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The Nature of Early Christian Gatherings

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

In a prior post, I sought to make the case that “we do not go to church to worship God.” In that discussion I set aside the questions of how Christians primarily gathered in the New Testament and why they gathered. In this post I will seek to answer those questions.

The first followers of Jesus did not set out to create a religion or implement any of the trappings of religion. They were, in fact, some of the most non-religious people in the Roman Empire, so much so that they could credibly be accused of atheism by their pagan critics. [1]

This was because they had no temples, no priests, and no altars - the essentials of ancient religion. They did not practice any of the rites, rituals and activities commonly associated with religion. As Edwin Judge rightly points out, centuries passed “before the Christians began to take over this sense [of religion] as they came to dress up their quest [for the ideal life] in the rituals of cult.” [2]

The early Jesus movement actually had more in common with the philosophical schools of their day than any religion. It was the philosophers (not the religionists) who engaged with ancient texts, discussed matters of ultimate reality (metaphysics) and took seriously the behavior of its community members (ethics). These aspects were not attributes of “religion” in the first century. [3]

As a consequence, early Christian gatherings were not designed as worship services or to facilitate practices that were commonly associated with religious observance.


THE TYPE OF GATHERING

So if the gatherings of the first century Christians were not worship services, what kind of meetings were they? In short, they were a variation of the standard Greco-Roman dinner party.

As Valeriy Alikin states: “Sociologically, the Christian gathering was not something entirely new…. The basic format did not need to be transformed into something new. The pattern was available and widely popular, but contents and interpretation naturally took on a Christian character….”[4]

This kind of get-together was low on ritual and religiosity, but high on relationship and participation. The first part of their gathering was a dinner (Greek: deipnon - the main meal of the day eaten in the evening), and the second a dialogue (Greek: symposion - conversation over wine). So we could refer to this gathering as a “supper-symposium” or “dinner-dialogue.”

We see this two part meeting in Acts 20:7 where Paul shows up to a dinner gathering to dialogue (Greek: dialegomai) with the people in a home. Paul ate with the members of this “apartment church,” then had a conversation with them that went late into the night (so late that the young man, Eutychus, fell to his death from the window and had to be resurrected!).

We also see this in 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul instructs the Corinthian believers how to properly eat together when they gather. He refers to the meal in that context as a deipnon (vv.20-21). It is the “Lord’s deipnon/Supper” (v. 20) they are eating.

Paul admonishes these believers to avoid selfishly eating all the food before everyone arrives and getting drunk (v. 21). Paul knows well the dangers of the supper-symposium! Far from the consumption of a cracker and a shot glass of grape juice, the early church ate an entire dinner meal together in honor of Jesus, and spent substantial time after the meal for a time of mutual sharing of their experience with Jesus.

The symposium/dialogue portion of the Christian dinner party invited each dinner guest to participate and contribute by each one sharing “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26).

As is quite obvious, the gathering described above was a completely different species of meeting than a worship service, either by ancient standards or today’s.

“To the casual observer in the Roman world, Christian communities in the cities throughout the Roman Empire looked like voluntary associations [i.e., social clubs], of which there were so many during that time. Just like these associations, Christian communities held periodical gatherings; they had their own ritual initiation, rules of conduct and requirements for membership.”[5]


THE PURPOSE OF THE GATHERING

This leads to another characteristic of these meetings: their purpose. If Christians did not meet for the purpose of worship, as I contended previously, why did they meet? The NT reveals that there are three facets to the purpose of the gathering.


Edification/Building Up

This facet is twice mentioned in 1 Cor. 14, which is part of a larger passage (1 Cor. 10-14) containing the clearest description of a first century church gathering anywhere in the New Testament or in any other historical source outside the Bible. There Paul exhorts the Corinthian believers “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church... (v. 12), and again, “When you come together [as a church]… Let all things be done for building up.” (1 Cor. 14:12, 26)

Believers met to “build up” (“edify”) one another so that each one grows to look more like Jesus. As Paul writes in Ephesians, God gave “each one” (Eph. 4:7) gifts “for building up the body of Christ, until …all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ...” (Eph. 4:11-13).

