The Lost Discipline of the Love Feast – Part 4
The parallels between the underground church in China and the early church of the first three centuries are striking. Both suffered intense persecution, being declared enemies of the state. Both responded by holding fast to the foundational tenets of their faith theologically and in practice (Acts 2:42). And both did more than just survive— they thrived. So much so that Constantine was forced, among other reasons, to issue the Edict of Toleration, and later the Edict of Milan,¹ because of the growing number of believers in the empire. Scholars estimate that by the end of the third century, over 10% of the Roman population were Christians, not counting a vast number of slaves.²
Fast forward seventeen hundred years and we have the same scene played out in our time, only bigger. Instead of the persecution by the Roman Empire, we see the grand persecution of the church under Mao’s People’s Republic of China beginning in 1949 when atheism was established as the official state religion. Soon, missionaries were expelled from China, churches and schools were closed, their property confiscated, and pastors and church leaders were imprisoned or condemned to labor camps.
No longer was there freedom of religion or assembly or the right to worship. Instead, like the early persecuted church, believers were forced underground to practice their faith. And the results of China’s state-wide treatment of Christianity was “legendary,” says Paul Hattaway, director of Asia Harvest. He continues, “For thirty years, they have shown the world how to be the church Christ intended.”³ Some estimates suggest there are more Christians in China than Communist Party members, totaling over 150 million and growing by over 30,000 per day. In fact, it is reported that over half of all believers in China choose to worship in an underground church than in one approved by the state. Let that sink in for a moment.
The Underground Church in China
How did this happen so fast? And how did the underground church in China grow so quickly under persecution when the church in the West has seen decades of decline over the same period? What are we missing that they have found? Or what do they know and practice that we have conveniently forgotten?
The history of Christianity in China is marked by periods of rapid growth amidst brutal persecution. Ever since the communist takeover in 1949, Christians in China have faced oppression from the atheist government and have been forced to worship underground, or in homes, buildings, or barns, anywhere away from the watchful eyes of the state. Yet the church continues to grow at an astonishing rate, unparalleled in modern history, primarily through underground house churches operating illegally outside of state control. Through courage, faith, perseverance, and the willingness to adapt to change, these unheralded believers have found innovative ways to live out the Gospel, even in adversity. The underground church in China may be a prototype of the future church in America. But we’ll write more about that at a later time.
Believers met in homes, apartments, barns, or anywhere they could gather without being noticed, since public meetings often led to arrest and imprisonment. Yet, they persevered and adapted, just like the early church. House churches were free to share their faith as they desired without any state interference. They could properly train leaders without the government dictating what was taught, much like Bonhoeffer’s “illegal” seminary for the Confessing Church in Finkenwalde. They could worship the Lord as the Spirit moved, without coming under cultural and governmental scrutiny. Again, just like the early church while facing Roman persecution. And their commitment to each other and their faith in the Lord became contagious to a generation seeking something real, something they could believe in— which may explain the rapid growth of the underground church that lived in obscurity and poverty.
But the question for us is not the extent or degree of state persecution the church in China experienced, but what they did to shine so bright during times of great satanic darkness. How did they allow their light to shine so “they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16)? What was life like for them in the underground church? And why do over half of the believers in China today still choose the underground church over the visible state-sanctioned church?
What is Worship Like in an Underground House Church?
As in the first three centuries, the underground church in China met primarily in homes or other isolated locations, usually at different times on different days of the week. By meeting in homes, the underground church could share full meals with one another, echoing the agape or love feast practiced by the early church but forgotten for centuries. Re-establishing the love feast as a foundational aspect of their worship together was one of the first things the underground church did— and they established it for the same reason the Lord instituted the practice in the first place (Acts 2:42). For them, the love feast served the same purpose it did centuries ago, binding believers together in the intimate spiritual unity and love only a relationship with Christ could bring, while strengthening their joint submission to Christ and each other (John 17:21).
Eating together in their homes allowed members to know each other deeply and care for each other as a family. Sharing stories, struggles, hopes, and prayers during the feast forged deep emotional bonds vital in keeping the church together while suffering persecution. Participation in the love feast required sacrificial giving by those with more financial means to freely and joyfully supply the physical needs of those in the body of Christ with less (Rom. 12:4-5). For poor Christians in house churches in China, the weekly love feast might be the only decent meal they would eat all week. And the unity, love, selflessness, and care shown through the feast gave them hope and spiritual strength to endure hardship the rest of the week. Just as in the early church, the shared meal reinforced that believers belong to one another as members of Christ’s body as children of God (Rom. 8:16-17). It was a tangible demonstration of the family of God caring for its own. And it is how the church was meant to function from the beginning. Still not sure? Then read it for yourself in Acts 2-6.
Both the early church and the underground house churches in China rely on the power of this communal meal to unite them in a steadfast spiritual community— all for one, and one for all as brothers and sisters in Christ.
“What Have You Learned, Dorothy?”
If the greatest revival of Spirit-empowered church growth in the last century has taken place under great trials and suffering of the underground church in China, and if the greatest apostasy and compromise of His church has taken place in Europe and the United States, which have freedom of religion cemented as part of their cultural charter and churches and cathedrals on almost every street corner— and if the underground church went back to the basics of the faith, back to Acts, in practice and belief— then it would appear they may have discovered the Holy Grail of Christian living, of pleasing God, of living the surrendered, sanctified life, which is taking God at His Word and not altering or changing it for tradition or convenience sake. One long sentence, I know.
And if any of that is true, and I am convinced that it is, then we have much to consider as the church in the West. There is apparently much we must do as His church that we no longer consider relevant in our version of church today. And there is much we must stop doing as His church that we should have never started in the first place. This means everything, and I mean everything, about church and our accepted relationship with Him must be re-examined under the light of His Word and not based on our cherished traditions.
One last thing before closing. Please don’t think this is all about a meal, far from it. The meal, the love feast, is just the vehicle God uses to bring us together as one in His church. It’s not about adding a meal to our crowded Sunday service. It’s about the meal serving as an opportunity for us to become more like our Lord. To do that, our attitudes about each other must change. Our acceptance of fellowship as being nothing more than a surface-level conversation with casual friends over a chicken dinner must change. We must desire to be more than what we are today if we expect Him to move in our midst. But I think we already knew that, didn’t we?
Can you see why the enemy worked so hard to remove the love feast from the arsenal of tools the Lord used to create men and women of God in His church? And can you see why we are in the lukewarm, Laodicea shape we are in today (Rev. 3:16)?
But all that can change. It doesn’t have to stay the same.
And it can begin with you this Sunday.
1. The Edict of Toleration, issued in 311 AD by Emperor Galerius, granted some rights and tolerance to Christians, ending official persecution, while the more expansive Edict of Milan in 313 AD, under Constantine I and Licinius, provided full religious tolerance and rights to all religions, establishing Christianity as an accepted religion in the Roman Empire.
2. Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton University Press, 1996. p.6 – “By a hundred years after the Crucifixion of Jesus, Christianity had achieved significant penetration of the urban centers of the Roman Empire, reaching approximately 6 million adherents by 300 AD, or about 10 percent of the Empire’s population.”
3. “The fortitude of the Chinese house church is legendary. For thirty years, they have shown the world how to be the church Christ intended.” – Paul Hattaway, director of Asia Harvest ministry, quoted in “The Heavenly Man” by Brother Yun (2002).