom you have disagreements–that is one thing–on whom you are looking down because of that disagreement, on whom you are thinking that that person is so foolish in their outlook because it is not your outlook? I know I have quit preaching and gone to meddling now, but I am trying to handle the Word of God, and that is what this passage is saying. There will be those disagreements from time to time, but the emphasis is how we handle those disagreements. If you know another believer with whom you claim to worship and fellowship and you have a disagreement with him and you are not doing a thing about handling it biblically, but rather you are thinking, “I am one who is in the right; I am not going to consider their viewpoint.”, then you might as well not even come to worship. You need to think about that. Are you in that category? Are you looking down on some other believer because you think you are in the right and he is not, and you are not even willing to submit it to the Word of God?

Drunkenness At the Lord's Table

That brings us to the second misuse of the Lord's Supper and that is drunkenness at the Lord's Table, in verse 21:

I Corinthians 11

21For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.

The general application of that verse is what we have already made, the fact that some had so much to eat and drink that they could actually get drunk while others didn't even have enough to satisfy their hunger. He is using that as an illustration of disparity within the group there at Corinth, but apparently, it is also to be taken literally because there is nothing in the wording of the text which would indicate that it shouldn't be taken literally. It is not just an example. Apparently some were actually getting drunk at the Lord's Table. That misuse grew out of that excessive attention to food and the meeting of their own needs. That is something that doesn't happen at the Lord's Table in our church, because, as you have already discovered, we don't even use real wine in the Lord's Supper, which is a whole different discussion. This is something that you are not going to be guilty of literally, but I want to remind you that Galatians, chapter 5, verse 21, gives us a list of the works of the flesh. Let's begin with verse 19:

Galatians 5

19Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,
20Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,
21Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

The main thing I want to focus on here is where drunkenness comes in this list. As you see, it is right in the middle of the list of things. So, as Paul addresses this specific problem there in Corinth, that some people were actually, literally getting drunk in the services at the agape feast, the point is broader than just that physical act of getting drunk. The fact by application is that to come to the Lord's table with any kind of sin hidden in our lives, anything that we are practicing as a part of our life-style, any sin that we are allowing to creep into our lives–maybe only occasionally, maybe quite often–nullifies the Lord's Supper. In fact, a summary statement of verse 20 of Galatians, chapter 5, is “selfish ambition”–just doing what I want to do regardless of what the Lord may be leading me to do.

The Sin of Selfish Ambition

I believe that selfish ambition is one of the underlying root causes of sin, one of the basic sins of our society today. The twentieth century Church of Jesus Christ is shot through with selfish ambition. The thing that keeps us from being the men and women of God which He wants us to be is that in so many cases, we are not willing to obey the Scripture, even down to the smallest kinds of things like telling the truth or being honest or loving our wives or submitting to our husbands or being patient with our children or being obedient to our parents, those day-by-day, nitty-gritty kinds of things. So many times we may not say it audibly, we may not even think it consciously, but our attitude is, “Well, I know the Bible says that, but what I want to do is this.” To live that as a life-style nullifies the Lord's Supper. If you come to the worship service with that kind of an attitude, unwilling to give up that kind of attitude, then you might as well not be coming.

Notice in Galatians, chapter 5, verse 16, it says:

Galatians 5

16This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

Then it goes on to list those various items which are brought about by the desires of the flesh. As we saw a moment ago, the passage goes on to say that those who are completely controlled by these things are really not believers in the first place. People who habitually, continually practice these things, people of whom these things are characteristic of their lives, and they never even feel any conviction about it, have cause to question whether they are even saved in the first place. What the Scripture also tells us is that these are problems, these are temptations, these are weaknesses that we have even after we accept Christ as Savior. As believers, to allow those sins to keep being a part of our life, to not do anything about them is to nullify the Lord's Supper.

Walk In the Spirit

What is the answer? Galatians, chapter 5, verse 16, says:

Galatians 5

16This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

Notice it does not say you will not have the lust of the flesh; it says you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh. What does it mean to walk in the Spirit? The very concept of walking is a step by step process. We look at someone walking along the street and it looks like a rather smooth movement, but we know that walking is actually a process of throwing ourselves off balance and reaching out with the other foot to catch ourselves and then throwing ourselves off balance again and swinging the other leg and foot and catching ourselves, etc. It is a series of individual movements. That is what God expects the Christian life to be–individually, step by step. As God walks that life with us through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we see a situation in which we must make a decision and the Holy Spirit reminds us of His truth. That is why it is so important to study the Word of God, because the material the Holy Spirit uses to convict us is the Word of God. As we know the Word of God and we are about to make a decision, the Holy Spirit reminds us, “Here is what God says about that. Remember what God's standard is on this?” At that moment, we must make the decision, “Am I going to walk with the Spirit? Am I going to obey the Word of God? Or am I going to do what I want to do?” If we will throw ourselves off balance, the Holy Spirit will be that leg and foot that catches us. That is the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives, and step by step, we walk in the Spirit.