Jesus is the ultimate model of Christian maturity. So when believers met, they were engaged in a building project with Jesus serving as the blueprint.


Encouragement

Believers also met to encourage one another. As the author of Hebrews exhorts his readers: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23-25; cf. Heb. 3:12-13)

The exhortation to “not neglect meeting together'' is a directive to keep gathering for the regular supper-symposium dinner parties hosted by a Christian in the local community. The book of Hebrews must have been addressing a problem, where Christians were “no shows” at these gatherings or were repeatedly canceling on their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

The problem with absenting oneself from the regular gatherings of the local church is that the one missing the meeting would also miss out on the opportunity to be encouraged in his or her walk with Christ, and would likewise deprive the other symposiasts of an opportunity to be mutually encouraged.


Fellowship

A final dimension to the purpose of Christian gatherings is fellowship (Greek: koinonia), that is, sharing with one another. It was said of the early believers in Jerusalem that they “devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:41–42), and that they had “everything in common” (Acts 4:32) and “there was no needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).

Fellowship manifests itself in Christian gatherings when each person contributes something to the gathering, whether that be bringing food to the party or contributing “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation….” (1 Cor. 14:26), as Paul puts it. All come prepared to meet with their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, not just for what they can get out of the time together, but also for what they can contribute to the needs of others.

The main Christian gathering, then, was both a feast of food and of fellowship.


HOW SHOULD THEIR GATHERINGS INFORM OURS?

As Robert Banks rightly states, “It is not the re-creation of the first-century church that is the goal. The desire is to recapture the spirit and dynamics of early church life in ways that are appropriate to our own culture.” [6]

Unfortunately, however, it seems the “spirit and dynamics of early church life” have been, as Edwin Judge put it, “dressed up with the rituals of cult” to such a degree that we’ve all but lost the essence of what once was.

So what was the essence of early church gatherings that we should seek to recapture in our day? What is the “secret sauce” of the early church that we want to preserve?

Here is my proposal (which to my surprise and delight forms the acronym, RAMS):

Relationality. Early church gatherings were highly relational. While meeting in homes is not essential to a church gathering, meeting in ways that promote engagement at a relational level with everyone is critical. There are dozens of “one another” commands in the NT that can only be worked out in environments where there are close relationships. Our priority should be on creating spaces where people know each other and are known.

Adaptability. The early Christians did not create new structures or institutions. Rather they used existing social networks and customs. The weekly church gathering was a secular drinking party redeemed for kingdom purposes. We need to be looking at the social structures, networks and customs of our day that could be redeemed for kingdom purposes.

Mutuality. As Paul exhorted the Corinthian believers, each person at a gathering should bring something to the gathering to share with the group. This means that while there will be human leaders within groups, meetings should not revolve around one person or a select few who dominate the gathering. The more encouragement that can be given to the group to participate and contribute the better.

Simplicity. In looking at the NT it strikes me as noteworthy that there is very little actual instruction on what to do when a church gathers. This is likely because everyone was already so familiar with the supper-symposium that no instructions were necessary. What we do have are correctives for when the familiar goes off the rails into sinful excess (1 Cor. 11-14). Something as simple as “dinner and discussion,” “coffee and conversation” or “tea and testimonies” is something easy to put into practice and pass on to others.

What do you think of the proposals above? Would you change, add or remove any of these points? I would love to hear your perspectives.




___________

[2] Edwin Judge, “Was Christianity a Religion?” in The First Christians in the Roman World, 405.

[3] Hurtado, 108, 148ff (Kindle).

[4] Valeriy Alikin, “Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries” in The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering, 38.

[5] Alikin, 33.

[6] Robert and Julia Banks, The Church Comes Home, 24.




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