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?