Renewing Our Worship: The Love Feast

I get emails —

Brother Guin,

I have been researching the subject of the Love Feast of Jude, mentioned by Peter and corrected by Paul.

I see in the scriptures what you discuss in your article. I have concluded long before reading your article that re instituting the Love Feast would greatly enhance the work of the church. So many are chasing after the joys of fellowship in many sinful ways. I see the Love Feast done properly as the answer to so many problems.

The difference between what we are accustomed to and what I see the scriptures naming and describing is what I have termed as format vs. setting.

In my research I have only found one historical document using the word Love Feast and describing it, Tertullian of around 197 AD.

Are there other documents of that era that are pro or con of the Love Feast?

I greatly appreciate your information.

I love getting questions!

The Wikipedia gives a fair summary of what we know —

Soon after the year 100, Ignatius of Antioch refers to the agape or love-feast.[5] In Letter 97 to Trajan, Pliny the Younger perhaps indicates, in about 112, that the meal was normally taken separately from the Eucharistic celebration: he speaks of the Christians separating after having offered prayer, on the morning of a fixed day, to Christ as to a god, and reassembling later for a common meal.[6] The rescheduling of the agape meal was triggered by Corinthian selfishness and gluttony.[7] Tertullian too seems to write of these meals,[8] though what he describes is not quite clear.[2] Clement of Alexandria (c.150-211/216) distinguished so-called “Agape” meals of luxurious character from the agape (love) “which the food that comes from Christ shows that we ought to partake of”.[9] Accusations of gross indecency were sometimes made against the form that these meals sometimes took.[10] Referring to Clement of Alexandria, Stromata III,2, Philip Schaff commented: “The early disappearance of the Christian agapæ may probably be attributed to the terrible abuse of the word here referred to, by the licentious Carpocratians [a hypersexual Gnostic group]. The genuine agapæ were of apostolic origin (2 Pet. ii. 13; Jude 12), but were often abused by hypocrites, even under the apostolic eye (1 Corinthians 11:21). In the Gallican Church, a survival or relic of these feasts of charity is seen in the pain béni; and, in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the ????????? or eulogiæ, also known as prosphora distributed to non-communicants at the close of the Eucharist, from the loaf out of which the bread of oblation is supposed to have been cut.”[11]

Augustine of Hippo also objected to the continuance in his native North Africa of the custom of such meals, in which some indulged to the point of drunkenness, and he distinguished them from proper celebration of the Eucharist: “Let us take the body of Christ in communion with those with whom we are forbidden to eat even the bread which sustains our bodies.”[12] He reports that even before the time of his stay in Milan, the custom had already been forbidden there.[13]

Canons 27 and 28 of the Council of Laodicea (364) restricted the abuses.[14] The Third Council of Carthage (393) and the Second Council of Orleans (541) reiterated this legislation, which prohibited feasting in churches, and the Trullan Council of 692 decreed that honey and milk were not to be offered on the altar (Canon 57), and that those who held love feasts in churches should be excommunicated (Canon 74).

An excellent source book on early church practice is Everett Ferguson’s Early Christians Speak, vol. 1. (The original appears to be out of print, although Early Christians Speak – Vol. 2 can still be had. Most Church of Christ libraries have a copy.) Ferguson is a world-class expert in the Patristic literature, a professor at Abilene Christian, and a strong advocate for a cappella worship. He writes,

Jesus instituted the memorial of himself at the last supper in the context of a meal. It seems that a meal provided the most convenient context in which the Lord’s supper was observed by early Christians. … The Didache [late First Century] also sets the eucharist in the context of a common religious meal. The Roman governor Pliny [ca. AD 110-115] places the Christian gathering for a common meal at a separate time from the “stated” religious assembly.

Early Christians Speak, p. 130.

It seems clear that it was routine, although likely not universal, to take communion as part of a common meal. Yes, they added chicken to the Lord’s Supper! And the fellowship this helped generate was very much at the heart of early Christian practice.

