A New/Old Model for the Church

(This is the first of what will be four parts to the model.)

1.  What do you mean by a “new/old model”?

It is a new model because you are unlikely to walk into any church this next Sunday and find the model being used. There are some congregations following part of the model, but none I know of using both aspects of it fully. Endnote (1)

It is an old model in that it is probably the earliest model used by the early Church.

2.   Where does this model come from?

Two recent different studies of the New Testament, which, if put together, can point us toward a new model for being the church. The first study comes from work done by a sub group in the academy for Biblical scholars, the Society of Biblical Literature, who looked at what they called “The Greco-Roman Meal”. (2) The results of this study gives us insights into the form of how the earliest church gathered and what its internal dynamic, their worship and education, looked like.

The second is work done by a number of scholars independently who focussed their studies around the effect on the Early Church of living in the shadow of the Roman Empire. (3) The results of this New Testament study points us toward the nature of the mission of the church.

Put together, the insights of these two studies can give us some clear clues for a new church model: What is the nature of the gathering of the Christian community? What are its internal dynamics as to its study life and its worship life? What is its external dynamic as to the mission of the Church as it tries to live out a Kingdom ethic in an Empire world? What clues might this give us in how we are to share the Good News? (4)

3.   What does the FIRST NEW TESTAMENT STUDY, of Greco-Roman Meals, provide us in this new/old model?

The second oldest of Paul’s letters is the one sent to the young congregation in Corinth. Several times in Chapter 11 (17-34) Paul makes references to what they do when they ‘meet together’. Unfortunately he leaves few clues for us as to what they actually did. He directs his teaching toward correcting how they are doing things wrong. He concludes, “Therefore, my friends, when you meet for this meal…” So our first clue is that the early church, the ecclesia, did what they did when they first gathered in the midst of a meal.

And if we go back to the Gospels, toward the end of Jesus’ teaching, he gathered his disciples together in what we call “the Last Supper”, again a meal.  In the midst of this meal Jesus tells them that they are to do ‘this’ to remember him. We need to ask, “What is the “this” Jesus refers to?” It seems clear the context was a full meal. Today the church has stripped down this full meal to a bit of bread and taste of wine or grapejuice to replace the meal. (5)

Both the Last Supper and the Corinthian gathering included more than just a meal. And it is this totality which is being presented as the new/old model for being the church when it gathers.

4.   Who was it who studied the Greco Roman meals?

It was a study made by members of the Society for Biblical Literature. The SBL is the guild which includes over 6000 persons internationally who teach Old and New Testament in institutions of higher learning.

The study began when two of these professors, one in the U S and one in Germany, found they had come to the same conclusions in the research they had been working on.They referred to as “Greco-Roman Meals”. Upon finding this coincidence, the SBL established a seminar to explore the meaning of these meals. In the midst of their research, they discovered, interestingly, that the academy scholars in the Classics field had been studying these same meals.

5.   What is this “Greco-Roman meal” and what was its role in the Roman Empire?

Every group and association in Roman society had their meetings around such a meal. The Romans had taken over this banquet format from the preceeding Greek culture.  The banquet, or symposium as it was often called, lasted in its basic form for almost 800 years. Mull over for a moment that there was a cultural pattern lasting that long. Can you think of many or any social patterns in our day that began 800 years ago and  still continue across the populace?

There is a body of literature from those eight centuries during which the meal was a key part of first Greek and then Roman culture. It has been given the expression “symposium narratives”. Much of the narratives focussed on the content, the philosophical dialogues, the libations of loyalty to the emperor, the festive drinking… But Biblical scholars were more interested in the larger context, which began with a festive meal before going into the latter part, the symposium.

The banquet symposium began in the early Greek culture by being used among the elite. Probably some of us vaguely recall reading Plato’s “Symposium.” The purpose for reading it, however, was not to make us aware of the meal they were having. It was instead to digest the philosophy of the dialogue they were having in the setting of the meal and what followed the meal. It was this social construct of a meal followed by various elements, only one of which might be a philosophical dialogue, that was in place by the time of the early church.

One difference was that this format, which had begun with the elite of early Greek society, moved by stages to include all strata of society by the Roman time. Though the major focus of the Greek and Roman writers in the symposium narratives had been on what had been said, there was enough data accumulated about the meal and the total context to to fill a book- Which is what our contemporary academics did.

