The Setting and Sacrament of the Christian Community

Mark D. Ellison

Mark D. Ellison, “The Setting and Sacrament of the Christian Community,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, 31st Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 145–166.

Mark D. Ellison was a Church Educational System coordinator in Tampa, Florida when this was published.

In an upper room at the last supper, our Lord prayed that all His followers might be one, united in love with him, with his Father, and with one another (see John 17:21–26). Then, as now, there were forces which threatened to divide them from each other, to separate brother and sister, parent and child, child of God and Heavenly Father—but Christ taught that those forces could be conquered by the love of God.

We are given a glimpse of that love in action in the New Testament Church at a time when the believers were “of one heart and of one soul” (Acts 4:32). Describing the affairs of these Saints, the book of Acts states: “Breaking bread from house to house, [they] did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:46). This verse draws our attention to a setting (the house) and a practice (dining together), two seemingly simple elements of the Church’s activity. In fact, that setting and practice were of central importance in early Christian worship; they were the backdrop against which the Saints of former days either succeeded or failed to “be one.” I believe that considering the early Christian house churches and their communal dining worship will help us better understand the New Testament communities, and more fully appreciate the opportunities that are ours in our latter-day worship.

House Churches

Let us first consider the household setting. In Acts we learn that the Apostles preached of Christ “in the temple, and in every house” (Acts 5:42), and we note that Saul’s persecution of the Christians required him to enter “every house” (Acts 8:3). While in Jerusalem, a large company of Saints gathered to pray at the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark (see Acts 12:12). In Philippi Paul and Silas met with Church members in the house of Lydia (see Acts 16:40). The Pauline epistles refer to a “church” in the homes of Nymphas (Colossians 4:15), Philemon (Philemon 1:1–2), Priscilla (1 Corinthians 16:19) and Aquila (Romans 16:3–5). [1] The original concept of “church” (ekkl?sia in Greek) was not of a building but of an assembly of people who had been called together. [2]

The place of assembly was not as important as its purpose. Long before Christians began to build specially constructed church buildings, they assembled to worship in ordinary homes. Noting the significant role those homes played in the apostolic age, one observer wrote: “Even when contact with the Jerusalem Temple and Jewish synagogues was still maintained, it was nevertheless the household which served as the new and vital center for social networks, worship, interprovincial communication, recruitment, baptizing and instruction in the faith, the hosting of traveling missionaries, and the material support essential to the sustenance and growth of the movement across the Roman Empire.” [3]

Why did the early Saints use their houses for these activities? It may be simply that since the young Church was poor (see 1 Corinthians 1:26–28), it could not afford a building program; all its resources had to be devoted to caring for its members and accomplishing the apostolic commission to “teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Perhaps, too, building permanent edifices was seen as unnecessary in an age when Apostles foresaw apostasy and the Church’s eventual retreat into the wilderness (see 2 Thessalonians 2:1–3; Revelation 12:6). [4]

Meeting in houses may also have given the Saints some protection from public persecution. “Christianity in the first century A.D., and for long afterwards, did not have the status of a recognized religion,” notes Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “so there was no question of a public meeting-place, such as the Jewish synagogue. Hence, use had to be made of the only facilities available, namely, the dwellings of families that had become Christian.” [5]

Along with all these considerations, there is one more: homes were especially well suited to accommodate the worship service which included the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. For many years, the earliest Saints would partake of the sacrament while sharing a common meal in the homes of fellow Church members. [6]

In time some of the houses which hosted Christian assemblies were renovated and used exclusively for worship. Remains of a few of these “house churches” (domus ecclesiae) have been excavated, helping us to visualize the physical worship setting of the early Church.

1. The House of St. Peter. Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee became Jesus’ “own city” after he was rejected in Nazareth (Matthew 9:1). Beneath the remains of the fifth-century octagonal church that can be seen there today are the remains of a house built around 100 B.C., which was converted into a church in the latter part of the first century A.D. This first-century house church has been described by archaeologists as “one of the highlights of Christian archaeology in Israel,” [7] and “the oldest Christian sanctuary unearthed anywhere.” [8]

At the time of Jesus, before it was converted into a church, the house was a simple structure: two abutting rooms set in a courtyard with walls made of field stones plastered with mud and a roof made of wooden beams, thatch, and mud. In homes like this one, “the simple peasant life of a Galilean family centered around the courtyard, where children played, livestock were kept, and family members worked and ate.” [9]

This dwelling may very well have been the “house of Simon and Andrew” mentioned in the Gospels—the place where Jesus healed Peters mother-in-law, who then appreciatively waited on the Master and His disciples at a meal (see Matthew 8:14–15; Mark 1:29–31; Luke 4:38–39). People sometimes crowded the house of Peter as they brought loved ones who were sick or possessed to Jesus to be healed (see Mark 1:32–34). On one occasion some people even tore through the roof of a house, possibly this house, so they could lower a paralyzed friend down to the Master inside (see Mark 2:1–12). The house of Peter may also have been the private place where, at a quieter time, Jesus instructed His disciples about the meaning of parables and the doctrines of the kingdom (see Mark 4:10–11).

