The Christian and the Assembly
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 10:25).
From the beginning Christianity has been about far more than the assembly; Christianity is the single-minded dedication to following the path of Jesus of Nazareth, humbly serving and suffering in His name so as to obtain the resurrection of life (Matthew 16:24, Romans 8:17-18, 1 Peter 2:18-25, 1 John 2:3-6). And yet the assembly has always been an important part of Christianity, built into the name chosen by Jesus for the collective of the people who follow Him: what is an assembly (the primary meaning of the Greek word ekklesia) which does not assemble (cf. Matthew 16:18)? What kind of congregation does not congregate?
For almost two thousand years Christians have come together on the first day of the week according to the Lord’s command to share in the communion and memorial of His death in the Lord’s Supper, pray together, sing together, hear the Word of God read, preached, and taught, and give to accomplish the purposes of Jesus through the local congregation (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:17-34, 14:15-17, 26, 16:1-3, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, 1 Timothy 4:13, 2 Timothy 4:2-4). Christians do well to meet together at other occasions, whether as a full assembly or in smaller contexts, and do what they can to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24). Nevertheless, the assembly of Christians on the first day of the week has always been the anchor of participation together in the life of Christ. In many places and times the people of Jesus have risked life and limb in order to come together, enjoy sweet communion with their fellow Christians, drew strength from one another and their time together in the matters of the faith, and considered it all worthwhile despite the danger.
Plenty of societal forces in the modern Western world conspire against robust participation in the assembly of Christians. Our technological advances and devices have done as much to tear or keep us apart as they have done to bring us together: we find ourselves endlessly distracted by movies, social media, television, and other entertainment outlets. Everything has become specialized; each of us finds a particular niche of specialty, and depend upon others who have developed other niche specialties in other contexts. Children are expected to participate in all kinds of extracurricular activities which consume most of the time spent outside of school, eating, and sleeping. Confidence in and loyalty to institutions have reached historic lows: American individualism has corroded almost every sense of community we have with our fellow human beings. Churches themselves have often not helped. Too many assemblies are professionally designed and equipped spectacles, a thing to watch in entertainment as opposed to something in which one meaningfully participates. Some assemblies have become extended advertisements or rallies for preferred political or social agendas, using the time in the assembly not to truly edify and encourage but to justify current trends or behaviors, to condemn others without introspection, or to use forms of the wisdom of the world in a misbegotten attempt to uphold the principles of God or some subculture. Some seem to spend more time exhorting about the importance of the assembly than working to make it truly encouraging and edifying to those who participate. For these and many other reasons participation in the assembly is in decline in many parts of Christianity in Western culture even as interest in Jesus of Nazareth remains strong. Not a few books and articles have been written to justify “being a Christian but not in a church.”
We must emphasize that Jesus saves people as individuals: all must come to faith in Jesus and seek His will to be saved (Acts 2:36, 40, 16:31, Romans 1:16). Yet God’s purpose has never been to leave individual Christians in that atomized state alone; in Jesus God has reconciled all people together so Christians can be one as God is one (John 17:20-23, Ephesians 2:11-18). The church and its assemblies are not God’s “Plan B,” a cosmic accident, or some kind of add-on to the Gospel story: the church is the means by which God displays His manifold wisdom to the powers and principalities in the heavenly places, the outworking of His eternal purpose in Christ (Ephesians 3:10-11). The church expresses God’s ultimate purpose for mankind: in former days, Israel according to the flesh, when they gathered together, represented the assembly of the people of God (e.g. 1 Kings 8:2); Jesus then reconstitutes the assembly of the people of God around Himself in His death and resurrection, bringing together those of Israel according to the flesh who believe and those of the nations who believe, making them one new man in Him (Ephesians 2:11-22). All of the portrayals of the church in Scripture center on individuals working individually but very much comprehensively together for the benefit of the collective: the church as household, indicating the familial “brother” and “sister” relationship among Christians; the church as temple, suggesting holiness but also joint participation, and of course the church as a body, in which the function of each part works to make the whole function together (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 2:18-22, 1 Peter 2:3-9). The final picture of the salvation of the people of God is as the bride of Christ, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven (Revelation 21:1-22:6): it is a picture of God glorifying the church (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33). People in Western culture may imagine themselves as “Christians without churches,” but such a thing is foreign to Jesus Himself, for a Christian not in the church is separated from the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28).
Jesus wants His body to work together to build itself up in love (Ephesians 4:11-16). While edification can and must be done outside of the assembly, the role of the assembly in edification and encouragement looms large in all discussions of the nature of the church. As families spend time together, so the household of God assembles. As bodies involve parts working together in close proximity, dependent on each other’s functions, so Christians come together in the assembly and many accomplish many of their roles in the body of Christ as part of the assembly (cf. Ephesians 4:11-12). From the beginning of Christianity until now the assembly of the local church has proven vital in the continual reinforcement and strengthening of individual Christians in their relationships with God and with one another.
Churches are full of imperfect people; we all are sinners in need of redemption in Jesus (Romans 3:20, 23). In a world saturated with individualism and alienation, the assembly of the saints proves to be a powerful testimony of the work God is accomplishing in Christ to reconcile all people to Himself. The visible unity of the Body of Christ is far more important than the challenges and difficulties that come with interacting with other people: we must be with our people while we have the chance. Let us then pledge to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together and strive to encourage one another in the assembly!
Ethan R. Longhenry