Having lived all our lives with an inherited concept of “church” that extends back for many centuries, it is almost impossible for most of us to conceive of anything different from the idea of “going to church” in a special building and engaging in a more or less traditional form of exercises which we describe as worship. From what little we actually know about the assemblies of the first Christians, should someone from the first century “time-travel” to our 21st century and attend the “services” of most any Christian group, in all likelihood they would not recognize what we are doing as worship. What we do today has very little in common with what went on among the 1st century Christians when they met.
In our previous post we looked at the evidence that the observance of the Lord’s Supper was in connection with a meal. The early Christians met in homes. Several people in the New Testament had churches in their houses where the family who resided in that house was the nucleus of that group. We know the early Christians had “Love Feasts,” and in three mentions of “breaking bread” there is also eating of food though the events in these passages are not specifically called a love feast. One source says that the love feast was a …
“Common fellowship meal of the church preceding the Lord’s Supper. The Love Feast or Agape (meal) was a significant dimension of the fellowship and worship of the early church. As a concrete manifestation of obedience to the Lord’s command to love one another, it served as a practical expression of the koinonia or communion that characterized the church’s life. While the only explicit New Testament reference to the agape meal is found … in Jude 1:12, allusions to the practice may be seen in other New Testament texts. “The breaking of bread” in Acts 2:42 is most likely a reference to a special remembrance of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples, but the allusion ( Acts 2:46) to their taking of food “with gladness and singleness of heart” implies that a social meal was connected in some way with this celebration. Paul’s discussion of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) also suggests a combining of the ceremonial act with a common meal. Such a practice is also suggested in Acts 20:7-11.” (Holman Bible Dictionary).
Sometime after the end of the first century the practice of the combined Lord’s Supper/Love Feast was separated with the love feast continuing to be practiced at a different time. It would be interesting to try and correlate the separation of the combined love feast/Lord’s Supper with the gradual development of the hierarchical form of church polity. If there is a correlation, that would further illustrate the transition from a family concept of the church to a more formal corporate or institutional type structure. Time-wise it would seem that there would be a parallel development of both. This separation may have come about because of the mounting persecution during the second and third centuries also.
For Jewish families, the importance of eating together is well known. As previously mentioned, the Passover played a very significant role in the maintenance of the identity of the Jews with their heritage. There were other occasions where special feasts were practiced. But beyond these special occasions, the regular attendance of a family at the table in the tradition of bygone days is still recognized as having value.Today it is recognized that families who regularly eat together are stronger and more cohesive than families that seldom gather around the dining table.
Being welcomed to the table meant acceptance. For the poor and the slaves in the early church it signified not only acceptance, but equality. They were honored, elevated, seen to be worthy. It was not merely the hospitality of the church – it was the Lord’s Table. He was the host. He accepted them. He valued them. He had made them worthy by bringing them into the family of God. That, in fact, is what he has done for every one of us.
If the privilege of sitting with the family of God at the common table meant love and acceptance, what would it have meant to someone who may have been excluded from the table? This is what “church discipline” consisted of in large part in New Testament days. Many commentaries do not think this has anything to do with the Lord’s Supper, but since the Supper was observed in connection with the Love Feast, it is highly likely that it does have reference to this event. It certainly makes sense from the standpoint of this combined event being a “family” meal. Exclusion from the family table would have been devastating to people who put much stock in their family heritage and customs. The passage that gives us the best insight into this sometimes needed activity is 1 Cor. 5:9-13. Verse 11 says;
“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”
John Gill’s Commentary observes about this verse; “…this is said in allusion to [passover]; when the master of the house used to say, ‘everyone that is hungry, let him come and eat; he that hath need, let him come … and paschatize”, or keep the feast of the passover.” He goes on to say; “…the feast of the Lord’s supper is here meant, that feast of fat things Isaiah prophesied of; in which are the richest entertainments, even the flesh and blood of Christ.”
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary says of this verse …
“…no not to eat — not to sit at the same table with such; whether at the love-feasts (agape) or in private intercourse, much more at the Lord’s table: at the last, too often now the guests “are not as children in one family, but like a heterogeneous crowd of strangers in an inn” [Bengel].
And the Pulpit Commentary agrees somewhat …
“If the phrase be pressed, it would involve exclusion from all privileges of the body, for the Holy Communion was celebrated in connection with the agapae. But the general meaning is that of 2Th_3:6, “We command you… that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly.”
That would seem to make sense because the apostle in the preceding verses makes reference to keeping purging out the old leaven (the sin in their midst), and keeping the “festival” with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. This, of course is an allusion to the Passover, not that they would be keeping that, but they had a feast – a festival they did observe. They observed it with the Lamb that already had been slain. They observed it, openly inviting anyone who was in need to come. But the sinful man would not be welcome to this family gathering. He had been delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, i.e., to cause him to see the desperate evil he was committing and bring him to repentance.
If, what we are talking about in these articles is true and people did value their connection with one another through Christ as though they were a family, to exclude this sinning brother from the family table would have been devastating to him. It would have meant something like being disinherited by one’s parents and shunned by his siblings. This kind of attachment generally is not true of those who profess to be Christians today. Institutional connection does not compare with family where one’s identity is bound up in the kinship of one with each of those in the group.
This is precisely why “church discipline” usually does not work today. This is why there is more often a reaction of anger or indignation on the part of the disciplined person rather than shame and repentance. Properly understood, discipline was not designed for institutional membership. Today if someone is “disfellowshiped” all they do is go to another congregation and apply for and receive “membership” there and go away feeling themselves vindicated.
Should we attempt to go back to the Jerusalem/Corinth model? Given what we have today, I doubt that would be possible. Some people today are gathering in “house churches” but from what I gather those are not very successful. For one thing, some have simply brought over the old institutional forms and imposed them on these small group gatherings. Some larger churches have seen the value of having people meet in small groups at times other than their regularly scheduled assemblies. I see some good reports coming out of these. There are other congregations where people seem to “mesh” together into a close-knit group, exhibiting an evident love for one another. I am happy to be experiencing just such an atmosphere in the congregation I am presently attending. I have seen it in other congregations I have recently visited. It is thrilling to see people reluctant to leave the meeting house after services because they are talking with one another and obviously enjoying being together. This attitude must be fostered and encouraged. If it is not abundantly evident we should be ashamed!
And why shouldn’t it be this way. After all, we are all God’s children. If we are his children then we are all brothers and sisters and should treat one another with all the love and respect each deserves. We are all equal before him – equally loved and equally saved.
Now if we could somehow transfuse that spirit into our observance of the Lord’s Supper.