Issue #174 -------
February 18, 2005
There warn't anybody at the church, except maybe a
hog or two, for there warn't any lock on the door, and
hogs likes a puncheon floor in summertime because
it's cool. If you notice, most folks don't go to church
only when they've got to; but a hog is different.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
I've always been a great fan of Samuel Clemens (aka: Mark Twain). His quick wit and homespun wisdom quite often challenge one's sense and sensibility. He makes us think ... and, at times, that is a rather uncomfortable experience! I am especially fond of the observation made in the above quotation from Huckleberry Finn. How interesting that a hog at times demonstrates a far greater fondness for the "House of God" than some of our Father's own children. Swine are drawn from the mud into the pleasant surroundings of the church building, whereas saints too frequently leave the "hallowed halls" for the world's mud pits. Kinda strange, is it not, when pigs prefer pews and saints savor sties?!
Getting men to take seriously the need to assemble together for worship and mutual edification has always been a challenge, even among pagan religions. Horace (65-8 B.C.), in one of his Odes, spoke of "grudging and infrequent worshippers of the gods." Rationalizing such remissness has risen almost to an art form. Satan supplies an over-abundance of excuses for those with "more important things to do" than assemble with the saints. One of the well-known sayings of Rabbi Hillel (died c. 9 A.D.) also speaks to this issue -- "Keep not aloof from the congregation." In a lesser known saying of his, he suggested the following words which might well come from our God -- "If thou wilt come into My House, I will come into thy house; if thou wilt not come to My House, I will not come to thy house." Here again we detect the Principle of Reciprocity.
Apparently, the writer of the New Covenant epistle known as Hebrews detected this negative tendency within many of those to whom he sought to give wise counsel concerning the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism. Therefore, he challenged his readers to hold fast the confession of their hope, to waver not, to draw near to the Lord with sincere hearts and full assurance of faith, to consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, to encourage one another, and to forsake not the assembling of themselves together, as some were in the habit of doing (Heb. 10:22-25). This was critical advice for saints living in very difficult circumstances. Disciples of Christ were experiencing affliction both from the world and from the Jews ... and in some cases even from their fellow Christians. Not a few were becoming discouraged; their faith was quickly diminishing under this constant assault. Some were drifting away from their commitment to Christ and His church; some were even returning to Judaism. One of the first visible signs of such a deadly drift would be the declining frequency with which they assembled and associated with their brethren in the faith.
The inspired writer of our text made note of this clearly demonstrative drift when he spoke of these individuals being "in the habit of" not assembling with their fellow saints. Their lack of affiliation was becoming noticeable over a period of time; a pattern of behavior was being displayed that should have raised warning flags among their brethren. When one habitually absents himself from the close association of fellow Christians, there is evidence of a serious heart problem that is in need of immediate attention. Notice the way several translations and versions of the Bible phrase the inspired advice of the author of Hebrews (in Heb. 10:25) to these grudging and infrequent worshippers and workers (you will notice a few similarities, as well as dissimilarities):
Laying Down the LAW
I have heard countless sermons, and read numerous articles, in which Hebrews 10:25 was essentially characterized as the church's Assembly LAW. This "law" was primarily for the Sunday morning assembly, which was declared to be absolutely essential for one to attend. Sunday evening assembly, and Wednesday evening, were also important, but missing those was not generally regarded with as much concern by the powers that be .... more of a venial sin, than a mortal sin! After all, most congregations, do they not, tend to lose about 50% of their congregation between Sunday morning and Sunday evening, and some of these infrequent assemblers are "good givers," thus we don't want to "offend them" by laying down the law with respect to "lesser assemblies" ... they might close their check books! However, if one misses too many Sunday morning gatherings, "there is a serious spiritual problem!" Indeed, one's salvation may be called into question.
There are indeed those disciples, especially among the ultra-conservative, legalistic wing of Christendom, who will adamantly assert that it is sinful to miss a "worship service" (especially Sunday morning), and that if too many are missed the delinquent member will most likely be forever lost. Because of such preaching and teaching, there are some who attend more out of fear than love. They literally "go to church" because they don't want to "go to hell." Bro. Dusty Owens, in an article titled "Forsake Not The Assembly," wrote, "They are afraid to do otherwise, for they have been conditioned to believe that missing a 'church service' will cause them to miss eternal life" (The Examiner, vol. 7, no. 5, September, 1992). Bro. Ron Boatwright, a minister in Arkansas, wrote the following in one of his bulletin articles -- "Even though one may be a good person, if one continues in the sin of forsaking the assembly, he will face a certain fearful judgment and a real fiery Hell forever and ever." He also noted: "By forsaking the assembly one throws away his inheritance in Heaven and will inherit the eternal torment of Hell." He then goes on to assert that those who forsake the assembly are like the dog who returns to his vomit and the sow who, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire (2 Pet. 2:22).
