In Search of the New Testament Church Potluck

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Pot-luck, Pot-bless or Pot-providence?

This morning, I stumbled upon a Facebook post about a church’s “pot-bless.” Now, I’m familiar with “pot-providence,” but this was the first time I’ve heard of a “pot-bless.” So why do evangelicals think that “potluck” should not be a Christian word? I didn’t find any useful articles on the origin of potluck by googling, except the definitions below and a short, unreferenced article from a website called “Straight Dope” (hard to trust info from a website with that name).

Our Christmas 2012 Potluck

Nevertheless, the Online Etymology Dictionary website says this about the origin of the word:

potluck (n.) 1590s, from pot (n.1) + luck; with notion of “one’s luck or chance as to what may be in the pot.” 1

This word must be what Wikipedia says “appears in 16th century England, in the work of Thomas Nashe, and was there used to mean ‘food provided for an unexpected or uninvited guest, the luck of the pot.'”

Dictionary.com has three definitions:

1. food or a meal that happens to be available without special preparation or purchase.
2. a meal, especially for a large group, to which participants bring various foods to be shared.
3. whatever is available or comes one’s way. 2

The modern idea of everyone bringing dishes to share in a “potluck” would seem to be a natural extension of the old “potlatch.” A potlatch used to be a big celebration by Native Americans of the northwest, in which the host would give all his possessions away. But Straight Dope disagrees with the potlatch association:

It may be natural, but it’s wrong. The term potluck comes from the traditional practice (not that it’s entirely unknown among us moderns) of never throwing anything away. Meal leftovers would be put into a pot and kept warm, and could be used to feed people on short notice. This practice was especially prevalent in taverns and inns in medieval times, so that when you showed up for a meal, you took the “luck of the pot.”

So the notion of pot-luck as related to the unbiblical notion of luck as against God’s providence is merely a modern extension of the original idea of sharing meals with one another.

Is there a New Testament notion of a church potluck?
For once, Baptists who humor themselves in saying that they have three sacraments—Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and Potluck—will commend me here. There is a New Testament potluck, beginning in Acts 2:44-46:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.

Fresco of a banquet at a tomb in the Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome (click to enlarge)

Later, Greek widows complained to the apostles that they were being neglected in the “daily distribution” of goods (Acts 6:1). Food distribution was probably included in the dispute in view of the apostles’ decision not to neglect preaching because they were busy “serving tables” (Acts 6:2).

It is obvious that in the early days of the church, Christians shared everything among themselves, including food. “Breaking of bread” started with real meals,

“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?” (1 Cor 11:20-22).

H. J. DeJonge, in his “The Early History of the Lord’s Supper,” writes about the New Testament full meal:

The participants brought their own food. In principle, the idea was that the poorer members of the community, the “have-nots” (11:22), could consume the food which the more well-to-do brought with them but did not consume. This created the koinonia of the community and gave the meal the function of a charity meal. This is why it was also called agape (Jude 1:12 … ).

So the Lord’s Supper was a full meal or agape (“love feast”) even after the apostolic age. Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, ca. 111-3 AD, wrote that Christians were “accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn,” but “when this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food.” Justin Martyr (110-165 AD) also wrote in his First Apology that there was a meal after the worship service, “a distribution [of food] to each … and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.”

This full meal continued until the third century when the agape and the formal Lord’s Supper of only tokens of bread and wine, as we know it today, became separate institutions. Again, H. J. DeJonge says:

In the middle of the third Century, Cyprian makes some observations on the difference between the two Sunday meals of the Christian community, that is, the eucharist celebrated early in the morning (mane) and the agape (cena, convivium nostrum) held in the evening. The difference is that at the eucharist, the community as a whole (plebs, omnis friternitas) is present, whereas for logistic reasons the supper is only attended by part of the community, obviously by the poorer members of the community. Because of this Cyprian can say: “‘The true sacrament’ is the one we celebrate in the presence of the entire congregation.” …

At the same time Cyprian makes it clear that the differentiation in status between eucharist and agape was occasioned by the growth of the congregation: “When we have supper, we cannot invite the whole congregation.” In some places, the agape continued to be held until the Seventh Century.

So who’s afraid of “potluck”? Christians shouldn’t be, because whatever happens to be in my pot, be it a 16-oz. ribeye, leftover pizza, or crumbs, it is our Providence who always gives good gifts to both body and soul.

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Notes:

  1. potluck. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved April 22, 2013, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/potluck
  2. potluck. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/potluck (accessed: April 22, 2013).

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