The Lord’s Supper: The Early Church

I offer some material from the uninspired writings of early Christians to prove that I’m not crazy — not to establish a theology of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, we in the Churches of Christ are bad to reach into the Patristics to lock down a point we can’t prove from the scriptures themselves. We — quite literally — fill scriptural silences from the Patristics, which I find wrong. No commandment or prohibition can be built on uninspired sources.

The Lord’s Supper as described in the Didache (about 100 AD) is summarized in H J DeJonge, The Early History of the Lord’s Supper.

The supper pictured by the Didache is both a real and a sacramental meal. Through their participation in this meal, the members of the community participate proleptically in the eschatological kingdom of Jesus, which is the new shape of the kingdom of David (9 2) The function of the meal is still the bringing about of the umty of the congregation In this case, however, the unity is not founded in the death of Jesus (as in Paul), but in the fact that the bread that is broken at the beginning of the meal, “once dispersed over the hills, was brought together and became one loaf.” In eating from this loaf, the congregation becomes one. Similar ideas occur in blessings which are pronounced over the bread at the beginning of Jewish meals, as is well known.

Our next witness is Pliny the Younger (around 112 AD), who tortured Christians to learn about their practices. DeJonge summarizes —

Alongside the supper held on Sunday evening, a cultic assembly began to be held on Sunday morning before dawn. We learn from the younger Pliny, Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor from 111 to 113 C.E., that the Christians in that area “met regularly before dawn (ante lucem) on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ, as if to a god (. . .). After this ceremony it was their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind” (Pliny, Ep. 10.96). Since the Christians are said to reassemble at the end of the day in order to have a common supper, the “fixed day” on which the morning office took place was probably also the Sunday.

The Lord’s Supper continued to be a full meal into the Second Century —

Justin speaks of the meal as consisting of “food dry and liquid” (Dial. 117.3). According to the same author, it was a communal meal, consequently an evening meal, but preceded by a service of lessons, admonition, and prayer (? Apol. 67.3-8; analogy: the sabbath meal of the Therapeutae). About 200 C.E., Tertullian stresses the charitable function of the Christian supper. The meal still conformed to the two-fold pattern of (a) the common meal proper (syssition), plus (b) the religio-social gathering, including the singing of scriptural or self-made hymns, and concluded by prayer.

Sometime during the Second Century, it becomes clear that the Lord’s Supper was taken more often than weekly.

The introduction of the eucharist in the morning Services occurred not later than the end of the Second Century. Obviously, many Christians felt that one eucharist a week was not enough. Out of sheer desire for the community with the Lord and fellow Christians, they began to celebrate it twice or more times a week early in the mornmg. Hippolytus’ Traditio Apostolica records eucharistic services on all days of the week (including Sundays), before working hours.

Over time, the love-feast and Lord’s Supper became separate institutions —

In the middle of the third Century, Cyprian makes some observations on the difference between the two Sunday meals of the Christian community, that is, the eucharist celebrated early in the morning (mane) and the agape (cena, convivium nostrum) held in the evening. The difference is that at the eucharist, the community as a whole (plebs, omnis friternitas) is present, whereas for logistic reasons the supper is only attended by part of the community, obviously by the poorer members of the community. Because of this Cyprian can say: “‘The true sacrament’ is the one we celebrate in the presence of the entire congregation.” …

At the same time Cyprian makes it clear that the differentiation in status between eucharist and agape was occasioned by the growth of the congregation: “When we have supper, we cannot invite the whole congregation.” In some places, the agape continued to be held until the Seventh Century.

We like to imagine that the apostolic church passed around a cup and a piece of bread while pensively staring at the floor. But in actuality, they had a meal that not only remembered the sacrifice of Jesus, it provided food to the poor. And to the early Christians, this made perfect sense —

(1 John 3:16-17)  This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?

It was only as the church grew highly institutionalized and the congregations grew large that the practice ended — and even then, despite objections from church councils, some congregations insisted on continuing the ancient practice for centuries more.

It’s interesting that the Eucharist began daily (if that’s the meaning of “break bread” in Acts 2), moved to weekly, and then moved back to daily. The driving force of the move back wasn’t theology so much as a desire of Christians to celebrate Christ together more often than weekly.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to The Lord’s Supper: The Early Church

  1. Bob Harry says:

    Jay

    Thank you for the great research on the communion as practiced by the early Fathers of first and second century faith.
    Donna and I try to focus by our silent, eyes closed meditation ot what we are trying to do…focus on his sacrifice in gratitude. It is hard to do and I admit to being distracted by negative thoughts and mind wandering.
    I pray that in the next few years that posts, such as this, helps us in our communion partaking together or in our home or whenever we do it.
    We are such ingrates when it comes to our giving thanks to the Cross and His blood. His blood is symbolic of eternal life and our poor thoughts barely pass muster of the gratitude we need to show during and after communion.

    I hope the church of the future can spend more time and focus on communion, but that is just the plea of an older man who has spent so much time on trivia in his life. We need to help the lost by sharing his blood and sacrifice.

    We want the faith of Abraham who staggered not at what he had to perform. We want less time worrying about correctness and safety, I want to go into areas of danger and out of our comfort zone, like the evangelists in India who have a very short life expectancy. They are killed by the hundreds.

    Bob

  2. johnny says:

    "The Lord’s Supper continued to be a full meal into the Second Century –" The evidence you seek to base this claim on proves otherwise.

