And it came to pass, that [Jesus] was going on the sabbath day through the grainfields; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears.
And the Pharisees said unto him, “Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?”
And he said unto them, “Did ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry, he, and they that were with him? How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the showbread, which it is not lawful to eat save for the priests, and gave also to them that were with him?”
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 2:23-28).
As the Lord Jesus went about doing good for Israel, the Pharisees challenged Him regarding the conduct of His disciples: they had been plucking ears of grain to eat them (Mark 2:23). Such behavior was work, and the Pharisees insisted that all work on the Sabbath was not lawful (Mark 2:24). In response Jesus appealed to the example of David eating sanctified shewbread which was to be only for the priests in 1 Samuel 21:1-7 (Mark 2:26-27). Jesus then made two powerful pronouncements: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). The Sabbath was not to be an imposition, burden, or a form of oppression; it was a display of liberation, joy, and peace. To weigh the Sabbath down with strictures was to bleed it of its energy, joy, and nourishment.
Christian participation in the assemblies of the saints maintains many parallels with the Jewish observance of the Sabbath. It would go too far to call Christian assemblies the “Christian sabbath”; we will obtain our Sabbath when we rest in Jesus as we await the resurrection of life (Hebrews 4:1-11). And yet it was Jewish practice in the Second Temple Period (and well afterward) to assemble in the synagogues and devote time to prayer, song, the reading of the Scriptures, and to hear a message from its pages (cf. Luke 4:16-28, Acts 13:14-15ff). Furthermore, the Lord Jesus has established guidelines for the types of activities which ought to be done in the assemblies of Christians, just as God established guidelines for the observance of the Jewish Sabbath (e.g. Exodus 35:2-3, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, 1 Corinthians 14:1-40). Therefore, Christians can be tempted to treat their assemblies in the same way as the Pharisees treated the Sabbath. To this end we do well to declare and affirm that the assembly was made for Christians, not Christians for the assembly, for Jesus our Lord, the Son of Man, is Lord of the Assembly.
The Lord’s people are known for their emphasis on participation in the assembly of the saints. In many respects the concern is healthy: a body that does not feature the joint participation and manifestation of its unity in assembling is not much of a body at all; what kind of assembly does not have its constituent members frequently assemble? The Lord’s Supper ought to reflect the unity of the body of Christ in a given place and time (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 1 Corinthians 11:17ff); how can it do so if many of the members are not present?
And yet an emphasis on the assembly can become toxic, unhealthy, and idolatrous when distortions of the meaning, purpose, and execution of the assembly arise, assembly participation is equated to faithfulness, and the assembly is prioritized over all things. In all such things we must remember how Christians were not made for the assembly, but the assembly for Christians.
According to what the New Testament explicitly says, Christians came together at least on the first day of the week to edify (build up) and encourage (strengthen) one another through the acts of the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:25). They would pray, sing, give, publicly read the Scriptures, partake of the Lord’s Supper, and proclaim the Word of God in the Gospel to glorify God in building up and strengthening one another (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 14:1-40, 1 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 4:1-4). These things were to be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40): according to 1 Corinthians 14:1-39, such involved making sure people were not speaking over each other, talking at the same time, unable to understand the substance of the prayer, message, or whatnot, and for all to follow God’s order in the creation. At no point in the Scriptures or in the language of 1 Corinthians 14:40 is there an expectation for the assembly to be dour, lifeless, and excessively formal. Such “innovations” have been justified in the name of venerating God in “worship.” As we have addressed before here, here, and here, English conflates two distinct Hebrew and Greek terms and concepts under the word “worship,” “prostration,” of which the New Testament betrays no evidence of Christians practicing in their assemblies, and “religious service,” which is assuredly true of all of the acts of the assembly but also of plenty of other actions Christians perform in life. Thus, to impose a certain standard of dress beyond modesty, or to expect some kind of sanctified silence, or a complete absence of the expression of emotion, is to go beyond what is written or expected in the assemblies of Christians according to the New Testament. The assembly of the saints should be a time of strengthening and refreshment, a joy to be in the presence of our people in Christ; it is not to be made a dour burden in the name of cultural conventions begotten in denominational distortions. Christians were not made for the assembly; the assembly was made for Christians.