Thus, the house seems to be associated with Jesus’ teaching, His power to transform and to heal, and His joyful practice of mealtime fellowship. It is understandable that later Christians would want to remember and venerate the site.

The site’s excavator, Virgilio Corbo, states that “after the resurrection, the Jewish-Christian community at Capernaum began using the house as a meeting place.” [10] His findings indicate that the house was remodeled later in the first century to be used exclusively for worship. The two rooms were joined, forming a single, nearly square room measuring about seven meters on each side, suggesting that it could have accommodated around twenty people at a time. The rough stone walls of the main room were strengthened, coated with fine plaster, and painted with Jewish-Christian symbols. Thousands of fragments of this plaster were discovered during excavation, including more than a hundred featuring graffiti-like inscriptions in Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, and Latin.

Many of the inscriptions are of a Christian character (references to Jesus as Lord and Christ, and possible references to Peter), indicating that the house church became a pilgrimage destination, receiving visitors from a wide area of the Roman empire. The pilgrim Egeria wrote of her late fourth-century visit there: “Moreover, in Capernaum the house of the prince of the apostles has been made into a church, with its original walls still standing.” [11] Similar to the way we Latter-day Saints regard the Sacred Grove as “hallowed ground,” [12] this site was greatly revered by Christians from the first century forward, and apparently for the same reason: the Lord had been there.

2. The House Church at Dura-Europos. Like the house at Capernaum, a house at Dura-Europos in eastern Syria served as a meeting place for a Christian community. [13] Built in the late second century or early third century, the house featured eight rooms around a central courtyard—much larger and more elegant than the house of Peter. It was converted into a domus ecclesia some time before the middle of the third century, apparently to meet the needs of a growing congregation. The courtyard was tiled and benches were installed against the courtyard walls, perhaps indicating that their meetings overflowed into the courtyard.

A small corner room was converted to a canopied baptistery and was decorated with stars and biblical scenes, central among them a depiction of Christ as the Good Shepherd, standing over a flock of sheep and carrying a sheep on His shoulders (see Luke 15:4–7; John 10:1–18). Its prominence in the baptistery suggests that, to the Christians who built it, being baptized signified the creation of a relationship with Christ and being brought into the fold of a caring community. [14] Jesus had never been there personally—Dura was not Capernaum—yet for the sincere who remembered him, the Good Shepherd was there in this sense, and they too felt part of the fold.

How large would that fold have been? A long hall which could have accommodated 65 to 75 people was created when a wall between two of the rooms was removed in the conversion from house to church. A small podium was installed at the east end of this long room, presumably to make an officiator more visible when standing before the congregation. Though the archaeological remains cannot tell us exactly how the Christians here observed the Lord’s Supper, Justin Martyr offers an instructive, late second-century description of Sunday sacrament worship. By his day, the congregation did not sit or recline together to eat a meal, but stood to receive only the bread and cup; there were no longer Apostles, but only their “memoirs.” There were still efforts to maintain a sense of community:

“All who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.” [15]

3. Other Possible House Churches. On Mount Zion in Jerusalem, traces of an earlier structure can be seen incorporated into the Crusader Church of St. Mary. Tradition associates the site with the “Upper Room” where the Apostles were gathered when the Spirit was poured out on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 1:9–14; 2:1–8). The various layers of the building’s floors indicate that its foundations do date back to Roman times, and so it may be that a well-to-do first-century disciple donated his or her house as a meeting place (see Acts 2:44–45). The evidence available, however, has not been sufficient to create consensus on this. [16] In addition to this site and the others mentioned, there are possible indications of early house churches in Rome and Egypt. [17]

How did meeting in houses like these affect the Church’s sense of community? The arrangement had both benefits and detriments.

One of the disadvantages was that a household congregation could accommodate only limited growth; once it surpassed the house’s relatively small capacity, another congregation would have to be formed elsewhere. Quite often this would have resulted in there being many small congregations within the same city. While this circumstance would have permitted members in each house church to know each other well, it also carried the potential for a lack of unity between the various congregations.

False teachings and inappropriate practices which sprang up were difficult to manage. [18] This is suggested in 2 John, which warns a Christian community not to receive heretical teachers into their house (2 John 1:10), and possibly also in Titus, with the reference to “vain talkers and deceivers” who “subvert whole houses” (Titus 1:10–11).

The house church setting may also help explain the difficulty mentioned in 3 John: “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not . . . neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church” (3 John 1:9–10). Diotrephes appears to have been the patron of a household congregation who did not want Church leaders to interfere in the meetings and meals he hosted in his own home; he rebelled against the leadership of John, Gaius, and the other brethren of his locality. [19] All these difficulties were among the problems which would ultimately lead to general apostasy (see D&C 64:8).

