The Duty to Assemble?

Are believers required to attend a weekly assembly of the church? Why should believers “go to church”? Or, more specifically, why should believers regularly attend an assembly of believers?

[This post is Case Study Two in Searching for the Pattern.]

I address this question often in my ministry. People ask about the significance of “going to church.” Typically, they don’t see its importance, and they think it is a secondary, even tertiary, dimension of following Jesus. Also, they are discouraged by what they experience when they attend a church. They see hypocrites, squabbles, and a lack of dedication to the gospel as they understand it.

My response, briefly, goes something like this. I affirm their sense of discipleship and commitment to the gospel, and I ask, “Are you a disciple of Jesus?” “Yes,” they respond, “I follow Jesus.” “Then,” I reply, “go to church because Jesus did.” The look on their face is sometimes priceless—they are either disturbed, think I’m crazy, or a light bulb turns on. Let me explain.

Jesus went to church. What I mean is that he gathered with the people of God regularly, even weekly as well as on special occasions. He went to the synagogue or the temple even though it was filled with hypocrites, squabbling, and misguided devotion to God. If Jesus went to church, and we are disciples of Jesus, then we will go to church as well.

But we are ahead of ourselves here. Let’s slow down and consider the above question in some detail. Are disciples of Jesus required to attend a weekly assembly of the church?

If we follow a blueprint hermeneutic, we immediately recognize a startling reality. Though I have often said and heard that we are commanded to attend an assembly of the body of Christ every first day of the week in order to break bread at the table of the Lord, there is no explicit command in Acts and the Epistles that obligates believers to participate in a gathering of believers every first day of the week,

The only text that might qualify as an explicit command to assemble is Hebrews 10:25, which counsels against giving up the habit of assembling and actually calls for believers to attend more frequently as they see “the day” approaching (identifying “the day” is highly disputed). This expression (using a participle—“not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together”) modifies an exhortation. It is a warning. Even if we understand it as a command (which is possible), it does not identify the frequency nor the specific meeting to attend. It is a general encouragement to continue meeting together—to persevere and not give up. While it encourages greater frequency, it does not specify what frequency is expected or required.

I was taught, and I also taught, that the example of Acts 20:7 was an implied command for the weekly gathering of the church around the table of the Lord, and this specified the frequency intended by Hebrews 10:25. But the conclusion that every believer ought to break bread every Sunday in the assembled church is itself an inference; it is nowhere explicitly stated. It is inferred from (1) the assumption that the church gathered every week (based on a particular but disputed understanding of 1 Corinthians 16:1-2) and (2) the church gathered every week for the specific purpose to break bread (based on the implied command of Acts 20:7). Those inferences depended upon numerous rules such as generic/specific, coordinates, and how to identify expediency (among many others, as I detailed earlier). Thus, we concluded, by way of inference, that believers everywhere and at all times are obligated to break bread every Sunday in an assembly of believers. This inferred obligation is based on a series of assumptions. Each one is controverted, and none are indubitable.

Consequently, if there is no explicit command to assemble every first day of the week, and the claimed obligation for a weekly table gathering is based on inferences, are believers obligated to assemble? If not, why should disciples of Jesus assemble regularly and how often? I remember my own fear about this question. I wondered that if I let go of the certainty of the implied command and its obligation whether anyone would actually attend the assembly any longer. If there was no absolute and certain obligation, if there was no consensus on the command, if there was no consequence to disobedience, then would anyone actually come together for an assembly? Would anyone actually “go to church” anymore if it were not absolutely, legally, and certainly required? But I had to admit there is no explicit, certain, and clear command to assemble every first day of the week in Acts and the Epistles.

If the blueprint hermeneutic is inadequate to establish that certainty, how does a theological hermeneutic answer the question?

Let’s start with Jesus. When asked why I “go to church,” my first response is because Jesus did and does. As a disciple of Jesus, I follow Jesus, and consequently I go to church, too. That needs a little unpacking.

Jesus went to church. How could Jesus go to church when there was no church while Jesus lived? But there was. The word “church” (ekklēsia) simply means assembly or gathering. It is a gathered people. Israel was the assembly of God that regularly gathered in the presence of God at the temple for the great assemblies in worship (Psalms 26:12; 107:32; 149:1), at tables where communities gathered to eat the meat that had been sacrificed to God at Passover, thanksgiving sacrifices (Deuteronomy 27:7) and other festivals, and, at the time of Jesus, in the synagogues where they studied the Torah and prayed together (Luke 4:16-20). Israel was “God’s assembly.” In fact, Stephen described Israel as the “church (ekklēsia) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).

