From “Supper” to “Snack”: Why did the Early Church Move from Meal to Simply Bread and Wine?

I know that is probably irreverent.  I certainly don’t want to demean the piety and meaning that centuries of Christians have found in the simple bread and wine at the Lord’s table.  At the same time, “snack” is the language I have heard from children and post-Christian “unchurched” guests. I would suggest, as I do in my Come to the Table, that the meal is a significant and meaningful context for the Lord’s table. In essence, supper is integral to the Supper.

I have just uploaded to my Academics page a brief (all too brief for the topic)  paper I presented at the 2010 Stone-Campbell Conference this past weekend. My purpose was to suggest reasons why the church separated the Eucharist (using that term as a technical one for remembering Jesus through the bread and wine alone) from the Agape (a meal dedicated to praising God, sharing with the poor, and fellowshipping with each other).  Given the following assumptions, some time during the early to mid second century the Eucharist was separated from the Agape. My assumptions are:

  1. There is a consensus among New Testament scholars that the Eucharist was originally conducted in the context of an Agape
  2. There is a growing consensus among New Testament scholars that the table of the early church in Acts is a continuation of the table ministry of Jesus and particularly a continuation of the post-resurrection meals of the disciples with Jesus before his ascension.
  3. There is a consensus among New Testament scholars that the Agape was a frequent and common phenomenon in early Christian communities. 
  4. There is a consensus among church historians that the Eucharist and Agape were still linked if not identified with each other at the beginning of the second century, especially in Syria.
  5.  There is a consensus among church historians that the Eucharist and Agape were not only clearly distinct but temporally separated at the beginning of the third century.  Clement of Alexandria (Instructor 2.4.3-4; 2.6.1-7.1), Tertullian of Carthage (Apology 39) and Hippolytus of Rome (presuming his primary editorship of the Apostolic Tradition 4, 25-27) each distinguish the Eucharist from the Agape.

The paper rejects the rationale that Paul separated the two in 1 Corinthians since Paul does not tell them not to eat together but to wait for each other. He regulates the meal–conforms the meal to the gospel of Jesus–rather than prohibiting the meal. I don’t, however, take time in the paper to demonstrate this but rather I assume it. The paper also rejects the rationale that potential and actual abuses of the meal led to its separation from the Eucharist. The early church continued to eat an Agape meal for centuries, at least into the mid-fourth century, after 1 Corinthians.  While there were, no doubt, occasional abuses, they church continued to eat together.  And the Agape was a ritualized, religious meal–not simply a “potluck” of the modern variety.

 Instead I offer two primary suggestions (“educated guesses,” I suppose) as to why the Agape was separated from the Eucharist by the early church.

  1.  Very early–at least at the beginning of the second century–the church had begun meeting in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning. This move from evening to morning, motivated by the desire to honor the resurrection of Jesus–entailed the loss of the meal since the meal belonged to the evening and morning breakfast was minimal for Mediterraneans. Also, evening meals created suspicion among Roman rulers (as Pliny’s letter to Trajan indicates), but that was not determinate since the church continued to eat evening Agape meals.
  2. As the church progressed, it began to lose its Jewish roots. The loss of the Jewishness of the Eucharist entailed the loss of the meal.  The bread and wine sanctified a meal in Jewish theology and practice.  The bread and wine served the meal and were not independent ritual acts.  They were meal ritual acts.  But as the church lost sight of their Jewish roots, they lost the connection between the bread & wine and the meal which those elements served and sanctified. The early church turned the Jewish table into a “Christian” altar.

The Agapes disappered in the fourth through the sixth centuries. The church ultimately not only forbade tables in the basilicas (church buildings), but also Agapes themselves.  I think this was an effort at clerical control–something I would like to explore more later.  The Agapes were originally moved into the buildings, then forbidden, and the Eucharistic altar then absorbed some of the functions of the Agape…but without the meal. The loss of “meal” was, then, complete.

 The church had a Supper without a supper.

25 Responses to “From “Supper” to “Snack”: Why did the Early Church Move from Meal to Simply Bread and Wine?”

  1.   rich Says:

    Well well well

    I think I will. Teach
    My boys this. Concept as proper
    Now than to pose the question why don’t we.
    God please forgive my igNorance

  2.   jamesbrett Says:

    great post; this subject has been on my mind quite a bit lately — and you’ve taught me much. do you feel it would be wise for us to now attempt to bridge the gap between eucharist and agape meal?

    have you given any thought to how that might work… in modern-day american Christianity? or within a group of disciples just beginning to refer to themselves as a church?

