After Church: Forsaking the Assembly?

19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

It’s always interesting to see traditional Biblical prooftexts in their original contexts.

Lately, I’ve been hearing a LOT about Hebrew 10:25 – the only part you’ll ever hear or see is “forsaking the assembly”. For most, this is taken as an admonition for those who miss a church worship service on a Sunday morning. To guilt them into going to church, I suppose, has remained an effective tool for generations. It comes from Scripture, right?

Well…not so much. Thinking about the historical context from which Hebrew was written, the first century of AD/CE, you have to imagine an entirely different problem. One, Christianity was not legal; two, there were definite disincentives to not meet in large groups as Christians. Like, I don’t know, being executed or tortured horribly, more the former than the latter. By any rational definition, no Christians should meet in a big ol’ gathering so they can all equally become victims of slaughter or worse.

The author of Hebrews (usually thought to be Paul, although that’s highly debatable) says otherwise. We have confidence, because of Jesus Christ the High Priest, in the promise of redemption on the blood. We don’t have to worry about earthly powers and principalities, for whether in this life or the life to come we will worship God for ever and ever not only due to our salvation, but His inherenet goodness, justice, and righteousness. Thus, by our common meeting together, we show this confidence in the Almighty even in the face of death for we have already died to the world.

Assemblies, then, are a stance against the social mores of the Roman Empire. That makes perfect sense in their time…less so, then, when it comes to a pastor admonishing his congregation for their relative apathy. I’ll make it clear right now: Sunday worship service isn’t, nor has it ever been, the focus of what we call “Church”. Church refers to the entirety of all Christians, not just the four walls on Sunday. When we say “assemblies”, isn’t doesn’t always need to occur in some ritualized, scheduled, and magically “special” form. It can happen meeting with Christians friends, it can happen during communion, and it can happen just about anywhere. It’s not like the audience of Hebrews could build churches; do you think that God would make such an arbitrary restriction such as “Church = worship service in a white building with a steeple”? I doubt it.

Jesus certainly didn’t care much for the four walls. How many recorded instances do we have of him teaching in synagogues? A few, at best. One times, he’s running around like a maniacs smashing tables. Rather, his “assemblies”, as you might call them, predominantly happened outdoors. Outside. Where anyone could happen to wander by, hear the words of this itinerant preacher, and then suddenly think “this guy has something about him that I can’t just walk past”. Notice that there’s no magical ritual place that these stories take place. They’re normal people doing normal things; they just happen to have the Son of God walking among them.

So, does encouragement only happen in Church? Can we only recognize the greatness of God in a specific form of community? I’d think not. Here’s an interesting passage from Matthew 18:

15“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16“But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERYFACT MAY BE CONFIRMED17“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

19“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.”

Interesting that they meet him in private rather than out in the open. We only need two or three? Couldn’t that work in just about every social setting ever?

When you begin to localize where God can work, where Christians can meet, etc., you are binding what is in heaven to what is on earth. You conflate and confuse the issues. You restrict the power of God, which is demonstrated SO thoroughly in Scripture that it feels insane to reduce Hebrew 10:25 to a mere discussion about “not going to Church.” That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t go – of course you should! But I hate that we even have to talk this way about fellow Christians. You should WANT to go, not because it’s fun or exciting or anything like that, but because Jesus is Lord and you willingly go. This stuff frustrates me to no end; it’s cultural assumptions wrapped inside the Christian message (“people are bored because we aren’t entertaining, so guilt works better”), and that’s never a good mix.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.