What if you had never walked before? You don't consciously remember what it was like when you first started walking, so you have to imagine this. But you have watched your own children do it. You have held them by the hands, and you have seen that they know the concept and that they can do the mechanics, but what is the big problem? Why does that child insist on holding on to your hands at first? Why will he not let go of your hands? Because it takes some faith to throw yourself off balance and to reach out and catch yourself with that other foot. Listen, that is true spiritually, too. It takes some faith to walk at the direction of the Spirit. You have got to say, “Holy Spirit, this is not what I want to do. It seems like what I want to do would be a lot more satisfying than what God is telling me to do, but by faith I am going to throw myself off balance and I am going to do what the Holy Spirit is telling me to do.” It takes faith, but when we do that, we find the power of the Holy Spirit. When does a child start walking? When does he start taking more than one or two steps at a time? When he is finally willing to let go and throw himself off balance and swing that other leg and foot out there and then do it again and then do it again. Then we all start cheering because the baby has started walking. See, that is what it is about. Selfish ambition nullifies the Lord's Table.

Let me mention the third misuse of the Lord's Table. This is a little different angle in the misuse of our worship of the Lord. Verse 22:

I Corinthians 11

22What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.

Paul says, “I can't approve of what you Corinthians are doing. I can't praise your church.” Remember that back in chapter 1 Paul has told us, and he will repeat it in chapter 14 and 15, this was a church that had all of the spiritual gifts. This was a church that had among it very intelligent people. It had all kinds of strata of society, some intellectuals, some wealthy, some blue-collar type people. It was what we might think of as an ideal church in a city that was on the leading edge of society, and yet Paul says, “I can't praise this church. I can't hold this church up as an example.” Why? “Because,” he says, “you despise the Church of God and shame those who have nothing.” Notice that phrase, “despise the church of God.” The “church of God” here is a reference to the Body of Christ. To make a distinction between those who have a little and those who have a lot is to despise the whole body.

We need to think about that because the term despise has changed its meaning since it was originally translated into English back in the 17th century. The word “despise” here is a translation of the Greek word kataphroneo , which comes from two Greek words combined to make this one–the word kata , which means “down” and the word phroneo , which means “to think”. Literally it means “to think down on someone else.” Today we would probably say, “to look down on someone else.” Do you come to the Lord's Table thinking down on other people? Do you come to the worship service looking down on other people?

One area in which this very often happens is in the area of looking down on legalists, people who think that somehow by just their physical doing of things, they will become spiritual. That is unbiblical. Hopefully none of us have that attitude. The important thing is how do you respond to those people? It is so easy, as we come to understand the principles of grace, to look down on people who don't understand as much as we do, isn't it? Paul says, “You might as well not be here.”

There are other areas of that, too. How do you feel about the people in your church who are older than you are? Do you think they are over the hill? Do you think their ideas really don't amount to much because, after all, you are younger and better educated and still active and have all the new ideas? You might as well not be here. One of the problems of youth is that we tend to think that those who are ten or fifteen years older than we are have never had the opportunity to learn these great things that we are learning. The funny thing is that when we get fifteen or twenty years down the road, we discover that younger people think that about us! Let me ask you this: Are you among those older people who are looking down on the younger ones? We have a nice mix in our church age-wise, I believe. We have the potential to do great things for God in this church. We have the opportunity to really please the Lord and attract others partly because of the mix of ages we have. But Satan would love to get us to looking down on each other and thinking, “Oh, they are the older generation. They don't really understand.” Or “Those young ones, how could they know?” God says that you might as well not be here. You are just playing a game when you act that way. This isn't to eat the Lord's Supper; this isn't to worship.

What about those in a different economic strata from you? That permeates our whole society. If they live in the right part of town and they drive the right car and they have enough clothes, then somehow they are better than you are, right? Wrong! That is totally unChristlike and unbiblical. The United States has in the Body of Christ probably in any church the size of this one–and this is true of this church–people from all walks of life. There are a few who have a great deal of money. There are some who have absolutely nothing. By God's grace, most of us are somewhere in between. We don't have the time to turn there, but when you have the time, turn to James, chapter 2, verses 1-9. It is specifically addressed to church leaders, and it says that if the wealthy man comes in and you make preference for him–you give him the better place to sit or you draw more attention to him–then you are actually nullifying the very standards of Jesus Christ. You see, all these are things that can nullify our worship, and all of them are things that are so much a part of our society that it is very, very easy for them to become a part of our church. Satan loves to see that.


The Lord's Supper, and with it the opportunity to worship every Lord's Day, is one of the sweetest privileges that we have as Christians. It is a time to stop in the hustle and bustle of life and focus our attention fully on the Savior. What a wonderful provision we have! But this passage reminds us that it can be easily spoiled, easily nullified and used in Satan's hands to offset any good that might be done. Do you see how important it is to allow the Holy Spirit to walk through our lives with us? What we do in our worship and all that can come from our worship is based on how we walk day by day. Worship is not just a matter of coming together in the sanctuary on Sunday morning and/or Sunday night. That is not what worship is. Coming together on Sunday morning and/or Sunday night or Wednesday night–whenever we do come together as a group of believers–should really be just the culmination of the way we walk all the time that we are not gathered together. To do otherwise nullifies all that God could accomplish through our coming together.

How are you walking today? What is your attitude about your fellow-believers? What are you doing about the principles of the Word of God? Are you walking at the direction of the Holy Spirit?

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