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.
The Wikipedia gives a fair summary of what we know about the early church’s celebration of the love-feast –
Soon after the year 100, Ignatius of Antioch refers to the agape or love-feast. … Tertullian too seems to write of these meals, though what he describes is not quite clear. 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”. Accusations of gross indecency were sometimes made against the form that these meals sometimes took. 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.”
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.” He reports that even before the time of his stay in Milan, the custom had already been forbidden there.
Canons 27 and 28 of the Council of Laodicea (364) restricted the abuses. 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).
It seems clear that it was routine, although perhaps not universal, to take communion as part of a common meal. Yes, they added fried 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.
Now, it appears that over time the common meal was replaced with a purely symbolic meal of bread and wine — in token amounts — as the church left private homes and entered the formerly pagan temples given to them by Constantine. Legalization and the rapid influx of former pagans into the Christianity as the emperor declared that only Christians could be citizens led to widespread abuses of the love-feast.
It’s important to realize that many pagan religions had similar meals that were characterized by drunkeness. Therefore, as pagans became “Christians” for civic convenience, it’s easy to see how the meals were abused.
Moreover, over time, Platonic thought took over Christianity, so that the material was seen as evil. Thus, the very physical love feast was replaced with a highly symbolic, spiritualized meal — that was more about the ceremony than table fellowship — and unity became a matter of the authority of church officials rather than love and companionship developed over a common meal eaten in the name of Jesus and shared with those in need.