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Love Feasts

"These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted" (Jude 12). In warning against the insidious influence of false teachers, what were the "love feasts" mentioned by Jude and also alluded to in 2 Pet 2:13?

Some think these "love feasts" were "communal meals in which the early church ate together and observed the Lord's Supper" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, 12:392). A historical reference for this is in Ignatius' Letter to the Smyrnaeans (110 A.D.): "It is not lawful either to baptize or to have a love feast apart from the bishop" (ch. 8). They were often done, since they were outlawed by the 4th century council of Laodicea (canon 28). However, what is the meaning in the New Testament text?

  1. Justification for Church Social Meals? So, a historical reference to the practice of "love feasts" is widely taken as justification for church social meals. Radical Restoration by F. Lagard Smith advocates "weekly love feasts" in conjunction with the Lord's Supper, which would much like Thanksgiving at his house: "we eagerly filled our plates and scattered all over the house…. In fact, from what we can tell, it's also very much like the house churches of the first century and their memorial meals on the Lord's Day…Earlier, I questioned how it's possible to mix a funeral [the Lord's death] and a banquet. Admittedly, those two extremes are pretty much irreconcilable. But a joyous Thanksgiving meal is certainly not ruined by pausing in the middle of the festivities to reflect upon spiritual things, and to read the Scriptures and to pray…." (Radical Restoration, 145-146). This position says Paul only rebuked the abuse of the preceding "love feast" before the Lord's Supper, and that he wasn't forbidding it altogether, if properly performed without the condemned excesses.

    This is an important exercise in Biblical interpretation, because notice how this Bible encyclopedia offers a dogmatic opinion, "The fact that the name agape or love-feast used in Jude 1:12 is found early in the 2nd century and often afterward as a technical expression for the religious common meals of the church puts the meaning of Jude's reference beyond doubt" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1:69). This presumes second century traditions or practices are necessarily accurate understanding of the Biblical text. However, Ignatius erroneously makes a distinction between the bishop and the elders, which is a corruption of the New Testament organization of the local church which does not make such a distinction (Acts 20:17, 28). The text of Jude 12 itself does not explain what the "love feast" was; rather, it simply states the fact that these familiar love feasts were taking place. It must be interpreted in light of all else the New Testament says about such.

  2. The Love Feast as the Lord's Supper? It is very probably that these "love feasts" were the Lord's Supper itself. The ISBE states, "In opposition to this view it has been strongly urged by some modern critical scholars that in the apostolic age the Lord's Supper was not distinguished from the Agape [love feast], but that the Agape itself from beginning to end was the Lord's Supper which was held in memory of Jesus (1:70).

    In fact, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) denounced calling a church social meal an agape (love feast): "some, speaking with unbridled tongue, dare to apply the name agape, to pitiful suppers, redolent of savor and sauces. Dishonoring the good and saving work of the Word, the consecrated agape, with pots and pouring of sauce; and by drink and delicacies and smoke desecrating that name, they are deceived in their idea, having expected that the promise of God might be bought with suppers. Gatherings for the sake of mirth, and such entertainments as are called by ourselves, we name rightly suppers, dinners, and banquets….But such entertainments the Lord has not called agape…Agape is truly heavenly food, a rational banquet…. If you love the Lord your God and your neighbor, this is the celestial feast in the heavens…Lift up our eyes to the true, to depend on the divine food from above, and be filled with the contemplation of Him who truly exists, so tasting of the only pure and sure delight. The food which comes from Christ shows this to be the agape which we must attain" (The Instructor, bk. 2, ch. 1). He is not clear if the "meal" is remembering Christ the Word in the Lord's Supper and/or a broader feasting on truth in love. Yet, he makes a clear distinction between the spiritual meaning of Christ's Supper teaching and a mere physical meal.