But for the faithful, assembling in houses had great advantages. The intimate, domestic setting would have contributed to a familial sense within the congregation. [20] Certainly family life was important in the young Church, as is evident from epistles containing instructions for husbands, wives, fathers, children, servants, and masters (see Ephesians 5:19–6:9; Colossians 3:12–4:6; 1 Timothy 3:2–12; Titus 2:2–10). In an early study of house churches, Floyd V. Filson observes:

“It must not be forgotten that both in Jewish and Gentile life religious observance had been largely centered in the home. Moreover, on many occasions entire households, including, no doubt, slaves in some instances, came into the church as a unit (cf. Acts 16:32–33). . . . The need for making the faith work in daily home life must have been greatly intensified by the almost complete concentration of Christian life, fellowship, and worship in the home.” [21]

Notice how many New Testament passages employ household language. In several instances the epistles equate the “church of God” with the “house of God” (see 1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 3:6; 1 Peter 2:5). The term house can indicate either a structure or the people who inhabit it—a household—and the early Church understood itself to be a new kind of “family.” [22] Jesus had taught His disciples that they were His brothers and sisters, God’s children, and would have a place in His Fathers “house” (Mark 3:34–35; Matthew 18:3; John 14:2–3). Paul taught that the Saints were brothers and sisters (adelphoi), “children of God” who had “received the Spirit of adoption”; Jesus’ Father was their Father; they were “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14–17; see 2 Corinthians 6:18; Galatians 4:5–7; Philippians 2:15; Hebrews 12:5–9). Among the Christians, an elderly man was to be treated “as a father; . . . the younger men as brethren; the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1–2). Philemon was to accept and forgive a servant who had run away, for as a fellow believer, the servant was now “a brother beloved” (Philemon 1:16). [23] We see that the family setting of Christian assembly corresponds to the use of familial imagery to illustrate the Saints’ relationship with God and with one another.

The idea that the covenant people are a “family” did not originate with the house churches (see Malachi 2:10; Mosiah 5:7; Moses 6:68), but it did seem to find reinforcement in that setting. In a study of the early Christian congregations, Robert Banks conjectures that “the practical necessity for [meeting in houses] blended with a further, theologically based consideration. For, given the family character of the Christian community, the homes of its members provided the most conducive atmosphere in which they could give expression to the bond they had in common.” [24] And indeed, one of the most important ways they gave expression to their common bond was through the Lord’s Supper—a worship service which, like the worship setting, affirmed their relationship with their Father in Heaven as well as with their brothers and sisters.

The Lord’s Supper

The sacrament was instituted at the Last Supper (see Mark 14:22–25; Matthew 26:26–29, Luke 22:19–20; 1 Corinthians 11:23–25) and for many years continued to be observed in a mealtime setting. These meals were communal dinners shared by the assembled congregation. Acts tells us that the Saints in Jerusalem “had all things common” (Acts 4:32), including their food (Acts 6:1–2). [25] Jude mentions that the saints held “feasts of charity,” or agape meals, using the Greek word which signified Christian love and came to denote also the common meal in which that love was affirmed (Jude 1:12). An agape meal was “a fellowship meal which was a principal occasion for charity to the poorer members of the church.” [26] At an agape feast which included the sacrament, the bread and wine were usually blessed and distributed at the end of the meal. [27]

One of the most important details in our scriptures about the early Christian sacrament is that the Saints partook “in remembrance” of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:23–26; JST Matthew 26:22–25; JST Mark 14:20–25; Luke 22:19–20). To appreciate what that “remembrance” would have involved, it is helpful to consider some of the cultural and religious connotations associated with meals in ancient Israel and how they figured in the Lord’s mortal ministry:

1. Fellowship and Reconciliation. In the culture of the Near East, “meals were much more than occasions for satisfying hunger, for it was understood that persons who ate and drank together were bound to one another by friendship and mutual obligation.” [28] James D. G. Dunn explains, “For the oriental, table-fellowship was a guarantee of peace, trust, brotherhood; it meant in a very real sense a sharing of one’s life.” [29] Since sharing a meal affirmed fellowship, peace, and unity between those who participated, meals could serve to reconcile people who had been estranged from each other (see Genesis 43:32; 45:11; Psalm 23:5; Luke 15:23–24; JST Matthew 7:9).

The Gospels record that during His mortal ministry, the Savior shared many significant meals with His disciples and others. [30] The practice drew criticism from some who did not approve of the company Jesus kept: “This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Luke 15:2; cf Matthew 11:19; Luke 5:33). The Savior’s response, couched in the story of the prodigal whose father celebrated his son’s return with a feast, testified that those who were lost could return to God and be welcomed back as beloved children (see Luke 15:11–24; see Mark 2:17; Matthew 9:12–13, Luke 5:31–32). [31] Dining with people was part of the Lord’s way of extending an invitation to repent, enter into fellowship with Him, and to be reconciled to God through Him. [32] A vivid example is the dinner Jesus shared with Zacchaeus, the chief publican in Jericho (see Luke 19:2–10). Publicans—Jews who collected taxes for the Roman government—were looked upon with contempt and excommunicated from the synagogue. [33] For Jesus to dine with this man and tell him, “This day is salvation come to this house” (Luke 19:9), communicated the dramatic message that in Christ even the despised and ostracized, along with their loved ones, could be restored to blessed fellowship with God.

