Table Manners

What really profanes the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Donald M. Baillie, a Scottish theologian born in 1887, once described how the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the Scottish Highland churches when he grew up.* They usually celebrated it once a year. When they did, only a small minority of the church’s members received the sacrament.

The reason for this? Highland Presbyterianism had turned the celebration into a highly solemn affair. The sacrament had acquired the feeling of something fearsome.** So sacred was the sacrament that people prepared for it through what was called the “communion season.” On the three days preceding they fasted. After receiving on Sunday, they celebrated a service of thanksgiving in the evening and maybe on Monday.

The communion token used in a Calvinist church in Berlin, Germany, 18th century.

Others report that in the 18th century as the day of Holy Communion approached, elders of the church would visit all the church’s parishioners. Their purpose was to examine whether parishioners were living holy lives. If parishioners passed muster, they were given a token which they handed to the elders as they approached the communion table. Only people with tokens could receive. Talk about restricted communion.

Misplaced Scrupulosity

Behind this fear lay an interpretation of what the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. There the apostle writes:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. [1 Corinthians 11:27-29]

Many Calvinists reading this passage adopted attitudes of great scrupulosity about receiving communion. One needed to be free of all personal sin and worldliness. Otherwise people might eat and drink judgment unto themselves.

This was also the attitude of my Baptist mother. She too shared this sense of high scrupulosity about receiving what she called the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Given her attitude, I as a boy became a bit nervous about receiving communion. Had I properly prepared myself? Had I truly repented, especially of any sins of the flesh or of worldliness?

Only as an adult, when I learned to read the Bible in context, did I begin to realize how this scrupulosity was misplaced. When we read the passage in context, we find the apostle’s concern was not with personal peccadillos or worldly pleasures like dancing and attending movies. His grave concern lay elsewhere.

Rude Behavior at Meals

The church in Corinth was a church riven by conflict. People were splitting up into competing theological parties. Fellow church members were taking each other to secular courts to resolve disputes. There was one-up-man ship going on among practitioners of spirituality. The unity of the congregation was being deeply damaged.

Rude practices in particular marred celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. The celebration took place, it seems, in the context of a larger church fellowship dinner. However, dishes were not shared in common. Affluent members of the church brought lavish dishes that they enjoyed in separation from poorer members of the church. Poor members had to make do with whatever limited meal they could bring, if any.

Also no one waited to eat until the whole church had gathered. The affluent might start right in as soon as they arrived. They could not wait for poorer members, especially slaves, who had to finish their work day before they were free to attend church.

This rudeness alarmed Paul. It meant that the social stratifications of the wider culture were making an entry into the church. That made a mockery of the church as a unity in Christ. As Paul will write in other places, Christ came to remove the walls that separate various peoples. We are called to be one united body in Christ.

This unity implied an equality among church members. Paul never stated that equality more clearly than in Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The sacrament of the body and blood of Christ is therefore intimately tied into the church as the body of Christ on earth. In the sacrament that spiritual reality of the church is being reaffirmed and nourished. So you cannot separate the sacrament from what is going on in the rest of the church’s life.

True Profanation of the Sacrament

This social divisiveness is what truly profanes the sacrament. It fails to discern the church as the body of Christ. It introduces a hypocrisy into the heart of the church’s worship and witness. It is this hypocrisy that brings judgment down upon the heads of the congregation.

Finally, it undermines the spiritual health of the congregation. Since there is an intimate unity between the spirit and the body, it can also undermine the bodily health of individuals. Disrespectful behavior (which in the end is unloving behavior) can have consequences on our or other’s health. Many a psychotherapist can attest to that fact.

This understanding of the apostle was revolutionary for me, first as a maturing believer and later as I became a pastor. The apostle was not calling me to become obsessed with my petty flaws or my personal feelings, but with the quality of the communal life in the congregation where I worship and practice my faith.

Are there forces at work to shred the unity of that congregation? If so, how am I contributing to that divisiveness? Are my actions in the church consistent with the sacrament, whose purpose is to express and build up the unity of the body?

In the end, this sensitivity to rude behavior towards other members of the church may introduce a new form of scrupulosity into the practice of the sacrament. If so, then I see it as a form of scrupulosity that is more consistent with the spirit of the apostle.


* Baillie describes this practice in his book The Theology of the Sacraments [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.

** Calvinism was not alone in developing this feeling about the sacrament as something fearsome. You see the same feeling expressed in the evolution of the Eastern Orthodox church architecture. The sacredness of the sacrament came to be seen as so fearsome that its celebration had to be protected by creating a barrier between the celebrating priest and the congregation. Hence arose that distinctive element of Orthodox church architecture, the iconostasis.


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