Answering the Church Truancy OfficersMonday, June 01, 2015
I was a bit troubled by an article I read yesterday. In fact, I'd be dishonest if I didn't say I was deeply troubled. Nathan Rose is the senior pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Liberty, Missouri and a Legacy Church Planting coach with NAMB. He recently wrote blog post entitled, "5 Spiritual Dangers of Skipping Church."
He begins his article with his firm belief that, "Not only is it disheartening, it is also spiritually dangerous for those who profess Christ, but regularly miss worship with their church family."
I wanted to take a few moments and list his "5 Dangers" and briefly unpack them. Why? Because they contain long-held assumptions about church with which I was raised, and on which I built my pastoral ministry for many years. Tens of thousands of other believers have had the same upbringing. Yet when we just ask the simple question, "Where does the NT teach that?", we will find these assumptions dissolving and slipping away quickly. What we do about it and how we react to it is another topic altogether.
1. You will miss out on God’s primary design for your spiritual growth and well-being.
"The central aspect of corporate worship is the preaching of God’s Word." I used to believe this with all my heart. But it's not true. The New Testament does not teach this. The NT references meetings in which believers would gather to "one another" each other with their spiritual gifts. But there is no reference to an idea of "corporate worship." Hence, there's no reference to it having the central aspect of preaching.
"The proclamation of Scriptures is God’s primary means for a disciple of Jesus to grow in spiritual maturity." Again, this is not true. The New Testament doesn't teach this. Jesus told us plainly in Matthew 28:18-20 that obeying the things He taught is the focus of discipleship and making disciples. Naturally, the Scriptures contain those things He taught. But the proclamation of the Scriptures is not God's primary means for growing in spiritual maturity. Obedience to it is. James 1:22-23 teaches us that obeying the Word is more important than hearing it...or than proclaiming it.
"When a professing Christian misses church they are missing God’s prescribed process for spiritual growth." Once more, this is not true, on many levels. None of the assumptions made in this statement are found in the New Testament. First, a professing Christian cannot "miss church" because a professing Christian IS part of the church. Second, the author uses "church" to refer to a corporate gathering on a Sunday morning, while this is not the way the NT uses the word. Third, the NT does not teach any prescribed process for spiritual growth. Rather, those who are the children of God are led by the Spirit of God, according to Romans 8. The Holy Spirit indwells every believer and leads and guides them in spiritual growth.
2. You disobey God.
The author believes that, "Corporate worship is not optional for the Christian, according to the Bible," citing Hebrews 10:24-25. He concludes his point by emphatically stating, "God’s people ought to strive to keep God’s commands. One of his commands is meeting together regularly for corporate worship." This passage was once my weapon for vigorously defending the mandatory attendance of believers at a Sunday morning corporate worship gathering. However, I have since learned several things using the Bible study skills I learned in Bible college and seminary.
First, as I mentioned above, there is no reference or teaching in the NT regarding "corporate worship." Jesus taught the woman at the well, in John 4, that the Father is seeking the kind of worshipers who worship in spirit and in truth. He said this after implying that the form of worship became obsolete when He came to earth, referring to the places of worship ("this mountain or that") in Jerusalem and Samaria. Worship in the New Covenant is about function, not form. Therefore, ascribing or prescribing a particular form to worship, such as "corporate" is not in keeping with how Jesus Himself understood worshiping the Father. Further, Paul teaches us in Romans 12:1-2 that offering our entire lives as living sacrifices is the holy and acceptable worship God requires today. So while Christians gathering together to worship as a corporate group is a truly wonderful experience, it is not something Jesus teaches His disciples to do.
Second, citing Hebrews 10:24-25 is an unfortunate usage of the passage. Bible interpretation is important. And context is the key to Bible interpretation. The letter was written to Christians whose turn to Jesus away from Judaism had cost them their family, their friends, their jobs, and their livelihood. It was tempting to want to go back because the suffering and exclusion and persecution was intense. Yet in the midst of such a mind-boggling temptation that most of us will never understand, the writer of Hebrews encourages them that gathering together to encourage each other and stimulate one another to love and good deeds - sticking together in Jesus - is the best thing to do. When the believers neglected to do so, unbelief and bitterness could breed. So technically, in its immediate context, neglecting to gather together to do the things mentioned in the passage is definitely disobedience...when you are being tempted to leave Jesus and return to the Old Covenant because of persecution. Am I saying that believers should therefore never gather together to encourage each other? Of course not. I'm simply saying that when we try to obligate people to do so when they are not in the same situation as the Hebrew Christians were is a twisting of this text and aims at others a false guilt and conviction of something that probably isn't a sin for them to begin with.