The late Bro. J.C. Bailey, back in 1987, wrote an article titled "Not Forsaking Our Own Assembling" in which he made the observation, "The Holy Spirit declares that Jesus saves those that obey Him -- Heb. 5:9. One of the ways in which we obey Him is to assemble on the first day of the week. Those who keep His commandments have the right to the tree of life. Those who disobey have a fearful expectation of judgment. To which can you look forward?" (The Old Paths Archive). There is also a tract put out by the Online Ministries (OLM) of the Churches of Christ titled "Do Not Forsake The Assembly." Notice the following excerpts from that tract: "The Hebrew writer names three grievous, deplorable sins of which a Christian becomes guilty when he forsakes the assembly. (1) He has trampled underfoot the Son of God, (2) He is guilty of counting the blood of Christ as common, and (3) He has despised the Spirit of divine grace." This tract gets even more specific -- "When one intentionally and purposely forsakes the assembly of the saints, he has done to Christ what the hogs do to precious pearls when they trample them in the muck and mire and filth of the hog pen."
One quickly detects in the language of the above articles that these particular writers are very much LAW-bound. They have taken the very positive principles contained in Heb. 10:25 and transformed them into divine LAW to be bound upon all people everywhere until the end of time. Specifically, they assert "The Assembly" is that entity which must never be "forsaken." They might be somewhat surprised to discover, however, that the idea of a specific Assembly (a noun), which implies a specific place and time, is NOT mentioned in the text of Heb. 10:25. Actually, in the Greek, this is a participial phrase (not a noun). It literally speaks of the action of disciples Assembling themselves together. It is the assembling of themselves as family that is encouraged, rather than holding up a particular assembly as a place to which they are obligated to appear at specified times.
Therefore, what is being strongly cautioned against in the passage is that attitude of heart that causes one to begin habitually avoiding intimate association with his fellow believers. They begin to pull away from the family. This is far more than just missing "Sunday morning services;" this is forsaking and abandoning the family of God and seeking out relationships with those outside the parameters of this fellowship. When God's children come together, whether it be for work or worship, fun or fellowship, these persons can be counted on to be habitually absent. They are abandoning the "assembling of themselves together" with their brothers and sisters in Christ. This is about much, much more than missing Sunday morning services; this is about a desertion of family.
Forsaking the Family
Our Lord desired His children to be One Family, not isolated bands of discordant disciples who refused fellowship with one another over a host of personal preferences elevated to the status of divine law. When we separate ourselves from one another, we literally "forsake the assembling of ourselves together." Let's face it, many in Christendom are in the habit of doing exactly this. This is about far more than one or two persons missing a church service on Sunday morning (although, certainly, such might easily be involved in the overall principle contained in the passage) -- this is primarily about people, whether individually or in larger groups, forsaking the coming together (unity) of our heavenly Father's Family as One People in Christ Jesus. When the Jews, to whom the writer of Hebrews addressed himself, began to drift away from Christ and back to Judaism, they were doing far more than missing a few church services .... they were forsaking the Family of God.
The Greek word translated "forsake" in Heb. 10:25 is enkataleipo, which means "to leave behind, forsake, abandon." The word is used by Paul when he said, "Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me" (2 Tim. 4:10). He uses the word again just a few verses later: "At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me" (vs. 16). When we abandon our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are guilty of forsaking the Family of God. If I make a habit of refusing intimate association with my spiritual brethren, wherever and whenever they may choose to come together, I am forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. If a group of disciples hold themselves aloof from another group of disciples because of a difference of opinion over some traditional practice, they are forsaking the assembling of themselves together as One Family. If two groups refuse fellowship to one another, meeting separately, they may indeed both attend "The Assembly," but they have forsaken the "assembling" of themselves together!! Thus, one may actually "go to church" faithfully, and yet still be guilty of habitually violating the teaching of Heb. 10:25.
Does Hebrews 10:25 have application to those individual disciples who were not attending "worship services" as regularly as they should? Yes, I believe it does. Indeed, why would devout disciples of Christ NOT want to assemble with the saints in a local setting at every possible opportunity?!! I can't help but think of the example of President James A. Garfield, who took office back in 1881. On the first Sunday following his inauguration, a member of his Cabinet insisted that a meeting be called to discuss a matter of national importance. President Garfield refused on the grounds that he had another appointment. The Cabinet member pleaded with the President to reconsider, but Garfield was adamant that he would not break his previous appointment. The Cabinet member said, "I would be interested to know with whom you have an engagement so important it cannot be broken." Garfield replied, "I will be as frank as you are. My engagement is with the Lord, to meet Him at His house at His table at 10:00 tomorrow morning, and I shall be there." This attitude should be ours as well. Why would we want to be anywhere else?! When brethren have no desire to be together, there is a problem!