    The passage from Justin's Dialogue about solid and liquid food, Chapter CXVII:

    "For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind, whose name the high priests of your nation and your teachers have caused to be profaned and blasphemed over all the earth."

    How do you get from that that he is referring to a banquet and not to exactly what is done in the CoC today?

    Clearly this reference is explained in Justin's First Apology, Chapter LXV, where he says:

    "There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen."

    Even the considerable length of the comments at the table reminds me of modern CoC practice. And the mixture of wine with water sounds similar to grape juice from concentrate. The only difference is the saying of Amen, maybe, it depends on the congregation I guess.

    Then in the next chapter, LXVI, I will reproduce the whole, he says:

    "And this food is called among us Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn."

    Now, the question to me is, did the demons who made the religion of Mithras copy the communion before Christianity even existed (as Justin claims) or did the Catholics copy Mithraism and put a pagan symbolic cannibalistic feast in our gospels?

  3. johnny says:

    “For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind, whose name the high priests of your nation and your teachers have caused to be profaned and blasphemed over all the earth.” (Justin's Dial. 117.3).

    For such what alone? Justin is linking the communion to the passage in Malachi (Mal 1:11). As such we find this to be a clear denial of the communion being a big meal. Justin conceived of it as being a sacrifice. It also seems likely that Justin's mention of solid and liquid is meant to present the Lord's Supper as being both a grain and a drink offering. Perhaps Justin's translation of Mal 1:11 for whatever reason even said "grain offering and drink offering" rather than merely "offering," thus occasioning this remark.

    Here is the entirety of Justin's Dialogue chapter 117. The chapter heading is given in the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection as "Malachi's Prophecy Concerning the Sacrifices of the Christians. It Cannot Be Taken as Referring to the Prayers of Jews of the Dispersion."

    Notice that he actually restricts his comments to "the Eucharist of the bread and the cup" thus showing plainly he has no big banquet such as you conceive in mind!

    Justin says:

    "Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him. But He utterly rejects those presented by you and by those priests of yours, saying, `And I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands; for from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the Gentiles (He says); but ye profane it.' Yet even now, in your love of contention, you assert that God does not accept the sacrifices of those who dwelt then in Jerusalem, and were called Israelites; but says that He is pleased with the prayers of the individuals of that nation then dispersed, and calls their prayers sacrifices. Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit. For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind, whose name the high priests of your nation and your teachers have caused to be profaned and blasphemed over all the earth. But these filthy garments, which have been put by you on all who have become Christians by the name of Jesus, God shows shall be taken away from us, when He shall raise all men from the dead, and appoint some to be incorruptible, immortal, and free from sorrow in the everlasting and imperishable kingdom; but shall send others away to the everlasting punishment of fire. But as to you and your teachers deceiving yourselves when you interpret what the Scripture says as referring to those of your nation then in dispersion, and maintain that their prayers and sacrifices offered in every place are pure and well-pleasing, learn that you are speaking falsely, and trying by all means to cheat yourselves: for, first of all, not even now does your nation extend from the rising to the setting of the sun, but there are nations among which none of your race ever dwelt. For there is not one single race of men, whether barbarians, or Greeks, or whatever they may be called, nomads, or vagrants, or herdsmen living in tents, among whom prayers and giving of thanks are not offered through the name of the crucified Jesus. And then, as the Scriptures show, at the time when Malachi wrote this, your dispersion over all the earth, which now exists, had not taken place."

  4. johnny says:

    In conclusion, the concept of the communion originally being a big meal is nothing but fantasy. And Justin forces us to come to some opinion regarding the association of the Eucharist with the similar meal observed in honor of Mithras.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Johnny,

    I'm going to be moderating your comments — meaning they won't be posted until I've reviewed and perhaps edited them.

    Referring to the Lord's Supper as cannibalistic and your gratuitous insulting of Catholics is unacceptable conduct on this blog.

  6. Bob Harry says:

    Jay

    Amen

  7. "I offer some material from the uninspired writings of early Christians to prove that I’m not crazy — not to establish a theology of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, we in the Churches of Christ are bad to reach into the Patristics to lock down a point we can’t prove from the scriptures themselves. We — quite literally — fill scriptural silences from the Patristics, which I find wrong. No commandment or prohibition can be built on uninspired sources."

    We should not forget, however, that the Didache was still written in the Life-Time of the Apostle John, it was considered Part of the canon in some churches, and – to say the least – held in high esteem among all churches of Christ back then. It is, in fact, on of my favourite Early Christian writings.

    I think it is not wrong to look into the patristic writings to double-check our own conclusions from the Scriptures; after all we have no clue about what life was like in Apostolic Times, so the understanding of those who lived back then and spoke Koine Greek as their everyday language, is of tremendous help for us. I prefer their insights to any modern commentary on the Scriptures.

    There are some more challenges in their writings that are really neat: Their regular fast-days, their absolute noneresistance and nonparticipation in politics, their lifestyle of charity, their willingness to live simple lives (quite like the Anabaptists) … and, yes: Their totally different style of worship. Of course we should not pick and choose, quoting them whenever their views suit our theology and dismissing them when they hold to different opinions than ours. In the end, we are to follow the scriptures, but the light they shed upon them is (in my opinion) very important.

    Alexander

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