The Lord’s Supper, not Lovefeast

Posted: June 18, 2013 in Church of the Brethren, Theology

LovefeastI have had a growing burr under my saddle. For as long as I have been Brethren, I have noticed the trend of referring to the Lord’s Supper as “lovefeast.” Before anyone misunderstands, let me explain that I have not been denying that the lovefeast is part of the Lord’s Supper celebration. However, I have been arguing that it is not only an inaccurate descriptor but betrays a lack of understanding regarding this sacred ceremonial meal that contributes to marginalizing the (arguably) most significant distinctive practice of the Brethren community.

The crux of my beef has surrounded the threefold nature of the ceremony. Most traditions practice the Lord’s Supper by simply sharing the bread and cup. A few (Moravians and some Wesleyans) practice a lovefeast and a few more practice feetwashing (not included in their celebration of the Lord’s Supper) in various forms. However, only the Brethren interpret this ordinance as consisting of four parts. It was once understood in three parts but since the predominate cessation of the elder visits it is essentially practiced in four parts consisting of examination, feetwashing, lovefeast (agape meal) and bread and cup (Eucharist). The celebration in this way reflects the early Brethren’s desire to apply as comprehensively as possible this ordinance by considering a holistic reading of the Jesus narrative as reflected in the four gospels. Moreover, not limiting their interpretation to the gospels, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 11:17-33) also plays a central role in the Brethren interpretation and practice of the “Lord’s Supper.” In the mid-19th century Peter Nead strongly argued that it is the nature of the way Brethren practice this ordinance that demonstrates their desire to fully obey the command of Christ as closely reflected in scripture as possible.[1]

In this there are three underlying issues: one being a hermeneutical question. It is often argued that Brethren as Biblicists read scripture literally and thus applied its interpretation. Unfortunately the Brethren practice of this sacred ceremony demonstrates that they read contextually and not completely literally. In fact it would be better to classify this reading form as a “common sense” approach. If they interpreted and applied the John 13 passage literally, then each member would wash every other disciple’s feet as Jesus did. Moreover, the early Brethren further demonstrated their desire for a contextual reading as they received instruction as to the traditional placement of feetwashing before the meal.[2] The second issue regards the Brethren’s theological interpretation of this meal. It is widely acknowledged that even as the Brethren community is gospel-centric, when it comes to the celebration of this meal, 1 Corinthians 11 plays a central role in their theological interpretation of it. The simple fact that Paul is addressing a conflicted congregation and argues that inequity and disunity (sinfulness) taking place during the meal brings God’s judgment upon the community, contributes to their interpretation that the practice of the Lord’s Supper (in all four parts) is participation in the reconciliatory nature of salvation and the proclamation of Jesus’ death as such. Thirdly, there is a redundancy in referring to the sacred meal as lovefeast which consists of an “agape meal” as one part. Lovefeast and agape meal are synonymous and if referred to as such can be confusing. Especially with the normative practice among the Believer’s Church traditions referring to the second ordinance as the “Lord’s Supper” it seems a clearer and more accurate nomenclature. So why not aim for clarity?

At this point it is necessary to acknowledge that Jude does refer to the community as celebrating “lovefeast.” However, is this passage enough to label the entire sacred ceremony as lovefeast in place of the Lord’s Supper? I understand the desire to emphasize the sharing of love at these sacred celebrations. But if it obscures the distinctive way Brethren practice this ordinance shouldn’t we avoid it? Perhaps it’s just me, but I greatly appreciate the distinctive way Brethren practice this ordinance in four parts. With the growing trend in the church of letting go of feetwashing (and even the agape meal) and simply sharing the bread and cup, it feels much like letting go of our identity. So if such labels obscure or even diminish these distinctives, I am for avoiding their usage. Besides, isn’t part of the practice of simplicity consist of speaking with clarity? (Perhaps I’ve just muddied things up more. . .)

[1] See, Theological Writings on Various Subjects (Dunker Springhaus Ministries, 1997).

[2] Donald Durnbaugh, “Brethren and the Authority of Scripture,” BLT, 13:1968, 174.

  1. danacassell says:

    So, are you suggesting we refer to the whole 4-part service as Lord’s Supper? That’s definitely more accurate…

    But ecumenically, that term is already associated with eucharist on its own. “Love Feast” is valuable, I think, inasmuch as it sets Brethren practice apart from other modes of communion practices. And I think a “feast” refers to more than a “meal” – there’s an element of celebration, occasion, an event that is nourishing in ways both bodily and otherwise.

    • Kendal says:

      Dana, I appreciate your comment. As I escaped the Methodists to become Brethren in the mid-sixties, the Virlina Mount Hermon congregation was my entry portal… It was commonly called “Love Feast and Communion,” and at times, “Full Communion.” All of these expressions seem to call attention to our distinctive practice(s). As we think together about Andy’s topic, the poem comes to mind that asks about the “rose by any other name.”

  2. Matt McKimmy says:

    I appreciate your thoughts on this important, distinctive practice of our tradition. I must also admit that it makes me feel at least a bit better after my part in leading the #NuDunkers down a path of linguistic criticism not too long ago to see you raising the theological/linguistic question how we speak of the Lord’s Supper/ lovefeast.