Notice that Paul rebuked Peter in Gal 2 for refusing to eat with Gentiles! This wasn’t about meals at McDonalds. It was about a meal that evidenced a shared community. Just so, when Paul instructed a congregation to withdraw fellowship, he commanded them not to even eat together (1 Cor 5:11), as though sharing a meal was routine practice and at the heart of their community.

The translations routinely miss it, but Paul’s instructions in Rom 14-15 regarding accepting those who disagree over disputable matters is likely couched in terms of fellowship meals as well. Sean F. Winter, “Ambiguous Genitives, Pauline Baptism and Roman Insulae: Resources from Romans to Support Pushing the Boundaries of Unity,” in Baptist Sacramentalism 2, offers this take on Romans 14-15 –

He raises an interesting perspective on Romans 14-15. You see, the Roman Christians were likely meeting in “high-rise, overcrowded tenement apartments known as insulae. This social context provides the most plausible explanation for hostility and enmity between different Christian groups in the city. The references to domestic servants (oiketai) in 14:4 and use of terms relating to the well being of the household (oikodome) in 14:19 and 15:2 confirm the suggestion.

This explains, secondly, why Paul uses the verb proslambano in 14:1 and 15:7. In context it clearly means ‘take one another into your dwellings’. For Robert Jewett it here ‘carries the technical sense of reception into the fellowship of the congregation, that is, to the common meal’. For our purposes it is enough to remind ourselves that the image is not of mutual respect from a distance, but of radical hospitality and mutuality.

I don’t think we are commanded to have a weekly love feast, but by the logic of many of our preachers, we’d have to. It’s clearly the First Century practice and is plainly approved by the scriptures.

But the question isn’t: Must we do this on risk of going to hell? Rather, the question is: Why did the early church do this and do those reasons still apply? And what is a culturally appropriate way to take the love feast today?

And, to me, there are three easy ways for this to happen–

First, the traditional covered dish dinner still works and is an important expression of fellowship, although it’s not practical in very large churches. I mean, how would you do this if you have three services?

Second, small groups should eat together. Nothing brings people together like a common meal.

Finally, periodically, a church might actually partake of communion in the First Century way, taking the bread and the cup as part of a shared meal.

This one sets the record for long titles: “Ambiguous Genitives, Pauline Baptism and Roman Insulae: Resources from Romans to Support Pushing the Boundaries of Unity.” In this essay, Sean F. Winter asks whether we must consider those baptized as infants as outside the church. In particular, he asks whether the British Baptist Churches should consider Anglicans are part of the same one true Church of Jesus Christ.

I love this take on Romans 14-15 –

He raises an interesting perspective on Romans 14-15. You see, the Roman Christians were likely meeting in “high-rise, overcrowded tenement apartments known as insulae. This social context provides the most plausible explanation for hostility and enmity between different Christian groups in the city. The references to domestic servants (oiketai) in 14:4 and use of terms relating to the well being of the household (oikodome) in 14:19 and 15:2 confirm the suggestion.

This explains, secondly, why Paul uses the verb proslambano in 14:1 and 15:7. In context it clearly means ‘take one another into your dwellings’. For Robert Jewett it here ‘carries the technical sense of reception into the fellowship of the congregation, that is, to the common meal’. For our purposes it is enough to remind ourselves that the image is not of mutual respect from a distance, but of radical hospitality and mutuality.

Leave a Reply

  1. Excellent post overall. I love the insight into Romans 14 and 15. That makes a lot of sense.

    I've taught lessons on eating together as a spiritual activity. We seem to have lost a feel for that. We can be almost apologetic about our potlucks. With the emphasis on meals in Old Testament worship, it doesn't make sense that the New would shift to merely "a sip and a pinch" as the shared meal.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  2. Some men at my local congregation gather every two weeks for breakfast at a Bob Evans restaurant. Call me a radical or stupid or a stupid radical, but I think of that as communion and a love feast. We don't gather because we are part of a fantasy football league. We gather around a table because we are Christians. What else is there?

  3. It was part of a Passover meal.

    However, references throughout Luke and Acts to "breaking bread" are references to a common meal each time the event under discussion is unambiguous.

  4. Pingback: What Is “Sin”? The Lord’s Supper as Example | One In Jesus