Thou Shalt Go To Church?

Introduction

For many years, our family (wife and kids) were the epitome, the paragon, of church-goers, backing up our commitment to the local body of believers with membership and involvement outside of Sunday worship. When, in 1996, we started to question some of the teachings of our church and its practices, we initiated a small home-church involving a few families. We also started researching scripture as to what a church should be, and what our responsibilities are with regard to support of fellow believers and glorifying God. Of course we consulted the most respected protestant writers on the subject…

To our surprise, we found that the Bible contains NO command that can be interpreted as regular church attendance or membership. We do not believe that such a practice is wrong, but we hope that people who do belong to a church do so with their eyes and hearts open, not because of a feeling of guilt or duty.

We are happy to attend a church, for the sake of Christian fellowship. However, when the situation makes this difficult, we will not feel that we are neglectful of our spiritual well-being or disobedient to God’s commandments.

When asked, “So, where do you worship,” I am of a mind to paraphrase Jesus’ own advice on the subject: “In spirit and truth.”

John 4:21,23 – Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”

Sabbath Day Observance

The Sabbath day, literally the ‘Seventh’ Day, was a holy day in which to remember God’s Creation. The first six days were for labour. The seventh was for rest. Why? Because God rested.

The Ten Commandments make this clear and unambiguous:

Exodus 20:8-11 – “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you.

“For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”

It was not just one day out of seven. It was the seventh day. God rested only after He worked. That is the pattern He commanded His people to follow. To rest on the first day might be in keeping with some notion of resting one day out of seven, but this is not why God instituted the Sabbath. At the end of your labours comes rest.

“But couldn’t it be considered that Sunday comes after the six days, from Monday to Saturday? After all, we call it the ‘weekend’.”

To assert this is to miss the point. Why not Wednesday, coming after the six days from Thursday to Tuesday? The fact is, the people to whom God gave the commandment began the counting at day 1, which we now call ‘Sunday’. No Christian calls Sunday anything other than the first of the week, and it is with this in their mind that they claim to observe the ‘Sabbath’.

Does this mean that ‘Seventh Day’ denominations are more in keeping with the spirit of the commandment? We believe so, at least as far as the Old Covenant is concerned.

However, we are not in the Old Covenant.

One interesting aspect of Sabbath observance is that most believe it is a day of rest, and of course the day to attend church. However, when the commandment was first given, there was no mention of going to church. In fact, the earliest accounts of Sabbath keeping dealt strictly with the rest aspect, and had nothing to do with any meetings at all.

Exodus 16:23-29 –  then he said to them, “This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.”
So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul nor was there any worm in it.
Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field.
“Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.”
“See, the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”

To honor God, one did not go to church, or have Bible studies, or hear good solid teaching, or fellowship with other believers. One rested. Sacrifices performed on the Sabbath did not occur till later, suggesting that the true spirit of the commandment had nothing to do with anything except resting, because in that we honour God who rested from His labours.

As Christians, of course, we understand that this rest foreshadowed the rest we find in Jesus Christ.

New Sabbath?

Most ‘First Day’ Christians claim that in Jesus, the Sabbath was moved to the Sunday, because that was the day on which Jesus was resurrected. Apart from the fact that this might not have been the case (this is another interesting study), the day of the resurrection has nothing to do with the day of God’s rest from His creation. We should not confuse any Sabbath rest day with honouring the resurrection.

Many Christians call Sunday the ‘Lord’s Day’, based on the assumption of the resurrection having occurred on the Sunday. There is only one reference to ‘the Lord’s Day’: Revelation 1:10 – “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet…” (which in itself does not identify the day as the first of the week). Further, the phrase “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day,” though often taken to mean that John meditated on The Lord’s Day’ (whenever that was), could just as likely have meant “In the Spirit, I was at the Day of the Lord.” Or, to use the same (English) words, what many interpret as:

“I was in the Spirit, on the Lord’s Day” could well be:

“I was, in the Spirit, on the Lord’s Day.” or “In the Spirit, I was on the Lord’s Day.”

In the Greek, the phrases “Lord’s Day” and “Day of the Lord” are virtually identical. That there is any difference at all means nothing, as “the Lord’s Day” is only used in this one verse. The context suggests that it is more likely to refer to the Day of the Lord (the whole theme of the book) rather than to the resurrection.

The Weymouth NT translates the verse: “In the Spirit I found myself present on the day of the Lord…”

The Greek Interlinear simply says: “I became in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day…”

Many take the view that it was common practice of Christians to meet on the Sunday, and early church history does indeed tend to support this. However, we must be careful to base our theology on the Word of God – not the word of the early theologians.

Acts 20:7 – On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.