    I wonder if calling the whole practice lovefeast/ love feast is an attempt to name our distinctiveness? You mention that lovefeast and agape meal are often synonymous, but that has not been my experience. For most Christians I would suspect that the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, communion, & bread and cup are synonymous. In my mind, to refer to our three(four?)fold practice simply as the Lord’s Supper could prove confusing to those unfamiliar with our ways. In my own context I tend to not use language of the Lord’s Supper at all (for various reasons) but speak of gathering for Love Feast, two parts of which are the agape meal and the bread & cup.

    Your point of speaking with clarity and saying what we mean is well-taken. One of my pet peeves on this same issue is the loose way in which we use the word “communion.” I’ve personally experienced much more confusing communion-language than Lord’s Supper-language. If I were to take your post and replace each reference to Lord’s Supper with communion I’d end up with a similar angst to what you seem to be experiencing.

    Again we come back to the question of whether re-appropriating mis-used language or adopting new ways of speaking might be most useful in clearly communicating meaning. And again the answer would seem to emerge from a muddy mix of history, theology, context, and creativity.

    Thanks for the opportunity to think and reflect!

  3. Doug Hamilton says:

    I might be wrong here but using the correct usage from the perspective of influencing the entire church and not trying to define any singular denominations definition, but what the bible is clearly meaning could be a great way of getting the body of Christ back on track and away from traditionalizing (made that word up I think.) something that in its entirety has great practical value.

    Which means I think I agree with that smart fellows post.

  4. Andrew says:

    Thanks all for the comments. I’m not sure what I said to get my brother to comment, but I like that at least he thinks I’m smart now. Things have changed since childhood 🙂

    First, I’d like to address what seems like a strong affinity to the term “lovefeast.” To be honest, labels are not overly important to me in most cases. Admittedly there is some biblical evidence supporting the use of lovefeast, but if we include the many historical conversations that sought to differentiate practices for the purpose of identity formation, the Believer’s Church tradition (of which the Brethren are a part) consistently refers to this “ordinance” as the Lord’s Supper. I can appreciate the desire to use “lovefeast” to express it as a distinctive practice, but I’m not sure that it actually accomplishes that. When other traditions practice “lovefeast,” quite differently than ours, then I fail to see how the term differentiates. Referring to it as the Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, makes an obvious connection to the same ordinance as the other Believer’s Church groups practice. What makes it distinctive is the form of the practice and that form I would argue is essential to the communal formation of the tradition in a way that is sacramentally (manifesting Jesus’ presence) significant.

    Secondly, regarding Dana’s comment referring to the nuanced difference between meal and feast. Dana you are correct. I misspoke when I declared them synonymous. There is a difference between a feast and a meal. However, I’m still not convinced that it is a good use of the term. As we are attempting to be in conversation with other traditions, “lovefeast” may in fact over-emphasize our differences making connections more difficult. At the very least, when we use the term “Lord’s Supper” the other groups know to what we are referring. The distinctives are in the form of the practice and especially its interpretation.

    Finally, whenever we have the opportunity to share the narrative form of how we practice this in addition to our own participation in it, our identity is formed correspondingly to some degree. Referring to it as the “Lord’s Supper” seems to provide a connection with the larger Christian community and a point of entry for explanatory conversation (perhaps even an invitation to participate). Perhaps it’s just me (a first-generation Brethren), but the use of “lovefeast” seems to point back to a more sectarian time that sought to put us in a position above others (we’re right, everyone else is wrong, whether or not it’s true) exclusively. The use of the “Lord’s Supper” points out our common connection with the Lord Jesus and his command to break bread and drink wine (grape juice :-)) together in remembrance of him. Such commonalities provide more opportunities for conversation and relationship among the diverse traditions. Just saying . . .

  5. I have embraced the term Love Feast (as a recent Brethren convert), but it is pretty off putting for non-Brethren with images of debauchery and cultish behavior coming to mind (which it has for 300 years, not just in our time). Perhaps a better name is the Lord’s Banquet for the full service, to distinguish it from the simpler Lord’s Supper element that is a pretty pervasive name for the Eucharist. Banquet also seems to have a more eschatological ring to it.

  6. Thanks all for the great comments and observations. I have to admit, though, that as Andy and I have talked about this before I get the argument but don’t have much skin in the game. That isn’t to say that the ordinance isn’t central to my theology and faith, but rather the terms are more fluid. I remember getting to Candler and having my United Methodist friends talking about Love Feast. For a bried second I was stoked! I was ready for towels, wate, food, and bread and cup. Then I remembered we weren’t talking the same language. I am just not sure either term, Love Feast or Lord’s Supper really get to the whole rite. Both leave off important elements of the whole liturgy (yes, I used the L word 🙂 ) for those outside the culture of Brethrendom.

    I am much more concerned though about breaking our portions of the rite- whether it be washing feet or Eucharist- and practicing them too often in isolation from the rest. I do know that each has a rich cluster of meaning and can stand on its own. But what happens to us when we do one without the others for too long?

    Related to the observation about communion vs. Eucharist, there is another place where technical language gets muddied in common usage. Given the four fold shape the Eucharist (Taking, Blessing, Breaking, and Sharing) communion is the last act of the full Eucharistic action (that of sharing the break and cup).


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