2. Solemn Covenant. In the Near East, promises made with the sharing of food were considered solemn, binding vows (see Genesis 24:54; 26:26–31; 31:46, 54; Joshua 9:3–20; 2 Samuel 3:12–21). [34] The good news communicated by the Lord’s table fellowship is therefore made all the more dramatic. Further, it is amazing to consider the multitude of profound promises Jesus made to His disciples at the Last Supper, the occasion when he instituted the sacrament. He taught them His impending suffering and death would be a ransom for them (see JST Matthew 26:22–29; Mark 14:22–25; Luke 22:19–20). The Father would send the Spirit of truth, the Comforter, which would abide with them forever, bring all of Jesus’ teachings to their remembrance, guide them into all truth, and show them things to come (see John 14:16–17, 26; 15:26; 16:13–14). They would experience the love of the Father, and the Father and Son would make their abode with them—a moving image of intimate, spiritual fellowship (see John 14:23; Revelation 3:20). Jesus’ followers would abide, or dwell, in God’s love (see John 15:10; 17:26). They would experience godly peace (see John 14:27). Their prayers in the name of Christ would be answered (see John 15:7; 16:23–24). Their sorrow would be turned to a joy that no man could take from them (see John 16:20, 22). They would become one—united with each other as the Father and the Son are with each other (see John 17:11, 21–22). Christ would be in them; they would be drawn towards perfection by the Son of God sharing His spiritual life and love with them (see John 17:23–26).

3. Commemoration. Feasts in ancient Israel often served to help the children of Israel remember what God had done for them (see Exodus 12:14, 25–27). The biblical concept of “remembering” (Greek anamnesis, Hebrew zakar) entails more than might be apparent to a modern Western reader. To the Jews, remembering the exodus story at Passover was not merely recalling it, but in a sense re-experiencing it. As Lee Humphreys explains, the “words accompanied by actions, stories by ritual, bridged the gap between past and present; and the sacred stories were relived as defining life and community in the present.” [35]

At Passover families gathered and literally tasted the bitterness of bondage; they ate the pascal lamb and affirmed deliverance from the angel of death by virtue of the blood of the Lamb. It was not just a matter of recalling that the Lord had once delivered their fathers; by participating in the ritual meal, they too were the delivered ones! No matter where they lived or how many years had passed since the exodus, the faithful at Passover were as much God’s covenant people as the Israelites who had first camped at Sinai. The English word remember is especially fitting because, as Humphreys points out, “in reexperiencing the Moses-Sinai . . . story in this special way Israel was ‘re-membered’ as the individual affirmed her or his membership in that community.” [36]

4. Messianic Anticipation. Israelite feasts were so joyous and sacred that they came to symbolize the rejoicing, peace, and fellowship that the righteous would share with God when the Messiah would come. Thus the feasts both looked back, serving to memorialize and renew the covenant between God and Israel (such as at Passover), and looked forward with anticipation to the messianic “feast of fat things” to be enjoyed in the age to come (see Isaiah 25:6–8; 29:8; 55:2; 65:13; Zephaniah 1:7). Jesus drew upon this imagery several times in His teaching. The parables of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1–13), the marriage of the king’s son (Matthew 22:2–10) and the great supper (Luke 14:16–24) are centered around feasts symbolizing the future messianic age. He promised the Apostles that their role in the “feast” to come would be to “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:30).

All these meal-related connotations convey great significance to the early Christian observance of the Lord’s Supper. The Saints ate as “partakers of the Lord’s table” (1 Corinthians 10:21). They, like those to whom the Lord had ministered personally, partook of the promises of the new covenant and experienced the reconciliation, forgiveness, and fellowship with God made possible by the Atonement: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [koin?nia, or ‘intimate fellowship’] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). They both looked back in memory of the Savior: “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7)—and looked forward to His future return: “As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

In a touching, personal passage, Paul revealed part of what it meant to “show” (kataggello, or “proclaim”) the Lord’s death—there was, he taught, a sense in which the believer participated in the Lord’s death and victorious Resurrection: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20; see Romans 6:3–11). [37] The man he used to be was dead; his new life was in Christ and this reality was part of what was proclaimed by all believers every time they ate the bread and drank of the cup. Like the reenactment of the Passover, partaking “in remembrance” of Jesus in this very personal way applied the Lord’s miraculous Atonement—including aspects of His death and His life—to each member’s own personal life.

