There have been many suggestions made about the "love feasts" in Jude 12. Some say they were meals eaten by Christians in the assembly. Others say they were meals eaten by Christians outside the assembly. Still others say that Jude's expression refers to the Lord's Supper or is merely figurative. The text itself provides no additional details.
I was surprised to see how many reputable sources say that love feasts were meals eaten by Christians in the assembly, usually in connection with the Lord's Supper. Here is a sampling.
Thayer: "...feasts expressing and fostering mutual love which used to be held by Christians before the celebration of the Lord's supper, and at which the poorer Christians mingled with the wealthier and partook in communion with the rest of food provided at the expense of the wealthy" (p. 4).
Arndt and Gingrich: "...a common meal eaten by early Christians in connection w. their church services, for the purpose of fostering and expressing brotherly love" (p. 6).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: "In the opinion of the great majority of scholars the Agape was a meal at which not only bread and wine but all kinds of viands were used, a meal which had the double purpose of satisfying hunger and thirst and giving expression to the sense of Christian brotherhood. At the end of this feast, bread and wine were taken according to the Lord's command... The Agape was thus related to the Eucharist as Christ's last Passover to the Christian rite which He grafted upon it. It preceded and led up to the Eucharist, and was quite distinct from it" (Vol. 1, p. 70).
AMG's Comprehensive Dictionary of New Testament Words: "Meal expressing and nurturing mutual affection eaten together by early Christians... At the beginning of the church, the Lord's supper was celebrated during those feasts" (p. 641).
History of the Christian Church: "In the apostolic period the eucharist was celebrated... in connection with a simple meal of brotherly love (agape), in which the Christians, in communion with their common Redeemer, forgot all distinctions of rank, wealth, and culture, and felt themselves to be members of one family of God" (Vol. 1, p. 473).
Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: "Certainly by the time of Paul's writing to the Corinthians (ca. AD 55) it is evident that that church observed the practice of meeting together for a common meal before partaking of the Lord's Supper... The situation described here is possible only in the context of a meal more substantial than, and preceding the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper" (p. 660).
Tertullian (200 AD) went into some detail about "love feasts" in his Apology 39, though there is no indication they were connected to the Lord's Supper.
"Yet about the modest supper-room of the Christians alone a great ado is made. Our feast explains itself by its name. The Greeks call it agape, i.e., affection. Whatever it costs, our outlay in the name of piety is gain, since with the good things of the feast we benefit the needy... If the object of our feast be good, in the light of that consider its further regulations. As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste... As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it is closed. We go from it, not like troops of mischief-doers, nor bands of vagabonds, nor to break out into licentious acts, but to have as much care of our modesty and chastity as if we had been at a school of virtue rather than a banquet."
Ignatius (110 AD) discussed when to celebrate a "love feast" in his letter to the Smyrnaeans (8:2), and Pliny the Younger (112 AD) reported to Trajan that "on a fixed day" Christians would assemble "to partake of food, ordinary and innocent food" (97).
The Didache (100 A.D.) gives instruction for a Eucharistic prayer "after you are satisfied with food" (10:1), which may imply that a meal was eaten before the Lord's Supper was observed. It also says to come together on the Lord's day to "break bread and hold Eucharist" (14:1), apparently making a distinction between the two acts.
Hippolytus' Apostolic Tradition (215 AD) links the Lord's Supper to a broader meal. It says, "When they dine, the faithful shall take from the hand of the bishop a small piece of bread before taking their own bread, because it is blessed. Yet it is not the eucharist, like the body of the Lord" (26:1). It also encourages Christians to "eat and drink in moderation" (28:1) and to keep some food as "leftovers of the saints, so that the one to whom it is sent may rejoice" (28:3). Moreover, it specifies that the Eucharistic bread and wine should be taken "before eating anything else" (36:1).
We know that the Council of Laodicea outlawed "love feasts" in the fourth century (Canon 28). This legislation was later reiterated by the Third Council of Carthage and the Second Council of Orleans.