6.   What was the pattern of this ‘banquet’ that the Early Church used like other associations around them?

The pattern was two-fold with a transition between the two parts. (6) The total program lasted two to four hours. The frequency of the gathering was monthly or even weekly.

A)   Meal: This is what we would call a banquet, consisting of a full course dinner eaten in the fashion of the time, reclining on couches. Replicating the reclining for today’s church gathering is not necessary. What it represents is that the meals were not seen as ‘fast-food’ meals. They were to be done in what contemporary Buddhists would call ‘a mindful fashion.’ During the time of the Empire, for instance, the celebration of the Passover changed from the model of a meal-on-the-run, as it was originally, to a more leisurely, reflective feast.

Transition: The Libation. The foods and plates were removed and a large container of wine was brought in. The presider of the meal poured wine into a cup. The libation consisted of prayers and oaths offered to the gods and to the emperor. The presider would take a sip from the cup while adding his prayers and oath of loyalty. The cup would be passed to the next person who would do the same, and so on around the circle of attenders.

B)   Symposium: The content of the symposium section varied. If it were like the one from Plato’s book, “The Symposium”, this part of the evening would be a philosophical dialogue or discussion. In some cases there would be entertainment, singing, poetry. Or it could include clowns, lots of drinking and (cough) sex. There was no fixed content. It might even be like an evening in an Irish pub with drinking, singing, talking. It might focus on life issues and philosophy, as in Plato’s case.

On the whole the symposium banquet had enough serious content to have it persist over two empires for eight centuries.

7.   Why was it necessary to modify it?

The banquet-meal was used by the Roman Empire as a means of control and inculcating loyalty to the empire. More specifically, it sought to affirm loyalty to the Emperor as the embodiment both of political power and divine power. The empire grew to include hundreds of different peoples of varied cultures. The many different associations in which these meals took place were a primary place where those diverse ethnic cultural groups could continue to maintain customs thought to be safe in the eyes of the empire, and it was in this setting that ‘Roman citizenship’ would be learned.

8.  Why, if it needed to be modified, did they use the meal assembly common in the Empire?

The banquet or symposium was used universally, so some early leaders must have decided it provided a context which the early followers of Jesus could profitably use. They were not the first community to see its possibilities. The diverse ethnoi (nations who had been subjected) made use of it for their own identity purposes as well as having to fulfill the loyalty requirements of the Empire.

Christianity developed out of its older sister, Judaism, who had adopted it for their purposes. In the Book of Acts, it says Paul usually went first to the synagogue when he came to a new town. What was ‘the synagogue’? It was not a large stone building that we associate with Jewish worship as we find today. It would very possibly reflect the banquet gatherings ubiquitous in the empire at that time. After all, the word ‘synagogue’ simply means ‘assembly’. As mentioned earlier, Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover, and the Passover was one of the types of gatherings of the Jews in the Empire.

So it would not have required the early Christians to use much brain power to see the possibility of the basic format of the Greco-Roman meal to use for their own assemblies, synagogues, ekklesia. If the Jews and other religious associations were able to modify it for their purposes, so could the Christians.

9.   How did they modify it?

Let’s look briefly at some modifications necessary for the three parts of the banquet.

The meal: First, as we find in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Galatians, they had to negotiate between dietary issues on two different sides. On one side was the question of the relation of early Christian meals to Jewish dietary laws. Were they binding on Christians?  The incident of Peter’s actions on his arrival at Antioch showed the dilemma. At first he ate with Gentiles, but when conservatives from the Jerusalem congregation arrived, he reverted to joining those eating kosher meals.

On the other hand was the need to negotiate the issue of whether Christians could eat foods which had been offered as sacrifices to the gods.

The Libation: Here the issue was Christ versus Caesar. As John Dominic Crossan has helpfully pointed out, terms that we today associate with Jesus had been used by the Empire to point to Caesar: Lord, Son of God, Savior, bringer of peace. (7) This was the watershed issue on loyalty: is the Libation, the ‘cup of salvation’ to be raised to Jesus or to Caesar? Is one’s loyalty and allegiance pledged to the Empire or to God’s Kingdom?