Since the whole community of Saints participated in the Lord’s Supper, the ordinance also affirmed a very real bond between all members of the family of believers. This is an important subject in one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Saints. The Apostle wrote to rebuke the Corinthians for breaking into contentious factions, and to admonish them to be united (see 1 Corinthians 1:10–13). The divisions were especially manifested at their common meals. Paul wrote:

“Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse.

“For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it . . . .

“When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper” (1 Corinthians 11:17–18, 20).

The Joseph Smith Translation changes the final statement into a question: “When ye come together into one place, is it not to eat the Lord’s supper?” (JST 1 Corinthians 11:20). Something the Corinthians were doing in their meetings created “divisions”; they were overlooking the real reason for assembling together. The New Revised Standard Version renders Paul’s words:

“When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.

“For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:20–21).

Apparently, when the members would gather at a host home, bringing with them their food to contribute to the common meal (like a modern-day potluck dinner), they would begin to eat before some of the poorer members could arrive. The latecomers—slaves and others of poorer classes—would arrive in time for the bread and cup, but having missed the main meal they would leave hungry, while others were full (1 Corinthians 11:21). [38]

To Paul, conducting the Lord’s Supper in this way was an abuse of the practice, violating the very truths which the sacrament was supposed to affirm. The Christian community, like Israel of old, was to eat the same spiritual food and drink the same spiritual drink (see 1 Corinthians 10:3–4). Partaking of the same bread symbolized that they all were “one body” (1 Corinthians 10:17). [39] Therefore, participating in the sacrament affirmed a “communion” not only with the Lord but also with every other participant in that sacred service (see 1 Corinthians 10:16). They all were “brought together into covenant community.” [40]

As they partook they were to be mindful of the Lord’s “body,” meaning both the mortal body of Christ and also the body of the Church:

“There should be no schism in the body; but. . . the members should have the same care one for another.

“And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:25–26).

The result of the Corinthians’ failure to have this kind of care for each other was that their worship was “not for the better, but for the worse”; their common meals were not really the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17, 20).

Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians was to wait for one another when they came together to eat, and (if they thought waiting might be too difficult) to eat something at their own homes before going to the service (see 1 Corinthians 11:33–34). As it was, their abuses of the sacrament were bringing them under condemnation (see 1 Corinthians 11:29–34); it would be preferable, Paul hints, to sever the common meal from the sacrament of the bread and wine, rather than to continue neglecting some members (see 1 Corinthians 11:22).

Corinth was not the only place with problems observing the Lord’s Supper. Writing some time after Paul, Jude mentions “spots,” or blemishes, which mar the “feasts of charity.” Some participants were unruly and looked after themselves only. They were spiritually “dead,” like “clouds . . . without water” or “trees . . . without fruit” (Jude 1:12). Greco-Roman religious feasts were somewhat notorious for the raucous, immoral behavior and self-interested contention they sometimes featured; these problems seem to have been brought into the Christian meal setting by some members. [41] It is conceivable that because of abuses like these, partaking of the bread and wine was separated from the agape meal in the second century. In the fourth century the common meals were forbidden, as was the observance of the sacrament in houses. [42] Much of the original understanding of the sacrament was lost.

Our Latter-Day Worship

In what we have observed of the early Christian worship service and setting, there is great meaning for us as Latter-day Saints, both individually and collectively. We are reminded that the organization of the restored Church and the first sacrament meeting in the latter-day dispensation took place in a humble farmhouse in Fayette, New York. The Lord began this dispensation where the last had left off.

Since that time, growth and change in the Church—including direction about such matters as where we meet and how we administer the sacrament—have come under the guidance of the Lord, through His living Apostles, as it had in the New Testament Church. In former days, the divine commission was primarily to spread the gospel throughout the world (see Matthew 28:19–20); in the latter days, that same commission was accompanied by callings to gather and build (see D&C 29:7; 37; 88:119; 95; 138:53–54). Though the apostolic age of the early Church was tragically short-lived, today it dramatically goes on. Though our circumstances are different, some things remain the same. We continue to be vitally interested in family life and in making the faith work in our homes. Both at home with our immediate family, as well as at the meetinghouse with those whom we rightly call our “ward family,” we strive to make real the ideals of love and community. Of this aspiration Elder Robert D. Hales has taught:

“[We each belong to a] ward family made up of adults, youth, and children—individual brothers and sisters—caring for and strengthening one another. . . .

