"Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body."This is not the first time, and definitely won't be the last, that I have heard this passage used to emphasize the importance of being worthy while taking the sacrament. But if there is one thing that I have learned is that if we are understand the scriptures we must read and consider them in context. So let me give the context of that passage and see if it changes the meaning. For this I will be using the New International Version translation of the Bible since it helps make it easier to understand certain critical passages.
In the early days of the church when Jesus's apostles established churches everywhere they went they frequently did not have a formal church building where the saints would meet. Sometimes they would meet in the local synagogue, but it was more common to meet in a member's house. Many notable women are mentioned as being the spiritual center of these early house churches.
In the early church it quickly became the custom that when the members met they would have a meal together, as in a full meal. As a part of the meal they would have the sacrament of the Lord's supper in the same manner that Jesus taught his disciples before he died. As Paul explained to the members at Corinth,
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)To follow the pattern set forth by Jesus the church members would have a full meal and then afterwards would have the sacrament. To understand what and why Paul was writing we have to understand the letter to the Corinthians.
Paul had traveled to Corinth and had established a church there. After he continued on his mission to other cities he received a series of letters from the saints in Corinth with some questions. They had had some contentions regarding how the church was to be run and they wrote to Paul to settle some doctrinal, procedural and administrative disputes. We do not know exactly what questions they asked, but a good portion of 1 Corinthians is Paul responding to their questions. Without this it is easy to get lost. The confusion is further compounded by the fact that occasionally Paul will quote from the letter sent by the Corinthians and his responses get mixed in with their questions. So sometimes it's hard to tell what are his responses and what are the statements he is responding to, and in some cases refuting.
It is in this context that Paul responds to the saints in Corinth in Chapter 11. We do not have their question, but obviously they had a question about the sacrament of the Lord's supper. From his response we can infer what problems they were facing.
It would appear that when the church started they had the custom of having a full meal before the sacrament. But at some point certain members started holding their own church meals (v. 21) and not inviting other members to these meals. Some members who had an abundance of food would use that fact to try to pridefully demonstrate to the other members that they had God's approval, while those who could not contribute to the communal meal did not have God's approval (v. 19). This caused divisions in the congregation (v. 18) since groups of members were having their own private "sacrament meetings" with full meals (v. 21). Thus the poor members were showing up to the meetings expecting a full meal before the sacrament and instead got nothing (v. 22). This made some members get sick, or be weak, and in some cases fall asleep in the church meetings (v. 30).
Thus the church in Corinth was having a problem with members holding their own sacrament meetings, perhaps without proper priesthood authorization, and in some cases they were having parties or meals (v. 21) and not having the sacrament afterwards (v. 20), but still calling it a church meeting. So they were misunderstanding the purpose of the Lord's supper and were calling any big meal they had "the Lord's supper." It had gotten to the point that the church meetings were doing more harm than good (v. 17).
So when Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was trying to correct these problems and make sure that there were no contentions among the members. He was also trying to correct the misconception that "the Lord's supper" was not a meal to be shared with only friends, but that when the church came together for a meal, everyone should be invited and should participate (v. 33). But to prevent the sacrament of the Lord's supper turning into nothing more than a party, or well spread meal, the members should eat in their own homes first and then gather for the sacrament (v. 34). That way there would be no confusion between a church potluck and the sacrament.
Thus Paul clearly laid out the procedure for the sacrament (vs. 23-26) and admonished the saints to follow that pattern for the sacrament, until he could come and give them further instructions (v. 34). In is in this context that Paul gives his warning about eating and drinking of the sacrament unworthily.
"So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves." (vs. 27-29)In this context when Paul talks about being unworthy he is referring to the contentions and divisions (vs. 18-22) that are tearing apart the church. Church members are not taking care of the hungry and poor (v. 22) and are despising the body of the church (vs. 22, 29, 31), or the "body of Christ". When the church comes together to "partake of the Lord's supper", they are not doing the ordinance correctly, and everything else, the unimportant stuff is getting in the way of the sacrament, hence what they are doing is not the Lord's supper (v. 20). For this reason the church is under condemnation and when they are doing it in an unworthy, or unauthorized manner, they are "guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord."
So in the end, the unworthiness that Paul was speaking against was the contentions and divisions in the church, and the fact that some members were not doing the ordinance correctly. Thus those members who were having their own private "sacrament meals" were eating and drinking "judgment on themselves."
In our church today verses 27-29 are frequently cited as proof that we need to be careful not to partake of the sacrament unworthily. While there are some cases where members who have committed certain sins are not allowed to take the sacrament, I think that sometimes members take those verses out of context and understand them to mean that if we have any sin or misdeed in our lives we should not take the sacrament, no matter how small. But unfortunately comes from misunderstanding the context and intent of the passage. Taking the sacrament signifies our desire to make a covenant with the Lord, it does not signify that we have personally atoned for our own sins. That is something we cannot do. Because of the misapplication of those verses some members get the idea that we must be perfect to take the sacrament. This in effect denies the atonement of Christ since it is he who atones for our sins, not us. The sacrament signifies our accepting the covenant that the Lord will cleanse from our sins, not that we have cleansed ourselves, since that is something we cannot do.
The reasons for not taking the sacrament should be when someone has committed a major sin, one that is damaging to other members and disrupts the good feeling among the members, or if there are divisions and contentions among the members. If they can't get along and be unified in the covenant then they should not take the sacrament. Also members should not try to partake of the sacrament without proper authorization from the bishop of other presiding authority. Thus members cannot have their own sacrament meeting if they happen to not like the bishop or other members in the congregation. They do not have the keys to determine when and where the sacrament should be done.
When I presented this in my lesson in Elder's Quorum, one member of the quorum commented that he had never had it explained to him like that. He said that taking the sacrament was something he had struggled with because he had never felt worthy and it was a relief to hear that it wasn't about fixing all the little sins and misdeeds before we take the sacrament, but that we take the sacrament to signify that we are unified with the body of Christ, which is the church.