The Setting for the Lord's Supper
A Practical and Critical Question
If a Christian is too sick to attend the Sunday assemblies of a church but is not too sick to eat the Lord's Supper at home, may, or should, he do so?
It is difficult to imagine a more realistic question or even one more critical for the church. Though sickness is a common cause of (legitimate) absence from Sunday assemblies, there are many others: weather conditions, emergencies, work, business trips, military deployments, evangelistic efforts (in regions with no churches), and imprisonment. Perhaps others are imaginable. So, occasions for this question to be raised are by no means inconceivable or even uncommon. This is an extremely practical question which confronts brethren regularly and demands a decent answer.
Yet, despite this, there does not appear to be anything close to a consistent conviction as to the answers to this question or related ones. Yet, there does not even seem to be much of an interest or sense of urgency to study the Scriptures and discern the answers. It appears that brethren have generally been content to drift with the winds of trend, do whatever caprice or convenience suggests at the moment, or yield to some vague sense of propriety. Even when questions like this are put to veteran preachers, the response one gets might be not much more than a shrugging of the shoulders.
Brethren used to take the Lord's Supper to nursing homes and hospitals, or perhaps even to the homes of the sick, or maybe on camping, fishing, or hunting trips, though such practices seem largely to have fallen out of vogue, and not necessarily because of clear, consistent, and strong teaching. This conclusion may be drawn from the fact that new practices have replaced the old ones, though the basic principle involved remains the same. Brethren might have gotten past portable communion sets and the idea that they need to take the Lord's Supper to the sick or shut-in, but it appears that it is not from having reached well-studied and firm convictions.
Instead, it is the times which have changed. Now, brethren have become affluent enough to be able to afford touristic foreign travel and ocean cruises which take them to regions where there are no churches, or at least none whose assembly times accommodate their travel schedules. If so, no problem! They just "brown bag" the Lord's Supper and take it in their hotel rooms or ship cabins. Indeed, it might be said that the Lord's Supper has become a passport to missing church assemblies to pursue fun and frolic with a clear conscience!
Yet, if both the sick person and the foreign or ocean tourist are equally justified in being absent from the assembly of a local church but both are equally capable of eating the Lord's Supper, why is it that the latter is required to eat it but the former is not, and how does one finesse such a fine distinction from the Scriptures?
Brethren do not answer these questions, and it does not appear that they want to. To grapple with this question in any serious and consistent way would probably require them either to start taking the Lord's Supper to the sick and shut-in or to forego vacation and travel plans. Neither option is very attractive. So, it is simply easier to treat some questions as if they were unanswerable, seek refuge in perpetual ignorance, and wink at the diversity of practices to which brethren are driven in their effort to satisfy both convenience and conscience.
All or None
Eating the Lord's Supper (whenever it is done in a manner consistent with the Scriptural pattern) is a command, not a choice. When Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper by issuing the command, "Do this in remembrance of Me" (I Corinthians 11:23-25, NASB) and revealed by example (Acts 20:7) that it is to be eaten every Sunday, He took its optionality "off the table." Thus, this is to say, if one may, then one must. The very Scriptures which authorize one to eat the Lord's Supper requirehim to!
Thus, if anyone who is unable to meet with a local church but is able to eat the Lord's Supper must still do so, then everyone in such circumstances must do so. The Scriptures simply do not offer any basis for determining why one such person has to eat the Lord's Supper and another does not.
The implications of this conclusion for the conduct of brethren are enormous! Now, it becomes not just a question of whether brethren on a trip or cruise must eat the Lord's Supper, since, if they must eat it, then there is hardly a conceivable reason why those sick at home are not required to eat it. Being absent from the assemblies due to sickness is a common phenomenon, but being too sick to ingest a thumbnail-size piece of matzo or a thimbleful of grape juice is very uncommon.
