A good friend of ours recently asked a question which is a good question to ask anyone in our current situation: What church are you attending? Some years ago this question would have unsettled me, because my cultural and religious background carries with it the underlying assumption that Paul’s “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together” (“...not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing…” in the NET translation) means regular attendance in a church where it seems God would place you.
The passage goes on to admonish the reader to say: “...but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near.” Encouraging one another has an underlying assumption, namely, that we have the skills/ability to be an encouragement to another person. Often this falls on the Pastor of a given church to bring a message that is encouraging, while parishioners often attend to be encouraged. This belief that attendance in a church is what the writer of Hebrews intended is supported by what some believe to be the dangers of not assembling together: discouragement, doubt, depression, the power of prayer is hindered and purposes are missed. To me, however, this is supporting a specific interpretation that results in circular reasoning, which is to say the premise of an idea is supported by the conclusion of that premise which is unsubstantiated except through the assertions of the premise.
The role of a Pastor is to bring that encouragement, but also to shepherd the people of their fellowship, which sometimes means something different than encouragement. That is a wonderful trail of thought to pursue, but not for this particular blog. Part of my thoughts on this blog’s subject are presented in the Got Questions blog at gotquestions.blog/not-forsaking-assembling. Essentially, the author of that blog maintains that large church gatherings are not what is intended by that scripture. The conclusion in the article is that Paul states we should obey the government authority when lockdowns are established, however unfair they are, but when small groups of Christians are prevented from meeting, that is when Acts 5:29 comes into play. Another article at livingproof.co/hebrews-10-25-do-not-forsake-assembling/ supports the cultural understanding of church attendance by stating that there are "3 dangers of not assembling together" which are; "discouragement, doubt and depression set in, purposes are missed and the power of prayer is hindered. I will attempt to address each of these "dangers" in this blog, not to undermine the importance of Christ's church on earth, but to question the inherent assumptions pertaining to the cultural understanding of church attendance being the fulfillment of Hebrews 10:25.
If we understand that the context of the admonition in Hebrews was to encourage the small group expression of Christianity in homes that was the foundation established by the Apostles, some ideas within Scripture begin to make more sense and we may discover that our cultural practices are at odds with authentic Christianity. For instance, how can we be more like the Bereans if we cannot converse together on the meaning of Scripture? Some would say that is what a Pastor is paid to do, but then the parishioners by definition are not Berean, but are avoiding their responsibility to actively investigate, evaluate and understand Scripture. Small groups of Christians can do this, large church gatherings place the emphasis on the Pastor doing the heavy lifting of biblical research and prayerful contemplation. Small group gatherings within a brick and mortar church are a more recent practice, but even some of those are more one-way conduits of information rather than events where the individuals engage with Scripture. Part of the problems inherent to small groups are not the cause of the structure, but of the people that do not engage with each other, having no desire to pursue a better knowledge of their faith in Christ by addressing difficult questions regarding what Christianity implies.
Let me now briefly address the cultural beliefs that support the interpretation that this passage implies church attendance in the model of the American “brick and mortar” church that are presented in the second referenced article. First, discouragement, doubt, depression. These are attributes that describe a person without the assurance of God’s love and acceptance, regardless of whether they are in a church or not. If this was a reason to attend church, then those who are in prison or persecuted for Christ’s sake would be vulnerable to this outcome. We find, however, that many of those who undergo these experiences who are grounded in Scripture do not exhibit these symptoms, though they are not attending a brick and mortar “church”.
The power of prayer being hindered has the underlying assumption that prayers are only powerful in the context of a “church”. Scripture itself provides abundant evidence that this is fallacious. Think about the KJV Scripture alone that states: “The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” or in the ESV translation: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”. There are many other numerous examples of prayer outside of the organized church by individuals and small groups of believers that have been effective throughout known history.
Purposes are missed contains half-truths that sound good at first, but are again based on premises that when evaluated reveal their false assumptions. First, we need to understand what is meant by purposes. If it is the purposes of the church, then the statement is true. But what are the purposes of the church? That is what I call circular reasoning. If the meaning of purposes has to do with the purposes of God here on earth, then the statement becomes murky at best, and false at worst. For instance, we could start with the idea that who can know the purposes of God? We know that one of His purposes is that He longs to redeem His creation, and sent His son, Jesus Christ to live, die and rise from the dead as the Redeemer of mankind. Beyond that, are the purposes of God fulfilled in a brick and mortar church exclusively, or in the “Bride of Christ” which is His church? The two are not synonymous, as some would postulate.
