And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembly, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Did you catch that? If not, perhaps you haven't read the above passage lately or maybe you just glossed over it. Go back and read it again. If you are still wondering what the problem is, then you are probably a member of a Church of Christ. You see, I deliberately misquoted the passage so that it reads consistently with the way we teach it in the Churches of Christ. In the Bible, it doesn't read this way nor does it teach what we say it does. Here is the passage as it is written in the Bible, "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching."
While the phrases "not forsaking the assembly" and "not forsaking the assembling of our ourselves together" sound similar on the surface, they teach two very different things. An assembly is a gathering of people but assembling is something people do. Yes, it is true that when people assemble an assembly is the result. There is a difference between the two words and failing to notice the distinction may result in us missing the real point of this passage.
Church of Christ tradition vs. the Bible
Tradition says that it is a sin to miss any service of the local church except for sickness or circumstances beyond our control. What is meant by this is all Christians in a given area must be present at an "official" assembly at a time and place decided upon by the local elders or risk the wrath of God. However, there is nothing in this passage (nor the rest of the New Testament) which teaches this. Perhaps it would help to see how the passage is rendered in other translations.
- Let us not give up meeting together (NIV)
- not neglecting to meet together (ESV)
- never forsaking the gathering of ourselves together (CB)
The passage teaches that Christians are to meet together. The passage does not command all Christians in a particular area to come together into one place. The passage does not command Christians to meet on a certain day. The passage does not command a particular frequency of meeting (i.e. weekly, daily, etc.). The passage isn't talking about some official ritualistic assembly. The passage never mentions a church building. What the Bible is talking about is Christians meeting together to spend time encouraging and building each other up spiritually. To be sure this could be done as a large group meeting in one place, but what about the words "assemble, gather, meet" necessarily imply a large formal group? Can we not edify one another by meeting in peoples homes and discussing spiritual matters? Could we not meet in a city park and pray with and for one another? Wouldn't a small informal group of even a handful in someone's living room fulfill the command? The earliest Christians met in homes. Is this no longer an acceptable meeting location now that we have large church buildings?
Tradition says that attendance is a gauge of spirituality and faithfulness. It is believed that if we are faithful Christians, we will not miss a "service" of the local church. There are 168 hours in a week. In a typical week, most "churches" meet together for about four hours - two hours Sunday morning and one hour each Sunday and Wednesday evenings. These four hours represent 2.38% of our week. Does anyone seriously believe that we can tell anything about anyone when we only see them 2.38% of the time? In the typical congregation, that 2.38% is the only time we spend together. With such little time together, how well can we really know what our brothers and sisters need in terms of edification? Although many continue to be a part of ritualistic assemblies, the encouragement that they get from them is often minimal. In fact, many are afraid not to go for they have been conditioned to believe that missing a "church service" will cause them to miss eternal life. Some obligingly go to "services" when they do not feel like going, but go because they feel pressured to do so.
Some congregations actually place men near the entrance of the church building with a membership roster and check people off as they come in the door! This is so the elders can have a log of who is regularly missing so they'll be able to determine who is in danger of falling away. What ever happened to a shepherd knowing his sheep? Even the most superficial among us should realize that ceasing to assemble with other Christians isn't the first indication that someone is succumbing to spiritual problems, but the last.
Tradition says that there are acts of worship which must be carried out during the assembly. It is commonly taught that we are commanded to sing together during the assembly and Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 are offered as proof texts. Contrary to this notion, there is no mention of an assembly in either of these passages. Can Christians sing while meeting together? Absolutely, but I know of no command which requires congregational singing. We are told that 1 Cor 16:1-3 requires taking up a weekly collection when the whole church has assembled. But, a careful reading of this passage reveals that an assembly is not mentioned and the collection under consideration was for a specific purpose of limited duration. We are told that the Lord's Supper can only be eaten when the entire church has assembled. Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor 11:20 are offered to support this conclusion. Yet, it cannot be proven that Acts 20:7 is a meeting of the church. We can confidently say that 1 Cor 11:17-34 refers to an assembly of Christians but we cannot tell how many of the Corinthian Christians were gathering together to eat the Supper. Does this passage say that all the Christians in the city assembled at the same place for communion? Is it possible that Christians from different parts of the city assembled in various places in various numbers to observe the memorial?
