Friday, June 01, 2007

What Scripture Says About the Congregation - Old Testament

Is it necessary for a person to worship with other believers/be a part of a congregation as a Christian?

Honestly, it can be answered by quoting two little verses from Hebrews:

“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24-25

As believers, we are not supposed to forsake the gathering of believers. Why? One reason is expressed above. Because we are to exhort each other and strengthen each other. If we are not with other believers, we cannot do this, and then they do not have the opportunity to do this also for us, and as we get closer to the time of Christ’s return, our strengthening each other becomes even more important.

A good friend of mine was once told by her pastor that it was important that we sing in church, because who knows who may be sitting next to you and hear your singing and be uplifted by it, but downtrodden if the congregation is sitting there mumbling the hymns. I can vouch for this, too. My husband’s first call was to a small congregation of about 30 people. Sometimes fifteen were in church, sometimes as many as forty-five. Just seeing the church a little more full would lift people’s spirits. It was visibly clear in how they sat and in how they sang. It is even noticeable here in a bigger congregation. We all have reasons for not going to church at times, but sometimes it may make a difference to know that you contribute to the well being of your brothers and sisters in Christ just by sitting in the pew. Maybe you don’t feel like you need that, but another person sitting in the pew might need you. How much more if you share a smile and a handshake? If you attend Bible Study? If you serve in a way that is needed?

But even going beyond this verse, the whole Bible talks about the importance of coming together as believers. While so many verses do not specifically say “you must come together to worship” the very nature of the People of Israel shows that it is how God wants it to be, even in the Old Testament.

You truly see the existence of the congregation when you look at the Children of Israel before they come out of Egypt. God reveals to Moses who He is and then calls him to deliver His people via the burning bush. Moses, despite the many faults that he enumerates, is God’s chosen leader. Moses goes to Egypt, where Aaron presents him to the elders of the children of Israel. The Israelites recognized Moses’s call and believed, “and they bowed their heads and worshiped.” (Exodus 4:31b) This is what happens when a pastor is called to a congregation. The congregation recognizes that he is the one God has called to lead them in the stead of Christ, and they worship God for providing them with an undershepherd. Like Moses was far from perfect (and he was the first one to tell you that…but the faults that got him into trouble were not the ones that he listed) no pastor is either. Sometimes their faults are very painful to their flock and to themselves.

Because Moses proclaims the truth to Pharoah, the Israelites are afflicted with more work, and suffer from several of the plagues God inflicts upon Egypt. A promise we also receive, that we will suffer in the name of the Gospel. As sinners, they do not patiently await God’s will, but instead they complain. But still they suffer together. Moses tells Pharoah that God wants him to let His people to go out to the desert for a few days for a feast and to worship….all of them. Not a few, not one tribe or another. All of them. The promises that God makes to deliver them extend to all of them (Exodus Ch 6). They are God’s people.

Then, there is the Passover. God’s final curse to the Egyptians is that He will take their firstborn. What rescues the children of Israel? That their households bear God’s mark. Each household individually, if it doesn’t have the faith to follow through with God’s command will be cursed, but those who do, will be saved by following the same ritual, eating in the same manner, and even wearing the same thing – not by doing their own thing. They were saved by the blood of the lamb on their door frames, and only by the blood of the lamb (Exodus Ch. 12).

After that, every single one of them went to the desert with Moses. It was in a group of 600,000 men, not including the children, and their animals also, all on foot. And the way Exodus puts it is “And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years – on that very same day – it came to pass that all the armies of the Lord went out from the Land of Egypt.” Is not the Christian Church referred to as the Church Militant? The imperfect, sinful soldiers – often grumbling and undisciplined – but still there to fight against Satan and all evil, and to defend each other from His wrath. And like us, it is not by their might that they won their fights, but by God’s (Exodus 14, Exodus 17: 8-16). Soldiers fight together. With rare exception are soldiers sent off alone to fight their battles alone without backup. They are too easily captured and destroyed that way (I believe they generally call those “suicide missions”). Armies that are scared scatter and flee and are defeated. A victorious army remains one unit.

In the desert, God provided for their every need and even though they often didn’t like the manner in which He did so, He preserved them according to the covenant He made with them, in fact, even despite the fact that they did not uphold their end of the covenant.