All of this made me wonder if there are any passages in the New Testament to support the idea that Christians shared a meal when they gathered together. The answer is "yes."
According to 1 Corinthians 11, the church at Corinth ate meals prior to their worship service. These meals not only provided a good opportunity for fellowship, but they gave the wealthy members a chance to share their abundance with the poor. (That might have been the best meal the slaves had to eat all week). However, the rich got tired of waiting for the poor to arrive and ate without them. This left the poor with very little or no food.
"For in eating, each goes on ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk" (v. 21).
Paul rebuked this outrageous behavior. It not only missed the point of the meal, but embarrassed the latecomers. Therefore, he told those who were too selfish to wait for others to go home and eat.
"What! Do you not have houses 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 commend you in this? No, I will not" (v. 22).
The Voice translation renders the first part of that verse this way: "What is going on? If a self-centered meal is what you want, can't you eat and drink at home?" That seems to be the point.
Paul then launched into a discussion about the Lord's Supper, which apparently followed the meal (vv. 23-32). However, he came back to his initial discussion concerning the meal itself.
"So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another -- if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home -- so that when you come together it will not be for judgment" (vv. 33-34).
For a long time, I thought they were waiting to "eat" the Lord's Supper. I was wrong. It actually refers to the broader meal that was eaten before the Lord's Supper. How do I know? Because whatever they were going to "eat" in verse 33 could be eaten "at home" in verse 34. That excludes the communion.
Paul was saying that when you come together to eat this meal, which is capable of satisfying hunger and getting you drunk (v. 21), wait for one another. Those who are too hungry to wait should eat at home. This is brought out in certain translations/paraphrases.
ERV: "If some are too hungry to wait, they should eat at home."
NCV: "Anyone who is too hungry should eat at home."
Voice: "If someone is hungry and can't wait, he should go home and eat."
Amplified: "If anyone is too hungry [to wait], let him eat at home."
The Message: "If you're so hungry that you can't wait to be served, go home and get a sandwich."
Brethren who oppose the so-called "second serving" of the Lord's Supper argue that Paul said to "wait for one another." Yes, he did; but that is not in reference to the communion. It refers to the eating of a meal that left some "hungry" and others "drunk" (v. 21), and could be eaten "at home" (v. 34).
Paul was not condemning the Corinthians for eating a meal. He was rebuking them for not eating that meal the right way. They needed to wait patiently for one another so that none would be neglected or embarrassed. The fact that he said "when you come together to eat" assumes that he supported the idea of the meal, but they were to "wait for one another" before they partook of it.
The Lord's Supper was instituted in the context of a meal. "Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread..." (Matthew 26:26, emp. mine). That may explain why there would have been a "meal setting" in the early church. Moreover, the word "supper" is from the Greek deipnon, and refers to "a formal meal usually held at the evening" (Thayer). This was the main meal of the day where people not only satisfied their hunger, but enjoyed one another's company with no sense of hurry. Yet in churches today, we use the word much differently. We try to have a "supper" without a meal setting at all!
Those who deny the necessity of baptism often reference two verses in 1 Corinthians 1 to prove their point ("I thank God that I baptized none of you" and "Christ did not send me to baptize"). However, the surrounding context actually makes one of the strongest arguments for baptism. Likewise, brethren who oppose eating a meal when gathered together often reference two verses in 1 Corinthians 11 to prove their point ("Do you not have houses to eat and drink in" and "If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home"), when the surrounding context actually authorizes eating together.
It seems to me that 1 Corinthians 11 is describing an abuse of the "love feast" spoken of in Jude 12. It was a meal eaten in the assembly which expressed the love and devotion that Christians share.
"There can be no doubt that the Eucharist at this period (shortly after Pentecost) was preceded uniformly by a common repast, as when the ordinance was instituted. Most scholars hold that this was the prevailing usage in the first centuries after Christ; and we have traces of this practice in 1 Corinthians 11:20ff."
-- Alexander Campbell