Church as a Meal
by Tim Chester
[An excerpt from Tim’s book “A Meal With Jesus” (pp. 50-51, Crossway Publishers). The concluding Personal Reflections and Footnotes are mine. – Rick Owen]
Meals were central to the life of the apostolic churches: “Day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). The only local church gathering the book of Acts describes concerns the church at Troas. We read that they “were gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7; see also v. 11). They met for a meal.1
In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul has to correct the excesses of Corinthian church gatherings, because the rich aren’t waiting for the poor or providing for them. The Corinthian believers met around a meal, but in a dysfunctional manner that didn’t reflect the gospel. Paul’s answer, however, is not to abolish the meal, but to realign it to the cross.
The first churches met in homes. Most houses could accommodate thirty to forty people at gatherings, although in larger houses it’s conceivable that groups of a hundred could have gathered to eat. There’s evidence that by the mid-second century, homes were being adapted as church buildings. Specially built church buildings only really take off when the Roman Empire officially becomes Christian, and churches begin to be built in the style of Roman temples. But during the apostolic period churches met in homes, around a meal.2
The New Testament commonly portrays churches as families, with God as Father, Jesus as older brother, and other members as brothers and sisters. Church leaders are family leaders, and must prove their ability to manage their own households before they can manage the household of God. One of the requirements for elders is that they must be “hospitable” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8; see Rom. 16:23). Consider that many requirements churches typically have for leaders (like a seminary degree) are not required by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. But what he does require is that they be hospitable. Perhaps this was because church meetings were family meals. How could you lead a meal-meeting if you weren’t hospitable? How could you extend the generous welcome of the gospel if you didn’t welcome people into your home?
The meetings of the apostolic churches were shared meals. It’s not that they sometimes had a church lunch, or that they had some food before or after their meetings. Their meetings were meals. The second-century theologian Tertullian describes a church gathering:
Our feast explains itself by its name. The Greeks call it agape, i.e., affection. Whatever it costs, our outlay in the name of piety is gain, since with the good things of the feast we benefit the needy. . . . The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste. . . . After manual ablution [washing, R.O.], and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing. . . . As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it is closed.
Some Personal Reflections on Tim's Excerpt
Imagine how different the expectations and experience of elders (or pastors) and those they lead might be if the elder’s role focused less on being an inspirational keynote speaker (or preacher) for an auditorium ‘audience’ each week and more on coaching and cultivating Christ-magnifying participation (remembrance, proclamation, thanksgiving, praise, celebration, renewal, sharing of material and spiritual gifts, and prayer) among the saints in a family-like setting around the Lord's table. This is the idea, as I understand it, behind having church as a meal.
1Acts 20:7 is one of two passages in the New Testament that use a purpose clause in the Greek which explains why, or for what purpose, believers gathered together as a church. The second passage, from 1 Corinthians 11:20, 33, also shows that sharing a meal – the Lord’s supper – was a central reason for gathering as a church. Why don’t more churches do this today?
2Other passages describe practices that give us more insight into what New Testament churches did when they met. What we do not find is a ‘worship service’ planned around an auditorium presentation by one man, or even a ‘worship team,’ where the majority of the people are passive spectators. Instead, we see mutual ministry, where believers in Christ use their spiritual gifts to build up one another, as active members of God’s royal priesthood (Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4:12-16; 5:19; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 10:24-25; 1 Pet. 2:9; 4:10). Learn more about this in Gathering as Christ's Ekklesia.
Comments by Tim Chester about A Meal With Jesus
A Meal with Jesus from Tim Chester on Vimeo.