Can We Eat In the Church Building?
by Richard Mansel
Do we have the scriptural authority to eat in a fellowship hall constructed with church funds. Within the churches of Christ there are a sizeable number of congregations who hold that fellowship halls are contrary to the Word of God. This group has collectively been given the name “anti’s” by those who disagree with their views. This is considered derisive by those who constitute this group. (1) They simply refer to themselves as “conservative” and others as “liberal.” I will use the more common appellation attributed to them today and will refer to them as “non-institutional” (NI) brethren. Non-institutional brethren constitute approximately 2,000 congregations with nearly 120,000 members. (2)
DEFINITION OF TERMS
Do we have the scriptural authority to eat in a fellowship hall constructed with church funds? I am aware of the possible ambiguities of this statement. In the written discussion between Ray Hawk and James P. Needham on this topic, they spent close to half of their discussion space attempting to establish their propositions and terms. From this reader’s perspective, they never did.
Needham initiated the written debate by questioning Hawk’s mention of a fellowship hall in his bulletin. Hawk responded by offering a very reasonable proposition. He wrote, “the Scriptures teach that the church may/may not (depending on affirmation or denial, RDM) come together and eat a common meal on property paid for out of the common church treasury.”(3) No doubt Hawk was surprised when this was rejected. Needham wrote, “There is no way I would debate these propositions. I wouldn’t deny your proposition, and don’t know anyone who would.”
Needham’s new proposition read, “The Scriptures teach that the elders may call the church together to eat a common meal on church property, namely, in the church building or on church grounds when said meal is designed for social and/or recreational purposes.”
Needham considered dining in the building as acceptable as these two quotes show.
“I sometimes eat my lunch in my study. Back in the country we used to carry our dinner to church and eat it on the grounds because we could not get home and back for the evening service in a horse-drawn wagon. I believe that was necessary, and essential. It was not done for a social purpose.” (4)
“I do not deny that the congregation could eat on the premises when it is essential or necessary to the work of the church. I deny that they can eat on the premises for a purely social or recreational purpose. I deny that the church can pay for facilities for recreational purposes.” (5)
Jeff Asher writes, “the dinners on the ground of our parents” and grandparents” day were not a forty-second cousin to the church sponsored recreation of our day. What was done in the past as an incidental thing to the Sunday assemblies does not authorize the social meal.” (6)
Larry Fain adds:
Sometimes a preacher might even take a meal inside the office. Many preachers take a sack lunch to their office just the same as an accountant might do. It is expedient. Eating in the church building is not always sin. There is a difference, though, between a preacher taking a meal in his office as an expedient and the church providing a kitchen for that purpose or a “˜fellowship hall” so that all the members, or even a portion of them, may also partake in a meal.” (7)
The issue apparently then is not “eating in the building.” Nor is the “social meal” aspect an issue either. The minute those families of old, visited or allowed their children to run and play, they were recreating on church grounds. When they wanted to eat and visit and talk of secular things did they have to go outside in inclement weather? Or, did they go in the building? When their children got restless did they have to stay in the inclement weather or go inside to play?
They went inside and ate their fellowship meals and had social time together. Since their actions were acceptable then, we can presume that at some point social meals were acceptable. Only two explanations exist. Either cars made fellowship meals sinful or they became so when someone developed a doctrine claiming they were sinful.
Consistency is a great challenge for anything we practice. Concerning the inconsistencies of our brethren’s practice in the pre-automobile days, one writer says, “does the antiquity of the practice make it right?” Not entirely, but the support of so many NI brethren for these fellowship meals in the building is destructive to their doctrine of no fellowship meals in the building. When faced with the inconsistencies concerning eating in his office, Needham also finds himself cornered by his illogic and says, “Suppose I can”t justify eating my lunch in the building, does that prove his (Hawk’s) proposition?” (8) Actually, yes (Colossians 3:17).
I shudder to think of a congregation as troubled as the Christians in Corinth. Paul wrote them as many as four letters trying to solve disputes and correct false doctrine. What we refer to as 1 Corinthians address several conflicts.
