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Eating In The Assembly Place (1)

Some of the most soul-strengthening moments in a Christian’s life occur when disciples get together for fellowship around a meal. Bonds between brethren are forged; the Bible is discussed; spiritual growth ensues. 


For this reason, many churches engage in potlucks or pitch-in meals. Often, these fellowship gatherings occur in the very building where the church assembles for worship. 


Despite its edifying qualities, over the last century or so conscientious Christians have wondered whether this practice is Biblically authorized.


In a subsequent essay, I will analyze 1 Corinthians 11.17-34, a passage that is effectively ground-zero for answering this question.


At present, however, let us explore some of the other evidence that gives God-fearing people ample confidence in the righteousness of this practice. 


Acts 20.11

On the return trip of his third missionary campaign, Paul assembled with the church at Troas on Sunday evening. They were meeting in the “upper room” (Acts 20.8) of a building where they observed the communion and listened to the apostle’s presentation (v. 7).


During Paul’s protracted message, a “young man” named Eutychus, who had fallen asleep, fell out of “a window” (v. 9). The apostle “went down” — probably “by the outside staircase common in Eastern houses” (Knowling, 425) — and revived the lad. Then, Luke says that Paul “was come up again” (KJV) — i.e., he “went back upstairs” (Mounce’s translation; see also the NET) — where he continued to fellowship with the church until his departure at “daybreak” (v. 11).


Here is a significant point. After returning to the assembly place with the church, Paul “broke bread and ate and talked a long while” (v. 11). In my article, The Timing of the Communion, I demonstrate that this cannot refer to the communion. Instead, Paul ate a common meal while conversing with the brethren in their meeting place. Consult that study for an expanded explanation. A summary of the evidence follows:


(1) Paul “ate” (geuomai) this meal, a word which means to “taste,” “savor,” or “dine” (cf. Acts 10.10; 23.14; Lk. 14.24; Mt. 27.34). This word describes the enjoyment of a satiating meal and is “never used” of eating the communion (Hervey, 144). The communion is not a meal consumed for culinary enjoyment, but this word specifically implies “enjoyment of the experience” (Mounce, 2006, p. 707). Paul, therefore, was savoring a breakfast.


(2) Though the “disciples” (plural) had “broken bread” in verse seven, only Paul, in verse eleven, “broke” (singular) and “savored” (singular) this “bread.” Hence, it was a personal meal, not a congregational ritual. 


(3) While eating this meal, Paul began “talking” with the disciples until daybreak. The term denotes an informal conversation (i.e., to “keep company” with someone). Indeed, it was a “more familiar and confidential intercourse than discoursed, in ver. 7” (Vincent, 559). 


Furthermore, the conjunction, te, links the meal with Paul’s personal conversation (i.e., “Paul broke bread and both ate and conversed”); hence, the meal and the conversation were both of the personal variety.


The communion ritual, by contrast, is not a time for free and friendly conversations.


(4) The disciples ate the communion before midnight on the “first day of the week” (v. 7). But Paul savored this meal (v. 11) after midnight, which was the “next day” of the week (v. 7). If verse eleven describes the communion, then the disciples failed to observe the ritual on the “first day of the week” as they had assembled to do, for the “bread” of verse eleven was broken on Monday morning [1]. Since that is so, it could not have been the communion.


Here, then, is an apostolic example of a Christian enjoying a common meal, accompanied by a friendly atmosphere of spiritual fellowship, in the place where the church assembled for worship.


Charity Dinners

In addition, there is much evidence that the apostolic church met on Sunday evenings to engage in a common dinner with one another, after which they participated in the communion. I will expand upon this point in the second part of this study. For now, note the following.


(1) Jude describes these church potlucks as “feasts of charity” (1.12, KJV) — lit., “charities.” The plural form indicates that these were regular events designed for charitable purposes. 


However, some took advantage of the situation. Instead of serving others, they were there to “serve only themselves” (NKJV), “eating with you without the slightest qualm” (ESV).


(2) Peter also alludes to these church charity dinners (2 Pet. 2.13). He noted that some were there with “deceptions” (apatais) [2]. That is, outwardly, they were present for charitable purposes, but really they were there to “revel” (entruphe—luxuriate; to be exceedingly self-indulgent to the point of enervation). 


(3) Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul encouraged the brethren to “come together to eat” (1 Cor. 11.33). Though the church at Corinth had also developed a problem with these meals, meriting Paul’s corrective polemic (see more in part two), yet the passage shows: 


(a) that Paul wanted them to continue these dinners; and 


(b) that the meals occurred in the same venue where they observed the communion (i.e., the place where they assembled for worship).


(4) Pliny the younger (ca. 61-113 A.D.) was a Roman magistrate. In a letter to the Emperor, Trajan, Pliny reported that Christians met "on a stated day" in the early morning to "address a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity.” He then noted that later in the day they would "reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal" (Pliny, To Trajan, Book 10, Letter 97; see Cross, et al.). 


