The expression "break bread" does not have much meaning and application to the average American. In fact, "breaking bread" would be viewed as idiomatic and awkward by most today. However, in Bible days and lands, the expression was very relevant and meaningful. "Break bread" is also seen in connection with many Bible verses and teaching. First, we need to appreciate the importance of bread in Bible days.
"Bread the principal food. In the Orient it has been estimated that three-fourths of the people live entirely upon either bread or upon that which is made from wheat or barley flour. It is unquestionably the principal food of the East" (James Freeman, Handbook of Bible Manners and Customs, p. 50).
Regarding bread, you recall that the devil challenged Jesus to turn the stones into bread during Jesusí temptation (Matt. 4: 3). Jesus teaches his followers to pray for their "daily bread" and showed the commonness of bread as a staple when he mentioned that a father would not provide his son a stone, but "bread" (Matt. 6: 11; Matt. 7: 9). Bread kept well and therefore was perfect to take on a journey and the giving of thanks was offered before taking of bread (Matt. 16: 5; Acts 27: 35). Bread became the center of controversy when the Pharisees bound their tradition on the disciples of Jesus, due to their eating with "unwashed hands" (Matt. 15: 2). In view of bread being the staff of life, it was very fitting that Jesus is said to be the "Bread from heaven" (John 6: 32, 35, cp. I Cor. 10: 17). He is also said to be the "Bread of life" and Living Bread" (John 6: 33, 51).
The "breaking of bread" among Orientals carried with it special importance. To "break bread" was associated with sustenance, God's blessings, and sharing in these blessings. One wrote:
"Since there is this attitude of sacredness in relation to 'staff of life,' there grows out of it the universal Eastern custom of 'breaking' bread and not cutting it.. To cut bread would be thought of as cutting life itself. This custom of breaking bread rather than cutting it, is found throughout the scriptures. In Lamentations 4: 4 we read: 'The young children ask bread, and no man breaketh it unto them.' Thus the expression 'breaking of bread' came to mean the taking of a meal whatever was included in the meal. Because Christ broke bread when he instituted the ordinance of the Lord's Supper, the expression came to refer to that ordinance. Matthew 26: 26: 'Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave to his disciples.' Thus we read in Acts 20: 7: 'And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached to them'" (Manners and Customs of Bible Lands, p. 45, by Fred Wight).
"Breaking bread" was something commonly done by the early Christians. Breaking of bread is used in two different milieus and contexts. First, there is the breaking of bread used in connection with the Lordís Supper, a memorial to remember Jesusí death and to declare his coming again (Matt. 26: 26-29, I Cor. 11: 23-34). The breaking of bread in the sense of the Lordís Supper was a regular and constant act of public worship performed on the "first day of the week" in which the early church engaged (Acts 2: 42, see addendum 1). The Christians met on the Lordís Day "Öto break bread" (Acts 20: 7). It is obvious that "break bread" here is not a common meal because this is the express reason for them coming together on the First Day of the week, the day of public worship in the New Testament (cp. I Cor. 16: 1ff., cp. Acts 2: 46). The expression "breaking of bread" is also used to describe what the Christians did "from house to house" (Greek, kar oikon, Acts 2: 46).
As seen, "break bread" is highly significant in terms of the worship of the early church. In view of the language of Acts 20: 7, it is apparent that the breaking of bread was and is the very core of the Lordís Day assembly. This memorial celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus, the very foundation of the belief of the Christian (I Cor. 11: 23-34). Jesus said when he instituted this memorial:
"And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body" (Matt. 26: 26, cp. I Cor. 11; 24).
"Breaking of bread" used for "social meals" in which the early Christians partook. Regarding these meals, there is no small amount of confusion and attendant extremes. The two extremes range from, "Let us build fellowship halls and attract people to us by offering meals (food and drink);" to, "It is a sin for Christians to get together in their houses to enjoy a meal."
It is evident that not only were the early Christians constant in their public worship and assemblies, they also made opportunities to be with one another. Some of this was, no doubt, due to their onset zeal and enthusiasm. We read:
"And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart" (Acts 2: 46).
The "breaking of bread" (Gk., klontes arton) in Acts 2: 46 is clearly referring to a meal. I say this because it is distinguished from them being in the temple and it was done "daily." Also, notice the expression, "Ödid eat their meatÖ," such language would not be appropriate for the Lordís Supper. In Acts 20: 11, "broken bread" (Gk., klasas ton arton) appears to be a meal in view of the general language and description and also due to the fact the meal of verse eleven appears to have been on the second day of the week or our Monday (see vs. 7-11). It is, though, worthy of note that in both texts, Acts 2 and Acts 20, we see "break bread" used to reference both the spiritual meal, the Lordís Supper and a common meal (Acts 2: 42, 20: 7; 2: 46, 20: 11). Notwithstanding, the two are distinguished and observed as separate (see Addendum 2).