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Perhaps I need to post on that point some. I have experienced the combination–the identity–in many meaningful ways. But the Agape assumes a smaller group rather than a megachurch, and–it seems to me–that the Jerusalem church was a good model of that. They assembled in the temple as a community for teaching, prayer and praise, and then they gathered in homes for breaking bread, fellowship and praise in smaller groups. Doesn’t sound like too bad of a idea to me. I will think about blogging on this point in the near future.

      •   K. Rex Butts Says:

        This is the sticky point…we can convince people from biblical teaching that the Eucharist was meant to celebrate the significane of Jesus’ death and resurrection in a joyous context of fellowship such as a meal…no problem. Then we suggest the idea of doing away with the Eucharist in our large Sunday morning assembly in exchange for sharing in the meal in a small group…problem. The question that is always raised is what about those people who won’t participate in a small group. While I understand the concern of that question, I also want to scream and say that such a concern plays right into the wants of those who are missing the very point of the fellowship the most – those who think that being bron into the fellowship of God and his people is about showing up “to church” for one hour a week and having little, if anything, to do with God and his people outside of that hour.

        So it seems we are stuck in a “catch 22” scenario…we understand the real importance of the Eucharist and the best way to practice it in order to enjoy its importance, yet we cannot because we must appease those who do not understand and in the worst case scenario they don’t even care to understand.

        Grace and peace,


      •   rich constant Says:

        too much fun rex .
        although the only way to resolve a catch-22 is through the wonder of payer and gods spirit to work for the good of the body in loveing fellowship.
        the more we “practice the kingdom of god” with the table as they did , with family and friends.also keep the traditional “snack” at the BIG sunday assembly the more the new would be replaced with the old.
        takes a long time my friend to teach people to to
        turn off the t.v.and have
        relationships centered on the lord,
        as you know REX i just pit this in as an adendum.

      •   rich constant Says:

        i heard a very good anowolgy the other day, if i put a car in a church building
        does that make the car a christian???

      •   John Mark Hicks Says:

        So, we do both, right? I would keept in the assembly, and also make it a focus of my small group or at least have small group experiences. That may not reach everyone, but then again, do we ever? We can only encourage as we declare the gospel and point others to its meaning in the context of the table.

      •   K. Rex Butts Says:

        Yes, I would not be opposed to both. I have never suggested any change in an official sermon or class but have discussed these matters with some individuals (especially someone who borrowed your book “Come to the Table” from me to read which proved to be quite a mind stretcher for them :-)). One person believed it would be wrong to share in communion during the assembly and then do so again in a small group (that old CEI hermeneutic rearing its ugly head).

        Any ways…I have accepted a ministry position with the Randolph CoC in New Jersey which I am looking forward to (I understand you are speaking in NJ this coming fall?). Over the last year while looking at new ministry opportunities, I have been a part of a house church and it has been a very pleasing experience from the Eucharist standpoint and others.

        Grace and peace,


      •   rich constant Says:

        RATS REX,
        i was really hoping you would get closer to ca.
        oh well
        blessings my friend on you new endevor with the Lord

      •   rich constant Says:

        from J.M.H.

        The mission of Jesus was to practice the kingdom of God in the world. Just as Jesus declared the message that the “kingdom of God is near” (which is the “good news of the kingdom”) and healed the sick (reversing the curse), his disciples follow him into the world to announce the nearness of the kingdom and to participate in curse reversal. Disciples proclaim the good news of the kingdom and heal the sick (practice the kingdom of God). As instruments of the kingdom, they are a means by which God reigns in the world for peace, healing and reconciliation. Disciples participate in the mission of Jesus to reverse the curse as the kingdom of God grows and fills the earth. Disciples proclaim the reality of God in the world as they work for healing and reconciliation.

        Practicing the kingdom of God is a way of talking about a communal discipleship which is a mode of living in the world for the sake of the world. Acts 2:42, for example, is one way of describing what it means to practice the kingdom of God as a community.

        The description reaches back into the ministry of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and projects forward into the rest of Acts.

        Acts 2:42 is a practical “hinge” between Luke’s two narratives. Just as the church continued to teach and do what Jesus did concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1), each of the particulars of Acts 2:42 were part of his ministry—teaching, community (fellowship), breaking bread and prayer. The church continues what Jesus began.

