If you were to ask the ordinary
Christian today what a Christian meeting was like in the
days of the apostles, you would probably get different answers.
An evangelical Christian would probably answer that it consisted
primarily of preaching and singing. A charismatic Christian
might reply that it primarily incorporated worship, praise,
and the exercise of miraculous gifts. An Anglican might
reply that it was principally a celebration of the Eucharist.
Of course, all of those responses are partially right. However,
a rather dominant part of apostolic worship that few Christians
would think of today is that it centered around a meal.
meal! The early Christians referred to this meal as the
agape. Even after the death of the apostles, the pre-Nicene
Church continued to practice the agape or love feast. Yet,
within a century or so after Constantine’s conversion,
this important part of apostolic worship totally disappeared.
How Did the Love Feast Originate?
For the origin of the love feast, we need
to look no further than the Last Supper. “As they
were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and
gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this
is My body’” (Matt. 26:26). So the very first
Eucharist was instituted in the context of a meal! A meal
continued to be the normal setting in which Christians met
together for fellowship and worship. Acts 2:46 tells us:
“Continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and
breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food
with gladness and simplicity of heart.” The expression,
“breaking bread,” no doubt includes the celebration
of the Eucharist. However, the phrase, “they ate their
food with gladness” would also indicate that this
was more than communion; it was also a meal.
Nowhere is this practice more clearly
confirmed than in the communion passage of 1 Corinthians
11:20-34. Paul begins that passage by saying, “Therefore
when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the
Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own
supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is
drunk.” Now, this is obviously talking about more
than just the Eucharist. Nobody gets drunk from the small
amount of wine taken in communion, nor is it credible that
various persons would receive communion before others because
they were hungry. No, Paul is obviously describing a meal—the
love feast—that preceded the actual Eucharist.
Yet, that the Eucharist was celebrated
at the end of the love feast (or, as part of it) is quite
clear from verses 23-30 of that passage. In those verses,
Paul expressly mentions Jesus taking bread and saying, “Take,
eat; this is My body which is broken for you” (1 Cor.
Another place in Scripture that describes
eating as an integral part of a New Testament worship service
is Acts 20:11, where it mentions: “When he had come
up, had broken bread and eaten, and talked a long while,
even till daybreak, he departed.” So Paul didn’t
just preach; he also ate!
And, then, of course, there is the well-known
reference in Jude, where Jude refers to those who are “spots
in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear,
serving only themselves” (Jude 12). Here Jude uses
the Greek word agape to refer to what is commonly known
today as the love feast.
Almost All Scholars Are Agreed
The rather amazing thing is that nearly
all biblical and patristic scholars—catholic and Protestant,
liberal and conservative alike—are agreed on this
matter: that New Testament worship consisted of the love
feast, followed by preaching and the Eucharist. Here are
just a few samples:
From the conservative 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
(1 Cor. 11:17-34). ...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] From The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
, which generally represents an Anglo-Catholic perspective:
“The term [agape] is applied also to the common religious
meal which seems to have been in use in the early Church
in close relation to the Eucharist. The classic NT ref.
is 1 Cor. 11:17-34, where abuses which accompanied the common
meals that preceded the Eucharist are condemned.”
[p. 23] The liberal Oxford Companion to the Bible notes:
“The love-feast is the common meal with which Christians
first followed Christ’s command at the Last Supper
to “do this in remembrance of me.” [p. 469]
The Protestant International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
notes this about the agape: “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, and after thanksgiving
to God were eaten and drunk in remembrance of Christ, and
as a special means of communion with the Lord Himself and
through Him with one another. The agape was thus related
to the Eucharist as Christ’s last Passover [was] 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. 66] Finally, The Encyclopedia of
Early Christianity, which represents both catholic and Protestant
views, says this about the love feast: “In the history
of early Christian practice, however, agape is also a liturgical
term. Translated “love-feast” (Jude 12), it
springs from the meal that the New Testament variously calls
the “breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42-47; 20:7-12)
and “Eucharist” (1 Cor. 11:20-34). A core tradition
in the early church, the meal explicitly recalls the meals
Jesus celebrated with his disciples, especially the Last
Supper ... and the post-resurrection meals recounted in
Luke 24 and John 20-21.” [p. 17]
What Happened to the Love Feast?
If the love feast was such an integral
part of apostolic worship, why is it not still around today?
The answer is that the apostolic pattern was eventually
altered. Even though Jesus and His apostles handed down
the model of having a common meal before the Eucharist,
some churches began changing this after the apostles died.
During the second and third centuries, the agape was eventually
separated from the Eucharist. Churches began celebrating
the Eucharist in the morning and hosting the love feast
in the evening.
The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity
offers this observation: “Eventually, abuses, coupled
with imperial rescripts forbidding the meals of secret societies,
brought about the separation of the fraternal meal (agape)
and Eucharist, but not everywhere and not at once. In Ignatius
(ca. 110), for instance, the celebration of the agape is
related to but distinct from the Eucharist; so also, the
Didache. In Justin Martyr, the Eucharist seems to have absorbed
the fraternal functions characteristic of agape. ...On the
other hand, in Clement’s Alexandria (ca. 200) agape
and Eucharist are joined, in spite of the signal abuses
to which Clement gives witness.
“There is general agreement that
from the mid-third century, agape and Eucharist go their
separate ways.” [p. 17]
Nevertheless, even though the agape and
communion went their separate ways, the church continued
to practice both of them until some time after the time
of Constantine. Perhaps the love feast would have continued
on down to our times if the original apostolic pattern (holding
the love feast and the Eucharist together) had not been
broken. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia makes
this observation on the separation of the agape and Eucharist,
and the eventual extinguishment of the agape:
In the Didache (ca. A.D. 100) there is
no sign as yet of any separation. The direction that the
second Eucharistic prayer should be offered “after
being filled” appears to imply that a regular meal
had immediately preceded the observance of the sacrament.
In the Ignatian epistles (ca. A.D. 110), the Lord’s
Supper and the agape are still found in combination...
When we come to Justin Martyr (ca. A.D.
150), we find that in his account of church worship he does
not mention the agape at all, but speaks of the Eucharist
as following a service which consisted of the reading of
Scripture, prayers, and exhortation. Tertullian (ca. A.D.
200) testifies to the continued existence of the agape,
but shows clearly that in the church of the West, the Eucharist
was no longer associated with it. In the East, the connection
appears to have been longer maintained, but by and by the
severance became universal; and though the agape continued
for a long time to maintain itself as a social function
of the Church, it gradually passed out of existence.”
[Vol. 1, p. 66]