Is it is a sin to eat in the church building? Many in the churches of Christ believe that it is. To be fair, most don't believe that the act of eating inside the church building is wrong such as when the preacher eats his lunch in the church office. Rather, it is said to be wrong to have a church organized meal in the building that will be promoted by the church where all the congregants are invited to participate. Why would anyone think that such is sinful? Generally, two reasons are given.
- The Bible clearly says, "if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home" in 1 Cor 11:34
- Providing meals is not a work that God has assigned to the church
Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?
The first objection is based upon the passage found in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In this passage, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians when he said in verse 17, "Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse." Christians are supposed to meet together so that they may edify and encourage one another. However, those in Corinth were behaving so rudely toward one another it seems it would have been better had they not met together at all.
What exactly were they doing that made their assemblies so awful? Paul says that they were supposed to be eating the Lord's Supper, but they were messing it up so badly, it couldn't even be considered communion (vs 20). In what way were they corrupting the communion? Were they substituting something else for the bread or the wine? Had they turned the Lord's Supper into a common meal? No, Paul says it was simply that they weren't waiting on one another. Consider 1 Corinthians 11:20-22.
... when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.
Notice that some were taking their supper ahead of others. While some were still hungry, others had already had more than enough! Based on Paul's statement about shaming those who had nothing, it would seem that those who were hungry were the Christians who were poor and lacked in this world's goods. Simply put, there were the "haves" and the "have-nots" and the "haves" were treating their poorer brethren shamefully by not waiting to eat with them and share with them. Paul described this behaviour as "division" in verse 17. So we can factually state the problem and the cause at this point.
- The problem: Paul states they are corrupting the Lord's Supper.
- The cause of the problem: They were mistreating one another by not waiting for others before partaking of the Lord's Supper.
Before giving the solution to the problem, Paul reminds them of how and why Jesus had instituted the Lord's Supper and warned that it is spiritually dangerous to partake of this memorial in an unworthy manner. The solution to the problem is found in verse 33 when Paul said, "Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another."
- The solution for the problem: When they came together to eat the Lord's Supper, they were to wait for each other.
That's it. Simple! All they had to do to fix this problem was to wait for one another when it was time for communion.
Now, what about when Paul mentioned twice about eating at home (verses 22 & 34)? Doesn't this mean they shouldn't be eating meals in the place where they assemble? Isn't Paul prohibiting common meals in the church building? Not at all, but many in the churches of Christ have used these two verses as a proof text for so long to "prove" that meals in the building are sinful that it has biased them against what is really being taught in the passage. Lets notice a few things that the passage does NOT say. The passage does not say anything about a common meal. The passage doesn't say they were turning the Lord's Supper into a common meal. The passage does not say they were adding food items to the Lord's Supper (in fact, bread and wine are the only food and beverage that are mentioned). The passage never mentions a church building. Could they have been doing some or all of these things? Perhaps, but it would be merely an assumption on our part and we cannot validly conclude that any of these things were happening. The text simply does not say what was happening beyond the fact that they were not waiting for one another.
What did Paul mean when he said to eat at home? Simply put, it was to help them wait for one another when they came together to eat. In other words, if you are too hungry to wait on your brothers and sisters when you gather around the Lord's Table, then satisfy your hunger at home before arriving. Don't arrive so famished that you give in to the craving to eat ahead of the other Christians. When Paul speaks about eating and drinking in houses, he was not contrasting that with eating and drinking in church buildings. This is very simple, but many times the truth is overlooked just because it is simple.
Those who insist that verses 22 & 34 are a prohibition against eating in the church building may not realize the unintended consequences of such a position. If this is your approach, then consistency demands that your own home is the only place you can eat. Take note that you have a direct command to eat at home which constitutes specific authority and excludes eating your meals anywhere but home. Not only must you refrain from eating in the church building, but also at a picnic in the park, a meal on the go in your car, or in your favorite restaurant!
Paul clearly states the problem, cause and solution; any additional "conclusions" would be based on mere assumptions. There are a number of inferences/assumptions that one can draw about the rest of the passage (what else was going on, motivations, cliques, etc.), but none of them are necessary inferences. The fact that one can draw different reasonable inferences means that there are none that are exclusive and therefore binding.
