In all of the churches I have attended, observation of the Lord’s Supper (communion) is preceded by a time of introspection, usually with a solemn warning given by the pastor. In some cultures there is a time of confession, in which people will stand up or come forward and confess to sins they have committed and/or will ask forgiveness from others in the congregation. While certainly it is a good idea for Christians to identify sin in their lives and repent of it, the Bible does not make this a requirement for participation in communion. The Bible passage that is at question on this issue is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 (ASV):
But in giving you this charge, I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better but for the worse. 18 For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and I partly believe it. 19 For there must be also factions among you, that they that are approved may be made manifest among you. 20 When therefore ye assemble yourselves together, it is not possible to eat the Lord’s supper: 21 for in your eating each one taketh before [other] his own supper; and one is hungry, and another is drunken. 22 What, have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and put them to shame that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you? In this I praise you not. 23 For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; 24 and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink [it], in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come. 27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. 29 For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body. 30 For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep. 31 But if we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world. 33 Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, wait one for another. 34 If any man is hungry, let him eat at home; that your coming together be not unto judgment. And the rest will I set in order whensoever I come.
A bit of historical context is necessary to understand Paul’s instructions. The Corinthian church consisted of many local house churches, each with its own pastor. These small congregations would meet together periodically in a joint assembly. This assembly included a shared meal (probably called the Lord’s Supper, or possibly the “love feast” [ἀγάπη], as in in Jude 12), and the communion ordinance was observed as part of this meal. This practice had a good historical precedent: when the Lord first instituted the communion ordinance with His disciples, the bread was broken as part of a meal, and the cup was drunk after the meal.
While Paul must have personally directed the celebration of the Lord’s Supper when he planted the Corinthian church, the church had badly perverted this ordinance due to their selfishness, to the extent that Paul tells them in v. 17 that they would be better off not holding their joint services at all than doing them as they were. The problem is that some people (likely the rich) were hogging the food and drink during the meal, while others (likely the poor) were going hungry. Presumably a ceremonial bread was eaten during the meal and a cup was drunk after the meal, though Paul felt the need to give specific instructions about this as well. Those who were eating and drinking gluttonously while refusing to share their food with other believers were making a mockery of what was supposed to be a solemn remembrance of Christ’s death and their union with Christ’s body (the church).
Paul’s corrective is, first of all, to eat something at home if someone is ravenously hungry (vv. 26, 34), so that everyone will have enough to eat at the shared meal. Then, when meals are shared by the whole assembly, people are to give deference to others and ensure that everyone gets something to eat (v. 33). The Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated properly, with a formal eating of the bread during the meal and drinking of the cup afterward (vv. 23-28). Finally, Paul gives a solemn warning against observing the communion ordinance improperly, since improper observance had resulted in the deaths and illnesses of many Corinthian Christians. Because God takes abuse of the Lord’s Supper very seriously, Paul commands every individual in the church to examine himself when he takes communion to make sure he is doing it in the right way (vv. 27-32).
One of the interpretive issues in this passage is what it means to “eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner” (v. 27). In the Corinthian assembly, eating and drinking in an unworthy manner meant eating and drinking excessively at the communal meal, with the result that other brothers went hungry. Other forms of partaking unworthily could be imagined, but it is only a sin in the manner of partaking communion that is spoken of. Notice Paul does not say that you are better off not taking communion than partaking with unconfessed sin in your life, nor does he say, “confess your sins before taking communion.” He only warns against sinning in the actual manner in which communion is observed.
It should be emphasized that this is about partaking in an unworthy manner, not in an unworthy state. It is about an unworthy manner, not an unworthy man. That is what is v. 27 states. Verse 29 indicates that this is a sin which fails to treat the body of Christ—the church—properly (cf. 1 Cor 10:17). In spite of all the moral problems in Corinth, Paul never tells the Corinthians that they must repent of their immorality before they can take communion.
Read the passage again if you are not convinced. Paul never says that a genuine Christian should not, in certain circumstances, participate in communion. (Note: I think in that culture, children would not have been allowed to participate in either baptism or communion until coming of age; also, persons under church discipline would be barred from attending church meetings until they repented, and therefore could not participate in communion.) It is therefore unbiblical for a pastor to say that people with “unconfessed sin” should not participate in communion. Communion, like baptism, is an ordinance for every believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, not just for an elite class of “spiritual” believers. (Many churches and pastors also refuse to baptize new or immature believers, and will only baptize Christians who are deemed to have reached a certain level of spiritual maturity.)
In v. 28, Paul does not say, “Do not eat of the bread or drink of the cup if you have unconfessed sin in your life.” Instead, he says that when you take communion you need to examine yourself to make sure you are doing it in the right way. This examining is not a deep introspection which involves recalling and confessing every sin one can think of. Instead, it is a brief consideration of whether one is indeed treating others right during the communion meal. If there is a problem, the solution is not to “let the elements pass,” but is rather to correct one’s manner of partaking right then and there. Paul never recommends that a believer not participate in communion or that the church should forbid unspiritual believers from participating in communion. It is only unbelievers who are forbidden to participate in communion, since communion signifies participation in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17).
The Old Testament equivalent to taking communion in an unworthy manner would be a priest who offered incense that was not commanded (Lev 10:1-2), or someone who was not a Levite offering a sacrifice or burning incense (1 Sam 13:7-13; 2 Chr 26:16-21). The issue in such cases is the manner in which a ritual is performed, not general sins in the life of the worshiper.
Misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 has caused much unnecessary anguish for Christians, and has caused many to needlessly refuse to partake of this ordinance when they could have and should have done so. Some people wonder if they are good enough to take communion. Often it is those with the most acute sensitivity to sin and the greatest fear of God who decide they are not worthy to take communion, when in fact these people may be the most spiritual members of the congregation. On the flip side of the coin, there are people who habitually skip communion because they do not want to give up specific sins, and they think by skipping communion they can continue living in these sins without experiencing God’s chastisement. I have heard some pastors name specific sins and declare that those who have committed those sins cannot participate in communion. All of this is wholly unbiblical. There is no sin that effectively bars a genuine Christian from participating in communion, except a sin in the manner of participation itself. Christ commanded His followers to observe the communion ordinance (“this do in remembrance of Me”). Communion is mandatory for all adult Christians (assuming we are speaking of communion properly observed, not, e.g., the Catholic Mass).
At the moment a Christian is saved (justified), all of his sins are forgiven—past, present, and future. The Christian’s status before God is “forgiven” no matter whether individual sins committed recently have been specifically confessed or not. He is part of the body of Christ, forever. There is therefore no reason to bar him from an ordinance which signifies participation in Christ’s body (the church). However, since God takes this ordinance very seriously, those who treat it lightly by mistreating other believers in the way they observe it can expect to experience God’s chastisement. As far as other sins are concerned, God will chasten believers for those sins whether they take communion or not (cf. Heb 12:4-11). Thus, while many Christians who do not want to repent of a sinful lifestyle have been led to believe that they can avoid God’s chastisement by not participating in communion, this is simply not the case. But only those who sin in the actual manner in which they participate in communion will receive God’s chastisement for partaking in an unworthy manner.