Does 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 Forbid Eating Meals in the Church Building?
What is the context of the entire book of First Corinthians? Throughout this epistle Paul dealt with issues that were dividing the Corinthian congregation.
He addressed divisions caused by respect of persons: “"I am of Paul," or "I am of Apollos," or "I am of Cephas," or "I am of Christ."” (1:10-17). Divisions caused by spiritual immaturity were addressed: “for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (3:1-23). He covered divisions caused by tolerance of sin: “And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.” (5:1-13). Paul also mentioned divisions caused by selfishness: “No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren!” (6:1-11). Divisions caused by not considering the weak conscience of one’s brethren are dealt with (8:1-13). He goes into depth on divisions caused by an improper view of spiritual gifts (12:1-14:40). He also straightens out divisions caused by an improper understanding of the resurrection (15:1-58).
Divisions were also caused by respect of persons and class distinctions. This is Paul’s issue and topic of discussion in our subject text (11:17-34), not whether or not to eat in a church building.
The very text tells us they were “eating and drinking” a common meal in the building where they were assembled as a church (v. 20 & 21). Unlike today, Sunday was just another work day in the first century. After a hard day at work, a good evening meal was needed for strength before entering into worship to God. Thus, the members met together and ate a common meal before worship. The problem was not where they were eating this meal, but how they were eating: “For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.” (v. 21). Apparently some members at Corinth were very well-off, others very poor. When the wealthy ate to the full while the poor went hungry, it witnessed to even further division among them. How could they afterward partake of the Lord’s Supper as one body, when they had just showed such disunity and self-serving behavior? Better to eat before you come together than to openly shame your brother in Christ (v. 22, 33-34)! Acts 20:7-12 makes it even more clear that the early Christians were eating in the same place they worshipped.
This passage is not condemning eating a common meal in a church building and is not recommending that they eat their meals only at home. How can we be certain of this? For at least two reasons:
First, they were meeting in homes! Where did the churches of the first century meet? From the scriptures, we find that first century Christians met in one of the homes of the members of the church. Priscilla and Aquila hosted one of the churches of Ephesus in their own home (Romans 16:3-5, 1 Corinthians 16:19). A brother named Nymphas hosted one of the churches of Asia in his home (Colossians 4:15). Philemon hosted the church of Colossae (Philemon 1:2, Colossians 4:9). The church being addressed in 1 Corinthians was meeting in a home of one of the members, Gaius. If this passage forbids eating in the building where the church meets, where could Gaius eat?
Second, there were no church buildings in the first century! The “church building” came along much later, around 300 years later than this text. There is no way they could have conceived that the passage was barring them from eating in the building in which the church met and instead was recommending them eat at home. A “church building” did not even exist, but they understood the contextual meaning of the passage. It was not possible to eat the Lord’s Supper correctly after experiencing the class division and respect of persons the Corinthian church demonstrated when they ate a common meal together. Instead, wait on one another (v. 33)! Do not shame the less well-off with your largess by not sharing equally with them! If such division exists (v. 21), better to fill your bellies before you leave home (v. 34), so that the unity that should exist during the Lord’s Supper be not violated (v. 20).
This is the meaning of the text: we are to observe the Lord’s Supper in the proper way.
This passage has nothing at all to do with eating a common meal in a church building.
By Mark Henderson, Austinville Church of Christ, 2833 Danville Road SW Decatur, Alabama 35603