This post is part 19 in a blog series that I have entitled “the wilderness between legalism and grace,” in which I share how I came to realize that I had an incorrect view of God and self and how I became free of the system of legalism whereby I was trying to earn God’s favor. You can view all of the posts in the series here on the series landing page.
Church has always been important to me and always will be.
Leaving a church is hard. It leaves a void – and after we left our church in the fall of 2011, I immediately started searching for another church to attend. I chose to visit another independent fundamental Baptist church across town. It was a good church, fine, people were friendly, but something happened in the morning service that frustrated me and ultimately kept me from ever visiting again.
On at least six different occasions, the pastor said something like this:
“Let’s be in your place tonight folks! Let’s be faithful to the services tonight!!”
Not once. Six times.
Yes, I counted.
Even as a visitor, I felt self-conscious and guilty because I wasn’t going back that night.
This pastor was definitely not alone in how much he stressed church attendance. It’s something I had seen before, multiple times. I’ve heard preaching that you should never miss church unless you are sick, even to visit family. I’ve heard preaching that missing church (even an evening service or Wednesday service) to see family will ruin your testimony before them. I’ve heard preaching that even on vacation or out of town, you should find a “church of like faith and practice” to attend. I’ve heard preaching that if you have a job that requires you to miss church because of work, that you should quit that job. I’ve heard that churches that have cancelled Sunday night and Wednesday night services are “slipping” into sin and lawlessness.
Most of this rhetoric I rejected on the spot. But it still affected me for years to come. It made me feel that my relationship with God – my fellowship with God – is based on how many church services I attended. Miss one and you’re a backslider. God can’t bless your life. God isn’t pleased.
“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together…” came to mean “thou shalt attend church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and all revival meetings. If you miss a service where your church doors are open and you are not ‘providentially hindered’ then you are in sin.”
Pardon me for just a moment, but that’s not what the verse says.
A few months after visiting this church, I sat in ChickFilA with my friend Dorothy and we discussed this issue and how guilty I felt when my husband and I missed church – how judged I felt. I quoted this verse to her and she just sort of shook her head at me and then said this:
“I’ve always taken that verse to mean ‘don’t forsake getting together with other Christians.’ And Aprille, you are doing that all the time!”
I just sort of sat there, stunned, at this new mind-blowing interpretation of a verse I thought I knew the meaning of:
“And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
I did some digging into the meanings of some of these words with Blue Letter Bible interlinear concordance. The word “assembling” and “together” are the exact same word which means 1) a gathering together in one place or 2) the (religious) assembly (of Christians).
I was a bit surprised to find out that it is NOT the same word that’s translated as “church” (neither as in the whole body of Christ nor a local assembly of believers) throughout the rest of the New Testament.
It simply means a gathering together of Christians into one place.
Christians gathering themselves together is really important to God, and it’s something we should not ever forsake. But what does Jesus say?
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
God wants to meet with his people as they come together to worship and to encourage one another. That much is undeniably clear throughout the entirety of Scripture, from the Pentateuch to the final Revelation. That’s why there was a tabernacle, a temple, and synagogues. That’s why there was an upper room. That’s why there are churches.
But, this command to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together is sandwiched in between the reasons why it’s so important to God: provoking each other unto love and good works, and exhorting one another. Blue Letter Bible interlinear concordance defines the terms this way:
To provoke – to incite, stir up, stimulate
To exhort – to beg, entreat, beseech; to, console comfort, encourage, strengthen
As a Christian, you are going to miss out on so much if you aren’t being encouraged and strengthened by other believers, if you aren’t being stirred up to follow God on a regular basis. You are going to struggle. I’ve seen it happen in my life and my family. We need each other. We need Christian community.
The local church is very important to God. If it weren’t, He wouldn’t give guidelines in the Bible about how we should behave in church and how it should be governed. This is also undeniable truth. (Just do a Bible search of the word “church” if you don’t believe me – I did it this morning.)
But you know what else is important to God? A sabbath rest.