Consistency and Culture
So, why would brethren prescribe the Lord's Supper for trips but not for the sick? One thing is clear: the answer, whatever it is, has nothing whatsoever to do with what the Scriptures teach! However, several reasons are worthy of comment.
First, culture has changed. As leisure, luxury, and lucre have increased, so have occasions for Christians to ask how to make their enjoyment of them compatible with their spiritual responsibilities, particularly to meet with the church and eat the Lord's Supper. Foreign travel, whether on planes or cruise liners, was once considered a luxury and typically beyond the means of any but the well-to-do. However, after World War II, and especially in more recent decades, this has changed dramatically. Now, it is not unusual for Christians to manage to find the opportunity, time, and money for pleasure-traveling. Only the churches to accommodate them might be lacking.
Second, those on trips are often capable of recapturing a seeming semblance of a local church and recapitulating its worship. Christians often travel together. Thus, if they have carried "the church" with them, it might seem logical that the next step would be to carry the Lord's Supper with them also. So, all the essential elements seem to be at hand for a quick ship-board, or motel-room, service, after which they can return to sight-seeing, shopping, shows, or shuffleboard with a conscience cleared by the performance of their duty.
Third, sickness is private; travel is public. No one sees what a sick person does, or does not do, in the privacy of his bedroom, but Christians, especially if they are in the company of other Christians and have any spiritual sensitivities at all, can feel a little awkward devoting their Sundays entirely to fun and frolic and none to "going to church" as they usually would.
Fourth, such travels tend to be exceptional experiences for Christians. Therefore, they do not sense themselves to be setting any precedent or invoking any principle which would apply to life as they ordinarily live it. This is the Lord's Supper ad hoc. As such, it is a mere expedient for the time being and is not intended to add an onerous imposition to their spiritual lives. Sickness, on the other hand, is common. If the necessity of eating the Lord's Supper while traveling where one cannot get to a church is seen as invoking a principle which says that a Christian is obligated to eat it outside a local church whenever he is unable to meet with one, then this applies equally to the sick, shut-in, workers, and anyone who, for any reason, is unable to meet with a local church. If this raises the necessity of going to such people and reduplicating some semblance of worship, not only by "serving" them the Lord's Supper, but also by engaging in prayers, singing, and Bible study, this might threaten to change the (Sunday) lifestyle of members of a church. Yet, this is resolved by simply not raising the question and not thinking too deeply. The ad hoc Supper is meant to ease the conscience, not to challenge one's intellect or burden one's life.
Is the Setting Generic or Specific?
Perhaps the simplest and best way to approach this question is to put it in terms which brethren have historically used and understood: "Is the authority for the setting for the Lord's Supper generic or specific?" The question might be even further simplified by asking whether the Lord's Supper must be eaten in a Sunday assembly of a church (which is assembled to do so).
Now, if one says that the authority for the setting of the Lord's Supper is generic, then what he is really saying is that the Scriptures do not specify where the Lord's Supper is to be eaten and that it may be eaten anywhere, or under any circumstances, whether public or private, whether in the church assembly or not. Otherwise, he simply needs to identify what the Scripture's specifications for the setting of the Lord's Supper are.
However, the Scriptures do, in fact, specify a setting for the Lord's Supper. Direct statement or command, example, and necessary inference all consistently identify the setting for the Lord's Supper as a gathering of a local church for its members to eat it.
This pattern appears all the more significant when one considers that early disciples sang, prayed, and taught outside the setting of a local church assembly (Acts 16:13,25; 20:20). There were also occasions when they were unable to meet with a local church, perhaps over long time spans, as was undoubtedly the case when Paul endured lengthy imprisonments (Acts 24:27; 27:27; 28:30,31). Despite this, no record is left in Scripture of a single instance of a private eating of the Lord's Supper by any Christians.