“The immediate purpose of the Epistle was obviously to answer the letter Paul had received from the Corinthian church. But that this was not primarily in his mind is seen in that not until 1 Corinthians 7 does he turn his attention to the letter he had received. Much more important to Paul were certain matters that the Corinthians had not mentioned. He wrote to set things right. His primary concern was with the divisions in the church and the spirit of factiousness that these divisions proclaimed to all.” (9)
They were embroiled in factious behavior. First, false teachers had banded together to recruit others to their side. Second, 1:10-17 finds Paul attacking this immediately following the introduction. Symptomatic of their disunity, they had chosen sides in who their “favorite” teachers were (1:12-13). Paul then discusses the spiritual immaturity of man’s wisdom as compared to God”™s (1:18- 2:16). He applies it to them. “For you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (2:3). In chapter five, they are harboring an incestuous relationship. Notice, 5:1 says it is “among you” and they were afraid to remove him from “among (them).” In chapter six, they were going to court against one another and no doubt also divided over that dispute.
Examining Paul’s answers to the problems of the Corinthians sheds light on the matter under consideration. The solution to divisions over teachers was to humble themselves before others and perform the task God’s way. This was his answer to all the squabbles. With the incestuous man they were to unify in humble obedience to God’s plan and discipline the man. In the situations with the lawsuits and the spiritual gifts they were to place others before themselves and submit to God’s way.
When we come to the abuse of the Lord’s Supper why should Paul’s solution be any different? Why would he come to this problem and tell them to eliminate the situation rather than deal with the root? Why did he not offer that as the answer to the conflict over spiritual gifts? Stop using all spiritual gifts and the conflicts will cease. In the case of the lawsuit why did he not just say, “just forget this petty problem and let it go”? Why did he say, “is it so that there is not a wise man among you, not even one who will be able to judge between his brethren?” (6:5). It would be completely out of character for Paul’s answer to the abuse of the Lord’s Supper to simply eliminate the whole situation rather than force them to deal with their godly responsibilities. Why not teach them the principle of patient love and concern for others rather than sending them home to further seethe?
Paul repeats himself so many times in this passage that it would be impossible to misunderstand him. In 11:17 he writes, “since you come together not for the better but for the worse.” In 11:18 he writes, “when you come together…” Two verses later he adds, “therefore when you come together in one place…” (11:20). In 11:33 he says, “when you come together” and then in the last verse of the chapter finalizes it by summarizing, “lest you come together for judgment.”
Why have they come together? This is clearly demonstrated in 11:20 when he criticizes them by saying, “when you come together in one place it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” and outlines their abuses. Conclusively, they have “come together” for worship on the Lord’ Day.
Thayer says this reference to “come together” means to “assemble with regard to place.” (10)
“Here the word is a technical term for the coming together of the Christian congregation, esp. to administer the Lord”™s Supper. Paul attacks scandals in Christian gatherings, e.g., divisions, the lack of order and discipline at the Lord’s Supper.” (11)
Paul says in 11:18, “when you come together as a church…” Thayer interprets this as “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship.” (12) A. T. Robertson adds that when Paul prefaces his comments with “first of all” it shows that “this is the primary reason for Paul’s condemnation and the only one given.” (13) Paul is only condemning the factious spirit of their gatherings. Once again, the reader need only return to 11:20. The New Revised Standard Version reads, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper.” Who among us would say that Paul would condone eating the Lord’s Supper on any other occasion but during worship on the Lord’s Day? (Acts 20:7).
Examining the purpose of this passage is to establish that Paul is referring to behavior during worship. I have been a Christian for over 20 years and have never heard of any congregation anywhere who has had a fellowship meal during worship!!
In other words, this does not even address the fellowship meals in our churches today which take place outside of worship. Interestingly, we find very few examples of Christians meeting outside of worship. The situation just never arose to discuss Christians meeting outside of worship so we have no right to say that we have clear guidelines concerning their behavior when together! To do so is to bind on earth what is not bound in heaven (Matthew 16:19).
Curiously, there are those who, in agreement with me, say that this passage is silent concerning fellowship meals outside of worship. However, they turn it around and say this silence is prohibitive. One says, “when it comes to social meals among brethren, such are completely excluded from the assembling of themselves together as a congregation (1 Corinthians 11:22,34).” (14) How can a passage concerning an abuse of the Lord’s Supper have anything whatsoever to do with an event outside of worship? Must we, for example, only used unleavened bread at our dinner tables?
