Going back to Acts 2, we see that the early church gathered to eat together — to “break bread.” In fact, the NT is filled with references to this common meal, which we overlook because it’s not part of the Western way of doing church —
(Acts 2:42 ESV) 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers
(Acts 2:46-47 ESV) 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
(Acts 20:7 ESV) 7 On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.
(Rom. 14:6 ESV) 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
(1 Cor. 5:11 ESV) 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one.
(1 Cor. 10:27-31 ESV) 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience — 29 I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? 31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
(1 Cor. 11:20-21 ESV) 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.
(Gal. 2:12 ESV) 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.
(2 Thess. 3:10 ESV) 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
(2 Pet. 2:12-13 ESV) 12 But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, 13 suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you.
(Jude 1:12-13 ESV) 12 These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; 13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.
History backs up the early church’s practice of eating together. Over the centuries, practices were not necessarily uniform, but early on, the Lord’s Supper was combined with the common meal — the “love feast” or agapē. In fact, the early church found table fellowship to be so important that they called it “the love.” Yes, their language reveals that they very nearly equated loving each other with eating with each other.
And so, when Paul writes in Rom 15:7 that they should welcome each other,
(Rom. 15:7 ESV) 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
the language is the language of table hospitality.
As in the earlier use of προσλαμβάνομαι [proslambanomai] in 14:1, to “welcome” others implies to “receive or accept in one’s society, in(to) one’s home or circle of acquaintances.” In the context of early Christian literature, the home in view is the house or tenement church and the occasion is most likely the love feast, since this was the format of the assembly that turned the secular space of a house or portion of a tenement or shop into an arena of sacred welcome. While most commentators overlook this social context, reducing Paul’s reference to vague sentiments of “mutual acceptance” and the like that seem more appropriate for the modern than the early church, Schlatter, Michel, and Black have pointed quite properly to the common meal as the setting for this particular kind of welcome. In a similar manner, Dupont associates this exhortation primarily with hospitality, welcoming people into one’s home.
Robert K. Jewett and Roy D. Kotansky, Romans: A Commentary on the Book of Romans (Hermeneia 66; ed. Eldon J. Epp; Accordance electronic ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 888.
The concept of a meal as a centerpiece of the assembly doubtlessly traces back to Jesus’ insistence on eating with the outcasts of society and his many parables that speak of banquets. In turn, these parables often refer back to Isaiah’s prophecy of the end times as a great banquet —
(Isa. 25:6-8 ESV) 6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. 7 And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
This prophecy is, in turn, reflected in Revelation’s wedding feast of the bride and the
(Rev. 19:9 ESV) 9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
That is, the love feast was an eschatological declaration — acting now as though the future New Heavens and New Earth have already arrived, as though God already has made his dwelling among man.
In short, when we have a church-wide covered dish dinner or eat a meal together in a small group or zone meeting, we are emulating the early church — except to them, this was where communion would be celebrated and, together with communion, this is why they gathered. They prayed and they were instructed but the event was called the “love feast,” not the “prayer feast” or “love class.”
Those Churches of Christ that consider it sinful to eat in the building have it exactly backwards. And they should question a hermeneutic and tradition that leads one to condemn what the early church considered of the essence in their assemblies.