        Practicing the kingdom of God is a mode of communal spiritual formation, a mode of communal sanctification. These are communal habits by which the people of God are formed and shaped into the image of Jesus—to be like the Jesus who ministered in the Gospel of Luke, that is, to be the body of Christ in the world.

      •   jamesbrett Says:

        when i last lived in the states, there was a group of us who frequently did both. we participated on sundays with the full congregation. but our group of friends were already eating together at least twice a week — so we began sharing eucharist during one of those. i loved it.

  3.   John Anngeister Says:

    This is meaningful in the context of my own thoughts about Jesus’ table ministry. I love that phrase, and thank you for putting it into my vocabulary.

    My thoughts are surrounding the great and genuine gesture which Jesus made(a revelation really)when he ate with sinners. His enemies judged that by dining with sinners he himself became a sinner with them. This doesn’t work as well in our cultural view of the table, but I think there is a wonderful sense of that spiritual intuition which feels that Jesus somehow takes on our sins by association (rather than by substitution). Here we come every week, sinners to the table, and Jesus is there, showing us that our sins can’t really keep us from him.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Yes, the table ministry of Jesus is the root of the Lord’s Supper, and our daily tables should embody the life of the table of the Lord….indeed, extensions of that table in our daily walk.

  4.   rich Says:

    John mark
    Hard for me to find a proper
    Word so
    As sat evening meal was taken and sunday restoration joyfulness
    Preaching e
    Acts 2 42…
    Anyway any significance ?

  5.   dannydodd Says:

    Thanks for teaching me in this post. Is this just another example of what institutionlizing the church has wrought?

  6.   Greg McKinzie Says:

    So, what does this mean for contextualization? The assumptions you describe seem primarily descriptive, though words like “significant and meaningful” and “integral” in your first paragraph lean toward the prescriptive. The two educated guesses you offer have everything to do with the cross-cultural movement of the gospel and thus the demands and pressures (or expediencies, in SCM-speak) of Gentile cultures. We may have some evaluative remarks about the movement away from Jewish roots, but to one degree or another that was the logical direction of Paul’s missiology, so to speak. So, is the *full* meaning of Christian communion linked with a meal? Is it “important enough” to cause a given culture to accommodate, or should the practice of ritual remembrance be accommodated to the culture? Were the church leaders of 2nd century Asia Minor “right” to move the assembly to the pre-dawn hour at the expense of the meal? Was their pastoral judgement of the community’s needs a legitimate trump to the importance of connecting the bread and wine with Jesus’ table ministry? I ask these question out of true concern for my community’s practice in Peru. A simple example from our context: It is most feasible for Christians to meet in the evening. Yet, many Peruvians eat little (usually a piece of bread and tea) or nothing for supper. We often have people sitting through the meal without eating, making the bread and wine independent of the meal for them anyway. So, should the importance of the meal force us to move the meeting to a less “appropriate” time? Or are the big meal times actually “more appropriate” given the significance of the meal. We could simply schedule for a breakfast or lunch meeting and tell them that church should be the priority, regardless of society’s rhythm of life. Be counter-cultural, right? Expecting a change of eating habits seems even less probable.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:


      I always appreciate your discerning and missiologically driven comments on my work.

      Addressing the biblical-historical question, I can see how one might argue that the move from evening to morning as well as the move away from Jewish roots was missiological in character and a form of contextualization. Paul certainly did not feel bound to the Torah food laws (etc.) in his Gentile mission, and the move from evening to morning may have been more cultural than theological. We don’t really have enough information to know. Cyprian’s theological explanation of the move may be the justification of a long-practiced tradition that was originally very pragmatic in its beginnings. I do think, however, that much of the Eucharistic theology in the second-fourth centuries was more abstraction than it was contextualization. That the Eucharist was not so much a contextualized form but an abstracted one is partly indicated by the fact that the Agape continued unabated though without the Eucharist.

      At the same time, the meal does not seem to be one of those Torah prescriptions or customs that is jettisoned by Paul. The practice of Jesus in Luke-Acts seems, at least to me, to root the meal in the long history of Jewish meal practice–shaping the practice of the church in its Gentile mission. But, I admit there is ambiguity here.

      While I think the meal dimension is an important context, symbol and means, I do not think that is has to be practiced in exact reduplication of the early church. Cultural, missiological and contextual factors are part of the application of Eucharistic theology.

      In a culture where meal does not serve the function of the Eucharistic meal, it seems one might look for the occasion (moment, event) in that culture which does serve that function and use the Jewish symbols as a means to effect that function in a Eucharistic context.

