Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of worship services in the early church was a meal they shared together called the Agape, or love feast. It was an integral part of their assemblies in which members ate as one body, regardless of their status in society. Whether rich or poor, master or slave, male or female, this meal was an expression of their mutual devotion as brothers and sisters in Christ. It was at the conclusion of this meal that they observed the Lord’s Supper.
“The early church developed special fellowship meals that came to be called love feasts (Jude 12) and that usually were closed with the observance of Communion. Those were congregational meals stressing fellowship, affection, and mutual caring among the believers. The emphasis on oneness led very readily into a celebration of the unifying accomplishment of the Savior on the cross” (John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, p. 267).
This may seem strange to Christians living today because we are not used to eating a meal together before the Lord’s Supper, yet that is exactly what they did in the early church. Rather than sitting in pews with just a tiny wafer and sip of juice, they gathered around tables for a love feast.
“Churches today generally observe the Lord’s Supper much differently from the way the first century church did. Now, Christians observe the ordinance with a pinch of bread and a modicum of drink, but the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper with great banquets… These meals came to be known as ‘love feasts’” (Max Anders, 1 & 2 Corinthians, p. 197).
The Passover celebration involved a meal that satisfied hunger as the Jews commemorated their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Since it was during this time — “as they were eating” (Matthew 26:26) — that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, it is not surprising the early church had a similar meal setting.
“In the modern church the Lord’s Supper is not in the physical sense of the term a meal… But it began from the Passover, a feast of hungry men, who were to clear the table and to leave nothing; and the Lord’s Supper began in the Christian Church as a meal in which physical as well as spiritual hunger was satisfied” (William Barclay, The Lord’s Supper, p. 56).
Just as the Jews commemorated their deliverance from physical bondage in a meal setting, the first Christians commemorated their deliverance from spiritual bondage in a meal setting. That’s why it was called a “supper.”
The word for “supper” in Greek is deipnon and refers to the evening meal, which was a time when people filled up on food while enjoying one another’s company. This is the term used in the familiar expression “Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20). Hence, the word conveys the idea of eating together.
“…the deipnon was the main meal of the day, where people sat down with no sense of hurry and not only satisfied their hunger but lingered long together. The very word shows that the Christian meal ought to be a meal where people linger long in each other’s company” (William Barclay, 1 Corinthians, p. 102).
A meal that afforded outcasts, such as the very poor and slaves, an opportunity to mingle with the upper echelon of society as equals was rare in that culture and would be a remarkable testimony for the early church. In fact, slaves were considered property in the Roman Empire and were often terribly mistreated by their masters. They could be whipped, branded, or even killed for any reason. Therefore, a setting where such social barriers were removed must have been quite a draw for them. And it was probably the best meal they had all week!
“The Love Feast, the Agape, was one of the earliest features of the Church. It was a meal of fellowship held on the Lord’s Day… For many of the slaves it was perhaps the only decent meal they ever ate” (William Barclay, Jude, p. 192).
We know from the many passages addressed to slaves in the New Testament that they made up a large part of the early church, and love feasts probably had a lot to do with that. It is easy to imagine those Christians telling their fellow slaves about the affection experienced at these great-tasting feasts. This undoubtedly led to more of them visiting the assembly and ultimately being saved.
We read about two abuses that took place at love feasts in the early church. The first abuse involved a selfish spirit that advanced division rather than unity (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). It seems the wealthier members had become impatient waiting for the poorer members to arrive at their feasts and ate without them, leaving the latecomers with little or nothing to eat. This embarrassed them and totally defeated the purpose of the Agape, which was intended to bring everyone together as one body in love. The text says,
“For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk… do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (v. 21, 22).
Notice that some members were “going ahead” and eating their food before the others showed up, causing those who came late to “go hungry.” This behavior showed a total lack of regard for their brethren (i.e., the church of God) and “humiliated” those who had no food. Hence, the problem was not the meal itself, but how they were eating that meal.
