The Lost Discipline of the Love Feast – Part 2
As with most of life, all good things must come to an end. Some by natural design and others by more sinister means. We can say the same for the “love feast,” which was a foundational aspect of worship during the church’s first three centuries that met its demise in the most nefarious way. And as we dig into this further, you might conclude, as I have, that the forces of darkness conspired to rid the early church of a powerful, God-ordained way of forging a group of individual believers into a single voice, a single body, into the body of Christ (Eph. 4:12). And that way was the “love feast.”
Oh, and the results of that conspiracy? Well, just look around at the fractured and scattered church today. I think the fruits are evident, don’t you?
What Is or Was the Love Feast?
As we have shared earlier, the early church was a group of Spirit-filled and committed strangers who were brought together by God’s effectual calling to form more than an organization or religious institution, but a family— the family of God or the body of Christ. And the Lord gave them the discipline of sharing a common meal together as part of their corporate worship time (Acts 2:42) to facilitate the intimacy and fellowship (koinōnía) needed to become the light of the world (Matt. 5:14).
But the “love” or “agape” feast was more than a simple meal. It was a time of bonding together, much like a family does after a tragedy. It was a time to embrace new believers, encourage those struggling in their faith, and rejoice with those with whom God was doing mighty things. The agape, or love feast, was an opportunity for the church to share the highs and lows of the Christian life as one, while building itself up on the “most holy faith” (Jude 1:20).
During the feast, the older, more mature Believers would share wisdom and what they had learned from walking with Christ longer than the new believers just learning how to crawl spiritually. It was a picture of what a Christian worship service should look like. Everyone had a part, and everyone was encouraged to participate.
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification – 1 Corinthians 14:26.
When was the last time you saw congregation members encouraged to share a teaching, tongue, revelation, or interpretation during a Sunday worship time without that first being cleared by those in charge? Exactly. But what a fantastic time that would have been, not constrained by the rules or traditions of men, but singing spontaneous songs and hymns, offering prayers without being asked, and praising God continually for all He had done in the lives of those with you, all prompted and empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in everyone, and not just a few. Amazing.
Couldn’t Things Go Wrong?
Now, it is true that this type of freedom in worship has its inherent dangers. We see that in Jude 1:12, where Jude says non-believers, satanic plants, had infiltrated the church, just like they have today, and became “spots in your feast, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves.” The word translated spots is spilás and means “a rock by the sea or submerged in the sea by which ships are shipwrecked.” In essence, these people became a hidden reef that could cause great damage to the church due to their selfishness, “serving only themselves.” It looks like not much has changed in 2,000 years. But is the fear of abuse or selfishness a reason to scrap something God established for such good? I don’t think so.
Then, we see the problem with pride in the church. In Corinth, the people had strayed into factions and groups, favoring those who “have” and rejecting those who “have not.” In giving his instruction for the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul first chastised those who had turned the agape or love feast into something dishonoring to Christ. And it was this rebuke that gave rise to his instructions (1 Cor. 11:17-22). You might want to read it yourself. It kinda stings.
But again, is this a reason to reject the plan of God entirely because some in the church have abused it? Notice that Paul did not cancel the love feast. He only regulated it and the Lord’s Supper. So yes, as with anything, there are inherent dangers. And this is true of the love feast. But do you think that when God instituted it along with Bible teaching, fellowship, and prayer, He was unaware of the dangers? Like maybe they caught Him by surprise? Or perhaps He made a mistake? Again, I think not.
So What Did the Love (Agape) Feast Look Like?
According to the New Testament and the writings of the early church fathers, the agape or love feast was celebrated by the early church this way:
The church would gather on the first day of the week to celebrate the Lord and praise Him. This time, what we would call our Sunday Worship Service, would begin with a common, shared meal— with those who had much sharing with those who had little.
The agape feast and the Lord’s Supper were closely connected, with the feast first followed by the Supper. Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 AD) wrote: “It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize, or to offer, or to present sacrifice, or to celebrate a love-feast.”¹ This indicates the love feast and the Lord’s Supper were not separate practices for the early church. They were two sides of the same coin.
During the love feast, those present were encouraged to share, for the edification of the body, what the Lord had shown them or what He had done in their lives, much like our time of testimonies. There was freedom within the church. No clergy, laity divide. Everyone had direct access to the Lord and, therefore, everyone had the opportunity and right to share their relationship with Him. It was the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers on steroids.
According to church historians, their time began with prayer, followed by a communal meal (love feast) and time of sharing, singing, testimonies, Scripture, and worship. This was followed by a teaching from the Scripture and ended with the Lord’s Supper. An offering was also received for the needs of others. Tertullian (160-225 AD) explains the offering in his Apology, “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.”²
Remember, when the church came together, they were “devoted to” or “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). These were not four separate activities that took place on different days. These four God-ordained practices of His church made up their worship service and were sum parts of the whole that were vital in turning the persecuted early church into the men and women of God who “turned the world upside down” for Christ (Acts 17:6).
But What Happened to the Love Feast?
Great question. And the answer may surprise you. Remember, whenever God provides His children with something to benefit them, as He did with the four practices in Acts 2:42, the enemy and the flesh work overtime to destroy all God has created. We see this in every area of life, and especially in His church.
So next time, we will look at the sinister compromise the church made with the secular world for the sake of acceptance and wealth and how the agape feast proved too powerful to be allowed to stand. So, like most things God gives us for our good, it was set aside for something we want more. And the unintended consequences for the church (or maybe they were intended) have been severe.
We can learn much about how God intended His church to function rather than how we have decided we want it to be today. And who knows, maybe God is moving His church from its dependence on repurposed pagan temples back into the homes where it first began. Perhaps He will reinstitute His love feast among believers and how we worship Him in the future. Who knows?
But if that is what He is doing, I, for one, am ready for it. Are you?
1. Letter to the Smyrneans 8.2
2. Apology, 39.16