When Paul gave instructions to the church at Corinth, he made it clear that the Lord's Supper was to be eaten in the context of the members of the local church assembled to do so (I Corinthians 11:17-34). He emphasizes this by using the expression, "come together" (sunerchomai), five times (I Corinthians 11:17,18,20,33,34) and once (I Corinthians 11:18) specifically adding "in the church" (KJV) or "as a church" (en ekklēsia). It is abundantly clear that there was the expectation on Paul's part that the members of the church at Corinth would come together to eat the Lord's Supper as a church rather than eat it privately in their homes.
In fact, Paul distinguishes between a common meal and the Lord's Supper by telling the Corinthians, "If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you may not come together for judgment" (I Corinthians 11:34). Thus, a clear distinction is made between eating a common meal, designed to satisfy hunger, which the members of the church may eat apart from one another in their private homes, and the Lord's Supper, which they are to eat when they "come together" (I Corinthians 11:33). Different suppers for different purposes call for different settings. The Lord's Supper calls for an assembly of the church to eat it, while a common supper calls for a dispersal of the members to their private homes to eat it.
This is further corroborated by the fact that the members of the early Jerusalem church dispersed from their daily assemblies in the temple for worship or teaching into small groups for "breaking bread from house to house" (Acts 2:46). This "breaking [of] bread" is identified as "meals," or food (trophē). That was fine for common meals, but for the Lord's Supper, as Paul said, they were required to come together "as a church." Otherwise, one might well ask, "Why would they not do in the case of the Lord's Supper as they did in the case of common meals and disperse to their private homes for it?"
As to examples, Luke records "And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul begantalking to them …" (Acts 20:7). The structure in which the church at Troas met to eat the Lord's Supper was a building obviously large enough to accommodate the church and members of the public, for it had at least three stories and many lamps (Acts 20:8-9).
As to necessary inference, Paul's command for members to "wait for one another" (I Corinthians 11:33) inescapably implies that they were to eat the Lord's Supper together. Otherwise, what would have been the point in their waiting for one another?
Also, Paul identified the Lord's Supper as a proclamation when he said, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (I Corinthians 11:26). That those who eat the Lord's Supper "proclaim" (kataggellō) the Lord's death in doing so infers that it is "a public pronouncement" (cf. Acts 3:24; 4:2; 13:5,38; 15:36; 16:17,21; 17:3,13,23; 26:23, et. al.), such as would be made at temple gates, synagogues, or venues for the public. In other words, the use of this word for what members of a local church do when they eat the Lord's Supper shows that God did not intend for the Lord's Supper to be eaten privately but publicly, in the context of a local church assembly, which members of the public could enter and observe (cf. I Corinthians 14:23-25). So, this rules out eating the Lord's Supper in private, since one cannot so fulfill its purpose to "proclaim" the Lord's death.
Thus, the New Testament reader may observe that, from every viewpoint, there is an invariable pattern, as to the setting for the Lord's Supper, for the Christian to meet with members of a local church assembled to eat it. There are no exceptions to, or deviations from, this pattern.
Indeed, brethren would undoubtedly and vigorously oppose an exception in the form of members of a local church choosing to forego weekly assemblies in preference for a meeting of "cells" or families in private homes on most Sundays to eat the Lord's Supper.
Yet, how do the opponents of such a practice actually oppose it while, at the same time, allowing that, under exceptional circumstances, members of a local church may do what they oppose under ordinary circumstances? Just what are the circumstances which are so extraordinary as to make a departure from an otherwise inviolable Scriptural pattern permissible? In other words, how do they rationalize such an exception from the Scriptures? Furthermore, how does one hone such a rationalization to such a fine edge that it requires tourists, travelers, and voyagers to eat the Lord's Supper outside a local church but somehow does not require the same of the home-bound sick?
This question has not risen because of a renewed concern that the sick get to eat the Lord's Supper. Rather, the occasion is essentially that some are claiming that it is all right to choose to absent themselves from an assembly of a local church as long as they eat the Lord's Supper (and when, and how, to engage in recreational and leisure activities, such as pleasure-traveling, as opposed to sickness, is a choice). Yet, why should it be thought that God approves of their choosing not to meet with a local church as long as they eat the Lord's Supper? In other words, if one is justified in not meeting with a local church on Sunday, why is he not justified in not eating the Lord's Supper?
