Shouldn’t Communion be a Full Meal?

When we look at what the New Testament says about the early church’s worship gatherings, we see a lot of evidence that they originally included full communal meals.

For instance, in Jude verse 12 we get a reference to the church’s “love feasts.” And when the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10-11 about the Lord’s Supper/Communion, he warns his readers not to eat and drink so much or so quickly that it disrupts the sacred parts of the meal, or causes others to miss out.

So when people talk today about how Communion should be celebrated in the church, it’s no surprise that one question often raised is: Why not have a full meal rather than just a small piece of bread/wafer and a sip of wine/juice?

And if the earliest church communities always had full feasts, why did such a practice die out?

The short answer we get from church history is this: While the first churches did have full meals and Communion in the same gathering, they were always distinct parts of the service.

Communion was not the whole meal. It was a special time at the end of the meal, when Christ’s death was memorialized in the partaking of consecrated bread and wine.

And unfortunately, like the Corinthians, people kept having a hard time not letting the feasting part crowd out the reverent part.

Eventually many churches concluded that the love feasts had to be moved to a separate time. Early church fathers like Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Augustine record that at love feasts people were still frequently getting too rowdy, overindulging, or neglecting to share enough food with the poorer folks in the congregation. The problem Paul tried to correct sadly kept occurring.

Thus, it simply became a matter of practical benefit to keep the meals and Communion separate.

To ensure that Sunday worship stayed orderly and was centered on Scripture, preaching, and the reverent focus on Christ’s sacrifice in Communion, love feasts were relegated to being community events hosted in individuals’ homes at other times.

That said, some regions like India and Ethiopia continued the practice. And some denominations, such as the Moravians, Brethren, and Methodists, have reinstituted love feasts in various forms.

Many Protestant churches continue to embody the spirit of the practice by means of home groups or church potlucks. More liturgical/traditional churches may practice a “coffee and catechesis hour,” when the congregation gathers before or after the worship service for food and discussion around the table.

Thus, the practice of love feasting is not truly lost. Conceivably, any community meal or potluck that is hosted specifically as a Christian church event could be considered a love feast.

Holy Communion itself does not have to be a full meal to accurately reflect what is depicted in the New Testament. Indeed, contrary to what most proponents think, making it a full meal potentially risks obscuring its significance as the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. At least, that’s what the history tells us tends to be the case!

That said, it’s definitely worth asking whether your church has some other practice of communal feasting. Some occasion where people can contribute to and receive hospitality, and enjoy the community that a shared meal can foster. That, if you ask me, is the best way to preserve the benefit intended by the love feasts of the early church.



Categories: Ecclesiology & Missions, Historical Theology, sacraments

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Fascinating article! It is sad how far the Church as a whole has veered away from having communion as a special event morphing into a mundane event. Think of it this way, which is more memorable… an event every couple months versus something done every day or week such as the Pledge of allegiance. At the origin of communion is a meal.. Passover. While Yeshua (Jesus) did deviate from it on purpose, the bread and wine served a specific and special meaning to His followers. Announcing/forecasting His own death buy leaving them a special deviation (from Passover) to remember Him by. Turning something special into something mundane can be dangerous and drain the significance from it. If you are wanting to experience Communion ( Passover) as Jesus did, I highly recommend you participate in a Sedar Meal at a Messianic Synagogue!

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    • Thanks! I have had the pleasure of attending Seder a couple of times and it is really cool. I will say, though, one thing I appreciate about my Anglican Church tradition (which it shares with all mainline/catholic denominations) is that we do take Communion every week, as the early church did, but it is still nonetheless always meaningful and reverent, thanks to how the liturgy around it is structured.

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