3. You make a statement to the world that God is not worthy of worship.
Such a statement is truly baffling in light of what the NT actually teaches about worship. It says absolutely nothing of the sort. And such a statement is a wholesale dismissal of the explicit things the NT does say about worship. Take Philippians 1:27, for example. Paul is explicit about what it means to live a life that is worthy of the Good News about Jesus, and there is no mention of corporate worship. There IS mention of them "standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith..." (NLT). Yet corporate worship on a Sunday morning is found nowhere in the entire letter to the Philippians as a description of a life that makes a statement to the world that God is worthy of worship.
In fact, a few verses later in chapter 2, we find how believers are supposed to make that statement to the world: by living in unity with one another, preferring one another, just like Jesus did for us. This passage contradicts the author's belief that, "Replacing your church’s regularly scheduled worship time with some other activity demonstrates that God is not actually worthy of our worship; something else is." In all actuality, living out Philippians 2:1 ff. in a way that the Spirit leads you to live it instead of "your church's regularly scheduled worship time" may be the perfect replacement, after all!
4. You can’t minister to anyone.
Without any desire to be sarcastic, I've got to ask: are you serious? I mean, are you really, really serious? If a Christian does not attend a regularly scheduled Sunday morning corporate worship service they are incapable of ministering to anyone? The author nails it when he says that worship can too often be "too individualistic and self-centered. As Christians, our lives are to be spent serving, helping, and encouraging others." However, he is completely off the mark when he continues,
"Missing church robs you of an opportunity to serve someone other than yourself. If you are gone on Sunday morning you can’t offer a word of encouragement to someone who needs it; you can’t welcome an unbeliever who doesn’t usually come to church; you can’t pray with a fellow member who is suffering; you can’t encourage the other members with your voice during times of corporate singing; you can’t encourage your pastor with your presence while he preaches the sermon he has labored over all week. These are just a few ways you can’t serve if you are absent on Sunday morning."
If I am the church, if I am a part of the body of Jesus, then it is impossible that missing a regularly scheduled Sunday morning corporate worship gathering robs me of anything at all, really. If I am able to only serve someone other than myself on Sundays, I have a severely, deplorable, mutated version of serving others. Let's set the record straight with facts. I myself, and many, many others as well, have offered many a word of encouragement to someone who needs it without being present at a church building on a Sunday morning. I have welcomed unbelievers into the family of Jesus on a Sunday, as well as on other days of the week. I have prayed with many fellow members of Jesus' body who are suffering while missing a Sunday meeting. The NT doesn't teach believers that their voices should be lifted in corporate singing, but instead does teach that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit we sing to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts, giving thanks to God (Eph. 5:17-19). The NT doesn't teach us anywhere that a pastor should labor all week over a sermon to deliver on Sundays, but instead shows in passages like 1 Corinthians 14:26 that all believers are to "one another" each other with their spiritual gifts, and those with the spiritual gift of teaching should use it (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Peter 4:10-11)!
5. You skip out on a foretaste of heaven.
The author ends on a great point, however. It is true that, "God created us to worship him," and that this is the primary reason we exist. He explains, "Similarly, Sunday morning worship is a like string of breathing holes the Lord provides for his people guiding and sustaining them until they make it to their true home in heaven." My disagreement is that every day of the week is like that string of breathing holes. The Lord provides us with each other to guide and sustain us. Meeting together, breaking bread in our homes together, doing life together, raising families together, working together, etc. are all the very normal courses of life we take in which we "one another" each other. If a believer never gathered with other believers at any time, in any place, for any reason at all, then I would be deeply concerned for them. But if their heart beats to be with their brothers and sisters in Christ, to fellowship with them, to encourage and build them up, then this is God's intention for us all, regardless of the day of the week on which it occurs. And if believers choose to do that together on a Sunday morning, then more of God's power to them! Let it be! But at the same time do not turn a wonderful thing like a Sunday gathering of believers into an obligatory matter of obedience to God when the NT does not teach this.
Our word for "church" today comes from the Greek word ekklesia. It refers to a community of people who've been called out of the rest of the population to be together for a special purpose. God called out his people before the foundation of the world, in order to be a part of his family. And as members of his family we exist to love God and to love one another. That love can be expressed in a variety of ways and should be guided by the Holy Spirit, instead of some preconceived set of formalized, religious obligations. The New Covenant is better than the Old Covenant because the New Covenant is about the Holy Spirit leading and guiding us instead of a written codified set of laws. One of the implications for us is that there is no specific, codified day of the week that God wants some formalized mode or method of worshiping him. It just isn't there in the NT no matter how hard we may want it or look for it. Rather, God's people use their spiritual gifts to encourage each other and build each other up...all the time...Sunday through Saturday...in as many creative ways as the Spirit leads.
I trust that readers will be open to asking the hard questions and allowing their soul the space and time to consider the answers.
Image above used by permission of the author in keeping with image use policies.