Paul said that many of the Corinthians had wrongly discerned the Lord’s body and that their faulty discernment caused many among them to be weak and ill, and many to die (some translations use “sleep”). To die or to sleep? The Greek word can be translated either way, depending on the context. In this case, it doesn’t really matter because the issue is that the lack of discernment results in a lack of responsiveness.
Paul has been speaking of the theological and philosophical differences between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of Christ, but here he points to some of the very real and experiential consequences that accrue to a false belief that result in the false practice of the Lord’s Supper, and ultimately lulls people into a kind of sleep or death. Here Paul points out proof that the sacrament is effectual even regarding those who participate in it wrongly, apart from regeneration and submission to the Holy Spirit.
It cannot be ignored that Paul links the malpractice of the Lord’s Supper with illness and death. This is serious stuff! It should also be noted that the evils that come to those who take communion without regard for Paul’s caution, take God’s judgment upon themselves. And they do so of their own natural free will.
Is there a remedy, a way to avoid the illnesses and deaths that result from the wrong participation in the Lord’s Supper? Yes. Paul provides the remedy in verse 31, “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” This is a very important and little understood verse. It is divided into two clauses and appears to contrast the same idea or word in both clauses. The common word is “judged.” Most English translations use the same root word in both clauses, but they are different words in the Greek — and the difference is significant.
To better see the difference and the nature of the contrast we need to engage in a brief word study. The words are related, but different — diakrino; and krino. “But if we judged (diakrinoo) ourselves truly, we would not be judged” (krino – 1 Corinthians 11:31) .The first instance is a modification of the second. Paul is saying that some sort of modified human judgment will help keep people from God’s ultimate judgment.
Diakrino is translated in many different ways: criticized (Acts 11:2), interpret (Matthew 16:3), doubt (Matthew 21:21, James 1:6), hesitation (Acts 10:20), distinction (Acts 11:12), stagger (Romans 4:20), differ (1 Corinthians 4:7) and dispute (1 Corinthians 6:5).
Of course context is important. Strong’s defines the word first and foremost as “to separate thoroughly, that is, (literally and reflexively) to withdraw from, or (by implication) oppose.” If we use this meaning for the word in the verse under consideration we have: “But if we judged (oppose, separate or withdraw from) ourselves truly, we would not be judged” (krino – 1 Corinthians 11:31). To “separate from ourselves” can only mean that one subgroup of the Corinthian church separate from another subgroup — and the context is the church. Paul is talking about a separation within the church.
Is this the correct use of the word diakrino? It is because all of the other translations of the word suggest some element or consequence of differing opinions within the body of Christ that would lead to some sort of separation. It is the differing opinions between those who claim the wisdom of the world and those who claim the wisdom of Christ, and the conflicts and disagreements associated with such differences that result in division, separation and withdrawal from common fellowship.
But surely Paul teaches the unity of the church, the unity of Christianity! Of course he does. And yet it appears here and elsewhere (2 Corinthians 6:17) that Paul teaches that some separation is consistent with Christian unity. Indeed it seems that Christianity can multiply through cell division as well as cell growth, much like biological cells.
Paul is saying in verse 31 that if the church would clean its own house, it would not fall under the judgment of God. This is very difficult to hear and even more difficult to actually engage. Nonetheless, it appears to be what Paul said to the Corinthians. We — people in the churches — can avoid being disciplined by God by disciplining ourselves. We can avoid God’s judgment through the exercise of church courts for the sake of the health of the church and the sanctification (growth in grace) of God’s people. Paul taught here and elsewhere that faithless people should not be allowed to fellowship with the churches, and that if the churches become dominated by faithless people, then the faithful saints should separate themselves from the part of the body of fellowship that is dominated by faithlessness (“Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing” — 2 Corinthians 6:17).
Paul went on to say that such separation was not a bad thing, but was a good thing. “But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). When the churches fail to discipline themselves, they will come under the discipline and judgment of Jesus Christ, who brings trials and tribulations in order to test and sanctify the saints, to strengthen them through perseverance and grow them in holiness, and to keep His people from the final condemnation that will come to the world. This is indeed good news though it is not easy news, perhaps not even pleasant news — but it is good!