(5) The African apologist, Tertullian (c. 170-225 A.D.), described the church’s Sunday evening “charity-feast” in this way: 

“Our meal reveals its meaning in its very name; it is called that which signifies love among Greeks…One does not recline at table without first savoring a prayer to God; and then one eats what the hungry would take and drinks what would serve the needs of the temperate. They thus satisfy themselves as those who remember that God is to be worshipped even at night, and they converse as do those who know that God listens. After the washing of hands and the lighting of lamps, each is urged to come into the middle and sing to God, either from the sacred Scriptures or from his own invention” (Apology 39:16-18).

The church, starting in apostolic times and continuing through several succeeding centuries, recognized the spiritual benefits of church “potlucks.” Though there were also abuses to these meals, still, they had no scruples about hosting them in the assembly place.


Home Churches

Furthermore, several congregations in the New Testament era assembled in private homes (cf. Rm. 16.5; 1 Cor. 16.19; Col. 4.15; Phile. 1.1-2; etc.). If it is wrong to eat in the church’s assembly place, where did church hosts like Aquila, Priscilla, and Nymphas eat? Did they take all their meals “out”?


The Christian couple Aquila and Priscilla in particular were noted for their hospitality. Before they moved from Corinth they let Paul stay in their home (Acts 18.2-3). Then, while in “Asia” (i.e., modern-day Turkey), they hosted the local church (1 Cor. 16.19). 


Is it reasonable to suggest that while they were hospitable enough to have the church over for services — and even to let some Christians sleep, eat, and stay in their home — these church-hosts were prohibited from allowing the church to stay for a meal? On what Biblical basis can such a distinction be made?


Inconsistent Application

In addition, there are a few points that demonstrate that applying this scruple is challenging at best — hypocritical at worst. 


Inconsistent Practices

In the first place, if it is wrong to eat in the assembly hall, why is it acceptable to engage in other social (even secular) functions in the building? Consider two examples.


(1) Churches that oppose eating in their building still have restrooms and water fountains — some even have refrigerators so their preacher can store his weekday lunch. Why is it permissible to use the church building for these types of mundane secular activities, but not for a spiritually enriching congregational meal? Where are our priorities?


If it is argued that such things are useful to expedite the church’s spiritual activities, why does a potluck meal not do the same? Isn’t hosting an environment where brethren share their goods far more spiritual than relieving bodily needs (cf. Rom. 12.13; 2 Cor. 9.12; Gal. 6.9-10; Heb. 13.16; 1 Pet. 4.9)? 


The church needs to cement strong relationships with one another to help its members grow (1 Cor. 12.25-26; Col. 2.19; Eph. 4.16). A potluck can do much to expedite that goal. 


(2) Furthermore, most of these good-natured brethren are extremely gregarious. It is often difficult to leave their church building after services without having a friendly conversation with several of their members. I have never heard of any Christian suggesting it is wrong to engage in these social interactions in the assembly place. Yet, if you put a loaf of bread in the hands of the disciples to eat as they are talking with one another, somehow the social fellowship has suddenly become illicit.


Wherein lies the difference? Whether with food or without it, every church uses the building for social purposes. It is not merely a place for religious activity. How does one arbitrarily draw the line at one type of social activity (e.g., a potluck), but not at another (e.g., personal conversations)? 


Challenging Scruples

Second, years ago, I was a member of a very loving congregation that opposed using the meeting place for potlucks. But they still recognized the spiritual benefit of the church gathering over a meal. So what did they do? They used another building across town. 


Now note this: as the meal set before each of us, one of the elders stood up, made a few church announcements, and then led the entire congregation in a prayer of thanksgiving for the food. Thus, the church had found a new assembly place (albeit a temporary one) in which they could engage in an act of worship together. Yet, they also ate in this new location.


Ponder this. What if the elder decided to say a few words of exhortation, reminding the church to be thankful to God? Would that have been permissible too? 


For that matter, if the church was permitted to utter a prayer of thanksgiving to God in this new fellowship hall, could they not sing their thanks to him in this place also — and then eat their meal together? If not, why not?


To be clear, these particular brethren (whom I cherish fondly) would insist that because individual members had rented this new facility (not the church as such), they were not acting inconsistently with their scruples. But the argument is a misfire. 


First, as already shown, there is ample Bible authority for the church, from its treasury, to host a meeting place for culinary fellowship. More evidence of this will follow momentarily. 


Second, regardless of who paid for the facility, it was still a meeting place for the church, in which the church — as a unit — engaged in an act of worship together. If it is wrong for the church to eat where they engage in worship together, then, since we must give thanks to God for our food (1 Tim. 4.4-5), the church could never eat together…anywhere (contrary to 1 Cor. 11.33; etc.).


