The assembly and its place in the Christian life represents an often contentious matter. Many times, people seem to talk over each other in these discussions. This is in large part because the assembly poses a balancing act for us, and it’s easy to overemphasize one aspect over the other. Let us consider the two sides and how to balance them.
1. The Assembly is Critical.
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh (Hebrews 10:24-25).
I believe that Jesus knew what He was doing when He described His body with the word ekklesia, properly defined “assembly.” It is a collective. But it can only really be a collective when it comes together. After all, what is an assembly that does not assemble?
This is seen clearly in the earliest church:
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common (Acts 2:42-44).
They were together. They devoted themselves, together, to the Apostles’ teaching, to joint participation with each other, to the Lord’s Supper and to prayers.
“Joint participation” defines the same Greek word as “fellowship” and “association,” koinoinia. The word is based off the root for that which is “common,” and implies a form of communality. There’s no joint participation where people are not together.
Again, we have the organic concept of the church as body, aptly described in 1 Corinthians 12:12-28. I want to focus on a small part of that passage.
Nay, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary: and those parts of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness; whereas our comely parts have no need: but God tempered the body together, giving more abundant honor to that part which lacked; that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffereth, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof (1 Corinthians 12:22-27).
The members should have the same care for one another, lest there be a schism, or division, within the body (v. 25)! But division can also come when one part decides that it does not need to act in concert with the other parts, and that can take many forms, one of which is not being present with the brethren.
All of these passages and concepts point to one central reality: Christians need to be together. We Americans are so individually minded that this point needs constant emphasis. There are no maverick Christians; yes, there is much that we do as individuals in the faith, but we need each other to function properly. We never act alone without any repercussions– just like in our own bodies, when a given part functions in its unique way yet still works as part of something greater than itself, so it is with us and the body of Christ.
And in what way are all these concepts actualized in practice? Within the local church of God’s people. What is the most visible form of the local church? The assemblies.
Should we be together more than just in the assemblies? Absolutely, but in no other context do we have the completely spiritual focus that the assembly requires. There is no other place that we can commune with each other and God in the Lord’s Supper. Few are the opportunities to get together with all the brethren for spiritual purposes like the assembly.
God designed the assembly for our benefit– it gives us a time to encourage each other on a constant basis.
Therefore, if we are mature Christians, we will understand the power of the assembly is in the encouragement of the saints in fully spiritual ways, recharging spiritual batteries often depleted by the temptations and struggles we experience in the world. We ought to look to the assembly as refreshment and comfort, not drudgery and formalism. When the assembly becomes to us what God intended it to be, we recognize that it is for our benefit– and why would we want to miss anything that is for our benefit?
Just as we wouldn’t want to miss meals or precious sleep, so we shouldn’t want to miss the assembly. Nor should we be so flippant about it.
2. Man and the Assembly
On the other hand, the assembly can miss its focus and can become something that God did not intend. In that way, it is much like the Sabbath in Israel.
God did not design the Sabbath to be drudgery for Israel, but to be a time for rest and reflection. Yet Israel took the life out of it. Jesus sought to right that wrong.
Consider the following:
And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath day. And behold, a woman that had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years; and she was bowed together, and could in no wise lift herself up.
And when Jesus saw her, he called her, and said to her, “Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.”
And he laid his hands upon her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.
And the ruler of the synagogue, being moved with indignation because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, answered and said to the multitude, “There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the day of the sabbath.”
But the Lord answered him, and said, “Ye hypocrites, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had bound, lo, these eighteen years, to have been loosed from this bond on the day of the sabbath?”
And as he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame: and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by him (Luke 13:10-17).
Think of the ridiculousness of this ruler of the synagogue, attempting to ban healing on the Sabbath because it was to be a day of rest! He was so focused on the externals and the idea of “work” that he missed the other aspect of the Sabbath– rest from one’s burdens.
Beyond that, the Jews elevated the Sabbath into something it was not, which led to Jesus’ apt statement:
And he said unto them, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: so that the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).
What Jesus says about the Sabbath is true for the assembly: the assembly was made for man, not man for the assembly.
The assembly is not the sum of Christianity. The assembly is not the focus of Christianity, and neither should it be the focus of our existence. Just as the Sabbath was a time for refreshment and encouragement for Israel, and then they got busy the next day, we can see the assembly in similar terms: it is our time for refreshment and encouragement, and then we go and get back to work. The main focus in our lives should be the 165 hours we spend outside the assembly and how we’re functioning as living and holy sacrifices, the light of the world, as Jesus would have us live (Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 12:1, 1 John 2:6).
Therefore, making every assembly is no guarantee of great righteousness and strong faith, and those who miss some assemblies may have great and powerful faith. One’s assembly attendance does not dictate one’s spiritual strength.
3. The Balancing Act
So what do we do with these two aspects? It is critical, but it is not everything.
That is why I say it is the least of what we do. It’s the least because it’s the easiest and most personally beneficial for us, but it cannot be the focus of our lives.
That is not intended to demean the assembly, rather, to put it in its proper place.
But putting it in its proper place is not to demote it, or to somehow make it less than important.
Part of our problem, I believe, is that we more easily focus on the symptoms than the problem. Rare, if ever, is the case that someone’s lack of attendance in the assembly is the problem. It is usually a symptom of a greater problem!
I compare lack of attendance in the assembly to a fever. It tells you that the body is under attack for some reason, and now you have to figure out what that is. Dousing the body in cold water is not going to fix the problem, even if it alleviates the symptom. You need to fix the problem.
Lecturing people about assembling is not going to solve whatever spiritual problem is underneath the lack of assembling. Perhaps it is a lack of commitment. Perhaps it is not understanding that Jesus and His priorities must come first in life. Perhaps the person is struggling with sin and is ashamed of themselves. Maybe it’s as innocent as someone who got out of a habit and needs to be encouraged to get back into it.
But in all these circumstances, the problem is elsewhere: once you fix the problem, the symptom goes away. If the problem won’t be fixed, then neither will the symptom, and appropriate actions can be taken on a more substantive basis.
What shall we say to these things?
While the assembly isn’t everything, it shouldn’t be minimized to irrelevancy. It’s too important for Christian living.
We need to properly understand the assembly and the place in the life of a Christian. When we understand it properly, we allow the assembly to be what God intends it to be, and we can be strengthened and encouraged in our faith. We can celebrate the togetherness of the Christian faith which is constantly under assault in our individualized, go-it-alone maverick society.
On the other hand, there’s a lot more to Christianity than the assembly, and I don’t know of any situation where “forsaking the assembly” is a suitable enough charge for disassociation. Disassociation for that purpose tends to mean “the person doesn’t show up anymore, we don’t know why, and for whatever reason we haven’t put enough effort into encouragement at many critical points to alleviate the situation.” Where there is forsaking the assembly, there’s something else going on…and we need to work on the real problem, not the symptom. Fix it and win people back, or put forth the real problem as the source of difficulty and move on.
Let us strive to recognize the value of the assembly while incorporating it into our greater life of service to God!