Good Goal, Terrible Teaching. The Table Fellowship Myth

It is a sad truth that churches are not always unified. At times the reasons for division appear trivial, but in most circumstances the disagreements are based on interpretations of Scripture. When the disagreement centers around the direction of the church or on the emphasis of its ministry resolution can be difficult. One of the major questions with which the church has struggled  is the question of how the church should relate to the secular world. Teaching on the subject has fluctuated over time with some churches encouraging clear separation and others embracing cultural change. Most churches I have attended have taught that Christians should love and serve others as much as they can without compromising their principles or in anyway implying acceptance of inappropriate behavior. This traditional response has recently come under attack as our society has become increasingly secular and embracing cultural change become more challenging.

The attacks have not come only from those outside of the church. Many pastors are teaching that the model of Jesus is to fully engage with people “right where they are at”, encouraging Christians to intentionally go into settings previously considered taboo. The argument is that this is what Jesus did. Christians who value purity and who are fearful of condoning inappropriate behavior are labeled as judgmental, out of touch, and unconcerned about the lost.

In support of this more tolerant attitude passages of Scripture are cited in which Jesus is described as dining with “sinners and tax-gatherers” and as a result drawing the ire of the religious leaders of the day. In the culture in which Jesus lived sharing a meal was a significant sign of acceptance. That Jesus would accept those who were deemed unclean by the religious authorities was a big deal. There is no question that when Jesus dined with these people he was setting an example for others. But what is the example Jesus set? I have heard several sermons in which people were urged to be like Jesus, to go and partake of the lives of those traditionally not a part of the church. The teaching was that we go with an attitude of acceptance, welcoming people just as they are, regardless of lifestyle or behavior. 

One new church in town as made this principle of “table fellowship” a major part of its mission. On its website it declares-

“One of the most controversial aspects of Jesus’ ministry was his willingness to share meals with outcasts, sinners, and the marginalized.  Sharing a meal with someone in Jesus’ day was considered a form of acceptance and social approval. This was called table fellowship, and used by Jesus to manifest the open and expansive nature of his movement.

The practice of table fellowship is, for us, the most important picture of how we relate to the world around us: practicing radical hospitality, committed to countercultural friendship, and embodying extravagant grace.”

This sounds wonderful, but this understanding of Jesus’ “table fellowship” is inaccurate. The implication that Jesus was going out of His way to dine with immoral people without conditions in order to extend grace and show His love to outsiders is dangerously wrong. This is not what Jesus was doing and this is not the example we are to follow.

There are only three episodes in the gospels in which Jesus is specifically described as participating in a group meal as a guest in an outsider’s home- in the home of Matthew, a tax-collector who left his work to follow Jesus, in the home of Zacchaeus, another tax collector, and in the home of a leper named Simon. A close look at each of these stories reveals details that counter the popular “table fellowship” narrative.

The meal at the home of Matthew is described in three of the gospel accounts. Luke tells us that Matthew “held a great banquet in Jesus’ honor” and that a “large crowd of tax collectors and sinners were eating with them.” Mark’s account is similar, but in his description of the event he adds a crucial detail, writing, “many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples for there were many who followed him.”

Mark’s words are important, for they tell us the nature of those who were at the celebration. They were followers of Jesus! Jesus did not invite himself to the house of a stranger or simply join in a secular gathering. He went into a home where he was invited to dine with people who believed in who he was and what he was teaching. These people came from questionable backgrounds, but their faith was what mattered.

The famous story of Zacchaeus, the diminutive tax collector of Jericho, provides additional insight. Zacchaeus had apparently heard of Jesus and his teaching prior to Jesus’ coming to Jericho. The amazing stories Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus had aroused his interest. Zacchaeus wanted to know more about who Jesus was. Luke’s account says that Zacchaeus climbed a tree because he wanted to “see who Jesus was.” He did not want only to lay eyes on Jesus and see what he looked like. He was interested in who Jesus was, in gaining knowledge of him. Jesus, in response to Zacchaeus’ interest, called him down from the tree and invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. While Zacchaeus had been an immoral tax gatherer, subsequent events confirm that his interest in Jesus was genuine.

Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus “gladly” into his home. When others criticized Jesus for going into the house of a sinner, Zacchaeus answered their criticism by proclaiming that he was a changed man. He promised to give half of his wealth to the poor and to make fourfold restitution to any he had cheated. In this story we see that the key was not who Zacchaeus had been, but who he was becoming. Again, it was his faith that mattered.

The story of Simon the leper contains little information, but there is still something we can infer. As it was unlawful for a leper to live in a town and to be in direct contact with others, and as there were others present in the home, it is likely that Simon had been cleansed of his leprosy, most likely by Jesus. This account would then follow the pattern of the other stories in that those who were outcasts were outcast no longer because of Jesus. Jesus was not going into a place where he was unknown or where his teaching was not embraced. He was a welcome guest, welcome for who he was and as who he was. There was no trust to be gained, argument to be won or persuasion to be achieved. He was welcome.

An honest assessment of these passages leads to a different application of the meaning of table fellowship. It is not about going to places where sin is rampant and people are opposed to Christianity with a message of acceptance. It is about recognizing that it is faith in Christ, and not our earthly station, that is the basis of our fellowship. Table fellowship, as practiced by Jesus, is not about how we relate to unbelievers and those outside the faith. It is about how we relate to fellow believers without regard to their background or earthly station. That this is correct is confirmed by the Apostle Paul's teaching that their is "neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ." (Galatians 3:28 ESV)

This leaves the question of how Christians should interact with those outside the faith. Jesus is the perfect example. Everywhere he went he went with a singular purpose- to proclaim the truth of who God was and of God’s plan for saving people from their sins. He was not afraid to address the sins of others, for the first recorded words of his public ministry were “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He loved and served others, but His primary objective was not meeting the physical needs of others. His goal was to bring people into right relationship with God. It was what he lived and died for.

The question remains as to why an incorrect application of the concept of table fellowship has taken hold in so many places. I believe it is a reflection of the negative attitude toward the church that is prevalent in our society. As traditional Christian teachings and practices become viewed with an increasingly critical eye there is a natural tendency for some to want to place the blame on something the church is doing wrong. With the desire to "win people over" comes a desire to identify areas where Christians are in the wrong. Teachers search the Scriptures looking for something that Jesus did that we don't, believing that if we could be more like him that the world would see our love and goodness and respond. In spite of their good intentions, when people approach Scripture with presuppositions error is often the end result. 

True followers of Christ need to remember that being liked by the world has never been a characteristic of godliness. The opposite is true. No one was more like Jesus than Jesus and the world crucified him. The reward of living for Christ is not found in this life or in the responses of those who are outside the faith. The reward is in the next life and in the response of our Heavenly Father. 

The final question is more difficult. How does the church avoid conflict and division? The question is over 2000 years old. As long as churches are led by and filled with people the challenge will remain. The church will do better when it is careful in choosing its leaders, cautious in accepting new teaching and consistent in its commitment to Scripture as ultimate authority. It is when we are known primarily by the love we have for one another and not by our love for the world that unity can blossom.

- Bart

Follow me on twitter @bartbarrettmd. Comments are welcome!