Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and nursing babes
…not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some…
The traditional view of public assembly has been that God calls believers to “come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18), “in one place” (1 Cor. 11:20), to listen to the preaching of the Word “every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21) unless providentially hindered. Nor is attendance all that is required. Believers must be committed to each other in “one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1; cf. 1:14; 4:24) belonging to that particular assembly (see “your assembly” in James 2:2). Though the New Testament now mandates a “first day Sabbath” (1 Cor. 16:1-2) instead of the Jewish Sabbath, weekly attendance together is still not an option (1 Cor. 16:1-2; see rest of paper). This weekly attendance came from the pen of Paul as “orders” which we “must do” (1 Cor. 16:1).
However, an increasingly common belief among Christians (especially Home Schoolers) is that the family can act as its own church. While these families may attend public worship with other families on occasion, they do not ordinarily do so out of a sense of Biblical mandate. This paper is an attempt on my part to be as “iron sharpening iron,” and in a spirit of goodwill I want to convince the reader that weekly attendance at church is not optional; it is commanded.
One or more of the following false assumptions usually lie at the foundation of the “family as church” movement:
It is claimed that Sabbath observance was only intended to be kept within a person’s own house. To their defense they quote Leviticus 23:3 which says in part, “it is the Sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings” (Lev. 23:3).
It is also claimed that public assemblies in Israel dealt only with temple ritual, and are therefore not something that everyone could participate in on a weekly basis.
Since the family is the foundational institution in society, and since both state and church later flowed out of it, it is claimed that the family can function in place of the church.
There are repeated references to house churches in the New Testament (Acts 2:2; 8:3; 12:12; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phil. 1:2) and it is therefore assumed that the home can function as a church.
Another argument sometimes proposed is that the institutional church is not doing what it is supposed to be doing and therefore special actions are needed for special times. For pragmatic reasons the family must take over the church’s role.
It is sometimes claimed that the Bible does not speak of an institutional church, but only of the church universal. Since there is no institution called the church, the family is not stepping over its jurisdictional limits.
Responding to the Assumptions
Sabbath Observance goes beyond one’s house
The first objection to weekly church attendance is the erroneous belief that Sabbath observance was originally intended to be kept exclusively in the home. The argument is that God commanded “the Sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings” (Lev. 23:3). However, Leviticus 23:3 shows two important dimensions of Sabbath keeping summarized in two sentences.
The first deals with public worship and the second with private worship. The first sentence commands, “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation.” (Lev. 23:3) The Hebrew word for “convocation” (miqra), like the English, means “an ecclesiastical assembly that has been summoned to meet together; an assembling by summons.” Furthermore, the Sabbath stands at the head of a list of “convocations” and “feasts” under the general title of verse 2 which says, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘The feasts of the LORD, which you shall proclaim to be holy convocations, these are my feasts.” I know of no one who claims that any of the other “convocations” were private. Therefore, far from proving an exclusively private worship on the Sabbath, Leviticus 23:1-3 proves that both public and private worship are essential to Sabbath observance. Essential to the definition of the Sabbath is attendance at the public assemblies.
Old Testament Worship was weekly in the synagogue
The second assumption is also false. Some assume that these “assemblies” were only a reference to the gatherings at the temple. However, worship was not just conducted at the temple. As Kellog comments on Leviticus 23, “The reference in this phrase cannot be to an assembling of the people at the central sanctuary, which is elsewhere ordered (Ex. 34: 23) only for the three feasts of passover, weeks, and atonement; but rather, doubtless, to local gatherings for purposes of worship, such as, at a later day, took form in the institution of the synagogues.” It would have been physically impossible to travel to the temple once a week from many parts of Israel.