This sense of “assembly” began when Israel gathered at Mount Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:10 and 18:16 call it the “day of assembly,” and on that day God spoke to them. Israel was the church of God, and God’s church assembled. In Leviticus 23, God called Israel to regularly convene in “sacred assemblies” or “holy convocations” for Sabbath, Passover, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles in addition to many other assemblies occasioned by special events and situations (for example, 1 Chronicles 29:1; 2 Chronicles 5:2; Nehemiah 8:1; Deuteronomy 27:1-7). The rhythm of regular assembly was embedded in Israel’s spiritual practices, and it formed Israel as they praised God, encountered God, and encouraged each other in these assemblies. These practices had a major role in Israel’s spiritual formation and its relationship with God. Israel was not fully Israel without assembly because they were the assembly of God. In the same way, the church is not fully the church without assembly.

Jesus participated in the festivals of Israel and weekly assemblies with other Jews. The Gospel of John tells us Jesus celebrated the Passover (John 2:13), the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2, 10-14), and the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22, which is not even in the Leviticus; also known as the Feast of Lights). As the Gospel of Luke notes, Jesus attended synagogue every Sabbath day (Luke 4:16). Jesus, we might say, went to church every week.

Why did God institute such practices for Israel, and why did Jesus attend so regularly? These practices were rooted in the mighty acts of God’s history with Israel. The Sabbath, for example, arose out of both creation (Exodus 20:10-11) and Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:14-15). The Feast of Tabernacles reenacted Israel’s wilderness experience, and the Passover remembered their deliverance from Egypt. The Feast of Pentecost celebrated God’s providential provision of an abundant harvest for their sustenance. The Day of Atonement humbled Israel before the holiness of God and extended forgiveness. The Feast of Purim, unknown in the Torah but added at the time of Esther, celebrated the faithfulness of God in preserving the Jews in Persia (Esther 9:26-31). The Feast of Dedication, which is not commanded in the Torah either, celebrated the cleansing and renewal of temple worship in 164 B.C. The rhythm of assembly tied Israel to God’s mighty acts in their history and their relationship with God. These assemblies rehearsed the story of God. They were moments of grace, humility, encounter, and remembrance. Through them Israel professed their faith, experienced God’s gracious presence, and renewed covenant with God. They remembered God’s mighty acts.

Why did Jesus participate in these assemblies? We might say it was for the benefit of the attendees as Jesus taught in the synagogues, but that would not be the whole story. As both a human being and an Israelite (indeed, the true Jew), Jesus also needed community, celebrated the history of God’s people, and worshipped God. The temple was a place of prayer for Jesus, and he also ate the Passover and sacrificial meals in fellowship with God and the community at the table. Whatever the reason, Jesus participated in the communal life of Israel from the weekly synagogue service on the Sabbath to the annual Passover, and if Jesus participated, as disciples of Jesus it might be good for us to participate in the assemblies of God’s people as well.

But there is more. Jesus also goes to church. This may sound rather awkward as this is not how we typically think about assembly. Hebrews makes this point in several ways. Hebrews is probably a sermon delivered to an assembly of discouraged believers. Some had abandoned their faith, others were drifting, and a few were persevering. The sermon is filled with language that indicates it was originally an oral presentation, or at least intended to be read, to an assembly. For example, “time would fail me” (Hebrews 11:31), the preacher said. Or, “we have much to say about this” (5:11), or “even though we speak like this” (6:9). In fact, the preacher calls his work a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22), which is how synagogue sermons were described (for example, Acts 13:15).

When we recognize that Hebrews is a sermon spoken to an assembly of God’s people, this deepens the significance of its language. Jesus is present in this assembly. Indeed, according to Hebrews 2:12, Jesus participates in the assembly as one who praises God “in the midst of the congregation” (ekklēsias). Jesus proclaims the name of God to the assembly. Jesus shares the assembly with believers and stands among them as one who lifts up the name of God in the assembly.