However, it is my conviction that this application is only a very small part of the authorial intent .... only the tip of the iceberg! Failing to attend a specific assembly, even if such failure becomes habitual, is merely symptomatic; the real problem lies much deeper. These are men and women who have not only lost sight of the value of assembling together with fellow believers, but, more importantly, they have lost sight of the significance of FAMILY itself. They are not just missing an assembly ... they are deserting the Family of God. This is not about missing meetings, it is about forsaking family! Until we perceive this truth, we have missed the true meaning of the passage before us!
This is brought out quite dramatically in the Greek word employed in the text for "assembling together." It is "a very unusual word" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 12, p. 106), and only occurs twice in the entire New Testament documents. It is the word episunagoge, which really conveys the concept of the gathering together of the whole. When an entire family is united ... gathering itself together as a whole ... we find the thought behind this word. It is far more than the coming together of a portion of the whole, but rather the gathering together of ALL. The idea, then, is that some were in the habit of abandoning the One Body, leaving it less than whole and unified, in order to pursue their own selfish agendas.
Hebrews 10:25 is not LAW. There is no command to "go to church" in this passage, contrary to the teaching of many in the religious world today. Missing church services is NOT equivalent to "trampling underfoot the Son of God," or "regarding as unclean the blood of the covenant," or "insulting the Spirit of grace." But, I'll tell you what IS equivalent to those things!! It is the abandonment of God's other children so that one may form a faction around a personal preference. It is a party spirit. It is dividing the whole into warring camps. It is the forsaking of the gathering together of the One Body by refusing to even acknowledge as brethren those for whom our Lord shed His precious blood. When you erect barriers between brethren for whom He died, you regard as unclean and common that shed blood, you insult the Spirit of grace who unifies us into one family, and you trample the Son of God into the mire. Missing assemblies is not a good idea, but that is not what the author had in mind. It is rather the forsaking of the Family that truly constitutes sin so abhorrent that those who engage in it will assuredly face "a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries" (Heb. 10:27).
What the writer of Hebrews DOES do in the passage before us, however, is provide some wise counsel as to how we can "hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering" (vs. 23) in a world determined to defeat us. We do it, in part, by drawing upon the strength of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are family, and there are great benefits to maintaining those familial relationships. We "stimulate one another to love and good deeds" (vs. 24). We "encourage one another" (vs. 25). This is what family does for each other. We help each other through the hard times; we are there for each other; we love each other; we support one another! Brothers don't desert brothers! Sisters don't forsake sisters! We gather ourselves together, and we stand united against the world about us! Those who go out from among us, just show that they were not really of us, "for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us" (1 John 2:19). Family stays together! And when they do so, they reap the benefits.
As the great day of that eternal reunion draws near, we need more than ever before to stay united in Spirit as One Body. We need to encourage one another. We need to stimulate one another to greater expressions of love and devotion. We need to motivate one another to actions and attitudes that exemplify the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. We can only truly do this when we are unified. Therefore, as that great Day draws near, the writer of Hebrews urges the brethren to remain unified as the Family of God, to encourage one another, and to never, ever forsake their brothers and sisters. If we are going to survive as Family, we must put pettiness aside and accept one another as Christ has accepted us (Rom. 15:7). "Let us not be selfish, caring merely for ourselves; but let us have constantly in mind each other's wants and circumstances as members of the one family of God" (Dr. Robert Milligan, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 363).
The benefits of not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together are eternal in nature!! A house divided cannot stand, but one united will endure! The saints of the first century were experiencing tremendous persecution from several different fronts. If they were going to survive as a family, it was imperative they remain united. So must we. "Let the faithful give heed to keeping faith alive in themselves and others" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 21). "Keeping Faith Alive in 2005" is the theme for this current year of the congregation for which I preach, and where I serve as one of the elders. I happen to think it is a very good theme! One way to help accomplish this is to remain united in Spirit; loving one another ... encouraging one another ... stimulating one another to love and good deeds ... and NOT forsaking the Family of God. Wherever the Father has children, we must actively seek to embrace them! --- associating with them ... affiliating with them ... assembling with them!
Brethren, it is time .... indeed, past time .... to put aside our petty Party squabbles. The sectarian walls of exclusion must come down ... NOW! Let us cease this senseless forsaking of fellowship with one another, and instead seek to achieve the oneness for which our Lord prayed (John 17), and for which He shed His precious blood (Eph. 2:13-22). Will you join with me in helping to facilitate FAMILY? It will be a perilous journey, as many will oppose us! But the fruit of such an endeavor is well worth the price we may be called upon to pay. Or, will you continue to forsake God's Family? Please choose wisely! Your brothers and sisters are counting on you!! So is the Father! "Christian faith and witness will flourish the more vigorously in an atmosphere of Christian fellowship. ... This will never happen, however, if brethren keep one another at a distance. Therefore, every opportunity of coming together and enjoying their fellowship in faith and hope must be welcomed and used for mutual encouragement" (Dr. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 253).