I could go on, but I think my reader gets the ideas I am stating here that did not come without prayer and consideration of what Scripture actually states. So what does it mean to be Berean? I have understood it for some time now to be the pursuit of how God speaks through his word and through people that have talked and written about the nature and functioning of God in our world. I have learned a lot about God from the various Pastors I have sat under and listened to over the years, and I am grateful for their contribution to my beliefs and understanding of how God works in and through this world and my family and myself. But their perspectives were often limited, and at times conflicted with what I would read in Scripture. There was no context to discuss these things with most Pastors or people who were also diligently seeking to understand Scripture. The church model in nearly every church I have attended during my 66 years of life has been a one-way conduit of teaching and relationship. In some cases I have experienced, Pastors avoided discussing what they had articulated from the pulpit with their parishioners. This makes sense in some contexts, such as a large church where there is little time for relationships of this nature with most parishioners. Indeed, a pastor’s time can be exhausted with just a few people that are “ever hearing but never understanding” as Matthew 13:14 states.
So Rachel and I began taking time to expand our understanding of God through a more regular reading of Scripture and listening to podcasts from various Christian apologists. I read commentaries and various authors that would write about subjects of inquiry. In some cases I was able to converse directly with the authors, much to my delight! One of the books was penned by a former atheist, Peter Hitchens titled The Rage Against God. Some people close to us have deconstructed their faith in God and others are close to that state of mind. This book provided a perspective that I do not remember hearing in the churches I have attended. I took time to read it, and God revealed that His hand was in these situations. I have been encouraged since to continue to pray for these people, understanding better their choices and the potential that their lives have as image bearers of God even though they don’t yet know it. Alisa Childers has some great podcasts regarding her journey from doubt to belief, and a deeper understanding of what is happening in some church cultures relating to biblical faith in God.
Rupert Sheldrake wrote a book called Science Set Free that helped me understand that I have reason to acknowledge the spiritual element of our lives that my career in technology and science seems to want to banish from intelligent conversation. Rupert is not what I would call an Evangelical Christian, but his insights are certainly worth being exposed to, for they lay waste the fallacies of “the material world is all there is” philosophy of Dawkins and other celebrated atheist authors that purport to undergird our current technically driven culture.
Creation Basics & Beyond is a book written by a team of Ph.D., M.A, and Th.D. authors that take an in-depth look at Science, Origins and Evolution. The book decimates the theory of evolution that undergirds much of the subconscious thinking of our culture, and sadly, many churches. I am wading through that book, reading and re-reading the thoughts of deeply thoughtful and intelligent people, some that I have now had the pleasure of meeting in person at various events and conferences where Christ followers have gathered together to learn about His creation and His ways.
Along the same lines, Made In His Image by Randy J. Guliuzza examines the complexities of the human body and has been immensely useful in providing a solid medical basis for Rachel’s and my changed understanding of our responsibility in our own physical health. The author goes into the biological processes that are going on in our body and provides the basis for a revelation that has changed our lives in the past 5 years regarding the stewardship of our physical health. Basically, we came to understand what I Peter 1:1-4 means in terms of our health: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness”. We have been led to understand that our trust had not been in God for our health, but in the advice and counsel of Doctors trained in the arts and practices of the pharmaceutical industry. We had to come to the point of confessing the sin of this idol before God before we were able to come into a better understanding of how we can better steward our health.
A supplemental book in this regards that did not come from a Christ-follower perspective, but provided tangential evidence of what many others know and practice in regards to stewarding their health was presented in the book The Inside Effects that is a compilation of various health practitioners. I am reminded that “All truth is God’s truth”, and sometimes God speaks through donkeys if His people withhold crucial information from other Christ followers, which has been the practice of many American churches regarding health issues.
The last book is a nod towards the influence of C.S. Lewis, Awakening Wonder. This is a book that feels like you are in someones living room in Colorado during a gentle winter snow, with a fire in the fireplace and a dog contentedly laying on the rug while you and the author converse about C.S. Lewis. The author’s intent is to create a thirst in the reader to understand and read C.S. Lewis’s works and understand better the depth from which he wrote. This book is perhaps the most important book for today, in that too few people have a curiosity or a drive to know God better, or even how to develop that hunger and thirst for truth. Richard Latta weaves that underlying (unspoken) theme throughout the book, a gentle reminder to “go further up, and further in”.
What books have increased your hunger and thirst for God, and led you closer to Him in the past year?
An insightful book I am currently reading that explores the issues brought up in this blog in terms of race and gender is Abdu Murray's book "More Than a White Man's Religion". That book will certainly percolate out in my future writings regarding my belief and trust in God.