    Justin Martyr in 150 AD stated that the typical, second century assembly of Christians on Sunday observed the Lord's Supper, with no mention whatsoever of an additional social meal (First Apology 65-66). Also, in Pliny's letter to Emperor Trajan in 112 AD, the Bithynian governor "places the Christian gathering for a common meal at a separate time from their 'stated' religious assembly" (Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, p. 131; cf. Pliny, Letters 10:96). Hence, two early accounts of the church's assembly for worship in the second century, one in Italy and another in Asia Minor, have no trace of a "weekly love feast" as an adjunct to the Lord's Supper.

    The New Testament uses the word "feast" to refer to the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 5:8). Albert Barnes, Presbyterian commentator of yesteryear, wrote that the "love feasts" of Jude 12 referred to the Lord's Supper. Also, he correctly asserts that church social meals are not authorized in the New Testament: "The reference [love feasts, Jude 12] is probably to the Lord's Supper, called a feast or festival of love, because: (1) It revealed the love of Christ to the world; (2) it was the means of strengthening the mutual love of the disciples: a festival which love originated, and where love reigned. It has been supposed by many, that the reference here is to festivals which were subsequently called `Agape,' and which are now known as "love-feasts" — meaning a festival immediately "preceding" the celebration of the Lord's Supper. But there are strong objections to the supposition that there is reference here to such a festival. (1) There is no evidence, unless it is found in this passage, that such celebrations had the sanction of the apostles. They are nowhere else mentioned in the New Testament, or alluded to, unless it is in 1Cor. 11:17-34, an instance which is mentioned only to reprove it, and to show that such appendages to the Lord's Supper were wholly unauthorized by the original institution, and were liable to gross abuse. The supposition that they existed, and that they are referred to here, is not necessary in order to a proper explanation of this passage. All that it fairly means will be met by the supposition that the reference is to the Lord's Supper, and that was in every sense a festival of love or charity. The words will appropriately apply to that, and there is no necessity of supposing anything else in order to meet their full signification" (Barnes Notes on the New Testament).

  3. The Love Feasts in Individual Homes? Another possibility is that these "love feasts," as referenced by Tertullian (160-220 AD), were simply common meals in private homes provided by individual members of the church. The more affluent members provided such in order to share with poor and needy members (Apology, 39:16-18). He described it: "Our feast shows its motive by its name. It is called by the Greek word for love [agape]….We benefit the needy…a greater consideration for the lowly." In his description, the Lord's Supper is not mentioned at all. This would certainly accord with the example of eating meals from house to house as an individual duty of hospitality (Acts 2:46) and in obedience to the Lord's directive to have a feast and invite the poor (Luke. 14:12). We are certainly directed to show hospitality to one another as an individual duty of the home (1 Pet 4:9).
  4. The Love Feast, the Lord's Supper, and New Testament Authority. The point of issue for us is whether or not the New Testament clearly authorizes socials meals as part of the church's collective work by command, example or necessary inference. In 1 Cor. 11:17- 34, only one meal is under consideration, not two. The Corinthians had perverted the Lord's Supper into a common meal. How did Paul correct this abuse? "Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? … So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment" (1 Cor. 11:20-22, 33-34). Paul clearly states that the only meal the church partakes in the worship assembly is the Lord's Supper.

    The purpose of the church's assembly on Sunday is to remember Christ in the breaking of the bread (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 10:16). Common meals are a function of individuals in the home, not the church. Paul didn't correct the abuse by saying that if they came together in the assembly with the right motives and consideration for others that they then could have a church sponsored meal along with the Lord's Supper. No, he prohibited a social meal as part of the church's collective work! This apostle authorized only the Lord's Supper in the church's worship.

Those who claim that a "love feast" universally preceded the Lord's Supper in the second century church, supposedly reflecting first century apostolic doctrine, are vastly overstating the claim. We find no authority here for church sponsored meals, particularly along with the Lord's Supper. Hence, the best conclusion on the "love feast" (Jude 12) in question was either the loving observance of the Lord's Supper (Acts 20:7) or perhaps meals by individual, loving members in their homes (Acts 2:46). We must be careful to not read more into a Bible verse than what the Scriptures warrant.