Instead, Scripture indicates that from the time of Moses and on there were synagogues (assemblies) throughout the land on every Sabbath: “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:21) Psalm 74:8 calls them the “meeting places,” and Isaiah 4:5 calls them “her assemblies.” This is why the Levites were scattered throughout the land in every community to teach (2Chron. 17:9; Deut. 18:6-8; Neh. 10:37-39). Thus the “calling of assemblies” (Isa. 1:13) and the “sacred assemblies” (Amos 5:21) should not be assumed to be temple assemblies. There were numerous “meeting places of God in the land” (Psalm 74:8). And Israel was responsible to “keep all my appointed meetings, and they shall hallow My Sabbaths” (Ezek. 44:24). Thus we read of Jesus: “as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day” (Luke 4:16). His practice of weekly public assembly was the practice commanded in the Bible.
This conclusion is strengthened when it is realized that separation from God’s people on the Sabbath day was considered to be a curse (Isa. 56:3-8). David mourned when he could not “go with the multitude… to the house of God” (Psalm 42:4). The New Testament not only commands us to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb. 10:24-25), but also declares that willful forsaking of the assemblies is a despising of the covenant which can lead to apostasy (vv. 26-39). With such strong language it is hard to fathom family-only worship on Sunday as being the norm in the New Testament church.
New Testament worship was with people from different families even when they met in a “house”
Another faulty argument that is frequently heard is that the repeated references to house churches in the New Testament (Acts 2:2; 8:3; 12:12; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phil. 1:2) proves that the home (i.e., family) can take the place of a traditional church gathering. However, these house churches are never described as one or two families gathering informally together. Paul over and over assumes that Sunday worship is “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18; cf. 11:17,20,33,34; 14:26). This is the pattern in Acts when “all who believed were together” (Acts 2:44; cf. 2:2). Even saints who were “scattered abroad” (James 1:1) found a place to meet (James 2:2). Sometimes this public assembly was in an open area like the temple (Acts 2:46; 5:42), sometimes it was in a synagogue (James 2:2) and sometimes it was in a “house” (Acts 2:2; 8:3; 12:12; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phil. 1:2).
Even where there is a reference to “the church that is in their house” or “the church that is in his house,” it is always a reference to a meeting of all the believers in that area. For example, the “upper room” in Acts 1:13 housed a large contingent of people, not just one family. The “house” of Acts 2:2 had 120 people in it. In Acts 8:3 the plural for “men and women” is used for each house where Paul dragged away believers. The “house” in Acts 12 was a place “where many were gathered together” (Acts 12:12). Just as with the synagogue pattern, (which sometimes met in houses, sometimes in a rented facility, and sometimes in their own synagogue buildings), the New Testament people always found a “place where they were assembled together” (Acts 4:31).
God’s pattern is for a family integrated church
Nor were the convocations of God simply required of the men (as some have supposed). Obviously women were not able to be at the three yearly required assemblies at the temple if they were giving birth or if their children were sick. But ordinarily Scripture called for the “men, the women and the little ones” to be present, even at those yearly festivals. For example, Scripture was “read before all the assembly of Israel, with the women, the little ones, and the strangers who were living among them” (Josh. 8:35).
The reason for this was simple: The law had previously commanded, “Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the LORD your God and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God.” (Deut. 31:12-13). The ideal was for the man to be the shepherd of his home, and to ensure that his whole family came to the holy convocation. When that was not possible, the mother and the children could still come to worship. Notice in the passage cited above that God’s purpose for the worship service was more than enabling the men to fear God and to pass that on to their families. It also gives as a purpose that the “children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God.” (Deut. 31:13).
Also, what was true of the yearly festivals was certainly true of the weekly synagogue meetings. It is clear that the whole household was included in the Sabbath convocations (Lev. 23:1; Is. 66:23). The need of the women and children to learn in church does not disappear when the man is not able to be present. It is true that when Paul addressed the New Testament church he ordinarily instructed the children and wives through the men as their representatives. But he did not do so exclusively. He also addressed the “children” (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20) and the “women” (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; cf. 1Pet. 3:1) directly. Even when the father was not able to be present, women and children were present in the worship service.