Now, some might try to hew to the middle in answering this question with a qualified "yes" or "no" as to whether one must eat the Lord's Supper, whenever he eats it, in a local church assembly. Answering with an absolute "no" is appealing in that it allows them to salve their consciences by eating the Lord's Supper in situations where answering the call of the world does not allow them to meet with a local church to eat it. However, the very unattractive aspect of a "no" is that it means that members may absent themselves from assembling in preference for a private partaking, and might do so for any and every reason, even frivolous ones. It would be to say that there is no absolute requirement, when able, to meet with a local church every Sunday. Such a position would obviously threaten the local church.
On the other hand, if they were to resort to an absolute "yes," this means that they must choose between forgoing their fun and frolic and enjoying it without the consolation of knowing that at least they have eaten the Lord's Supper privately. So, either answer holds its dilemmas.
Some who appreciate the dilemmas of either "yes" or "no" might seek refuge in two alternatives. First, they might resort to the tactic of the Jewish leaders, who realized that either answer they gave Jesus as to the source of John's baptism would be problematical for them (Matthew 21:23-27), and claim ignorance. This allows them to make exceptions to the rule (of eating the Lord's Supper with a local church), since they are not sure it is even a "rule," but without openly and firmly committing themselves to a general practice of members absenting themselves from Sunday assemblies (for reasons they might regard as too frivolous) to eat the Lord's Supper privately. Furthermore, a claim of ignorance means that they cannot insist that the home-bound sick eat the Lord's Supper, or that they serve it to them, since no one can insist on a "rule" which might not even exist. Ignorance is a jewel to the ignoble!
The second alternative to the dilemma of a "yes" or "no" is actually to attempt to negotiate the treacherous waters of a "yes, but …" answer — in other words, what might be variously styled "yes" and "no," a qualified "yes," or a "yes" with exceptions. Such an answer seeks to avoid the problem of taking a position which would tell members that they do not have to meet with a local church to eat the Lord's Supper while, at the same time, carving out exceptions whenever a desire or need for them is felt.
Yet, claiming exceptions (to a general rule) confronts the respondent with a two problems. First, he must defend exceptions, and, second, he must identify exceptions. This is to say that he must establish, in principle, that exceptions may be made, and, furthermore, he must establish which exceptions are acceptable and which ones are not, including why they are acceptable and others are not. To use a very relevant and specific example, he must explain why the home-bound sick do not have to eat the Lord's Supper but touristic travelers or voyagers do.
Herein lies the rub! The fact of the matter is that there are simply no such explanations or rationalizations in the Scriptures. They are fabricated from thin air! The Scriptures simply do not teach that, if Christians are unable to do what God commands, then they are allowed, or required, to craft an approximate alternative to it. According to the pattern of the Scriptures, either a Christian assembles with a local church to eat the Lord's Supper, or he is unable to do so, in which case he is excused both from assembling and from eating the Lord's Supper. There is not a single command or direct statement directing that such an exception be made or relating exactly when and how it should be made. Neither is there a single example in the New Testament of any Christian ever eating the Lord's Supper outside the assembly of a local church under any circumstances.
Thus, those who argue for a private eating of the Lord's Supper as an exception to the Scriptural pattern must do so on the basis of an inference. Yet, such an inference would be unnecessary, since it would have to be based on the unscriptural supposition that what God says to be done must be done even if it does not comply with His pattern in all its parts.
There are a few major problems with this thinking. First, there is no principle in the Bible to the effect that, when something cannot be done entirely according to God's pattern, one may resort to a substitute which seems to approximate it. Second, brethren do not really believe and practice this, even though, for some reason, they sometimes arbitrarily make an exception in the case of the setting of the Lord's Supper. Third, substitutions are positively condemned in the Scriptures in the prohibitions against adding to, or taking from, God's word (Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Proverbs 30:6; Revelation 22:18,19). Any substitute, by definition, replaces what is specified.