Some might object saying that verse 20 mentions they came together in one place. First of all, not all translations render the verse this way. Many translations omit the words "one place" so that the text simply says "therefore when you meet together". Secondly, even if "one place" is a valid rendering, this doesn't preclude the possibility that there were multiple assemblies of Christians in Corinth. If we really believe that verse 20 requires all Christians in a city to meet at the same place to observe communion, we better start building some really large meeting houses! Some cities have a lot of Christians!
I do not deny that communion was an activity engaged in by more than one Christian. From what I can tell the Bible teaches that Christians not only commune with God, but also with each other during the memorial. However, the Scriptures do not tell us what percentage of God's people must be present in order to eat the Lord's Supper nor do they teach that the entire congregation must be in one place.
Tradition says that verse 26 is a commentary upon verse 25. I have heard preachers teach that "willfully sinning" in verse 26 is directly connected to verse 25 meaning that forsaking the assembly is willfully sinning. Lets look at the context and consider verses 19 -27.
Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.
The Hebrew writer is telling us that because of Jesus, we can have boldness as Christians. Three times he begins a phrase with the words "let us". Let us draw near to God. Let us hold fast the hope we possess. Let us consider one another to spur each other on to love and good works. He tells us in verse 25 that these things cannot be accomplished unless we meet and spend time with one another so that we may mutually encourage each other. Verses 26 and 27 are in contrast to verses 19 - 25. The opposite of doing all of the "let us" commands is to go on willfully sinning. Verse 26 isn't saying that missing the assembly is willfully sinning. The "let us" sentences tell us what we must do and verses 26 & 27 tells us what happens if we fail to obey: the expectation of judgement and fire that will consume.
What does it mean to forsake?
The word "forsake" means abandon, desert, leave in straits, leave helpless, totally abandoned, utterly forsaken. This is the definition given by Thayer's Greek Lexicon and comes from the Greek word egkataleipo (Strong's # 1459). Therefore, in order to forsake meeting with other Christians I would have to completely and totally abandon them. It's like the idea of "deadbeat dads". These are fathers who desert their family and contribute nothing to the upbringing of their children. Deadbeat dads have forsaken their families, left them helpless, totally abandoned them, etc. This is what it means to forsake. Missing an "official service" now and then is not the same as forsaking. Have you ever had a busy day when you had to skip lunch? If so, does that mean that you gave up the practice of eating? Of course not, and neither does missing one "service" mean that you have abandoned or deserted your fellow Christians. You see, Hebrews 10:24-25 isn't talking about abandoning the "assembly", it is teaching us not to abandon our fellow disciples! This is the point of the passage.
It is typical to see church bulletins that say something like this: "Brother Smith was a faithful Christian here at ________________________ Church of Christ for many years until ill health prevented him from attending services." Is the brother no longer faithful because he is unable to attend? Since he is too sick to attend, is he now on his own? In the case of this poor brother, any forsaking would be on the part of his brothers and sisters who abandoned him when he needed their encouragement and company the most.
Church buildings may get in the way of edifying one another
It seems to me that spiritually minded people would want to spend a lot of time together learning from, and being good examples to, one another. Does four hours in a church building really go far enough in achieving this? Judging from our actions, most of us seem to think that getting our name checked off at the "official assembly" is all that we need. It is obvious that many Christians think that showing up at "services" is all that God expects and give no thought to keeping company with each other. How do we know this is true? In every congregation there are plenty of folks who swoop in at the last second, sit on the back row and spring from their perch as soon as the last "amen" is said. All we see of them is their tail feathers as they fly back out the door to rush home. Brothers and sisters, we need to be spending time with each other. We should be in one another's homes praying with each other, studying the Bible together or just simply visiting together.
Missing isn't the same as forsaking and we might do well to consider the good example of the very first Christians from Acts 2:46-47: "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people..."