Not a work of the church
The following words in italics are a paraphrase of what one preacher has said about eating in the church building. "If a church plans a potluck and provides the facility for the event, it is engaging in a work not authorized by the New Testament. This is what makes such an event sinful. The issue is not eating in the church building. The issue is doing a work that is unscriptural. The work of the church is spiritual, not social and there is no authority for the church to plan and facilitate a common meal. Providing common meals is not a work of the church but a work of individual Christians."
Such a conclusion is based upon an incorrect understanding of what the church is not (an entity, institution, body politic, etc.) and an incorrect understanding of the responsibility of the church. (Before proceeding further, it would be good to first read the articles "Is The Local Church An Institution?" and "Church Responsibility".) Typically, a person who considers a group meal in the church building to be sinful because such is not a work of the church believes that a local congregation is some sort of organized institution with duties and responsibilities all its own which are somehow separate from the Christians that compose the congregation. When one views the church as an institution or corporate entity of some sort, one is bound to have a skewed view of everything about it including its work.
The church is not an organization, club or corporate entity. The Greek word that is translated as "church" is "ekklesia" (ek-klay-see’-ah, Strong's #1577) and it was used to refer to a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place for the purpose of deliberating. The word is primarily used in the New Testament to describe "the assembly" of God's people. When you see the word "church", generally speaking, you could substitute it with the words "a group of people" and not change the meaning of the passage as long as we understand that this "group of people" refers to God's people. It is imperative to understand that the work that God has given the church has not been assigned to some institution. Since the church is composed of individual Christians the work of the church falls upon individuals.
Consider the quoted statement above with the word "church" substituted by the definition of the word "church". "If a church group of Christians plans a potluck and provides the facility for the event, it is they are engaging in a work not authorized by the New Testament. This is what makes such an event sinful. The issue is not eating in the church Christian's building. The issue is doing a work that is unscriptural. The work of the church a group of Christians is spiritual, not social and there is no authority for the church a group of Christians to plan and facilitate a common meal. Providing common meals is not a work of the church a group of Christians but a work of individual Christians." Doesn't it sound ridiculous when you realize what the church really is?
Everyone with whom I have ever discussed this topic who thinks it is wrong to eat in the church building says it is perfectly acceptable for a local church (group of Christians) to assemble for a potluck in a park, a home or some other facility. However, if you take the same group of people doing the same exact things and move the event to the church building, somehow sin is now taking place! What sense does this make?
The fundamental error of those who embrace this doctrine is that there is a God given work assigned to a church institution whose responsibilities are separate from individual Christians. This fallacy is evident when we hear it taught that the church can't do everything that the individual Christian can do. The distinction is therefore clear in their minds that "the church" is somehow morphed into something other than just the individuals that compose it and therefore different rules apply.
Jesus taught that those who are given responsibility will be held accountable (judged) for how they performed (Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27). The Bible is clear that we will be judged as individuals. Where does it say that some church organization will be held accountable? It does not. If the Bible does not teach that the local church "entity" will be held accountable for anything, then we must conclude that no responsibility has ever been given to such an institution! The church, as a group or collective unit, has no responsibilities for which it will be held accountable! The "church" (in the institutional sense of the word) has no work to do. The truth is that "the work of the church" is in reality the work of the individual. When individual Christians are working, the church is working because the church is composed of individuals. If it is not a sin for an individual Christian to sponsor a potluck, what is it about multiple Christians doing the same that makes it sinful? There is no such thing as "the work of the church" in the sense that it is used by those who endorse this creed. Therefore, this entire argument falls on its face and isn't a valid objection for eating meals organized by a local congregation.
If we study 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 without relying on unnecessary inferences, and we realize that God has given individual Christians a work to do instead of some church institution, then it becomes clear that "church" potlucks in the building are not only authorized but are actually a means of edification. Why do groups of Christians want to assemble together for a meal in the first place? Is it not to spend time with one another and to get to know each other better? Is not such an occasion a time of mutual encouragement when Christians can keep company with others who love the Lord? Is such an event not spiritually edifying? Isn't mutual edification and encouragement exactly what Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us to do? If a meal organized and facilitated by a group of Christians is okay in a home or park, it is okay anywhere.