There has always been an issue between conservative and liberal brethren whether or not one can eat in the building in which they worship God. Actually, it is a misnomer. The issue is over having large social gatherings in a church-owned building where the facilities (e.g., a fellowship hall) and expendable goods (e.g., paper products, coffee, cups, cleaning material) are funded by the Lord’s treasury. I know of no significant opposition to incidental eating in the building, such as the preacher eating his lunch in the study or office, or workmen eating lunch while working on the building. These would, in my view, be covered by I Timothy 5:18, “For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.'”
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).
It is very odd that Luke specifically mentions a distinction of where the early Christians met to discuss the Lord and where they met to eat meals. Why mention the location of the meals at all? For that matter, why mention meals at all?
For the pagan world, temples were the location of many of the acts of debauchery rather than of the spirit. Pagans purposely go to the temple to eat. Paul described this in his discussion about meat in 1 Corinthians 8 where he notes that the connection between meat and temples is so strong that for some coming out of idolatry, it may be hard for them to now separate them. I think Luke wanted to make sure that the pagans understood that this new religion that was coming was not one based on food and drink, but on the spirit-filled life.
In Matthew 14 (the same story is in John 6) when Jesus fed the five thousand, it says that he fed them out of compassion because they had come to listen to him all day and it was still a distance to find food. I think it was commendable that the people would go out of their way to hear Jesus. Jesus offering to feed them would have just been a bonus. They could not have claimed that they came just because they expected to be fed because they were not promised food. However, once they ate, their whole disposition changed. They went from being pleasantly surprised to expecting it all the time. They shifted from coming to hear the Word due to their own interest to being self-absorbed. So in John 6:26-27, “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.’” From John 6:35-59 Jesus gives a discourse on the real bread. Jesus had a crowd that was following their stomachs and were not interested in the Word that they were supposed to digest. We can tell with our 20-20 hindsight that the crowd completely missed the point and were upset with the teaching. However, Jesus did not apologize nor did he give into their desire to be fed. He stated a hard principle in John 6:63, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” This had the obvious effect so that in verse 66, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Jesus understood that men tend to be drawn by their stomachs and that a strong draw like that is a distraction from getting to the real importance of the Word.
At best, therefore, it is unwise to associate food with the services. It is completely foolish to use food as an enticement to get people to come to services (a sometime reason given for having a meal after services). Jesus showed that men were easily swayed by food and once given food they were inclined to forget even recent spiritual concepts.
“In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!” (1 Cor 11:17-22)
What has always stuck out for me in this passage is the rhetorical question of “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?” I’ve heard many point out that Paul was addressing an abuse of the Lord’s Supper and not a social gathering that occurs at a time completely unrelated to the Lord’s Supper. I would grant that. However, I think there were more issues at work than just the Lord’s Supper. He was chewing them out about the Lord’s Supper because they were not taking that part seriously enough. Again it was the issue of the stomach trying to encroach on the territory of the spirit. While we like to think of ourselves as being superior to the flaws of men of 2000 years ago, we continue to have the same problems and the same temptations.
Some preachers suggest that Paul was claiming that they were bringing in a common meal for this time, but I don’t see that Paul claims they had the wrong elements for the Supper. He only suggested that they participated in it like it was a free-for-all. They did not wait for everyone and some drank and ate too much and some did not get any. Basically, they forgot that the purpose of getting together on the Lord’s Day was not a matter of physical desires, but of a spiritual need.
Paul’s stated solution to the problem of the stomach versus the spirit is for meals to be eaten at home. I think a rational argument could be made for Paul’s statement to be hyperbole for a more generic “eat somewhere else” rather than a strict requirement to always eat at home, but it is pretty hard to get it to mean “you can still eat in the assembly, just not close to the Lord’s Supper.” He had the option of telling them to just eat at another time, which would then imply that it could be at the same place, just at a different time. Since he specified a place separate and apart from the assembly where they should be eating their meals, he eliminated the place of worship assembly as that location.
