I received this question from a reader —
First, I want to say how much I appreciate your blog. It is a great source of learning and encouragement for me. I left a legalistic church several years ago and I’ve been growing so much since then.
Anyway, I’m engaged in a discussion about authority for local groups having meals. This person is denying there is historical evidence of the love feasts. Do you have knowledge of good sources I can point out to him? I’m not sure it will even convince him.
Yes, there is very substantial historical authority for the love feast. The primary source is the New Testament.
When the church was first formed in Jerusalem, we find that the church “broke bread” in one another’s homes —
(Acts 2:46-47) Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Some argue that “broke bread” is a reference to communion, but there are problems with that conclusion. First, it would hardly be obvious to Luke’s readers that this is what the phrase means. Second, many translators take “every day” to refer to “broke bread” as well as meeting in the temple courts. The ESV translation, for example, is much closer to the Greek than the NIV quoted earlier —
46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Next, 1 Cor 11 has a famous passage involving the Lord’s Supper —
20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!
The Corinthians were obviously eating a full meal, as Paul’s complaint is that some remain hungry. He doesn’t complain that they’ve eaten — he complains that they don’t share. He then orders them to eat at home, because “when I come I will give further directions” (v. 34). For reasons I’ll explain, Paul isn’t banning the eating of a meal together. He’s giving a temporary order to prevent gross abuses of the Lord’s Supper until he can some set things in order — it was too big of a mess to fix by letter.
You see, we know it was permissible to eat together because of Acts 2:46-47 and Jude 12 —
12These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves.
Jude was written well after 1 Corinthians. He complains about certain false teachers who “blemish” their love feasts. Obviously enough, they had love feasts, and Jude has no criticism of them.
Now, of all these passages, the ones closest to your question is Acts 2:46-47, as they were meeting in homes together to eat. But any doubt as to the propriety of meeting together to eat is resolved by Jude 12.
I do not condone forming doctrine out of Patristic evidence, but we wouldn’t know what a “love feast” is but for the Patristics. This is the term given by the early church to a common meal. Of course, in many communities, the early church met in houses as they had no authority under Roman law to own buildings and the synagogues threw them out. Therefore, when they took the love feast, in most towns, they met in homes.
Everett Ferguson 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.
In short, historians are agreed that the early church shared a common meal called the love feast, and did so for centuries after the apostolic age.
Now, having said that, let me add this. My church has had small groups for nearly 15 years, generally meeting at homes. And we’ve found that the groups do best when they eat together. After all, the point of a small group is not to have one more Bible study. (You can do that at church — and not have to clean house!) Among other purposes, small groups are formed to grow more close together in love and to reach out to your friends and neighbors.
It’s much easier to grow together in love over a meal. That’s the way God made us. And it’s easier to invite others to the group if there’s food. You’re more likely to ask a fellow member to help you with your struggles to walk the Christian walk if you’ve first bonded over pot roast. You’re more likely to visit a fellow group member in the hospital if you’ve shared chicken casserole recipes.
Small groups, done right, change the heart of a congregation. And the apostles were wise to have their members meet in each other’s homes for food.
If you want to go into more depth, I’d suggest Everett Ferguson’s Early Christians Speak, which is most church libraries. Ferguson is a first rate scholar of early Christian literature and very conservative. His book gives the evidence for early church practices. For in depth theology, read John Mark Hicks Come to the Table, which is excellent.
This is in reply to Tim Archer’s questions in the comments below —
(I’m home fighting an infection, and should know better than to post while feeling as bad as I do. But it’s either this or watch daytime TV … Oh, well … So here I go again. Forgive my lack of organization. That only happens when I’m healthier.)
The fact that “break bread,” as used in Luke/Acts, has spiritual significance (see John Mark Hicks, Come to the Table and his recent posts at his blog on the subject) hardly means that “break bread” refers to communion in contrast to a full meal. I’m not arguing that the meals were without spiritual significance. I’m just saying that they ate a meal.
Now, does that mean that the Jerusalem church didn’t take communion daily? No, it just means they took a meal. Of course, we know from history that the early church took communion as a part of or right after the love feast — which would parallel Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper at a Passover meal and the practice (abused) suggested by 1 Cor 11. Therefore, it’s quite possible that the meals described in Acts 2:26-47 also included communion. In fact, I rather suspect they did. Just as I think Acts 20:7 is a reference to the love feast — but a love feast at which communion was taken.
What I should have said better in the post is that I just can’t imagine the Jerusalem church sipping grape juice and a crumb of matzos daily. I can easily see them in each other’s homes, enjoying hospitality and fellowship — and eating a meal. In that part of the world, it would be unthinkable to have people in your home and not serve food.
And I can easily see the Jerusalem church treating the bread and wine commonly served at a shared meal as declaring the Lord’s death until he comes. In other words, I have no trouble with the theory that they treated their common meals as not just spiritual but as eucharistic. After all, the OT prophets had promised a banquet in Jerusalem as a sign of the Messiah. Isa 25:6; 58:14; Joel 2:26. The Jerusalem church, at the dawn of messianic age, would have seen great spiritual — even eschatological — significance in eating together and sharing food with the hungry in fulfillment of prophecy.
Therefore, eating in this way would have “declared the Lord’s death” in a way that we often entirely miss. They would have been declaring that the age prophesied for centuries had finally come. It’s here now! The Messiah has come! We often miss this because we see the OT as repealed, rather than realized.
I think that significance is present whether or not they took bread and wine as a ritualized Lord’s Supper. If they ate, they took bread and wine, because that’s how people ate at the time. And if they ate together as the Messiah’s community, it was a declaration that the Messiah had come. They would have blessed God for the meal, they would have remembered Jesus, and they would have allowed the meal to help shape them into the body of Christ. And maybe that’s more “Lord’s Supper” than what we do.
It’s certainly more “communion” than what we do, as “communion” translates the same word we often translate “fellowship.” And, frankly, we don’t do much communing during the communion. Rather, we so individualize it that we could do it at home. (Some do.) And in so doing, we miss most of the point, I think.
I struggle to come up with a practice that works in a large church that captures what the early church experienced in their house churches (John Mark Hicks has a chapter on this in his book). And so, maybe a solution is to sometimes eat together in our small groups — and to treat the meal as a celebration of Jesus’ victory over the grave and the new age he inaugurated. I don’t know. Maybe we should do that once a quarter or once a month.
In fact, God’s church needs fellowship/communion at different levels, I think. And so it would be good if sometimes we took communion in our small groups on occasion (which hardly means that we don’t also it during Sunday morning assembly. There’s no sin in declaring Jesus’ death twice on the same day, you know). And we should definitely take communion with the other churches in town once a year. Then I think we’d start to get past “eat a crumb, sip some juice, buy a week’s worth of salvation” and learn to instead savor the Lord through communion/fellowship with his body.
Oh, and the communion in small groups should be like a seder or Passover meal. That is, it should be a remembrance, but it should be a time of rejoicing. It’s not a funeral. He arose!