From a Reader in Texas:
I have enjoyed your Reflections so much! I believe you have great insight in your teaching. The Lord has blessed you, and, in turn, I am blessed, encouraged, and, at times, admonished by the things that you teach. You give me good food for thought. I especially appreciated the lesson on Reciprocity. It makes me look at myself and realize self-righteousness is a problem with me at times. Thanks, and keep up the good work you are doing. Enclosed is my check for $20. Please send me the two CD's -- vol. 1 (2003) and vol. 2 (2004).
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Al, The legalists must be pulling their hair out after reading your latest article! I tend to think it was Roman time, which means they had the Lord's Supper on Monday morning! What's amazing is our Lord instituted the memorial meal on Thursday night! Is that not a "pattern"? Acts 2:46 says they "broke bread" every day. I guess if we remember our Lord's death every day, we will all go to hell -- according to the legalists ... so sad!
From a Reader in Alabama:
Brother Maxey, in my opinion, your articles are the most reasonable, helpful, and beneficial of any I have ever read, and I am 75 years old. I am under the impression that you are a minister for a congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but I cannot find a statement to confirm this. Would you please advise me if this is true, and give me the address and phone number of the meeting place. I would like to visit sometime in the near future.
From a Reader in California:
I was meditating recently on one of your Reflections articles, and it occurred to me how far we've come from the days of the New Testament. Back in the days of the apostles John and Paul, battling false doctrine meant refuting those false teachers who were out there preaching that Jesus was not the Son of God, or that Jesus did not really come in the flesh. Paul and John even battled folks who said that immorality was an acceptable part of worship, or that circumcision was essential to salvation. But now we've got to fight on a totally different front: whether or not it is appropriate to play an instrument in the worship service, whether or not someone should clap in worship, or (horror of horrors) did someone think about Christ on the wrong day in the wrong way! I can only imagine what some of those mighty warriors of faith would say if they were to come back today and find us squabbling over such trivial matters. It is embarrassing to read about their monumental struggle to hold high the banner of Truth against forceful opposition from evil men, and then observe the pettiness of so many of today's struggles ... and between brothers and sisters no less! Thank you for shining the light of Truth on the Scriptures. I always feel especially blessed when I see your name pop up in my in-box.
From a Reader in (Unknown):
I enjoy reading your stuff, even if I don't always agree with you on everything! For the most part, what you have to say is right on! It would be great if we could break out of our tradition-minded mold and be truly free in Christ! It seems we have been to several of the same places -- I spent many years in Germany and attended the K-Town congregation right after you left. We were also in Hawaii and were baptized at Pearl Harbor in l965. If I were to make a guess, it would be that your experience in preaching for military congregations, where every faction in our brotherhood is represented, and yet they somehow manage to become ONE in Christ, has had a profound effect on you! I know serving as an elder for the Ojana congregation on Okinawa at its peak was an eye opening experience for me!
From a Minister/Author in Colorado:
Dear brother Al, Thanks for your article about Acts 20:7. I was surprised that you didn't point out that in verse 11 the Greek indicates that only Paul ate (it is in the singular), and that the word for "eat" in that verse is never used for the Lord's Supper, but is the word used for "taste."
From a Reader in (Unknown):
It bothers me when I hear of churches being split over the most unimportant things. I have heard of people fighting over things like having a church bus, or if it is scriptural to have a kitchen in the church building! While the Body is discussing these topics, Satan is having a great time, because he knows that during this time God's message of salvation is not being preached. I can imagine that at this same time God is heartbroken for the very same reason. People who nitpick over stuff like this need to be shown the right way, but if they continue to argue about this stuff, then the time must come for the rest of us to just flat out ignore them. Mr. Maxey, please continue to reach out with your Internet ministry, and continue to send me your emails each week. Thank you for the wonderful service you have provided me. I appreciate your hard work!
From a Prison Minister in Oklahoma:
Dear Al, Sometimes an article is reread just to get the flavor of it, sometimes to look for flaws, and sometimes just because it is "too close for comfort." Such was the Principle of Reciprocity. It was entirely too close for comfort. My rereading it reminded me of a story about W.C. Fields near his own death. He was found to be reading the Bible, and a friend remarked that he did not know that Mr. Fields had suddenly "gone religious," to which Mr. Fields replied, "Just looking for the loopholes, my boy, just looking for the loopholes." Like him, I could not find any. Thanks for the admonition, brother, it did me lots of good.
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