I recently read through a section of Roger W. Gehring’s House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. This book does NOT suggest that the early church only met in houses. Nor does Gehring suggest that the church today should only meet in houses. Instead, Gehring examines the importance of the house and household structures for the early church.
This time, I read through a section of the book concerning Acts 2:42-47. Here is the passage under consideration:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)
In one paragraph, he discusses the meaning of the phrase “breaking of bread” in 2:42 and its significance to the early church:
The community life of the Jerusalem church was experienced most intensively and was continually renewed in the join celebration of the bread breaking in individual houses. Scholars have reflected on and written a great deal about the character of these communion celebrations. In general, it is assumed that these celebrations certainly entailed a common meal (see Acts 2:46). We can be sure that the community of goods described by Luke in Acts included common meals together. (Acts 6:1-3 clearly demonstrates this.) The expression “breaking bread” also implies a meal: it is the designation for the act of tearing the bread, which, in addition to the word of blessing, forms the opening rite at the beginning of Jewish meals (Acts 27:35). Moreover, Luke also places “bread breaking” in the context of the worship service elsewhere in Acts (Acts 20:7, 11). (page 83)
So, according to Gehring, the phrase “breaking of bread” indicates, at least, a common meal. (And I agree.) Thus, he indicates that “the community life of the Jerusalem church was experienced most intensively and was continually renewed” through a common meal. Furthermore, he says that the phrase that the Jerusalem church “had all things in common” includes sharing meals. These meals, according to Gehring, were shared in various homes.
Gehring later says that Acts 20:7, 11 (the story of Paul in Troas) and 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 11:23-25 indicate the importance of these common meals to the early churches. Thus, the early church determined that sharing food together was important for building and maintaining community and for caring for those who needed help.
Gehring goes on to say that this common meal was actually part of the church meeting – the “worship service” of the early church. As most of my regular readers would know, I don’t like the term “worship service”. However, Gehring uses the term “worship service” to specify the church meeting and separate it from other types of activities that occur in a home. He has a long section that convincingly argues that “worship services” occurred in homes, not just in the Temple area. Sharing food together was part of the church meeting, and teaching may have taken place during the meal, not separately.
However, a few hundred years after this, the church decided that these meals were unimportant and even dangerous. The Councils of Laodicea (363-364 AD) and Trullian (692 AD) outlawed the church’s common meal, which was also called the Agape Feast (Jude 12). (See my post “Why just the bread and the cup” for more details and sources.)
If Gehring is correct, then when the church stopped sharing meals together, it lost one very significant aspect of community. When the meal was turned into a rite with only bread and cup (or only bread for hundreds of years), the horizontal community aspect of eating a meal together was lost. (Eating a piece of bread or wafer at the same time is not the same as “eating a meal together.”)
As many of you know, our church shares a meal together each week. (We also share meals together from day to day in our homes.) The meal on Sunday is a casual affair. People bring food for themselves, or food to share. Some people decide to stay for the meal, others can’t stay for various reasons. However, we consider the meal a very important part of our church meeting.
A few days ago, my friend Jon said this about our meal together (see the post “What are our church meetings like?“):
The meal was also very special. It gave everyone a chance to further connect and spend time together. I loved the fact that there was no sense of hurry or “look what time it is!” We were just content to share our time.
Like the early church, we’ve found that sharing a common meal heightens our community and fellowship. I’m glad that Jon recognized this when he met with us and shared a meal with us.
I often get emails from people asking about community. They are part of a church – big or small – that has good teaching, but they sense a lack of true community. They often ask, “What should we do?”
I never suggest that someone “leave their church.” Instead, I suggest that people began to build relationships with people who are already in their lives. One of the best ways to do this is by sharing meals together. If your church leadership will not let you share meals during or after your church meeting (“worship service”), then invite people to your house or to a restaurant. Share a meal with people during the week.
I think you’ll find as we have found – and as Gehring pointed out – that eating common meals together is a great way – an important and “most intensive” way – to experience and renew community.
Do you regularly share meals with the church? Do you share them in your homes or other places? Do you think that meals help your build and maintain community?