To cite an easy example, it is highly conceivable that grape juice for the Lord's Supper might not always be available. Under such circumstances, what should brethren do? Should they substitute another fruit juice or, as the Mormons do, simply allow water to suffice?
The point is this: if a substitute might be made in the case of the setting of the Lord's Supper, though the New Testament offers no substitute for the local church as a setting for it, why should the setting be made the sole substitute allowable?
To be sure, God did sometimes make exceptions to His patterns, though that is just the point: He was the One who made the exceptions! For instance, He made an exception for the observance of the Passover on the fourteenth day of the second month for the one unable to observe it on the prescribed fourteenth day of the first month (Numbers 9:6-14). Likewise, Jesus made an exception to the law prohibiting divorce and remarriage for the one who put away a spouse for adultery (Matthew 19:9). Yet, in both of these cases, and others, it is God who made the exception, and no one who truly respects the word of God would think of making exceptions to God's regulations or patterns on his own initiative. Yet, this is precisely what those do who think that, if they are unable to eat the Lord's Supper in the prescribed setting with a local church, they are free to make an exception and eat it in a setting of their own choosing. What is the point in God prescribing ways or patterns for worshipping and serving Him if people are free to deviate whenever they feel that convenience or necessity allow, or require, it? Also, who gets to decide which parts of God's pattern allow exceptions and which circumstances warrant them?
If the reason which supposedly justifies an exception to God's pattern is not specified or inferred in the Scriptures, then no one can say that any exception is wrong because it is unspecified. No one can specify for others when they make unspecified exceptions to God's pattern themselves. Herein lies the danger in making exceptions on one's own initiative: he forfeits the right to criticize others for taking the liberty he has assumed.
"The Church" Ad Hoc
One possible justification for a private partaking of the Lord's Supper can be anticipated and addressed: a group of Christians, though not a local church, might eat the Lord's Supper, since they seem to approximate a local church, at least for purposes of eating the Lord's Supper.
While two or more Christians may form a local church, or two or more Christians may assemble for spiritual purposes, such as singing hymns, praying, and Bible study, assembling for spiritual purposes, in and of itself, does not make the two or more Christians who do so a local church. When Jesus gave a four-step disciplinary procedure for a brother who sins against another brother (Matthew 18:15-17), He distinguished between a local church, on one hand, and three or four Christians, on the other hand, who gather for a spiritual purpose. In the second step in the process, there is the scenario of as many as four brethren (the offender, the offended party, and two witnesses) being gathered together for the spiritual purpose of considering sin and repentance. Perhaps Bible study, exhortation, and prayer occur. Yet, none of this makes them a local church. The local church is not introduced until the third step in the process (Matthew 18:17). This shows, therefore, that a group of Christians gathered together, even for a spiritual purpose, are not, by virtue of that alone, a local church. Some members of a local church, or those from different local churches, might gather in the home of one of them for Bible study or hymn-singing. That does not make them a local church. A group of Christians, unless they have organized themselves as a local church, are not a local church and, therefore, may not claim themselves to be the equivalent of such for purposes of eating the Lord's Supper.
Saul's Seven Days
When Saul was anointed king of Israel, Samuel instructed him to wait seven days until he came to offer sacrifices at Gilgal (I Samuel 10:8). However, while Saul waited at Gilgal, the Philistines began to muster in numbers said to be "like the sand which is on the seashore in abundance" (I Samuel 13:5) to make an assault on the Israelites. This so unnerved the Israelite forces under Saul that it is said, "When the men of Israel saw that they were in a strait (for the people were hard-pressed), then the people hid themselves in caves, in thickets, in cliffs, in cellars, and in pits. Also some of the Hebrews crossed the Jordan into the land of Gad and Gilead. But as for Saul, he was still in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling. Now he waited seven days, according to the appointed time set by Samuel, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him" (I Samuel 13:6-8).