“We all belong to a community of Saints. . . , we all need each other, and we are all working toward the same goal. Any one of us could isolate ourselves from this ward family on the basis of our differences. But we must not shut ourselves out or isolate ourselves from opportunities because of the differences we perceive in ourselves. Instead, let us share our gifts and talents with others, bringing brightness of hope and joy to them, and in so doing lift our own spirits.” [43]

The Church still is not primarily a building; it is all of us—the ekkl?sia—the assembly of Saints. Wherever we meet, be it farmhouse or stake center, tabernacle or temple, even when only two or three of us gather in Jesus’ name, our Lord is there with us in our very midst (see Matthew 18:20; D&C 6:32). As we “break bread” week to week, we have the obligation to partake thoughtfully, mindful of “the body”—our Lord Himself, and His family of followers. Is there someone in my ward who is in need, who hungers? In the spirit of love and community, I should seek to wait upon that brother or sister. In every sacrament meeting around the world, the body of Christ is “re-membered” as individual Saints reaffirm the baptismal covenant by which they became members of that body: “Bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light . . . mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and . . . stand as witnesses of God” (Mosiah 18:8–9). And because of that, no matter where we live or how many years have passed since the days of Peter and Paul, the ordinary, faithful Latter-day Saints at home and at church are as much God’s covenant people as those early disciples who sat with the Savior in the upper room.

“We no longer include a supper with this ordinance,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “but it is a feast nevertheless. We can be fortified by it for whatever life requires of us.” [44] Elder Holland suggests that the sacrament can be a deeply personal moment of worship, akin to how the ancients worshiped “in remembrance”:

“This particular ordinance with all its symbolism and imagery comes to us more readily and more repeatedly than any other in our life. It comes in what has been called ‘the most sacred, the most holy, of all the meetings of the Church.’ . . . Perhaps we do not always attach that kind of meaning to our weekly sacramental service. How ‘sacred’ and how ‘holy’ is it? Do we see it as our passover, remembrance of our safety and deliverance and redemption? With so very much at stake, this ordinance commemorating our escape from the angel of darkness should be taken more seriously than it sometimes is. It should be a powerful, reverent, reflective moment.” [45]

Like a dinner host, the Lord brings us to His house and there shares with us His sustenance, His nourishment, His life. We sit as invited guests at His table. [46] In the token meal of the bread and the cup is His offer of friendship and fellowship, renewal and redemption—just as it was offered to His followers anciently.

If in some way we have become estranged from Him, this supper, if we are prepared, is an opportunity for reconciliation, a time when we can plea, “Father, open thy house that I may come in and sup with thee,” and when He can respond, “Come in, my son; for mine is thine, and thine is mine” (JST Matthew 7:17). When we partake with faith, we may partake of all the blessings of the meal: the fellowship, the acceptance, the reconciliation, the friendship, the peace. We may leave the sacrament meeting with the same blessing the Lord gave His disciples at the Last Supper: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). Thus reassured, we can go forth from the house, as individuals and as a community, “with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:46).


[1] Paul may allude to other house congregations when he mentions “them which are of the house of Chloe” (1 Corinthians 1:11), sends greetings from his host “Gaius . . . and of the whole church” (Romans 16:23), and commends the patron Phebe, who has hosted many people as “a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1–2). See also Richard D. Draper, “New Light on Pauls Teachings,” Ensign, September 1999, 22–24: “As the Apostle Paul closed his epistle, he sent his salutation to ‘them which are of Aristobulus’ household’ and requested that his reader ‘greet them that be of the household of Narcissus, which are in the Lord’ [Romans 16:10–11]. The JST changes ‘household’ in each instance to church (JST Romans 16:10–11, footnotes 10a, 11a). So while the KJV suggests Paul was writing to individual families, the JST shows he is writing to leaders of local church units. As the early Church spread, meetings were held in members’ homes. The Apostles assigned leaders to these ‘house-churches’ to guide and teach the people and to administer to their needs. The JST makes it clear that Paul was addressing these local leaders and their congregations, not just their families.”

[2] Stephen E. Robinson, “Warring against the Saints of God,” Ensign, January 1988, 34: “The word church (Hebrew qahal or edah; Greek ekklesia) had a slightly broader meaning anciently than it does now. It referred to an assembly, congregation, or association of people who bonded together and shared the same loyalties. Thus, the term was not necessarily restricted to religious associations; in fact, in Athens the Greeks used the term to denote the legislative assembly of government. Originally the term ekklesia, formed from two words meaning call and out, referred to those citizens whom heralds called out or summoned to public meetings. Thus, it was an ideal word to represent the body of individuals whom God ‘calls out’ of the world through the Holy Ghost.” See also Charles Muldowney, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, August 1993, 52.

[3] John H. Elliot, “Philemon and House Churches,” Bible Today 22 (May 1984): 147.

[4] Significantly, it was not until the fourth century, when Christianity became an official religion under the emperor Constantine, that the tradition of building large, monumental basilicas began. They were buildings of a radically different type from any previous Christian house church. It may be that the new design was intended to facilitate an imperial-style processional of the bishop and clergy (suggested by James Riley Strange, “Christianity: The Fourth Century Basilica,” publication pending, in author’s possession).

[5] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “House Churches and the Eucharist,” Bible Today 22 (January 1984): 33.

[6] David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:90, s.v. “Agape Meal.”

