Looking at Paul’s discourse concerning the communion in this way---in the larger context of what precedes it in the eleventh chapter and in consideration of the general tone of the letter (Paul’s constant focus on the church body/body of believers) while also holding on to the reality of a general and public reading to the group rather than an individual and private reading, prompts an observer toward a better way of coming to terms with what follows. The twenty-seventh verse reads “For this reason, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27).
When isolated from what prompted Paul to write about that which he is said to have received from the Lord, this verse prompts all types of interesting thoughts concerning what it means to take in an unworthy manner. When one goes on to hear “A person should examine himself first, and in this way let him eat the bread and drink of the cup” (11:28), an even larger range of potential interpretations come into view.
In fact and unfortunately, it is proof-texting that almost immediately comes into view. Accordingly, and rather than considering the statement from its own context, a separate statement from what is presented as Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, that of “Put yourselves to the test to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (13:5a) is brought into service, so as to aid the unsure reader of the first letter in their comprehension. That won’t do at all, of course, as ideas communicated in the second letter would have little to zero bearing on the way the hearers of the first letter are meant to understand Paul’s directions. As a matter of logic, the recipients of letter one would not have letter two in order to provide an interpretive matrix when they first hear letter one. This would seem to be rather obvious, but is sometimes lost to view in an effort to create a coherent systematic theological system that would not be of any help to this particular church body.
Nevertheless, herein lies much controversy, as rightly introspective Christians grapple with what it means to take the bread or cup in an unworthy manner, or with what it means to examine oneself in light of the fact that Paul continues on to write “For the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself. That is why many of you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dead” (11:29-30).
Naturally, judgment, weakness, sickness, and death are ends to be avoided. Unfortunately, large numbers of Christians, down through the centuries, have not only looked at the words of these verses and attempted to understand them in isolation from the larger picture into which they are painted, they have also looked at them from within the overarching idea that the goal of the Christian life is simply to achieve heaven and avoid hell.
Therefore, words such as “guilty” and “judgment” are associated with the proverbial and everlasting fires of hell. In addition, individualistic concerns and notions of personal salvation, and the corollaries of heaven and hell (as the ideals of salvation and judgment) have further colored the interpretation in a way that simply would not have been in the minds of Paul’s original hearers, especially if they had already been well-instructed by him in the fundamentals of all that was implied by the kingdom of heaven, and by concepts such as justification (the means by which one enters into the kingdom of heaven).