While we may call this “Jesus goes to church,” it is probably more accurate to say “the church goes to Jesus.” In Hebrews 12:18-24, the preacher parallels the day of assembly at Mount Sinai with the present assembly of the saints. While the former was a mountain the people could touch (a physical mountain), the mountain upon which believers in Jesus assemble is Mount Zion in the heavenly Jerusalem, a mountain they cannot physically touch. When we ascend Mount Zion, we enter the city of the living God. We draw near to God, and when we do so, we go to church. Specifically, the preacher says that when we draw near to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, we also come “to the assembly (ekklēsia) of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23). In this sense we “go to church,” that is, we approach God and Jesus in the heavenly Jerusalem where the whole assembly of God is gathered, where the whole church is assembled.

Some call this an “eschatological assembly.” This is a helpful phrase because it identifies the exact nature of the assembly described here. The word “eschatological” comes from the word eschaton, which means last. It refers to the “last things.” In other words, it refers to God’s future goal, that is, what God will bring about in the future. More than this, the word also refers to the way in which the future is already present since we are already living in the “last days” (eschatou; Hebrews 1:2). This is similar to Paul’s language of new creation, and just like in Romans 8:23, there is a sense in which the future is already present (we already have the first fruits of the Spirit, for example), but that future is not yet fully present (we do not yet have resurrection bodies).

When Christians gather as disciples of Jesus and for the glory of God, we participate in this eschatological assembly. It is already present in our gathering, but it is not yet fully present. When we gather, we are lifted up into the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God even though we do not yet live in that new Jerusalem in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1-4). When we assemble, we join the heavenly chorus around the throne to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and we join the whole church from all over the world in the heavenly throne room and become, by the Spirit, part of that number that cannot be counted (Revelation 7:9-10). Moreover, we join the multitude of those who have already finished the race and are now present in the throne room of God. We join the “spirits of the righteous made perfect,” that is, we join Moses, Rahab, Mary, Peter, Paul, and Phoebe around the throne of God. We join all those who have died in faith before us. We assemble with the whole church, living and dead.

Returning to Hebrews 10:25, the verb (“draw near”) in verse 22 is the same verb as in Hebrews 12:18 and 22. When we “draw near to God” (10:22), we enter the throne room of God, the Holy of Holies (10:19), through the veil of Christ’s flesh. We enter the heavenly temple and join the host of heaven around the throne to worship God. Consequently, the preacher exhorts this discouraged church to draw near to God in full assurance of faith, hold fast their confession of hope, and stir up one another in love to good works (10:22-24). The assembly is the eschatological moment when we, as a community, participate in the heavenly assembly around the throne and, at the same time, profess our hope and lovingly stir each other up to good works as we encourage each other and are encouraged by God’s presence. We enter the presence of God for praise and prayer, and we stand there together as a people in hope and love.

Hebrews 10:25 urges believers to continue to assemble and encourage each other because something happens when they assemble. Or perhaps it is better to say, someone happens, that is, we encounter God as the community of faith enters the heavenly temple together to praise God in the Holy of Holies.

Hebrews 10:25, then, is not so much an explicit command rooted in an assumed blueprint that the church must obey as a matter of faithful obligation as much as it is an exhortation to embrace the eschatological reality into which we have been invited. In other words, we are invited to participate in the story of God through assembling together and joining the heavenly chorus of angels, the church universal, and all the saints of the past to praise God, confess our hope, and encourage each other. Indeed, it is better to hear the exhortation of Hebrews 10:25 in the context of the story of God rather than isolating it from the story as a proposition in a syllogism that identifies part of the blueprint. The story gives meaning to the exhortation, and this meaning is more transformative than an inferred blueprint obligation.

Why should believers in Jesus go to church? We may answer this question in several ways from within the story of God. No doubt others could be added as well.

(1) We are part of the story of Israel, and God invited Israel to assemble in God’s presence for praise, prayer, encounter, and remembrance (cf. Deuteronomy 4:10; Psalm 50:5). These assemblies were grounded in God’s mighty acts and called Israel into an ongoing relationship with God. We assemble because Israel assembled, and we continue this practice because we have been grafted into the story of Israel (Hebrews 12:18-24). The practices of Israel guide us in the development of healthy and formative spiritual and communal practices.

(2) As disciples of Jesus, we follow Jesus into the assemblies of God’s people. Jesus participated in Israel’s assemblies (John 2:13; 7:14-15), and he shared the rhythm of that life with God. In addition to times with small groups (his disciples) and solitude (alone with God), Jesus habitually assembled with the people of God. Jesus did not neglect assembling, even though he knew they were neither perfect nor necessarily loving or welcoming. If Jesus needed this communal life through assembling with others, we need it as well. Just as we follow Jesus into the water of baptism, so we also follow him into the assemblies of God’s people.

