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Church Meeting in Tertullian – Part 3

Posted by on Jul 16, 2008 in love, ordinances/sacraments, scripture | 8 comments

This is the third installment in a series concerning Tertullian’s descriptions of the meeting of the church sometime around 200 AD (see “Church Meeting in Tertullian – Part 1” and “Church Meeting in Tertullian – Part 2“). This passage also occurs in Chapter 39 of Tertullian’s Apology. Between the previous passage and the current passage, Tertullian denies that the Christians share their wives, although he says that they share everything else. He also denies that their feasts are “extravagant” or “wicked” as some critiques have claimed.

Then, Tertullian ends his discussion of the church meeting with this passage:

Our feast explains itself by its name. The Greeks call it agape, i.e., affection [love]. Whatever it costs, our outlay in the name of piety is gain, since with the good things of the feast we benefit the needy; not as it is with you, do parasites aspire to the glory of satisfying their licentious propensities, selling themselves for a belly-feast to all disgraceful treatment,-but as it is with God himself, a peculiar respect is shown to the lowly. If the object of our feast be good, in the light of that consider its further regulations. As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste. They say it is enough, as those who remember that even during the night they have to worship God; they talk as those who know that the Lord is one of their auditors. After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing,-a proof of the measure of our drinking. As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it is closed. We go from it, not like troops of mischief-doers, nor bands of vagabonds, nor to break out into licentious acts, but to have as much care of our modesty and chastity as if we had been at a school of virtue rather than a banquet.

Give the congregation of the Christians its due, and hold it unlawful, if it is like assemblies of the illicit sort: by all means let it be condemned, if any complaint can be validly laid against it, such as lies against secret factions. But who has ever suffered harm from our assemblies? We are in our congregations just what we are when separated from each other; we are as a community what we are individuals; we injure nobody, we trouble nobody. When the upright, when the virtuous meet together, when the pious, when the pure assemble in congregation, you ought not to call that a faction, but a curia-[i.e., the court of God.]

Apparently, in Tertullian’s day, the meeting of the church included a feast – eating enough food to be satisfied, and drinking but not so much as to be unchaste. From this passage it is impossible to tell whether or not this feast occurred at the same time and place as the exhortation described earlier. (For example, when Pliny interrogated some Christians, he found out that they met twice on the same day – see “Meeting with the Early Church – Pliny’s Letter“.) However, it is clear that this “feast” was not limited to a piece of bread and a drink of wine. At the same time, however, it was also not a time of gluttony and drunkenness.

This is the second time that Tertullian remarks that the Christians act a certain way because of their belief that God is with them. Here, though, he continues by recognizing that their manner of living is consistent both during the meeting and after the meeting – both when they are with other believers, and when they are away from other believers. Apparently, the belief that God is with them carried over outside the meeting of the church, and greatly affected they way that they lived their lives.

Besides eating and drinking, the feast also included prayer – both before and after the meal – as well as singing, as each one is requested to sing either from Scripture or a self-composed song. There is also interesting reference to “bringing in the lights”. I do not know what this points to. Perhaps a reader can help me out with this one.

At the beginning of this passage, there is another reference to benefiting the needy, this time in reference to the feast. Tertullian does not give us details of this benefit – whether Tertullian is referring to needy believers who are provided with food for the feast, whether the needy are invited to dine with the believers, whether the believers again receive contributions during the feast to benefit the needy, or whether that benefit comes in some other manner. However, even during this feast, the thoughts of the believers are turned to “the least”. Why do they desire to benefit the needy through their feast? Because they see it as the way of God himself. For this reason, “a peculiar respect is shown to the lowly”.

What do you think about Tertullian’s description of the “love feasts” in 200 AD? How does Tertullian’s description of Agape meals compare to those of today (“Lord’s Supper” or “Eucharist”?)? How does Tertullian’s description compare to Scripture?



1. Church Meeting in Tertullian – Part 1
2. Church Meeting in Tertullian – Part 2
3. Church Meeting in Tertullian – Part 3


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-16-2008

    Tertullian talks about the Eucharist separately. The agape feast and the Eucharist may have occured at similar times in the early Church, but apparently the agape meal fell out of favor (perhaps due to its abuse?). At any rate, Tertullian doesn’t confuse the two – he talks about the Eucharist in The Resurrection of the Dead(8:2), and Prayer (6:2, 19:1).