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people, for the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5)

It is not a covenant with 600,000 + individuals. It is a covenant between God and those who worship Him. God took a people whose identity was based on whom they were descended from, and through this covenant, He completely changed that identity. They were no longer simply Hebrews. They were the chosen people of God. Not 600,000 + chosen individuals, but ONE chosen people. Through the Law and the promises that God gave them, the rituals that He proscribed, their identities as a people changed from being an ethnic group called the Hebrews to being Jews, which means holy. And others could enter that covenant and be God’s chosen people as well, provided that they too took on the mark of the covenant, circumcision, and observed God’s Law as they waited for the coming Messiah (see Ruth). They were to gather at the same place, follow the same rituals, make the same sacrifices to atone for their sins, and observe the same Holy Days.

Individual faith is necessary. Each person needs to have faith in the covenant. This is shown that when the people complained against Moses in Numbers 21. God sent fiery serpents to bite them, but if they looked up at the fiery serpent raised up on a pole, and all each person had to do was look to it, they were again made well.

Over and over again, the unity of the people of Israel, the way that God relates to them as one people shows that we are not merely individuals as we relate to God. We are saved through our individual faith (which is a gift from Him through His Holy Spirit. The people of Israel did not ask to be God’s chosen people…He picked them, and they certainly didn’t do anything to earn it, and we haven’t either) because Christ died on the cross for the sins of each and every one of us. But, He does not intend for us to be alone. In fact, casting someone out was a punishment. Both the Old Testament and the New address that those who have rebelled against God should be cut off (Psalm 37:9 – “For Evildoers shall be cut off,” Proverbs 2:22 – “But the wicked will be cut off from the earth and the unfaithful will be uprooted from it,” 1 Corinthians 5)We also see that in the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) - it was a means to weaken a strong people, to keep the whole from being corrupted by the evil that was brewing.

When Solomon made God’s temple per God’s command, so His people could come to Him, those of the rebellious ten tribes would not go there to worship Him. They wanted to continue to worship Him at their high places and do it their way, despite the fact that God had always made His will clear that He would live in the midst of His people in a temple, in His city, Jerusalem. So they worshiped him in a way that He did not want, and very quickly, their own desires began to change their God into the God of whim, not the God who revealed Himself in the Pentateuch, reigned over them, and provided for their every need. The Israelites mixed his identity with the Canaanite Baals, they created myths where He was married to Asherah, they established fertility rites, temple prostitution, and even sacrificed their own children as the Canaanites did. They didn’t heed the prophets that God sent to call them back to Him. So God sent the Assyrians, and they were scattered with the wind, never to return.

Yet even when Elijah runs away, fearing his own death even though God has just defeated Jezebel’s priests in a mighty display, God tells Elijah to stop, because there is work to do amongst His people, and because there are 7000 who have not yet bended the knee to Baal. Elijah needed to know that, and the 7000 also needed Elijah (1 Kings 19)

In the Old Testament, I do not find God calling any of his people to leave Israel and go on their own or form a new people even when they are completely unrighteous. I only find God calling the whole people,Israel, to return to Him, and encouraging the righteous to remain steadfast in the face of evil. And even though the unrighteous bring God’s punishment to the all Jews, God still protects His righteous ones (Esther, Mordecai, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Elijah, Noah, Abraham, even Jonah, and on and on and on), even though they still bear the penalties (i.e. Flood, Exile, snakes, plagues, famine). And sometimes God’s protection can even mean taking them home to heaven (Samson, Jonathan).

God definitely doesn’t ever express a negative view of His people gathering to worship Him in truth, despite their faults, and there are many, many terrible faults. He still desires that. The one thing He seems to want is for His people to come together and to worship Him and live together in peace.

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,

And his praise in the congregation of saints. Psalm 149


Paul T. McCain said...

The church is plagued with wimpishness on such issues.

Yes, it is a mortal sin to absent from worship, unless there is some truly valid reason not to be there. Otherwise, you plant yourself in the pew every single Sunday and on every occasion that Divine Service is held.

Sorry to sound grumpy about this, but all the lame excuses for not treating inactives as people whose souls are in grave peril gets to me.

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

I wholeheartedly agree.

But I also disagree with the practice that I see of looking at attendance over the last couple of years and then just sending a letter informing the people that they are off the roster.

They need to be pursued, like the Good Shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to seek after the one lost sheep. They need to be warned that their souls are in danger, encouraged to come back to church to hear the word and partake of Christ's body and blood. If they continue to despise it, then release probably is necessary, but with the information that they will be welcome back when they desire to return and that prayers will continue to be raised that they will be drawn back to God's house.

Too often, release seems like more of a process for administrative convenience than for true care of the flock, at least from the layman's perspective.

Unashamed said...

How caring of you to take the time to search the Scriptures and point out these truths. I really hope the young lady is able to see this.