Generically speaking, we are told to assemble together. (1 Cor 5:4, 11:18, 20, 33). The fact that we are told to assemble by necessity means that there must be a place. We are not told much about where the early disciples met. We have examples of them meeting in the temple (Acts 2:46), in synagogues (Acts 13:5), outside by a river (Acts 16:13), in upper rooms (Acts 20:8), and in people’s houses (Romans 16:5). When Paul asked the question in I Corinthians 11:17-22, “Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in?”, he implies that the church in Corinth was meeting in a building that was not a home. That building could have been rented, donated, rent-free or owned — we don’t know and have no way of knowing. There is no indication that I can find that they ever built and financed their own buildings, but seeing how they freely used the Jewish buildings for the same purpose (the synagogues), they obviously displayed no moral objections over the use of buildings that were dedicated to the study of God. Jesus also taught in the synagogues (Matt 4:23 cf; 9:35 f; Lk 4:44) and never once complained of unauthorized spending on frivolous buildings. However, Jesus did talk about the abuse of such places of study.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Matt 6:2).
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full” (Matt 6:5).
“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi’” (Matt 23:5-7).
For some Jews, the synagogues were just one more opportunity to show off and to demonstrate their importance to the rest of the world. Church buildings and those that build them are very often fulfilling the same desire that the Pharisees used them for. Obviously, we need to avoid doing the same things they did. Some people erect architectural wonders for their place of service. For whose glory do that do such things, man or God? They often claim for God’s glory, but who are they really trying to impress? Take the Sistine Chapel for example. Who gets mentioned more often, God or Michelangelo?
The New Testament does not mention fellowship halls. It seems to have quickly appeared somewhere in the 19th century. It made its way into the churches of Christ somewhere just after WW2. Regardless, it is not a very old innovation, an addition to God’s Word which is strictly prohibited (1 Cor 4:6).
Most people will call it a fellowship hall when in reality that is just another name for a dining facility. I can only surmise, but I have to assume that reason they are called “fellowship halls” and not dining halls is because there is a strong desire to give the impression that “fellowship” is the main reason for it and not eating. I would further guess that such designations were very important when they were first being introduced in order to give it an aura of biblical legitimacy. “Fellowship” is a biblical word and provides the needed connection. By naming them fellowship halls there is a quiet acknowledgment that directly trying to authorize a dining hall or kitchen is not possible to do (or at least very hard) and by renaming it makes it easier to justify.
Justifications based on a name alone should be very suspect. Just because a building has a biblical name on it (e.g., the church of God, the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church, etc.) does not mean that it will stand up to the test of actually belonging to God. So it is with fellowship halls. Just because we call it fellowship does not make it fellowship.
Church Financed Fellowship Halls
Let’s at least face the reality. We want our fellowship halls for the purpose of having a convenient place to have parties. These parties are for the purpose of filling our bellies and entertaining ourselves. These parties rarely have anything spiritual associated with them other than the “blessing for the food” and the fact that the people at them are going to be nice people. They are a long way from a necessity because every town has large places for rent — they are just inconvenient to coordinate. We want the “church” to build and pay for the facilities because we actually see the church’s money as the congregation’s pooled resources rather than as God’s money. We have convinced ourselves that there is no practical difference in the money collected at the time of the offering on Sunday and if everyone were to reach in their pockets and pay a $5 cover charge to rent a place (i.e., they are both the congregation’s pooled resources). We blur the line between what we want and what God wants for us and we blur the line between what we gave to God and what we kept for ourselves.
We build our buildings using tacit approval from the synagogues, but then we want to go well beyond what the synagogues represented. The synagogues were places of prayer and study — somewhat like a mini temple (without the sacrifices). Jesus used them for at least study and teaching. In the actual temple, Jesus threw out those who desecrated the temple by doing things (which happened to be authorized and legal things to do) other than using it as a house of prayer (Mk 11:17). God actively encourages men to pray and study. He actively discourages men from getting carnal things like food mixed up with spiritual values.
There is not a biblical case for the church building fellowship halls. The stronger case is to do everything within our power to disassociate eating and parties from our communal obligations before God. Are we working with God when we use His money to build party facilities for us or against his desires for us? I honestly believe everyone knows the correct answer, but much too many have a desire to feed their belly and not their soul!