For example, Deuteronomy 16:11 calls for the fatherless and widow to come to the assemblies (see also 16:14; Mark 12:42; Luke 2:37). Likewise the apostles addressed the wives of unbelievers in the assemblies (1 Pet. 3:1-6; 1 Cor 7:13-16). “The elder” John gave pastoral oversight to a single mother and her children (2John). The fact that the husbands were absent did not exclude these women from commitment to the assembly. The Bible calls for families to be present in worship, not simply representatives.
In light of all this, I urge you to imitate Christ who, “as His custom was…went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day” (Luke 4:16). God Himself says, “Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and nursing babes” (Joel 2:16). God calls for a family integrated church.
Families may not usurp the roles of church or state
Some people claim that because the church developed out of the family, that the family can take back the role of the church when the institutional church becomes corrupt. There are at least three problems with this line of argumentation:
First, if this logic works for the church, it should also work for the state, because the functions of the state just as clearly flowed from the family. Initially, the avenger of blood was from a family (Numb. 35:19,21,24,25,27; Deut. 19:6,12), but the power of the sword was given to the state (Rom. 13). However, the New Testament is quite clear that a corrupt state does not authorize the family to start becoming an avenger of evil (Rom. 13). While the right to self-defense was never taken away from the family (Luke 22:36), the power to “avenge” was (compare Rom. 12:19-21 with Rom. 13:1-7). In like manner, God has not authorized the family to take back the keys of the kingdom in the sacraments simply because of problems in the church. Starting new churches can often be an option, but abandoning the church altogether is not. Families that leave the church have in effect excommunicated themselves (1 John 2:19) and are outside of the covenant’s protective canopy (1 Cor. 5:5).
Second, we have examples of corrupt churches in the New Testament that disprove the theory of the family-as-church thesis. Though Corinth was exceedingly corrupt, God’s remedy was not to have families meet by themselves. He still distinguished between what could be done “at home” (1 Cor. 11:34; 1 Cor. 14:35) and what could be done “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:7,18,20,33,34; 1 Cor. 14:26). He still mandated that they meet together with the church on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1-4). God’s remedy was church discipline (1 Cor. 5:5) and reformation (1-2 Corinthians), not abandonment. It is one thing to have a church split, but it is quite another to abandon the institutional church altogether. The church of Galatia was also corrupt, yet Paul’s solution was reformation (Gal. 1-6) and discipline (Gal. 5:10,12; 6:1). He still mandated that the people be connected to the body of believers (Gal. 6:1-5,10) and that they support the pastor monetarily (Gal. 6:6-10). While there is a place for families to leave apostate churches and to form new institutional churches, there is no place for being unaccountable and unconnected Christians.
Third, the family did not delegate the keys of the kingdom and the administration of the sacraments to the church, and therefore cannot take them back. God took the role from the family and gave it to the church so that now there are three parallel governments: family, church and state. Those three governments have three separate jurisdictions and three forms of discipline: the rod, the keys and the sword. The following Scriptures show the transition into three governments and the fact that God definitively removed the jurisdiction from the family:
Prior to the time of Moses, the “firstborn” ordinarily took the role of priest and teacher (Gen. 20:7; Job 1:5) and as such was “consecrated” to his office (Ex. 13:2; Numb. 3:13) and given “double honor” (Deut. 21:16-17). Only the head of the clan had that function, and families could not arrogate the right of the firstborn. Though the firstborn was sometimes spiritually disqualified and the right went to a second or third born, his title was still “firstborn” (see for example, 1Chron. 5:1; 26:10; Jer. 31:9).
However, under Moses, God gave this pastoral office to the Levites. He said, “I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn… Therefore the Levites shall be Mine” (Numb. 3:12; see 3:41,45,46; 8:18; etc). These Levites were “consecrated” to office (see Judges 17:12; Numb. 8:9-11; Lev. 4:3,5,16; 6:22; etc) and were given “double honor” (see Numb. 3:44-51; 18:24; Judges 17:10; 2Kings 12:16; 2Chron. 31:4; Neh. 10:37; 12:44).