While the expression "break bread" as such is not used, it would appear that the early Christians engaged in another type of meal, a meal designed to be benevolent. These meals seem to be what Peter and Jude referred to as "feast with you" and "feasts of charity," respectively (2 Pet. 2: 13; Jude 12). We know very little about these meals. We do know that the church (treasury) did not provide them and only abuse is associated with them (Ibid., cp. I Cor. 11: 21, 22). It does appear that the members at Corinth were attempting to engage in such a meal (they had corrupted the occasion of the Lordís Supper) and even botched this effort and turned it into a circumstance of gluttony instead of assisting those who had little (I Cor. 11: 21-34, Addendum 3).
We should also point out that while the concept of "fellowship" is definitely observed relative to the "breaking of bread" as it pertained to the Lordís Supper, "fellowship" is never applied to the common meals (I Cor. 10: 21). It is sad to see the emphasis that many churches, even some churches of Christ, have placed on their common meals. I have had preachers tell me when I asked them what they considered to be their most important effort to reach the lost and edify the saved , "Brother Martin, our fellowship meals are the most important aspect of the work of our local church." When I would tell them that we do read of the importance of and the associated fellowship regarding the Lordís Supper, they would explain, "I am not talking about that, but the common meal we have in the church building, in which all are invited."
Two foreign (not in the scriptures) practices have evolved: The building and maintaining of "fellowship halls" (monies used from church treasuries) and common meals they call "fellowship meals." The "fellowship halls" have now evolved to include just about every imaginable activity from movie theaters showing secular movies to elaborate game rooms for fun and frolic, all in the church budget. Some being attracted by means of the physical and the comparatively tawdry, however, is not new.
"Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed" (John 6: 26, 27).
Many have secularized "fellowship" today and turned the common meal so carefully distinguished in scripture from the public worship and spiritual fellowship of the early Christians into not only part of their spiritual worship, but the main feature (see Addendum 4).
In terms of the "breaking of bread" involved in the Lordís Supper, such is a great privilege to be able to come together on the Lordís Day and gather around the Lordís table in remembrance of Jesus (Acts 20: 7). In a different application and circumstance, Christians need to get together, "break bread" and enjoy one anotherís company, "from house to house" (Acts 2: 46).
Addendum 1: Notice that in Acts 2: 42, "breaking of bread" (Greek, klasei tou arpou) is used along with "apostlesí teaching," "fellowship," and "prayers." These are all acts of worship and, as used here, public worship. The Christians met on the First Day of the week to break this bread (Acts 20: 7). Pertaining to Acts 20: 7, Paul deliberately stayed in Troas for seven days despite being in a rush to get to Jerusalem before Pentecost (which was about 1,000 miles distant, see Acts 20: 6, 13-16). Why would Paul remain in Troas for seven days just to have a common meal with them and why would such a meal have to be eaten on the first day of the week? Such delay is indicative of the observance of the "breaking of bread," the Lordís Supper, on the Lordís Day.
Addendum 2: Radical Restoration has as one of its main tenets the doctrine that a common meal and the Lordís Supper are blended and merged and at some time, a time incapable of distinguishing, the common meal becomes the Lordís Supper. See "Radical Restoration" to study more about this movement.
Addendum 3: As mentioned, we know very little of these "feasts of charity." It would appear, however, that in view of all the problems and abuse associated with them that they simply ceased to be a practice of the individual Christians.
Addendum 4: "Fellowship" was one of the four descriptive terms Luke used to describe the activities of the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 2: 42). Notice that fellowship was constant ("they continued steadfastlyÖ"). I submit that while the early Christians were socially close and often physically together, "fellowship" is never used in the New Testament to denote coffee and donuts, as such.
Fellowship in New Testament concept and terminology, when used in a spiritual climate, is communion or sharing in spiritual matters. For instance, there is fellowship in the gospel (Phili. 1: 5), fellowshipping needy saints (2 Cor. 8: 4), fellowshipping God (I John 1: 3), and fellowshipping Christians (Gal. 2: 9, I John 1: 3, 7).
Fellowship is partnership and approval in spiritual matters. Notice that koinonos (fellowship) is secularly used in Luke 5: 10. Peter, James, and John were partners (koinonos) in a commercial fishing business. They enjoyed joint participation in that undertaking (appreciate the fact that here koinonos is secularly used, but there is no admixture or injection of the spiritual). Hence, when fellowship is used in a spiritual setting, mutual efforts and commonality is obviously meant (Gal. 2: 9). Fellowship between Christians, then, implies approval and endorsement (Phili. 4: 15). The converse of 2 John 10, 11 is assistance ("receive him into your house") and approval ("bid him God speed"). Assistance and approval are the components, if you will, of fellowship.