One NI writer states, “understand first that Paul is not correcting the misuse of a meal, but the misuse of the Lord’s Supper. The clear implication is that some had turned the Lord’s Supper into a common meal.” (15) Then, he adds that Paul did not say, ‘”eat your meals separately from the Lord’s Supper, or, “˜Make sure to eat your meals together and share what you have.”” (16) The insinuation he makes is that when Paul said “do you not have houses to eat in” he condemns all social meals in the building. I disagree on the following grounds.
Deaver defined inferences or implications as “when an action, fact, or teaching is absolutely demanded by the Biblical information at hand””without being specifically stated”” then that action, that fact, or that teaching is a matter of implication.” (17) If this passage refers to activities during worship then we cannot possibly imply/infer that it contains prescriptions for activities post-worship. This no more speaks of the proper handling of fellowship meals than it does our meals at home.
Paul was addressing a specific situation in worship. Utilizing the reasoning of some, when Paul says, “do you not have houses to eat and drink in?” he means it would be sinful to ever eat anywhere but home. NI brethren say that we should meet in homes to eat together as a group of Christians. However, under their reasoning that is sin! “You” (individuals collectively) must eat in your home only. Paul violated this at every meal he ate because he had no home.
In close examination we see that 11:20 says specifically that they came together to eat of the Lord’ Supper, hence at worship. Then in 11:21 Paul presents the problem (previously alluded to as “division” in 11:18 and “factions”™ in 11:19) as “˜in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.” They were guilty of greed, gluttony, drunkenness, being respecters of persons, etc. Paul’s answer is, “What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?” (11:22).
History tells us that they did have meals associated with the Lord’s Supper. I don’t find this prescribed in Scripture so it must have been an extension of Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper in the context of the Passover meal. Everett Ferguson in Early Christians Speak quotes from Tertullian who said, “we take the sacrament of the Eucharist, which was commanded by the Lord at meal time and for all alike.” (18)
I am aware of the warning of Riggs who said, “it seems to me that anytime anyone must rely on the church fathers to prove a doctrine, it shows a weakness of position.”(19) I concur that a reliance on Church Fathers is sometimes specious. We can see the language Tertullian uses and see the signs of apostasy rising up in the church.
We can most certainly accept the veracity of an enemy of Christianity because they have no reason to lie. Pliny writes of meals that Christians partook of. In reporting to Roman Emperor Trajan on the practices of Christians he wrote, “…it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble [in the same place as worship, RDM] to partake of food – but food of an ordinary kind.” (20) Later, he wrote, “The gathering later in the day, presumably in the evening, was for dinner. The meal was likely the love feast which was observed in the evening at the time of the main meal of the day.” (21)
Paul’s admonition that they “eat and drink at home” is taken to mean that we must never eat socially at the building. This is in addition to the eating in the church building by the minister, by workers doing construction in the building, children getting snacks in the building, drinking from the water fountain, dinner on the grounds and in the building in olden days and meals for “˜edification” allowed by NI brethren.
Further frustrating this doctrine is Paul’s answer to the problems in 11:22ff. In 11:29 he says they were eating of the Lord’s Supper “unworthily” and were driving people away from the Lord by their avarice (11:30). Because of this they will be judged by the Lord (11:31-32).
Paul says, “therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Remember, in a contextual study of Scripture, the most important thing is always the most important thing. Reading this and his words in 11:34, “if anyone is hungry let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment” we find the answer to this debate.
When they came together they were abusing the Lord’s Supper by turning it into an orgy of gluttony and drunkenness. Paul’s prescription is to be humble and wait to eat until all have arrived and have taken their portion. When they “wait for one another” they will avoid the problems enumerated. This is exactly as Paul dealt with all the problems in this epistle. Solve the root problem instead of eliminating the conditions. Taking meals to the home and away from the meeting place would not allow for them to “wait for one another” unless they could somehow determine at what moment each family ate in their own homes so as not to eat before another! They would have to practice “synchronized dining.”
The reason Paul says again in 11:34 that “if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home” is that they were coming to the Lord’s Supper ravenous and were letting their bellies control their actions. Instead, they should take care of their hunger to the extent that they can patiently await everyone else. The point in the Lord’s Supper was God and the sacrifice of His Son on the cross of Gethsemane and not their bodily appetites. They had turned the communion into selfishness.
Due to the limitations of space, I will very briefly give some other reasons as to why I feel Scripture does not condemn social meals.