The symposium: What would be the content of the Jesus community’s assembly? One might easily assume that such matters as extensive drinking or sex would not be a serious question. But what would be the content of their singing, of songs and hymns? What readings would they share? What would be the topics of sympotic discussions? It is suggested that psalms would be included in the singing. It is thought that at least several passages in Paul’s letters were the words of hymns that were used. (Phil.2:6-11, Col. 1:15-20, 1 Tim 3:16) (8)

And a little remarked sentence from Corinthians indicated that, differing from modern structured and clergy led worship, that leadership in the earlist gatherings was more equal and diverse. “when you meet for worship, each of you contributing a hymn, some instruction, a revelation, an ecstatic utterance, or its interpretation, see that all of these aim to build up of the church.” (1Cor 14:26)

10 Were there other differences in the Christian gathering from the normal meal in the Empire?

Yes, there were. The empire meals were hierarchical in structure. (9) That is, one could tell how important a person was (or wasn’t) according to the meal that he (and it was usually a ‘he’) was invited.

A slave might be at a banquet that included members of the elite, but the slave’s presence was to serve and so enable the elite to have a pleasurable feast. The slave would certainly not attend as a guest. It was expected that the slave would attend a meal which was for other slaves with the head of the house providing a (more meager) spread for them. Women would rarely be present at the banquet for men. Instead, they would be part of a banquet for women of her rank.

It was on this question of inclusion in the banquet that Paul penned his instructions to the people in Galatia who assembled in the name and in the way of Jesus. “Baptised into union with him (Christ), you have all put on Christ like a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and free man, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3 27-28) The question of being inclusive or not was not an option for the followers of the One who labelled himself a servant (doulon, the same word meant slave).


(1) St Lydia’s in Brooklyn (http://www.stlydias.org/) appears to make use of a couple aspects of the old model. First, it self-identifies as a “Dinner Church”. Second, it uses an early post New Testament liturgy for its eucharist service at each meal. Here is an article about St Lydia’s:

(2) Key sources for understanding research into Greco Roman Meals are:
“From Symposium to Eucharist”, by Dennis E. Smith; and “Meals in the Early Christian World”, Hal Taussig and Dennis E Smith editors,

(3) The bibliography on my blog lists over 90 books on this topic:

Three books from the list are of primary importance. “In the Shadow of Empire”, Richard Horsley, editor; “Empire and the New Testament”, Stanley Porter and Cynthia Long Westfall, editors, and “Subversive Meals” by Alan Streett.

(4) For this structural model of the local church, I am indebted to the Ecumenical Institute of Chicago, a church renewal movement in the 1950s to 1970s.

(5) “A modern day communion service in which a symbolic piece of cracker and a thimble-sized portion of wine are distributed to the faithful had no counterpart in the first-century church.” Alan Streett in “Subversive Meals” Chapter 2.  Streett further footnotes a quote from Jewett, “Tenement Churches and Pauline Love Feasts,” Jewett writes, “The purely symbolic meal of modern Christianity, restricted to a bite of bread and a sip of wine or juice, is tacitly presupposed for the early church, an assumption so preposterous that it is never articulated or acknowledged.”

(6) See ‘The Order of the Meal’ in chapter 2 of Dennis E. Smith. “From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World” (Kindle Location 394). Kindle Edition.

(7) See Borg and Crossan “The First Paul”, Chapter 4 ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’  Also Crossan “God and Empire”

(8) Streett, “Subversive Meals” pages 223-234

(9) According to a just published book (“Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, Packard and Hope June 2015) people are tired of the present model of monologue sermons. First, there were the Nones; here there are the Dones, people who are tired of a format where, with preachers and sermons, they are just talked to. They’re Done with preaching but not with faith. Perhaps it’s time to experiment with a new form of communicating which is also very old. See also Thom Schultz’s blog on this: http://holysoup.com/2015/06/09/done-with-sit-down-and-shut-up/

(10)  “The banquets mirrored a hierarchical order of society and segregated people along the status and gender lines. They were meant to gain the love of the people, but also to strengthen social bonds and to reinforce ones rank.”
From review by Marcin Kowalski of “Decisive Meals. Table Politics in Biblical Literature” Ehrensperger, MacDonald, Sutter Rehmann (eds.), 2012

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