Saul was in a truly desperate situation. If ever there were a set of circumstances which seemed to justify a deviation from God's arrangement, this was it. In fact, that seems to have been exactly Saul's reasoning, for, with Samuel a no-show after Saul had waited for him for the prescribed seven days and his forces frittering away in fright before he could even engage his enemy, he felt that he had no choice but to offer the sacrifices and seek God's blessing before proceeding into battle.
This incident in the life of Saul provides a simple answer to questions which might otherwise perplex Christians. Samuel did not tell Saul just to go to Gilgal and offer sacrifices (before going into battle with the Philistines). In God's instructions, there were at least two other elements which Saul apparently considered inconsequential. First, Saul was to wait seven full days, and, second, Samuel was to offer the sacrifices. Instead, Saul did what was supposed to be done in a way it was not supposed to be done.
However, Samuel showed up just as soon as Saul had finished offering the burnt offerings and confronted him with the question, "What have you done?" (I Samuel 13:11). Saul knew what he meant. He had deviated from what Samuel had said. So, he laid out the best case he could make for his actions. His army was scattering, Samuel had not come within the appointed time, the Philistines were massing against him, and he was about to go into battle without having asked the blessing of the Lord. Here are the necessity of circumstances, the interests of piety, and the shifting of blame all rolled into one. In fact, Saul emphatically summed up his defense to Samuel by saying, "So I forced myself and offered the burnt offering" (I Samuel 13:12). He was saying that circumstances quite literally compelled him to deviate from God's commandment. It is difficult to imagine that a better case could have been argued to justify an exception to what God had said.
Yet, Samuel found none of Saul's excuses for his exception adequate. Saul received a stinging rebuke, which came with a very hefty penalty: "You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God …" (I Samuel 13:13). Thus, for simply offering a sacrifice hours, or even minutes, prematurely under these dire circumstances, Saul lost his kingdom (I Samuel 13:14).
This Old Testament story supplies the person who would be a true follower of God with one of the most important and clarifying principles he could apply to his service to God: one must follow God's pattern all the way or not at all! To obey God partially, or to disobey Him for a "good reason," is to reject His word: "Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, andto heed than the fat of rams. … You have rejected the word of the Lord …" (I Samuel 15:23-24).
So, if members of a local church can meet on another day of the week, but not on Sunday, to eat the Lord's Supper, must they or may they do so? No!
If members of a local church can meet on Sunday but do not have grape juice or unleavened bread for the Lord's Supper, must/may they do so with other elements? No!
If members of a local church cannot meet with any local church to eat the Lord's Supper with it, must they or may they do so in an alternative setting? No!
Another Saul's Seven Days
It tends to corroborate the conclusion in this article to note that Saul (or Paul) (Acts 13:9) traveled from Philippi to Troas and there remained seven days (Acts 20:6) and departed on a Monday morning (Acts 20:7-11). The length of his stay in Troas is especially significant, given that he was in such a hurry to get to Jerusalem by Pentecost that he summoned the Ephesian elders to meet him at Miletus, at least fifty miles away, to avoid being detained in a stop at Ephesus (Acts 20:16-17,31). If "seven days" may be taken strictly, this means that he arrived at Troas on a Monday morning, just missing the Sunday assembly there.
A voyage between the same two cities, but going from the opposite direction, had previously required only two days (Acts 16:11-12), though this time it required five (Acts 20:6). Perhaps the winds were contrary this time (Acts 27:4-15; 28:13). In any event, it appears that Paul had left Philippi with plenty of time to get to Troas by Sunday but had just failed to do so, through no fault of his own.