[7] Virgilio Corbo, “The Church of the House of St. Peter at Capernaum,” in Ancient Churches Revealed, ed. Yoram Tsafir (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1993): 71.

[8] Eric M. Meyers and James F. Strange, Archaeology, The Rabbis, and Early Christianity (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1981): 130. The house’s late first-century renovation suggests that, contrary to Josephus’ claims, not all Christians fled to Pella in Transjordan incident to the first Jewish revolt—there were Christians in Galilee, too. “It is reasonable to expect that many [Christians] simply fled northward with their fellow Jews to sink new roots in the historical locus of a major part of Jesus’ ministry,” ibid., 32.

[9] John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), 126.

[10] Corbo, “The Church of the House,” 71.

[11] John Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels (London: SPCK, 1971), 194, as cited in Meyers and Strange, Archaeology, The Rabbis, and Early Christianity, 185n. In the fourth century, an insula was built around the house-church, the room was enlarged and re-plastered, and the roof was reinforced with an arch. This renovation is the church Egeria would have seen.

[12] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, May 1999,110: “The vision that occurred in the Sacred Grove was just as Joseph said it was. We are building a new temple overlooking this hallowed ground to further testify to the reality of this most sacred event.”

[13] See Carl H. Kraeling, The Christian Building (New Haven, Connecticut: Dura-Europos Publications, 1967).

[14] Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, Ga: Mercer University Press, 1985), 23–24. Kraeling, 182: The Good Shepherd was “a symbol which betokened the creation and existence of a personal relation between their Lord and themselves.”

[15] Justin Martyr, First Apology, 1.67, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translation of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 1950–57), 1:186.

[16] See Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, 4th ed., rev. and expanded (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 104–106; contra Bargil Pixner, “Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion,” Biblical Archaeology Review 16, no. 3 (May–June 1990): 16–35, 60.

[17] In Rome, the original structure at the Church of Saints Giovanni e Paulo was a single room, which served as the church edifice until near the end of the third century, when a larger structure was built; in Egypt, street lists indicate that some homes there were used as churches: Snyder, 166. Beneath the church of Saint Clement in Rome are the remains of a house believed by some to date to the first century, perhaps the house of Clement of Rome: Floyd V. Filson, “The Significance of the Early House Churches,” Journal of Biblical Literature 58 (1939): 107; but see the opposing opinion in Snyder, Ante Pacem, 76–77. See also Joan M. Peterson, “House-Churches in Rome,” Vigiliae Christianae 23 (1969): 264–72.

[18] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “House Churches and the Eucharist,” 36: “While such sub-groups would have tended to foster an intimate family-type atmosphere, they would also have tended to promote divisions within the wider city community. It seems likely that the various groups mentioned by Paul. . . would regularly have met separately. Such relative isolation would have meant that each group had a chance to develop its own theology, and virtually ensured that it took good root before being confronted by other opinions.”

[19] As suggested by Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 162.

[20] Snyder, Ante Pacem, 166: Christian art and archaeology before Constantine presents a “picture of the Christians as a democratic, close-knit group. People found in the new faith community a place of deliverance and peace.”

[21] Filson, Journal of Biblical Literature, 109–10. See also Carolyn Osiek and David L. Balch, Families in the New Testament World: Households and House Churches (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).

[22] An example is the well-known verse, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve; . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, 2n d ed. (Valley Forge, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 1990), 104–5: “Jesus thought of his disciples as a family (Mark 3:34f); the disciples were those who had converted and become as little children, members of Gods family as well as sharers in his kingdom (Matthew 18:3).”

[23] See Elliot, The Bible Today, 145–50.

[24] Robert Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community, rev. ed. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), 57. This is one example of how “Physical space and social structures reflect each other and interact with each other in complicated ways,” Osiek and Balch, 36. See also Leslie J . Hoppe, The Synagogues and Churches of Ancient Palestine, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1994), 60: “The early communities did not have the economic resources, the organizational structure, or even the need to develop a distinctive Christian architecture. They met where convenient. But. . . because of the nature of [their distinctive] gatherings, they were held in the homes of believers. The core of the service was a meal and, consequently, the place of meeting needed to be able to accommodate a number of people for ‘dinner.’”

[25] The Greek diakonia “ministration” can refer to serving food (Acts 6:1; compare Mark 1:31). Note also the Apostles’ reference to serving tables (see Acts 6:2). See Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:91.

[26] Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:90.

[27] Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:363. Note, however, that the tradition Paul received was that the Lord had broken the bread before the meal, and offered the wine after it (1 Corinthians 11:24–25). Further, the late first-century Didache suggests that “the Eucharist” preceded the meal, and that the wine was blessed before the loaf of bread (Didache 9–10). All this suggests, among other things, that the agape and the sacrament of the bread and wine were not clearly distinguished from each other at first: the terms “agape” and “eucharist” are used interchangeably into the second century. Pliny the Younger, however, writes at the start of the second century of two daily Christian gatherings for meals, one in the morning and a different, more ordinary one, in the evening. See Freedman, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:90–91.