Paul warned the Corinthians that their treatment of one another while feasting had a direct impact on the Lord’s Supper, which they observed afterwards. To partake of communion while denying the love and unity it represented would bring judgment upon them.
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (v. 29).
“Body” is a metaphor for the church in this verse. The problem was not that the Corinthians had a lack of consideration for the literal body of Christ on the cross, but for their brethren. In other words, they were not showing proper discernment for one another as the Lord’s body. The ERV puts it like this,
“If you eat and drink without paying attention to those who are the Lord’s body, your eating and drinking will cause you to be judged guilty” (v. 29, ERV).
Paul then gave his solution on the matter. He did not call for the feast to be cancelled, but for their conduct to change while partaking of that feast. Remember, the problem was that some were “going ahead” with their own meals before the others could arrive. Therefore, he said to wait on them before eating.
“So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (v. 33).
The problem could easily be solved by showing some respect for those members who ran late to the feast, most notably the slaves who did not control their own schedules. Again, notice the problem in verse 21 and the solution in verse 33 — “each one eats without waiting for the others… when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (ERV).
“The fact that he says ‘when you come together to eat’ assumes that he supported the idea of their fellowship meal, but they should ‘wait for one another’ before they partake of it” (John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, p. 275).
If any of the Corinthians were just too “hungry” to wait for the others, they should eat at home (v. 34). 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.”
The second abuse that took place at love feasts in the early church involved false teaching. Some men used the meal as a cloak to sow their seeds of error on unsuspecting members. Jude puts it like this:
“These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted” (Jude 12).
Jude warned that some were exploiting the love feast for their own sinister purposes. Even then, however, he did not call for it to be cancelled. There is no indication whatsoever that they should stop eating together, they just needed to protect the meal from becoming a platform for evil.
In addition to the Scriptures, there is overwhelming extra-biblical evidence to suggest that churches continued to have love feasts for several centuries. Here are some examples:
The Didache, which was a treatise of church teachings written around A.D. 100, gives instruction for a Eucharistic prayer “after you are satisfied with food” (10:1), which implies 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.
Ignatius wrote to the church at Smyrna around A.D. 110 and said, “It is not lawful either to baptize, or to hold a love-feast without the consent of the bishop” (8:2).
Pliny, in his famous description of Christians to Emperor Trajan around A.D. 112, reported that they would “come together on a fixed day before daylight and to sing responsively a song to Christ as God” and then later “assemble again to partake of a meal, common yet harmless” (10:96).
Tertullian defended the love feast against heathen slander of excess in his Apology around A.D. 197. He wrote, “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 agapè, 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… 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” (ch. 39).
Minucius Felix, in his dialogue called Octavius around A.D. 210, wrote, “Our feasts are conducted not only with modesty, but in sobriety; for we do not indulge in delicacies, or prolong conviviality with wine; but temper our gaiety with gravity, with chaste conversation” (31:5).
Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition around A.D. 215, 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).
Origen rose to the defense of “love feasts” in his work Against Celsus around A.D. 248. He says, “The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that ‘of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws.’ And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the ‘love-feasts’ of the Christians, as if they had their origin in the common danger and were more binding than any oaths. Since, then, he babbles about the public law, alleging that the associations of the Christians are in violation of it…” (1:1).
Love feasts were eventually outlawed by various church councils starting in the fourth century. For instance, the Council of Laodicea (A.D. 364) declared, “It is not permitted to hold love feasts, as they are called, in the Lord's Houses, or Churches, nor to eat and to spread couches in the house of God” (Canon 28). This was just one of several reasons why they gradually passed from the scene.
Just because love feasts were sometimes abused and then forbidden by man-made legislative bodies are not good reasons for the practice to be abandoned by those seeking to restore New Testament Christianity in its purest form. There is no question the early church shared a meal in their assemblies and, as William Barclay said, “It was a lovely custom; and it is to our loss that the custom has vanished” (1 Corinthians, p. 100). Amen!