By the time he got to Miletus and sent a messenger to fetch the Ephesian elders there and they arrived, another Sunday would almost certainly have come and gone (Acts 20:13ff). However, it is altogether probable that there was a church at Miletus (cf. Acts 19:10; II Timothy 4:20). Furthermore, it is possible that he could have sailed, between Sundays, from Miletus to Tyre. When he arrived at the latter city, he knew he could get to Caesarea, where there was also a church (Acts 21:7-8), in a couple of days (Acts 27:1-3), and thence overland to Jerusalem in a few more days (Acts 23:31–24:1). Thus, he was confident that, by the time he reached Tyre, where there was another church, he was "ahead of schedule" and close enough to his destination to relax his rate of travel, as he had feared to do at Ephesus, and remain seven days (Acts 21:1-4).
It is noteworthy that Luke records three times that Paul stayed with brethren "seven days" (Acts 20:6; 21:4; 28:14), which is the maximal time he would have had to stay at a place to meet with a church on Sunday. He appears to have exercised some control over his itinerary, so as to be able to be at a port with a church on Sunday, by selecting an appropriate ship or time of departure (Acts 20:16; 20:1-3; 27:2,6) or perhaps by payment of additional fees.
A scenario very similar to Paul's five-day Philippi-to-Troas voyage, including a seven-day stay in the latter city (Acts 20:6-7), occurs a few years later in Paul's Malta-to-Puteoli voyage. Again, it appears that a voyage of five-to-seven days brings him to Puteoli, where he stayed with brethren seven days. There is no reference to eating the Lord's Supper with the church in Puteoli, but it seems strange that Paul, a prisoner being conducted to Rome for trial, would be allowed to accept the invitation of brethren to stay with them seven days at Puteoli (Acts 28:13-14). Perhaps in the course of the events occurring since they had departed Caesarea the previous year, he had gained the respect of the centurion in charge of him (Acts 27:1-3,9-11,21-26,30-32,42-44).
Yet, the observation which is especially significant for this study is that it is in keeping with what came to be something of a pattern with Paul that he stayed seven days at Puteoli, where he certainly would have been assured of spending one Sunday meeting with the church there. In contrast, he had spent only three days at Syracuse (Acts 28:12), where there is no mention of brethren. It is easy to believe that, again, a voyage, this time from Malta, had taken just long enough to cause him to miss the Sunday meeting of the church in Puteoli and that he decided to accept the invitation of the brethren and remain there seven days in order to meet with the church on Sunday, despite what must surely have been some pressure in his status as a prisoner to get to Rome. If so, this explains Luke's unusual care in detailing the time frame of Paul's travels in the latter chapters of Acts and, in particular, his repeated references to Paul's seven-day stays, which occurred only in places where there were local churches and despite some time pressure to get on with his journey.
This picture also fits the first-century Greco-Roman world, where Sunday was a workday just like any other day of the week and slaves were a common component of churches. This explains nighttime, once-a-week assemblies on Sundays (Acts 20:7-8) and why Paul would so relatively often have stayed with brethren for seven days. It is impossible to imagine a better reason why the Holy Spirit would have inspired Luke to record such details of Paul's travels as where he stopped, the length of his stays, and whether or not a church existed where he stayed. This is not to say that one cannot be given; it is to say that no better one can be given. In fact, no other (comparatively) good one is conceivable. Anyone may confirm the truth of that statement simply by attempting to give one. Is it not safe to conclude that the best reason, or even the only one which can conceivably do due justice to the powers and motives of the Holy Spirit, is the actual reason — or must one opt, or allow for, a lower opinion of the purposes of the Holy Spirit in selecting what to include in Holy Writ?
