By Shawn Lazar
After you believe in Jesus for everlasting life, on what spiritual activities should you focus? What does the Bible say?
It’s easy to pick on Catholics and Orthodox for their unbiblical focus on man-made rituals and traditions such as monks, masses, feasts, fasts, and devotion to the immaculate heart of Mary. But what about our practices? Do Evangelicals and Fundamentalists have man-made traditions, too? And are those traditions distracting you from the activities that God has emphasized in the NT?
That’s a question weighing on my mind as I seek to follow Christ and teach my family to do the same.
For example, I’ve spent an enormous amount of time, energy, and money on seminary. And that’s Biblical, right? After all, you’ll remember how, at the end of Acts 2, the disciples founded Jerusalem Theological Seminary and commanded that only graduates with a three-year MDiv or better could then serve as leaders in the churches.
Remember that passage?
Oh wait, that’s not in the Bible?
The truth is, Jesus and the disciples never founded a seminary, attended one, or commanded one to be built. No one even thought to start anything like a seminary until over a thousand years later. So, where did I get the idea to focus on that? Where did I get the idea that it was worth all that time and money and is pleasing to God?
Not from the Bible.
Could seminarians and seminaries be as extrabiblical as monks and monasteries?
Think of the other spiritual activities Christians devote their time and energy to: promoting revivals, Sunday school, church building programs, Christian rock concerts, and winning theological debates on social media. None of those activities are forbidden or morally wrong, but should they be your focus?
God has given you the freedom to serve Him in many different ways, but every action has an opportunity cost. Choosing one action means losing the value of the action you could have taken. Since you only have so much time to serve God in this life, shouldn’t you emphasize doing the things God has emphasized?
And what might those be?
As I’ve been re-reading the Bible in light of that concern, here’s one such activity that stands out: eating.
The NT says nothing about seminary, but it has lots to say about eating.
Here are ten connections between eating and Christian living.
1. Eating and Fellowship
“One of the simplest and the oldest acts of fellowship in the world is that of eating together,” William Barclay said (Barclay, The Lord’s Supper, p. 59).
When you read the Gospels, you’ll find that Jesus spent much of His time eating with a wide range of people. Religious leaders even faulted Jesus for eating with “tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:16), and they spread the rumor that He was too gluttonous to be a genuine prophet (Matt 11:19). Apparently, Jesus ate out a lot!
The first Christians also emphasized eating together, which they did daily:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers…So 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 (Acts 2:42, 46).
Doctrine, prayer, and eating!
In the life of the early church, those three went together—and on a daily basis.
2. The Church Met to Eat
Presumably, the early Christians met together as individuals. But even when they met specifically as the church, it was not simply to socialize. They came together to eat the Lord’s Supper:
Therefore 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 (1 Cor 11:20-22).
Paul criticized the Corinthians for their abuses at the Lord’s Supper, but that’s why they nominally met together to eat. And notice how many “elements” the Lord’s Supper has:
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes (1 Cor 11:23-26, emphasis added).
You are familiar with the bread and the cup (i.e., wine), but notice that Paul says they “took the cup after supper” (v 25, emphasis added). Theissen notes what people often overlooked: “The formula presumes that there is a meal between the word over the bread and that spoken over the cup” (Theissen, Social Setting, p. 152). A meal! In other words, Paul described the Lord’s Supper as having three elements: bread, supper, then cup. It was not a ritualized bit of juice and cracker but a deipnon—a full evening meal.
Eating together provided the framework for worshipping together.
3. Eating Decided Where the Church Met
Unlike later Christians, the first believers did not focus on building sacred spaces such as synagogues, churches, or temples. Where, then, did they meet?
We know that early believers sometimes met in rented rooms (Mark 14:15; Acts 1:13), but mostly they met in homes:
The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house (1 Cor 16:19).
Greet the brethren who are in Laodicea, and Nymphas and the church that is in his house (Col 4:15).
to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house (Philem 1:2).
Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia to Christ (Rom 16:5).
Why would they meet in homes? Well, where do you normally cook and eat supper? At home. So if your corporate worship centered on eating supper, where would you meet? At home!
4. Eating and Doing Ministry
Eating together was also central to doing Christian ministry. As we saw, Jesus often ate with disciples and inquirers. But He was not idle during those times. He used the dinner table to teach. “Jesus is the prime example of someone who reached people through the door of hospitality” (Strauch, Hospitality, p. 22).
You see that throughout Jesus’ ministry, such as when Jesus ate with some Pharisees, and a sinful woman came to anoint His feet, which became an occasion to talk about love and forgiveness (Luke 7:36-50). Or when He ate at Martha and Mary’s house, He taught about spiritual priorities (Luke 10:38-42).
If you listed all the meals that Jesus had with other people, you could come up with a list of topics for potential discipleship conversations.
5. Eating and Supporting Ministry
Eating is not just a way for Christians to do ministry, but also a way to support ministry. Early Christian teachers were itinerant, i.e., they travelled from place to place. That meant they were dependent upon hospitality to do ministry.
For example, when Jesus sent out the seventy, He told them not to bring their own provisions, but to stay at the first house that welcomed them (and presumably fed them, Matt 10:11).