[28] Paul J. Achtemeier, et al., ed., The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1985), 616.

[29] Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, 162. Also Louis F. Hartman, trans., Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 2080–81: “According to the way of thinking of the ancients, those who shared in the same food and drink were regarded as sharing in the same blood and the same principle of life, and thus bound to each other by a sacred bond.” See also Ralph Gower, The New Manners and Customs of the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 241–45; Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1966).

[30] Matthew 14:14–21; 15:32–38; 26:20–35; Mark 1:30–31; 6:34–44; 8:1–9; 14:17–26; Luke 6:3–4, 7:36–50, 8:1–3; 10:38–42; 11:37–54; 14:1–6; 15:1–2; 19:2–10; 22:14–38; 24:30–31; 41–43; John 4:6–26; 12:1–9; 13–17; 21:9–13.

[31] The reunion banquet image is also found in this gem, which the Joseph Smith Translation adds to Matthew 7:9: “What man among you, having a son, and he shall be standing out, and shall say, Father, open thy house that I may come in and sup with thee, will not say, Come in, my son; for mine is thine, and thine is mine?” (JST Matthew 7:17).

[32] Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, 167: “Table-fellowship with tax collector and sinner was Jesus’ way of proclaiming God’s salvation and assurance of forgiveness.” Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 2n d rev. ed., (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1954), 227: “These feasts for publicans are prophetic signs, more significant than words, silent proclamations that the Messianic Age is here, the Age of forgiveness.” Given this cultural understanding, it must have been immensely comforting and reassuring to the disciples when the risen Lord appeared to them and ate with them (Luke 24:13–43; John 21:9–13; Acts 10:41). Though they had fled and faltered the night Jesus was arrested, their fellowship had been renewed. Eating together said to the apostles, as the Lord would later say to another apostle who had faltered: “Thou art still chosen, and art again called to the work” (D&C 3:10).

[33] LDS Bible Dictionary, 755, s.v. “Publicans.”

[34] W. Lee Humphreys, Crisis and Story: Introduction to the Old Testament, 2n d ed. (Mountain View, Calif.: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1990), 247: “In the Near East of antiquity, little social or business intercourse was conducted without recourse to the dining table. Contracts were concluded, marriages formed, land exchanged, friendships made and sustained over meals because partaking of another’s fare was a sign of respect and trust.”

[35] Humphreys, Crisis and Story, 200.

[36] Humphreys, Crisis and Story, 200. See also Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 46: “In both the Old Testament and the prayer-book ‘remembrance’ becomes a technical term through which expression is given to the process by which practising Jews recall and recuperate in their present life the major formative events in the history of their community. . . . To remember is to make the past actual, to form a solidarity with the fathers. . . . Seder annually reminds practising Jews of the most formative moment in the life of their community, the moment in which that community was redeemed from bondage and made into a free people.” See also Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:363.

[37] For an overview of participationist language in Paul’s writings, see Ehrman, The New Testament, 304–307.

[38] See also Murphy-O’Connor, “House Churches and the Eucharist,” 36–38, which argues that the seating arrangement may have contributed to this disparity by segregating the congregation along socioeconomic lines.

[39] This symbolism is also seen in the Eucharistic prayer over the bread, preserved in the late first-century Didache: “As this piece [of bread] was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom” (Didache 9:4, cf. 10:5).

[40] Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:363.

[41] Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1:90.

[42] Freedman, 1:90–91. Pliny the Younger also played a role in putting a stop to the agape feasts by enforcing an edict against unauthorized associations. In the first decade of the second century, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote to other Christian congregations, encouraging them not to participate in Eucharists, baptisms, or “love feasts” which were not under their bishop’s direction—implying that some were doing so: Epistle to the Smyrneans, 8:1–2; cf. his Epistle to the Ephesians, 13:1, and 14:2, where he expresses concern about those who “profess to be Christ’s” by “a momentary act of professing,” but who are not “persistently motivated by faith.” The Council of Laodicea in A.D. 364 produced the following rulings: “Canon 28: It is not permitted to hold love feasts, as they are called, in the Lord’s Houses, or Churches, nor to eat and to spread couches in the house of God. . . . Canon 58: Bishops and presbyters may no longer celebrate the offering [the bread and wine] in houses.”

[43] Quoted in “Elder Hales Counsels Single Adults,” Church News, 18 November 1995, 4.

[44] Jeffrey R. Holland, in Conference Report, October 1995, 91.

[45] Holland, in Conference Report, 88–89; italics in the original. Elder Holland’s quotation about “the most sacred, the most holy, of all the meetings . . .” is from Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 2:340.

[46] See 1 Corinthians 10:21. Also David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals (Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953), 72: “The address, ‘O God, the Eternal Father,’ is an acknowledgment on the part of the congregation that the Lord is present; at least that his Spirit is in possible communication with the spirit of each one who sincerely seeks him.”