The only certain biblical reference to the love feast comes in Jude 12, where the plural form of the word "love" with the definite article (hai agapai) probably denotes a communal celebration in the church (there is another possible reference in 2 Peter 2:13 , but it is probably not genuine ). But there is some uncertainty as to whether the reference is to that church's observance of the Lord's Supper (which elsewhere Paul can describe with terms like "coming together to eat, " 1 Cor 11:17-22 ), or to a fellowship meal that may have preceded or followed observance of the Lord's Supper.
The record of the early church's development preserved in Acts makes it clear that at least in the beginning communal meals, characterized by the sharing of food and worship, were commonplace ( 2:44-47 ; 6:1-2 ). There were also excesses and oversights connected with these fellowship meals ( 6:1-2 ; 1 Cor 11:17-22 ). But there is no reason to think that the practice of a communal fellowship meal, conceived of as a normal aspect of church life or worship, could not have developed in the church addressed by Jude. The importance of eating together in Jewish culture is well known, and in Greco-Roman culture communal meals often played an important role in the life of organizations.
Whether Jude 12 alludes to a fellowship meal or to the Lord's Supper, the term chosen to describe it reveals that it was to be an event in which love was expressed and fellowship confirmed. In the Greco-Roman or Jewish household of that day sharing in a meal signified acceptance and fellowship, and the love feast in the church was to be a living example of unity. That this unity was a very serious matter can be seen in that the love feast is mentioned in the context of a denunciation of false teachers and admonishment of the congregation. The significance of the event was such that the unhindered participation of false believers in the love feasts, which signified their acceptance into the fellowship, was a "blemish" or taint on the event and also a danger for the church.
But it is really evidence from the second-century church that suggests the meaning of love feast. Yet in the later church, too, there is nothing like complete consistency in its practice or relation to the Lord's Supper. The church order of Hippolytus (Apostolic Tradition26.5), which is much later than the New Testament, gives the fullest description of what had come to be called the agape [ajgavph]. It consisted of a meal that was taken by believers at someone's house or in the church and was presided over by a church officer (normally the bishop). Ignatius, in his letter to the Smyrneans (8), may give evidence that the love feast and communion were closely connected: "It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a love-feast [agape] [ajgavph]" (see Ignatius, To the Romans7). However, Tertullian's description is of a communal meal, which begins with prayer, followed by people eating and drinking, the singing of hymns, and a closing prayer (Apology39). He does not connect this event with the bread and wine of the Eucharist. A note from Chrysostom suggests that the agape [ajgavph] feast of his day developed from the practice of the early church in Acts. Then, there was a radical sharing of all things in common ( Ac 2:44 ). This practice ended, but the agape [ajgavph] meal, in which the rich provided food for the poor and all shared it together, became the "contemporary" expression of the earlier communal sharing (Homilies12; 27).
Whether these developments are relevant to an understanding of the love feast as it occurs in Jude cannot be determined. What can be said is that the event (whether originally observance of the Lord's Supper, a fellowship meal, or some combination of the two is meant) was to be a visible expression of love and unity. It is quite possible that the elements that only come to light in the later descriptions played some part in the earlier practice.
Philip H. Towner
See also Lord's Supper, the
Bibliography. R. J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter; J. F. Keating, The Agape and the Eucharist in the Early Church; H. Lietzmann, Mass and Lord's Supper: A Study in the History of the Liturgy; J. W. C. Wand, The General Epistles of St. Peter and Jude.
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Love Feast'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".