And later, when John wrote his third epistle, he praised Gaius for supporting traveling teachers:
Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brothers and sisters, and especially when they are strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well (3 John 1:5-6).
Likewise, you can support ministry by showing hospitality to traveling teachers, missionaries, youth groups, and other workers.
6. Eating Can Create Opportunities For Evangelism
When was the last time you invited an unbeliever to church? Maybe never. It can be awkward to invite someone to a contemporary church service. Believers are reluctant to make the invitation, and unbelievers are reluctant to accept.
But what about inviting someone over for a meal? Is that awkward? Not at all.
So what if the church meeting occurred in a home, centered around sharing a common meal? Wouldn’t inviting new people to church be normal? “For the early Christians, the home was the most natural setting for proclaiming Christ to their families, neighbors, and friends” (Strauch, Hospitality, p. 22).
Notice that Paul assumed unbelievers would be present during the meeting of the church:
For otherwise, if you bless God in the spirit only, how will the one who occupies the place of the outsider know to say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you are saying? (1 Cor 14:16 NASB).
Therefore if the whole church gathers together and all the people speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are insane? (1 Cor 14:23 NASB).
7. Eating and Alms to the Poor
Christians are commanded to help the poor. For example, Jesus called his disciples to invite the poor for supper:
“But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13).
In the ancient world, most people were poor.
But how can we help?
Modern churches are usually not set up to feed the poor. Our Sunday morning lecture-centered worship service has no practical application to helping the poor. So, instead, churches sub-contract that duty to soup kitchens and food banks. But is that what God intended?
By contrast, if believers gathered around a common meal, wouldn’t feeding the poor flow naturally from the act of worshipping together?
That seems to have been the case. In Jerusalem, at least, when the believers met daily to eat, they quickly started feeding the widows, though problems developed in the equal distribution of the food:
Now at this time, as the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint developed on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food (Acts 6:1 NASB).
Obviously, in contrast to modern practice, providing food to the poor was considered an important job for the church. In fact, it was precisely those concerns that gave rise to two church leadership positions.
8. Eating and Church Leadership
When a church is looking for a new pastor/teacher/elder, the top two questions people usually ask are: can he teach? And has he been divorced?
But Paul lists several more qualifications for an overseer, three of which involve eating. For example:
It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, skillful in teaching, not overindulging in wine, not a bully, but gentle, not contentious, free from the love of money…(1 Tim 3:1-3 NASB).
Notice that, besides his teaching ability and marital status, the candidate must also be temperate, hospitable and should not overindulge in wine. Why emphasize those things? In a modern worship service, that might not make sense. But think about those qualifications in light of a meeting where Christians ate together in a private home and where, in the past, there had been problems in the equal distribution of food, where the poor were left out and where others got drunk (cf. 1 Cor 11:21).
Likewise, the role of deacons takes on clearer meaning if you picture a house church meeting where believers have gathered together to eat a full supper. The original proto-deacons were chosen to “wait on tables” and make sure all the widows were fed equally (cf. Acts 6:2). Actually, one definition of the word deacon is someone who waits on tables. That position does not make sense in a modern church. But it makes perfect sense in the setting of a NT church meeting where thirty to fifty people gathered at least once a week to eat supper. What kind of help would you need then? Wouldn’t you need people to set up the meal, serve it, and then clean up afterwards? And that’s what the deacons and deaconesses did. As Jewett notes, “the eucharistic liturgy was combined with diaconal service, understood as serving meals in celebration with the faith community” (Jewett, “Tenement Churches,” p. 32).
9. Eating and Church Discipline
Churches rarely exercise church discipline today. In part, they can’t obey NT regulations about church discipline, because modern Christians do not meet together the way the NT church met. For example, if Christians met in homes to eat a meal together, then these commands to exercise discipline make much more sense:
But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person (1 Cor 5:11).
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him (2 John 1:10).
How do you exercise church discipline? By excluding people from eating the supper or otherwise enjoying your hospitality.
10. Eating and Eschatology
Eating was not only important to Christian practice, but to Christian beliefs about the future. As Jewett said, “Such meals were marked by eschatological joy at the presence of a new age and of a Master who had triumphed over the principalities and powers” (Jewett, Romans, p. 66). For example, notice the connection that Paul draws between the Lord’s Supper and the Second Coming:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor 11:26; cf. Matt 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18).
How long will the Church celebrate the Lord’s Supper? Until He comes. For Paul, the Lord’s Supper is not only a reminder of what He did, but also of what He will do, i.e., return.
A Biblical image for life in the Messianic age was sitting at a grand banquet with the heroes of the faith:
“And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 8:11).
“They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).
What kind of spiritual practices does God want you to focus on?
Have I convinced you that God presents eating together as an important part of living the Christian life, both individually and as a church?
Of course, some people will object that times have changed and the way the NT practiced eating together is vastly different from how we do church today.
To quote Roland Allen: “All I can say is ‘This is the way of Christ and His Apostles.’ If any man answers, ‘That is out of date,’ or ‘Times have changed’…I can only repeat ‘This is the way of Christ and His Apostles,’ and leave him to face that issue.” (Allen, Missionary Methods, p. ii).
Shawn Lazar is Director of Publications for Grace Evangelical Society. He is married to Abby. And if you ever take him out to eat, he takes his coffee black and will never say “no” to curry.