Not Old-Testament Law “ye-shall-kindle-no-fire-upon-the-sabbath-day” kind of rest, but a “come unto me, [the Lord of the Sabbath,] all ye that labour and heavy laden and I will give you rest” kind of rest. (Matthew 11:28)
“There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his.” Hebrews 4:9-10
This verse in Hebrews (when read in context) isn’t just talking about taking Saturday or Sunday off. It’s talking about the rest that comes from entering into the “promised land” – which is a figurative description of what it means to be a Christian that has come out of slavery (sin) and through the wilderness into a victorious Christian life where he is dependent on God’s GRACE, not his own works. This passage is speaking of the beautiful rest that comes when we set down our own labour, our own good works, and depend on God’s grace and righteousness. (This is the very same chapter that ends with a reminder that Jesus is relevant to our lives and that we can come boldly unto his throne of grace.)
Let me try to bring some conclusion and summary to this post:
1) The verse that is probably used the most to stress “faithful church attendance” is simply a reminder that we need to be getting together with other believers. It is my personal opinion (and you can feel free to disagree with me) that this “gathering” that God desires for us is not limited to the local church alone. I believe that any time we are gathering with other believers (whether it’s at a church, a Bible study, a MOPS group – or it’s simply two Christian friends having coffee or a Facebook chat) Jesus is present and God is pleased. I don’t believe that this verse limits us to a box where God has to be found through Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday nights services at our local church. I don’t believe that missing a service or two to spend time with family, go out of town, take a vacation, or even work a job is equatable to “forsaking the assembling” or puts a Christian in grave spiritual danger.
2) The purpose of Christians getting together is for worship and to encourage and incite others to get closer to God, not to check a box of spirituality or try to earn the favor of God by sitting in a pew. God cares far more about our hearts than he does how many church services we do or do not attend.
3) Church is important to God. You cannot take the local church out of the New Testament. It’s just impossible. Christians should endeavor to find a group of believers that they can attach themselves to.
3) While gathering together with other believers and attending a local church is very important to God, so is rest. My husband and I have come to the personal conclusion that sometimes staying home to rest our bodies and reconnect as a family is more important than attending church when we are all cranky and exhausted. For a long time, I felt guilty for that. I felt judged. I felt like people thought we were bad Christians. And you know what? Maybe they did. But we aren’t responsible for what people think. We are responsible to do what’s right before God. Sometimes, for us, that means setting aside our “good works” and just resting in his grace while replenishing our weary bodies. We believe that, as long as we are endeavoring to make getting together with other believers a priority and regular part of our schedule, God can still honor us when we chose rest instead of attending every single church service (especially since the current model of “Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night” church attendance is found no where in Scripture). [I will put a small disclaimer on this when it comes to being involved in certain ministries of a church that require faithful attendance. If you have committed to be there to be involved in a certain ministry that meets weekly, you need to attempt to do so.]
I wish that more pastors spent less time preaching about church attendance and more time saying, “I’m so glad you are here this morning…tonight…this Wednesday night. We just love you and are so glad that you came to join us!” Because when you’ve missed three or four services in a row, that’s what you need to hear. That’s what will encourage you to go back even on those days when you’d rather stay home.
I wish more pastors would preach more about the importance of believers encouraging believers, regardless of the medium, and less about “forsaking the assembling.”
I wish more churches would be willing to consider starting in-home, small-group meetings throughout the week, so that no matter a person’s work schedule, he can find time to be around other believers and be encouraged.
I wish more churches would be willing to cancel an evening service on a holiday weekend so that families can enjoy some extra rest and time to reconnect with their families without having to deal with the guilt of skipping church.
My husband and I are now in a church that does just these things. We don’t make it to every service (especially now that my husband is working weekends). We’ve only gone to two or three Wednesday night services since we moved here.
But when we go, we feel loved. We feel encouraged. We see faces light up to see us – faces that say without judgment, “We’ve missed you. We’re so glad you made it here today!” We feel blessed. We want to go more often and even get involved and serve in ministries, because we feel like we can do so freely without people thinking ill of us for the times we aren’t there.
Have you ever felt guilty for missing church to rest or spend time with your family? What do you think was the root of that guilt? Was it true conviction or the pressure of men? How can churches encourage people to be involved and encouraged by attending their services without making them feel guilty when life gets in the way of their being there?
To view all the posts in this blog series, visit the landing page.
Next post, part 20: when your spiritual journey doesn’t look like his