First, we know that church buildings were not constructed until at least the third century. So, to speak of “eating in the church building” during New Testament days is pointless. We know they met in homes (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19). If NI doctrine were true these hosts could never eat in their own houses and, as noted, would be committing sin if they ate anywhere else! Starvation is a disincentive to hosting a house church.
It is said that we can and should fellowship in homes with other saints. Yet, no one has been able to explain to me where the authorization is for eating in homes that would not also apply to eating in a church fellowship hall outside of worship time. Certainly not 1 Corinthians 11.
Second, church buildings are not sacred. In fact, the church is the people not the building.
Third, it is said that Jesus’ words in John 6 is a prohibition of fellowship meals. Jesus fed the multitude and they came back to Him for more bread. He refused to give them more physical bread saying they should seek spiritual bread. Therefore, we should not come to church seeking physical bread. This is faulty logic. Jesus condoned and even led the giving of physical bread after giving them spiritual bread. The second group wanted physical bread instead of spiritual bread! How can we have Bible classes and then worship and then sit down to a meal and say that people are getting physical bread without spiritual bread? This passage does not apply.
Fourth, when we read Acts 2:42ff we see the unity of mind and fellowship that they had.. In 2:46 the text says, “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart.” Two questions. First, how did the church grow daily? They went to the temple and house to house teaching the word. Second, (remember we must exclude 1 Corinthians 11) if they had had a church building as we do and were together daily and united in every way would we actually be so presumptuous as to say they never would have eaten a fellowship meal in their building!?!
In the kingdom we are all to be united and bonded together in Him. As a Christian family we are to form a community of faith. “Fellowship” in Acts 2:42 is eloquently defined as “sharers in a common life.” (22) Philippians 2:1-4 calls us to be united in mind and spirit under His Word. Hebrews 10:19ff tells us to “draw near” each other to always have a support system in addition to prayer. As a fact, we do not spend enough time together as Christians. We forsake meals and visitation together for worldly activities. This is a sad testament to how we have left God’s plan. Yet, this disparity should not condemn fellowship meals at the church building because we have no scriptural prohibition against the practice. Having no prohibition, we need to be finding more opportunities to gather rather than less. The building we utilize for worship is just a central and convenient location for this gathering.
I offer this paper with all humility and respect to brethren who differ on these matters. If in my further study on this matter I come to the conclusion that fellowship meals in the building are sinful I will teach it and practice it with all of my being. To this point, I find no Scriptural reason for its prohibition. May we all, though, continue to “search the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11).
1. Ferrell Jenkins, “Please Don’t Call Us “Anti: An Update on the Non-Institutional Churches of Christ,” Pepperdine University Bible Lectures 1998, 7-16-01
2. Mac Lynn, compiler, Churches of Christ in the United States 2000 (Nashville: 21st Century Christian, 2000), 31. Non-institutional is how they are listed here so I use this “title.”
3. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. John, in The New International Commentary, vol. 4, edited by F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 75.
4. James P. Needham, Hawk-Needham Discussion (White Park: James P. Needham, 1974), 7.
5. Ibid., 9.
6. Jeff Asher, “Church Social Meals and Recreation,” 7-09-01
7.Larry Fain, “What About Pantries and the Local Church?”, 6-18-01 http://www.watchmanmag.com/0201/020101.htm
8. Needham, 42.
9. Leon Morris, “First Epistle to the Corinthians,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia edited by G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 1:777.
10. Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1977), 604.
11. Johannes Schneider, “sunerchomai,” in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 2:684.
12. Thayer, 196.
13. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in The New Testament: Concise Edition edited by James A. Swanson (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2000), 418.
14. “Bible Authority: Fellowship Halls,” http://www.ch-of-christ.beaverton.or.us/Authority_Class_20_21.htm
15.”Do Not Let the Church Be Burdened: Part 3? http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/prattmont/sermons/burdenfellowshiphalls.html , 6-18-01.
17. Deaver, 57.
18. Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak (Abilene: ACU Press, 1981), 83.
19. David J. Riggs, “Can the Church Provide Fellowship Meals? A Reply to a Letter # 1, 5-17-01 http://www.public.usit.net/driggs/meals02.htm
20. Ferguson, 83.
21. Ibid., 84.
22. D. W. B. Robinson, “Fellowship,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia edited by G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 1:752.