When You Come Together

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First Corinthians 11:17-34 addresses the celebration of the Lord’s Supper by the assembled church. The Corinthian church had several problems in connection with this observance, which are addressed in the text. The problems included divisions (18) that involved selfishness and overindulgence by some (21) leading to humiliation of some members (perhaps the poorer members, 22). The problems could be resolved by recalling the purpose and meaning of the ceremony (23-26), re-examining one’s personal motives and attitude (27-32) and showing more consideration for each other (33-34)..

Although Paul mentions neither day nor time for the church meeting in this specific passage, there is a repeated reference to the timing as a planned and specific regular appointment, “when you come together as a church” or “when you meet together” (17, 18, 20, 33, 34). In fact, in Corinthians Paul made numerous references to the time when the church meets together “as a church.” In the matter of church discipline for the purpose of correcting an egregious sin in chapter 5, it is “when you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus” (5:4; and see Matthew 18:20). In chapter 11 it is “when you come together as a church… when you come together to eat…” (11:18, 33). Then in chapter 14 it is “so that the church (assembled disciples) may be edified” (14:5, 12, 19), “if the whole church comes together…” (14:23) and “When you come together… for the strengthening of the church” (14:26) and what is done “in the church” which is the assembly, not the location (14:28, 33-34-35). Finally in chapter 16, in reference to “the collection for God’s people”, just like the Galatian churches (again, “churches” means the assembled groups of people, not locations or buildings), collections should be made “on the first day of every week” (16:1-2). The Galatian churches were doing this, the Corinthian church should do the same. It is evident that the Corinthian church met together “as a church” with some planned frequency to meet the ordinary needs of edification and teaching, encouragement and instruction. It is also evident that the time of their regular coming together “as a church” was a time when the Lord’s Supper was celebrated and orderly instruction, singing, and so forth (chapter 14) were engaged in by “the church”. Doing the Lord’s Supper in a piecemeal way was depicted as very harmful. The frequency of the whole church coming together was apparently weekly, on the first day of the week, which is consistent with the frequency implied throughout the book, consistent with the instruction in 16:1-3, and consistent with other scriptures, including Acts 20:7.

Notice in 1 Corinthians 11 that the gathering together of the whole church is specifically and purposefully connected with the remembrance of the Lord’s death (11:26 – “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”, 11:33 – “when you come together to eat”, 11:18 – “when you come together as a church”). This is consistent with Luke’s description in Acts 20:7, that “on the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” The timing of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 is not left open to taste or desire or conjecture by the testimony of the New Testament. It was not infrequent, nor haphazard. It was a regular event when the believers came together “as a church” on the first day of the week. This pictures a specific, planned and agreed upon (weekly) meeting, consistently depicted as occurring on the first day of every week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the “Lord’s Day.” (Revelation 1:10; The term Lord’s Day incidentally has survived in common language from Latin in the Romance languages, such as Spanish – El Domingo, Sunday.)

In terms of frequency, some have looked at the word “whenever” (NIV) in 1 Corinthians 11:26 and taken the word as a permission to take the Lord’s Supper “whenever you want to”. That is not the sense of the phrase Paul used. The phrase is in other versions rendered “as often as”, and the indication is not a random frequency, or choosing group by group or person by person how often to do so (and hence how often to meet together as a church). Indeed, as Paul later says in I Corinthians 14:33, God is not a God of disorder, but of peace. He wants the church to meet and remember the Lord’s death voluntarily, acknowledging our need of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean the time or circumstances are unguided. Perhaps the word “whenever” in the NIV is an unfortunate choice of English words. Paul in 11:26 uses the same phrase (in Greek) as he attributes to Jesus in 11:25. Again, most versions use the phrase “as often as” to convey the sense. It is not to say “however often you may choose” but rather there is an indication of frequency of repetition. As Baptist teacher and Greek scholar A.T. Robertson put it, for the Greek expression, “Usual construction for general temporal clause of repetition” (from Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament). Paul is emphasizing both the importance and the frequency of the observance in these verse, definitely not saying “just do it whenever you’d like to.”

Again, there is a strong recurring emphasis in 1 Corinthians on the regular time when the church meets together “as a church.” That is the time when the Lord’s Supper was already being observed (albeit with flaws that needed to be corrected). That is the time when brethren were sharing messages of encouragement, and songs, and prayers, and that is the time when the church in Corinth needed to establish a custom of taking up a regular weekly collection.

Consistent with the New Testament example and instruction, the church should make every effort to establish a time, on the first day of each week, the Lord’s Day, when everyone (all members) can regularly come together for the purposes of eating the Lord’s Supper as a body and building up (edifying) the whole body of believers. The church may schedule other meetings involving some, many, or all members, but should have a regularly planned and known time for the church together to do these basic and essential things, the things the early disciples devoted themselves to (Acts 2:42). While other gatherings of many or few cannot accomplish what is described in 1 Corinthians 11 when the whole church comes together, encouragement and fellowship and instruction in the word of God are certainly possible and expedient at other times and perhaps in other locations. Hebrews 11:24-25 directs believers, in the context of a severe warning against falling away, to be consistent in meeting together. “24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (NIV) There was and is to be a regular pattern and expectation of meeting (assembling) together, and Christians should be scrupulous about it. Meanwhile, there is a need besides the planned pattern of gathering weekly to encourage each other with great frequency, and so we are also enjoined to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” (Heb 3:13 NIV) The churches often schedule other meetings during the week (and/or second sessions on Sunday) with a view toward encouraging one another, but this command also indicates a need to be in frequent personal contact with each other to affirm Christian principles in our lives besides the organized meetings. There is good reason and Biblical precedent for meetings during the week that may include less than the whole church, but every reason to believe that God wants his people to plan a regular weekly meeting on the first day of each week when the church meets together, as complete as possible, to “show the Lord’s death until he comes” and build up the body of believers.

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