(3) Jesus is present in the assembly with the community of faith and participates in the assembly. As the firstborn from the dead, Jesus praises God with the people of God as he sings with us in the midst of the congregation (Hebrews 2:12). As divine, Jesus receives our worship alongside of the one who sits on the throne. In both senses, Jesus is present in our assemblies as the enthroned Messiah as well as the Son of God who receives our worship (Matthew 18:19-20). In either case, Jesus is present in the assembly as participant, host, and Lord, much like Jesus is present at the table in his kingdom. Wherever Jesus goes, disciples follow, and Jesus goes to church both in the past and in the present.

(4) In our local assemblies, we assemble with all the saints, past and present. In our present assemblies, we anticipate the future as, by the Spirit of God, we participate in the present heavenly assembly around the throne of God (Hebrews 12:22-24). This is the work of God’s new creation which is already present but has not yet fully arrived. We await the future Messianic banquet and the fullness of God’s new Jerusalem, and, at the same time, we are privileged to enjoy that banquet and divine presence even now when disciples of Jesus gather as an assembly. That assembly transcends space and time as it includes all disciples everywhere (whether Singapore, Nairobi, or Chicago), whether living or dead.

When we fail to assemble, what is the most significant problem? It is not so much the violation of a command or an obligation as it is the loss of encouragement, the loss of encounter with God, the loss of God’s presence in community, and a failure to follow Jesus who participated in the assemblies of God’s people during his ministry and is present as the enthroned Lord in all the assemblies of God’s people.

But when should Christians meet? If it is important for Christians, like it was for Israel and Jesus, to assemble regularly and habitually, when should they do so? Are there any commands or prescriptions to guide our practice? How does a theological hermeneutic address this question?

As we saw previously in this book, there are good theological reasons for breaking bread every first day of the week as the assembled people of God. This assembly does not necessarily assume an institution, church building, or organizational structure. Rather, at its most basic level, it is an invitation to assemble with other believers to break bread every first day of the week. The conjunction of (1) the first day of the week, (2) resurrection, and (3) breaking bread in Luke-Acts provides a strong, even compelling, reason to eat the Lord’s supper every first day of the week. At the same time, my judgment about the strength of the point is inferential rather than explicit. We might appeal to the significance of the Lord’s Day in Revelation 1:10. But we don’t know with any certainty whether John is referring to the first day of the week (though I think there is good reason to think so) or to something else (like an annual event, or even the day of divine judgment).

Nevertheless, Israel’s weekly Sabbath and festivals, the inbreaking of new creation in the resurrection of Jesus, and the function of tables in the story of God (from Israel’s sacrificial meals to the eschatological Messianic banquet) ground a weekly table of the Lord, and I invite all believers to embrace this practice because of the theological meaning of the table as communion between God, those assembled, and with each other.

At the same time, Hebrews 10:25 suggests more frequent meetings, and there is reason to believe the preacher envisions daily assemblies or at least daily mutual exhortation (as in Hebrews 3:13).

Assembly is important, and it has theological significance. We participate in the story of God when we assemble, and we encounter God when we assemble as a community of faith. This is true wherever we assemble (home, building, or under a tree; whether three people or three thousand) because when disciples of Jesus gather for praise and prayer, Jesus is present (Matthew 18:19-20), and wherever Jesus is present, he invites us to sit at his table in his kingdom (Luke 22:29-30).

Similar to how Paul invited the Corinthians to participate in the gift to the poor saints in Jerusalem out of love rather than obligation, so God invites us to assemble with others in the heavenly Jerusalem out of love rather than obligation. While there is no absolute command, there is a divine invitation.



3 Responses to “The Duty to Assemble?”

  1.   William T. Brewer Says:

    Excellent post as always. I would add that the measure and the metric of the Spirit’s presence in the church is how well its members practice the “one another” passages of the NT, and that regular assembly is necessary toward that end. Thoughts?

  2.   Edwin Myers Says:

    A wonderful post as well as book. I have read it and given several copies away. I believe the basic reason of “fellowship” and “one another(ness)” is what is needed. In this present climate because of worldwide fear of the corona virus we already know that by not getting to meet (although only for a short time) … something is missing. It’s too bad that some will use “this present distress” to form the very habit that Hebrews 10:25 is warning against. I pray that this will end soon, and those who have gotten lax in attendance will see again the importance of our collective Worship to our God.

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