Third, if the regular meeting place of the church had been paid for by individual members instead of from the church treasury, would these brethren permit the church to host such a meal in the church building then? If not, then the objection isn’t merely about church finances. Rather, is it possible that some of our well-intended brethren have a misguided impression that the meeting hall of the church is some sort of holy place, where no social activity should be tolerated?


In any case, church potlucks — even when hosted in the church building — are paid for by individuals anyway. The quibble about church finances is a non sequitur


Implicit Authority

Finally, there is the matter of how to establish Bible authority. In a series of articles available here, I demonstrate that the Bible authorizes:


(1) Explicitly — through direct statements or commands.


(2) Implicitly — through conclusions that logically inhere in a direct statement or command.


(3) Through precedent — i.e., examples. 


As covered in the current article (and in the subsequent installment), the Bible authorizes eating in the church building both explicitly and through apostolic precedent.


But even in the absence of such authority, there is still implicit permission for the church to do so. Reflect with me upon this.


The Lord commanded the church to assemble (1 Cor. 16.1-2; Heb. 10.25; cf. Acts 20.7). This command implicitly authorizes a meeting place for assembly. Thus, the church may, from its treasury, purchase property in which it can fulfill the command to assemble. Though the Bible does not say so explicitly, that is the logical implication of the command.


Yet, God has never given the church any specific details concerning that meeting place. Hence, the church is at liberty to fulfill the command to assemble in any way that does not violate Biblical ethics. 


For this reason, the church of the New Testament assembled in various types of places. Some congregations met in the temple complex under Solomon’s portico (Acts 5.12). Others met at a private residence (Rm. 16.5; 1 Cor. 16.19; Col. 4.15; Phile. 2). Some congregations met in a public school (Acts 19.9-10), or in an “upper room” (Acts 20.8).  


There was therefore no singular pattern to which the churches were expected to conform, where assembling was concerned. The building itself, then, is a matter of human judgment. 


Now this. If the assembly place itself is a liberty, how could eating in it be a constraint? In other words, if God has made no explicit law concerning the church building in general, how could there be any specific restrictions concerning the use of that which he never explicitly discussed? As one brother put it:

“Since the ‘church building’ itself is but a mere expediency, how can anyone possibly make a law relative to the use of that building — for purposes that are perfectly legitimate within themselves? Can it not be the case that ‘fellowship meals’ serve a valid spiritual goal? Many a person has been taught the gospel over a meal with Christian people. These matters are in the realm of judgment, and it is the epitome of arrogance to dictate policy to all the churches” (Jackson, 12). 

Indeed, the church is authorized to eat together in Christian fellowship (Acts 2.46; 1 Cor. 11.33). By implication, if the church is permitted to eat together, then it must do so somewhere. We are therefore at liberty, within the bounds of spiritual discretion, to choose that location for ourselves. 


In short, if the church is authorized to have a church building to come together for worship, then the church is authorized to use that church building to “come together to eat,” since both authorizations rely upon the same implicit authority. 


Conclusion

Brethren who seek Bible authority for everything we do should be commended (Col. 3.17); but those who, due to their lack of knowledge, divisively conflate their personal scruples with Biblical mandate ought to be admonished (cf. Rom. 14.1-4). 


The Bible authorizes Christians to eat in the assembly place both by precedent (Acts 20.11), by explicit remarks (Jude 1.12; 2 Pet 2.13; 1 Cor. 11.17-34), and by implication (cf. Rm. 16.5; 1 Cor. 16.19; Col. 4.15; Phile. 1.1-2; Acts 2.46; 1 Cor. 11.33; etc.). 


But if that is so, what did Paul mean when, in his letter to the church at Corinth, he said, “eat at home” (1 Cor. 11.34)? That matter will be explored in a subsequent editorial. 


Meanwhile, let us acknowledge that the Bible authorizes the practice. May these studies aid those who insist otherwise in their spiritual growth in the Lord.


This is a two-part series:


Eating In The Assembly Place (1)


End Notes

[1] See the aforementioned article for a discussion on the difference between Jewish time and Roman time (which Luke uses here since that is what the local residents of Troas followed).

[2] Alternate manuscripts give us agapais “charities.”


Cross, F. L. and E. A. Livingstone (eds.). “Agape,” Dictionary of the Christian Church (article). Oxford University Press, 2005.

Hervey, A. C. “The Acts of the Apostles,” The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 18:2.  Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1958, p. 1958, p. 144.

Jackson, Wayne.  A Church Divided.  Courier Publications: Stockton, CA, 2000, p. 12.

Knowling, R. J.  “The Acts of the Apostles” in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Vol 2 (W. Robertson Nicoll, ed.).  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d., p. 425.

Mounce, William D.  Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006, p. 707.

Vincent, Marvin R.  Word Studies In The New Testament: Vol. 1.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973, p. 559.


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