      It seems to me that the Eucharist in the NT was set within that culture’s rhythm of life. Seeking a way to permit the Eucharist to live within that flow and blossom there is what contextualization means. I don’t know how to do that in Peruvian culture…you would know tons more than I would about that.

      Ultimately, I object to the abstraction of the bread and wine from the context of horizontal experience of fellowship (including the fellowship of Jesus at the table with us), and I object to the localization of Eucharistic meaning in the bread and wine alone. It seems to me that context has much more to do with it. For Judaism that context was an evening meal, and for first century Christians as well (it appears). Might that context change. I think so, and as a part of the contexualization of the gospel in a culture whose meal practices are radically different.

      In US (and Western) churches, it seems to me that the abstraction has reached gigantic proportions such that individualism is the context. Reforming the practice of the Eucharist by connecting it with Agape (meal) again is one way to overcome Western individualism and renew a sense of sacramental horizontalism to the practice of the church–whether assembled as a whole or in homes (as smaller groups).

      Thanks for forcing me to reflect on this some more. I do appreciate it, and I honor your ministry, my friend.

  7.   Matt Brent Says:

    John Mark,

    I don’t think “snack” is irreverent at all. I think its more descriptive than anything. I’ve also heard it referred to as the cracker and gospel shot, so I think you’re ok.

    I’ve been struggling with this anew lately as I’ve been doing some preaching on communion, and I’m at a loss for how to bring new meaning to it in our Sunday assemblies without turning everything on its head. I like the idea of using the Jerusalem model for today since I’ve been rather stuck on how to make Corinthians work today.

    Good thoughts. I look forward to future posts on re-contextualizing.

  8.   Helen Says:

    Did Jesus really meant that we should hava a paschal meal to remember him, such as He and the disciples shared at the last supper. Or did He command us to “Eat his body and drink His blood”?

    I am fine with just a heavenly snack for that is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord!!


    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      I would certainly agree that reducing the amount of bread/wine and reducing the supper to a “snack” does not hinder the presence of Christ at the table. The divine work is not diminished at all.

      However, I do think the practice of the early church and the intention of Jesus was a meal. Jesus not only commanded the eating of the bread and wine, but he also talked about the fulfillment of the Passover through eating the pascha meal.

      I think we lose someting of the symbol and dynamic nature of fellowship without the meal but this does not undermine what God is doing in the meal.


      John Mark

  9.   Helen Says:

    BTW, here is my ‘freshly pressed’ post on the Eucharist


  10.   Clif Says:

    The meal was for Jesus’s Disciples, those that had ‘followed him’ that proved over 3 years their commitment to Him. Then he took bread and wine which were part of the bigger meal…and said WHENEVER you do this?..what? …meeet, share, have fellowship, praise God and eat a meal togeher (remember food is LIFE – to share ones food is to share life with another, in a literal sense..ask the starving) then remember Him via the bread and wine and his sacrifice upon the Cross for our sins.
    Those that are not Disciples cannnot participate, neither can thoe not Baptised, for it says believe and then be baptised.
    Church ‘ snacks’ are never so discerning but in my experience, offered to ‘all’ that attend the service, when it is a Discples shared meal.
    Should it be a prescribed ritual, NO, but whenever the brether meet to share and have fellowship in the setting of homes and life ( there it should be celibrated.
    If you do not want to be part of a fellowship / small group and build such relationships where sharing a meal with fellow Disciples is the norm..argue John 13;34-35 with God.
    With regards to mega Churches, seems to me many of them are run on unbiblical lines and docterines so I am sure they will choose to do as they want, I know of one C of E Church where you would think you was in Rome, with the ‘mystery’ and candeles much sy7mbolism that its almost ‘sorcery’ which is the danger faced when reality becomes ‘substitutory.

  11.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I don’t make the distinction between meal and bread/wine that you do. Jesus anticipated eating a meal with his disciples in the future, not just bread and wine. I suppose we will have to agree to disagree in love.

    I would love to see our fellowship centered in a meal where we love each other. I hope that day comes, at least in our small groups or other occasions.

    Blessings, John Mark

  12.   Andrew Dayton Says:

    To me, the Eucharist is the Agape meal. He gave himself out of love.

  13.   rich constant Says:

    ? and just why in the westernized restoration movement that concept needs to be revitalized?
    almost seems like a no brainier.


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