The assumption here is that they did not meet together on the other days. It simply states that they had gathered on that first day. If I said, “On Tuesday, when I went to work …” does this mean that I only work on Tuesdays? Also, the word Sabbaton, translated ‘week’, could refer to any seven day period. In the preceding verse, it was stated that they had stayed there for seven days. Verse 7 could read simply “On the first day of the seven days …” Personally, I cannot assert this, and am happy to concede that they probably did, in this case, meet on the Sunday…

1 Corinthians 16:2 – On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.

Again, there is an assumption here that when each one was to put aside and save, that was the regular and exclusive day for meeting together.

In fact,

Acts 5:42 – And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.

Teaching and preaching occurred daily, not on a particular ‘holy’ day.

The references above are the only ones that hint at a Sunday meeting of disciples.

Notice that:

  • nowhere is the Sunday referred to as a Sabbath, and
  • nowhere are Sabbath observances held on those days.

The Sabbath Fulfilled

The disciples may or may not have regularly met on the first day, and it may or may not have been called the Lord’s Day. However there is no evidence that the Sabbath keeping according to the Old Covenant Law was adhered to.

In fact, such Old Covenant practices as were insisted upon by Jewish Christians were proclaimed ‘obsolete’ under the New Covenant.

Colossians 2:16 – Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.

Keeping of the Old Covenant rituals was of course habitually practised by the Jewish Christians. Other Christians, presumably either Gentile Christians or Jewish Christians who understood fulfilment, did not practise these rituals.

Romans 14:1-6 – Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.

One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him…

One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.

He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.

The ritualistic laws were not annulled or removed, no less than the sacrifices. They were fulfilled. The outward show of worship and honour to God had been replaced by real worship and honour.

John 4:21-24 – Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…

“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.

“God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The sacrifices were a picture of Jesus, the real sacrifice. The symbolism was inadequate, and once fulfilled, was completely replaced.

The Sabbath rest was also a picture of our real rest in Jesus. The symbolism pointed the way, but was inadequate, and once fulfilled, was also to be replaced.

Matthew 11:28-29 – “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

In Jesus, not in the Sabbath, do we find rest for our souls.

The writer of Hebrews draws out this reality. Those that believe and trust God find rest in Him. Those that don’t are denied this rest.

Hebrews 3:7-11 – Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness… As I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest.”

He goes on to show that Christians on the one hand, enter into that rest, while the disobedient to Christ do not enter into it:

3:14-4:11 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, and with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?

And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.

Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it.

For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works;” and again in this passage, “They shall not enter my rest.”

Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience,

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.

For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.

We enter into His rest by our belief in Jesus. We participate in the sacrifice by our belief in Jesus. If we insist on outward Sabbath resting, we should also insist on outward sacrifices.

The Spirit, quoted in Revelation, proclaims that because of the work of Jesus, we have our rest:

Revelation 14:13 – And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!'” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.”

Command to meet together

Saturday, Sunday, Sabbath … The whole point is, of course, that we must meet together in a church, right? Surely the Scriptures clearly command such a practice!

Hebrews 10:23-25 – Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Why was the instruction given by the writer of Hebrews? He had just explained that Jesus was a better priest, a better sacrifice, and that the old covenant was redundant. This new teaching was not yet written down, but had to be taught thoroughly, particularly among those Jewish Christians that held on to old traditions. They had to encourage one another, and so on. They did not have their own bible, or commentaries. To not meet together would necessarily mean losing the plot, reverting to old ways, and ultimately not holding fast to the confession of their hope.

Further, amidst the confusion and persecution, there was the indication that they would “see the day (of the Lord) drawing near.” This was an especially important time to get their faith strengthened, and so an important time to meet with other Christians.

We are not saying that it is unimportant to meet with other Christians, but the message in Hebrews is to people with no other way of receiving teaching and encouragement.

We all need encouragement and sound doctrine. There are many ways of achieving this. However, this passage is not about Sunday church worship. It is about fellowship, “not forsaking our own assembling together…”

We are now able to get our teaching directly from the apostles and Jesus Himself- God has graciously allowed their words to be recorded. Nevertheless, Christian fellowship strengthens faith and maintains sound doctrine – if it is a fellowship that is founded upon sound doctrine. Unfortunately, it is also possible that it can perpetuate unsound doctrine.

Some comments we have heard regarding church attendance

“Going to an unsound church is better than not going at all.”
This directly contradicts the spirit of Hebrews 10.

“No, I don’t agree with everything the pastor teaches, but…”
So, you would let your children be taught error? If you have to set them straight afterwards, doesn’t this undermine the preacher’s supposedly God-ordained role in the church? What are your children going to learn about the church this way?

How can you get by without Christian fellowship?
If church is the only source of Christian fellowship, there is definitely something wrong. It is tantamount to saying: “How can you learn anything without going to school?”

Colossians 2:16-17 – Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day, things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

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