    I think that it’s rather unfortunate that most people in churches today don’t understand the communal nature of communion.

  2. 7-16-2008


    I haven’t read The Resurrection of the Dead or Prayer, so thank you for the info about the Eucharist. It is interesting that Tertullian doesn’t specifically mention the Eucharist in section 39 of the Apology, where he talks about the meeting of the church. Do you know if he talks about the Agape meal in either of the two books that you mentioned?

    If I remember correctly, the Catholic Church outlawed the Agape feast in two councils. I don’t remember the names of the councils now, but I’ve written about them briefly before. Why do you think the councils would choose to outlaw the feasts instead of teaching people how to deal with one another correctly as Paul did in 1 Cor 11?

    I completely agree that it is unfortunate that people don’t understand the communal nature of communion. Actually, I think much of this was lost when we lost the feast portion of communion.


  3. 3-23-2012

    Dear Alan: The Catholic Church (and, at that time of course it was just “the Church”) outlawed the non-Eucharistic meals because Paul was having trouble less than 50 years after our Lord’s Resurrection; the church did this because 500 years of trying to do what Paul was trying to do hadn’t worked (we fallen humans being fallen humans). The problem, as usual, is not the act, but US: humans can screw up just about anything. and do. regularly.

    The matter of “bringing in lights” is completely quotidian; and you’ll find references to it right up to the advent of rural electrification in the beginning of the 20C. When it begins to get dark outside…you need to bring in your lighting devices and light them, whatever they are: roman oil lamps; candles; kerosene lamps. The jews always had, and still do, have a prayer for the lighting of candles on Shabbat; and the early Church continued with this (Catholic Christianity, like Judaism, hallows everything (at its best) and turns everything into superstition (at its worst)—I’m a Catholic, BTW. So, at this early stage of affairs, when the lamps were brought in, a prayer was said (there’s one, word-for-word in the APOSTOLIC TRADITION of Hippolytus, Rome, c215); and this became liturgised as the LUCERNARIUM—there’s a whole class of early chant hymns which were used for the lighting of the lamps in early churches. It’s a very dark world without electricity.

    Hope this helps, and may God bless you,

  4. 3-23-2012


    Yes, I recognize that the Catholic Church made many changes from what we read about in Scripture – dropping out some things that were commanded and adding things that were not. The Reformers later did the same thing.


  5. 4-27-2012

    I find it interesting and puzzling why there is so much emphasis on meetings today. I am much more interested in how we live our daily lives in our homes, at work recreationally and in community. Our daily regimen and lives together outside of meetings flow along without self conscious behavior and adherence to scripts then when it comes time to have a meeting we turn into wooden soldiers.
    They have taken on an incredible amount of importance with serious discussion about how they should go and how often we should meet and who should be in charge and what we should do. But they reveal very let little about the real us, and even less about God. The disconnect between meetings and the lives of the believers is a serious concern to me. I suspect that’s why the scriptures don’t spill very much ink about meetings but are filled with the stuff of everyday life. if the church would like to see where they’re spirituality is let them fast from meetings for a year for all but the most important reasons to meet. I’m generalizing grossly here and covering all meetings with the same blanket and of course I don’t mean every meeting all the time everywhere. I am challenging the notion that meeting should be held simply because it’s time to have a meeting. if even a small percentage of the time that we collectively spend in meetings were redistributed and spent with one anothering,

  6. 4-28-2012


    I’m not puzzled at the emphasis on brothers and sisters meeting together. I am puzzled at the emphasis on certain types of meetings. I think it should be normal and natural for us to get together with other people who are following Jesus Christ. But, I don’t think it’s normal and natural for us to get together the way many church organizations dictate.


  7. 4-28-2012

    I guess I dont really know much about different kinds of meetings as I have only ever been with one group of people, though we went thru quite a metamorphosis from what might be called organic to self conscious.
    Our meetings were not structured, and could morph into any one of several topics, go short or long and not happen again for days or weeks followed by one every day if the need arose.
    Maybe it will help to explain my puzzlement by saying that I suspect that if we all had closer daily interaction, like family, meetings would not be such a big deal.
    thanks for your input.

  8. 4-30-2012


    Those “closer daily interaction” meetings are exactly what we need.