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January 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 1 · pp. 21–25 

The Early Church's Purposes for Assembling

Charles Pankratz

As the church today seeks to form and direct her assemblies an important source of guidance is the example and practice of the early church. The church today, however, cannot expect to follow literally all the practices and forms of the assemblies of the first century church. This is because forms and practices are culturally bound and there are large differences between the cultures of the early church and today’s church.

The early church’s example, however, is more transferable on the level of purpose. The early church assembled to meet some general needs and to fulfill certain purposes. These purposes can still be valid today since they go beyond cultural forms and relate to needs in church life.

Some have assumed that the primary purpose of the early church’s assemblies was worship. This assumption is part of what lies behind the fact that the titles of some of the foremost studies on early Christian assembly include the word “worship”: Early Christian Worship by Oscar Cullmann, Worship in the New Testament by Gerhard Delling, Worship in the Early Church by Ralph P. Martin, and Worship in the New Testament by C. F. D. Moule. 1 However, as we will see, the early church had a broader range of important purposes for assembly than worship alone.

One of the most important assemblies of the early church was the Lord’s Supper meal. The designation “Lord’s Supper” is used only once in the New Testament (1 Cor. 11:20). In this passage it refers to the entire meal celebrated in common by the believers.

The common meal that Paul mentions here dates back to the common meals of Jesus and his disciples during the years of his ministry. Although not many of these meals are mentioned, there can be little doubt of their occurrence, since the common life of Jesus and the disciples would have demanded them. One of the mealtime practices in {22} ordinary and special meals during Jesus’ time was that the head of the house gave thanks, broke the bread, and distributed it. 2 Jesus would have presided at the meals with his disciples and broken the bread for them. 3

The Last Supper was also a common meal. In keeping with the usual custom, Jesus prayed before the breaking of the bread. As was the practice at Passover meals (and other meals if wine was present), Jesus also prayed before the drinking of the wine. 4

The significant addition Jesus made is the instruction that the bread and the wine be given special meaning with reference to himself. It was Jesus’ intention that whenever the common meal was observed among his followers they should think of him in a special way when they came to the bread and to the wine.

After Jesus’ death “breaking of bread” continued to refer to a common meal in the tradition of Jesus’ meals with his disciples. 5 The mention of food and generosity in the reference to the breaking of bread in Acts 2:46 indicates that the breaking of bread in the early church was a common meal. The bread (and the wine, if present) of the meal had a special meaning because of Jesus’ instructions at the “Last Supper.” The reminders of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine were an important part of the celebration of this meal (1 Cor. 11).

For what purpose did the early church meet together for the common meal? The common meal in the Orient symbolized unity, for such a meal was “a guarantee of peace, of trust, of brotherhood.” 6 For the early church the Lord’s Supper meal was practiced to strengthen and celebrate the unity of believers. For example, in Acts 2:43-47 the common meal is mentioned in the context of the mutual sharing and togetherness of the early Christians.

As Guenther Bornkamm has demonstrated, the problem in the Corinthian church which 1 Corinthians 11 addressed is that the believers were practicing the Lord’s Supper in disunity. 7 The believers there had neglected brotherly concern and regard for each other as they celebrated this meal. 8 These divisive practices were a denial of the unity for which the meal stood. This is clear from Paul’s statement of the problem: “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each goes ahead with his own meal” (vv. 20-21). This was a serious problem precisely because it threatened the very purpose of the meal.

Furthermore, for Paul the Lord’s Supper meal was a celebration of unity because the bread and wine had special significance as representations of Christ’s body and blood. According to 1 Cor. 10:16-17, the believer participated in Christ’s body and blood when he took the bread and the cup of the meal. Because believers participated in common in {23} the “one bread” and in Christ’s body, they themselves were one. 9

Besides strengthening unity, the Lord’s Supper meal also served to strengthen the faith of the believers. The bread and the cup of the meal were reminders of God’s saving act in the death of Christ. 10 The faith of the believers was strengthened as they remembered again that Christ’s death was the basis for their present faith and for their present participation in God’s new order. 11

The church’s faith was also strengthened by the hope of Christ’s return represented by this meal. The believers remembered that Jesus had said he would not drink the cup again until he drank it with his followers in his Father’s kingdom (Matt. 26:29; Luke 22:18). The Lord’s Supper meal was an encouraging reminder of the hope of drinking the cup with Christ when he returned to establish God’s Kingdom in power. 12

The concern to strengthen the faith of the church is evident not only in the Lord’s Supper meal but in early Christian assemblies generally. 1 Corinthians 14, one of the New Testament’s longest passages concerning the assembly of believers, has as its theme the strengthening (literally the “building up” or oikodome) of the believers. In verse 26 Paul states that all things (in the assembly) are to be done pros oikodomen (for building up).