The Apostles certainly expected Christians to come together frequently in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:1-40, Hebrews 10:24-25); what kind of assembly is it if its constituent members do not frequently assemble? Yet at no point does the New Testament impose presence and participation in the assembly as the means by which the faithfulness of a Christian is displayed before God and His fellow people. The New Testament betrays no indication that any Christian was disassociated from because s/he was not assembling; plenty of Christians who were faithfully assembling required repentance to maintain their standing before God (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Ephesians 2:1-8). We can imagine many circumstances in which a Christian would be continually hindered from jointly participating with his or her fellow Christians in the assembly, yet would do so if they could, and in no way have apostatized from the faith: those who find themselves shut in because of age or disability; some in unique employment circumstances; others who may be incarcerated; and so on. Yes, indeed; continual forsaking of the assembly by choice represents at best misplaced priorities and at worst an indication of some underlying challenge with sin, and these matters ought to be addressed. Yet again, the assembly is to be a joy and a place of rest and relief for Christians, not a burden or obligation; it is but the least of activities of faithful service in the Kingdom, giving strength and equipping in faith to endure the challenges of advancing God’s purposes and Jesus’ Lordship in every other domain of life the rest of the week. Christians who tend to assemble frequently with fellow Christians will likely be more mature and stronger in faith; and yet such is not axiomatic, and we must remember that the assembly is not a badge of fidelity but a continual opportunity to embody the Lord Jesus to one another and share in Him. Christians were not made for the assembly; the assembly was made for Christians.
Christians do well to treat the assembly as an important dimension of their lives in faithfulness to the Lord Jesus; yet nothing in Scripture would lead us to believe the assembly is to be esteemed as all-important. We do well to consider an “updated” edition of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37): would a Christian who saw a person in need on the side of the road but who rushed on to participate in the assembly of the saints find any greater justification than the priest and the Levite who found the man upon whom robbers fell and passed by on the other side? By no means! To love one’s neighbor as oneself demands inconvenience at inopportune times. Christians do well to remember the Lord’s denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees for their fastidious devotion to the details while missing the “weightier matters” of justice, mercy, and faith; in Matthew’s parallel account to Mark 2:23-28, Jesus quoted Hosea 6:6 and declared that if the Pharisees had understood how God desires mercy, not sacrifice, they would not have condemned the innocent (Matthew 12:7; cf. Matthew 12:1-8).
Situations arise in which the most prudent, wise, and godly decision means Christians will not assemble, or the assembly itself will be canceled. A Christian called to assist a person in need when they would otherwise be assembling is loving his neighbor as himself, and has honored the weightier matter in the faith. In the face of natural disasters, a pandemic, or a moment of civil unrest, governmental authorities may encourage churches to cancel their assemblies; such is not persecution, but the government performing its function of seeking the welfare of its citizens, and Christians do well to honor authorities in such circumstances (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18). Even without governmental request a congregation may decide to cancel assemblies because of such emergencies. Such a decision does not demand that they have become soft or they do not wish to honor their Lord.
We could imagine that a congregation could become lax in its concern about the assembling of the saints; such Christians should be reminded of the importance and power in frequent building up and strengthening of the people of God through joint participation in the acts of the assemblies. Yet in all such things we do well to remember that each local congregation stands like a candlestick before its Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Revelation 1:12-13, 20); the Lord Jesus arranges the candlesticks as He wills, and they remain in His presence or are removed based on His judgment alone. Thus, as it is for Christians, so it is for congregations in such matters: who are we to judge our neighbor? Before their Master and ours they will stand or fall, as shall we (Romans 14:10-12, James 4:11-12). We ought to remember that God desires mercy, not sacrifice or smug sanctimonious judgmentalism, and we ought not condemn the guiltless.
For, in the end, Christians are not made for the assembly; the assembly is made for the building up and strengthening of Christians. May we continually assemble with one another to edify and encourage one another until the Lord Jesus returns to His glory and honor!
Ethan R. Longhenry