The alternative to the explanation herein given (viz., that Paul wanted to be able to meet with churches and eat the Lord's Supper on Sunday) is to believe that the Holy Spirit had Luke provide essentially useless information. (It is to say virtually the same to say that the reason for such a record cannot be known, or that at least a reasonable conception of it cannot be formed.) Is it to be attributed to nothing more than mere coincidence, the satisfaction of reader curiosity, literary style, or something comparable that the Holy Spirit records three times that Paul stayed seven days (as opposed to more, or less, than seven days) in certain port cities despite pressure to move on, that in each case there were churches there, that a stay of seven days would have ensured for him the opportunity to meet on a Sunday with a local church and to eat the Lord's Supper with it, and that the first of these instances might serve as an explanatory template for the other two by specifically stating that he met with a local church on Sunday and ate the Lord's Supper with it? It seems that what those who would say or imply this are really offering is a major reconceptualizion of the purpose of God's word and how it is to be read and interpreted.
Paul appears to have tried to arrange his travel schedule so as to meet with local churches on Sundays. When he could not do so, there is no evidence that he ate the Lord's Supper. Furthermore, when Paul travelled in circumstances which did not permit him to meet with a local church on Sunday, it was never in pursuit of his pleasures.
To summarize, three considerations make this subject important far beyond what might immediately seem to be the case.
First, it sets a perilous precedent, when one deems himself to be under sufficient pressure, to think that he may deviate from God's pattern. Danger looms whenever anyone, whether out of a sense of piety or not, decides that he may deviate from God's pattern on his own initiative. Such decisions are ultimately subjective and arbitrary and make each individual a judge of God's word: "… If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it" (James 5:11).
Second, it threatens the local church to do so in the case of the setting for the Lord's Supper. The extreme importance of this subject lies in the fact that it is the Lord's Supper which requires the members of a local church to assemble every first day of the week (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 11:17-34). Therefore, if it were concluded that an assembly of the local church as a setting for the Lord's Supper is not an essentiality, but an expediency, and members may regard the Sunday assembly to eat the Lord's Supper as only an option and one which they cannot impose on others, then a church is free to choose for its members to assemble to eat the Lord's Supper at something less than a weekly rate and, otherwise, to eat it alone, with family, or with a few other brethren.
Those who think that this is an unlikely consequence of their assertion that the Lord's Supper may be eaten outside the setting of an assembled local church need to be reminded that practice, though long delayed, often follows ideology. Polls indicate that no more than a third of Americans attend church regularly, and in other countries in Western culture rates of church attendance are even lower. Even among churches of Christ, lack of regular attendance, especially at the full schedule of assemblies, is a constant source of concern. To say the least, it does not help in the struggle to maintain church attendance for some to propose an idea which logically makes weekly assembly of the members of a local church optional. Therefore, it is not too much to say that what this question really and ultimately contemplates is the functional, or practical, survival of the Lord's church.
Third, it conceals a more fundamental problem: Christians are subordinating their worship and service to God to worldly interests. When brethren think that, in order to pursue recreation or tourism, they may absent themselves from an assembly of a local church to eat the Lord's Supper if they can supply an alternative, what else can that be but worldliness? It is simply disingenuous to claim that necessity of circumstances justifies a departure from God's pattern when that "necessity" is no real necessity at all but, rather, pleasure-seeking which one deliberately chooses at the expense of assembling in a local church on Sunday. Yet, it hardly occurs to such brethren to think of what they are doing in such terms. Without realizing it, they have gravitated to the notion that they are so entitled to indulge themselves in the luxuries and pleasures offered by the world that they cannot conceive of it as anything other than an overbearing burden that they must choose between them and the practice of the gospel. If not, here is a solution with which they may test themselves: to forego pleasure trips which they know will prevent them from meeting with a local church on Sunday. If they recoil from this as something too much to ask, then they reveal more about themselves than they would like to know. Anything which justifies brethren's absenting themselves from the Sunday assembly of a local church justifies them in not eating the Lord's Supper which, according to God's pattern, is reserved solely for that setting.
Therefore, the real question with which brethren ought to concern themselves is, not whether they are justified in not eating the Lord's Supper, if "necessary," outside a local church assembly, but whether the pursuit of their pleasures justifies them in not meeting with a local church. If they are not justified in the latter case, then it will not help them to eat the Lord's Supper!