The activities of the assembly mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14 function to build up the faith and maturity of the believers. According to 1 Corinthians 14, the most important activity of the assembly is prophecy. 13 Recently several scholars have emphasized that the early church’s concept of prophecy includes teaching. 14 Thus it is easy to see how prophecy would be a building force in the church. Tongues, when they are interpreted, are another building aspect of the assembly. As the whole assembly corporately accepts for itself what is said in tongues and interpreted, the church builds up its Christian faith and trust in God through petitions, praise, and thanksgiving to God. The other activities and spiritual gifts mentioned here such as knowledge (gnosis), teaching (didache), song (psalmon), and revelation (apokalupsis), all contribute to the building up of the assembled community. 15

Acts gives evidence that strengthening the faith and life of the church was done in a variety of ways. According to Acts 2:42 the believers met to hear instruction, to join in fellowship, to “break bread,” and to pray. Breaking of bread is also mentioned again in Acts 2:46 and 20:7. Instruction is mentioned again in Acts 11:25-26; 15:32; and 20:7-12.

According to the book of Acts, another purpose for meeting was to work with an issue or to respond to some event or situation that presented itself to the church. This is the most frequently mentioned {24} type of meeting in Acts. For example, the believers assembled to pray for boldness after the arrest and release of Peter and John (Acts 4:23-31). This was in response to the dangerous situation facing the church as she pursued her mission. In Jerusalem the believers dealt with the imprisonment of one of their leaders, Peter, by holding a meeting of prayer for him (Acts 12:5, 12-17). Part of the process of dealing with issues and events meant keeping informed through listening to reports. Two examples of assemblies of this kind are Paul and Barnabas’ report on their missionary journey (Acts 14:27) and Judas and Silas’ report in Antioch concerning the “council of Jerusalem” (Acts 15:30-32).

It is significant that in dealing with matters at hand the assembly of believers often met as a decision-making body. The “council of Jerusalem” (Acts 15:6-29), the choosing of Matthias (Acts 1:15-26), and the decision to select seven “table servers” (Acts 6:1-6) are examples of decision-making meetings. The frequency with which the early church acted as a decision-making body suggests that it saw itself in part as a political body. In the New Testament the believing community is designated as the ecclesia (a word used in the Greek world for political assemblies) and Jesus seems to imply that decision-making (binding and loosing) is foundational to the nature of the church (Matthew 16 and 18).

Acts gives us a picture of a church in vital contact with the world around it and with its historical situation. The fact that the believers assembled specifically to deal with issues and situations facing the church was important to the early church’s ability to pursue its mission with vitality and effectiveness. In these assemblies one gets a sense of the kingdom of God in active confrontation with the world and the powers of evil.

In summary, there are three major purposes for assembly in the early church that have been highlighted here: to strengthen unity, to build up Christian faith and life, and to deal with issues and situations at hand. As the early church met for these purposes, their variety provided a rich balance which gave the church growth and strength. These purposes are relevant to the church today. The example of the early church can be an important contribution to us as we try to guide the assemblies of our churches. {25}


  1. Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship, trans. A. Stewart Todd and James B. Torrance (London: SCM Press, 1953); Gerhard Delling, Worship in the New Testament, trans. Percy Scott (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962); Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Westwood, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1964); C. F. D. Moule, Worship in the New Testament (Richmond, VA.: John Knox Press, 1961).
  2. Johannes Behm, “klao,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 3:728-29.
  3. Alexander Macdonald, Christian Worship in the Primitive Church (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1934), pp. 136-37.
  4. F. F. Bruce, First and Second Corinthians, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), p. 94.
  5. Behm, 3:730.
  6. Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, trans. Norman Perrin (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), p. 25.
  7. Guenther Bornkamm, Early Christian Experience, trans. Paul L. Hammer (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p. 129.
  8. Ibid., p. 126.
  9. Bruce, p. 95.
  10. Bornkamm, p. 141.
  11. Behm, 3:739.
  12. Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958), pp. 162-63.
  13. William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, 1 Corinthians, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1976), pp. 306-7.
  14. J. Reiling, “Prophecy, the Spirit, and the Church,” in Prophetic Vocation in the New Testament and Today, ed. J. Panagopoulos (leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977), p. 69; in the same book see D. Hill, “Christian Prophets as Teachers or Instructors in the Church,” p. 119: E. Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1978), p. 138.
  15. 1 Cor. 14:6, 26.
Charles Pankratz, whose thesis subject at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, was on worship, is in ministry with Mennonite Central Committee in Cairo, Egypt.

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