In the New Testament, church officers take over the role of the firstborn/Levite. The Old Testament prophetically describes the New Testament church as having "priests and Levites" (Isa. 66:21; Jer. 33:18,21,22; Ezek. 45:5; 48:11,12,13,22). It is clear that these priests and Levites are not literally from the tribe of Levi since it was prophesied that they would be priests and Levites taken from the Gentiles (Isa. 66:20-21). Christ also uses this Old Testament language when He sends forth officers for the church (Matt. 23:34; 13:52). Church office is a God-ordained office (Eph. 4:11; Acts 20:28; Titus 1:7) and may not be taken without calling (Acts 1:24-26; Jer. 14:14-15; 23:21,32; 1 Cor. 17). Thus, the distinctive jurisdiction of the church was given to it by the Lord, not by the family. The family retains to itself all rights, privileges and authority that have not been explicitly given to either church or state by the Bible. It may not take on a jurisdiction that God has given to either church or state.
The invisible church does not replace the institutional church
The last argument used by the home-church movement is that there is no such thing as the “institutional church” in Scripture. Some claim that so long as we are members of the invisible church, it really does not matter if we belong to an institutional church; worship in the family can suffice. However, this is wrong for two reasons:
First, it is clear that the New Testament speaks not just of the church invisible, but also of an institutional church. Officers were elected by popular vote (Acts 6; 14:23). Each church had a plurality of officers (Acts 13:1; 14:23; Titus 1:5-7) that were ordained by a presbytery or body of elders (1 Tim. 4:14) and were responsible to oversee (Acts 20:28) and shepherd God’s people (1 Pet. 5:1-3). And the church had a connectional court system (Acts 15; Gal. 2:1). Therefore God didn’t just speak of “the church in their house” (1 Cor. 16:19), but also spoke of the “church in Jerusalem” (Acts 11:22), the church of Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2), the “church of the Laodiceans” (Col. 4:16), the “church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thes. 1:1), etc., even though there were multiple congregations in those cities. The churches were clearly connectional. It is difficult to see passages like Philippians 1:1 or verses like Acts 15:2,4,6,22; 21:18 as being anything other than institutional.
Second, the references to membership in local churches and discipline from local churches makes it clear that the institutional church was in mind. The Biblical pattern is to be "numbered" or "added to" the rolls of a local church (Acts 1:41,47; 4:4; 6:1,7; 16:5; 1 Tim. 5:9), to be committed to that local body (1 Cor. 12:12-28; Rom. 12:4,5; Eph. 4:25) and under the rule and oversight of shepherds who know each sheep (Heb. 13:7,17-18; 1 Cor. 16:16; 1 Thes. 5:11-14). The Old Testament prophesied that in the New Testament times, “the LORD will record, when He registers the peoples” (Ps. 87:6). When moves or transfers were necessary, the Biblical method was to use a letter of transfer or commendation (Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 3:1; 8:23-24; Philemon; 3 John 6-9,12). Indeed, any inter-church business was conducted by people with reference letters (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:16-24). It is logically impossible to reconcile the doctrine of discipline with a belief that membership is not necessary. How can an excommunicated person be "taken away from among you" (1 Cor. 5:2) if there is no roll from which the person can be removed? It is not sufficient to say that he is physically barred from the church since even unbelievers could be present (1 Cor. 14:23). Furthermore, if people simply circulated from church to church it would be impossible for the eldership to recognize and bar from the building all that were under discipline. Membership rolls are both Biblically and logically necessary for the maintenance of a holy church.
God does not want His people to isolate themselves from other members of the body (Heb. 10:25; Jer. 23:1; Ezek. 34:6,12). Nor does he want sheep without shepherds (Jer. 3:15; 23:4; Ezek. 34:5; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2).
Instead, He commands the people to “gather” (Deut. 4:10; 31:12; Joel. 2:16), to “assemble” (Joel 2:16; Acts 11:26; Heb. 10:25), to “come together” (1 Cor. 11:17,18,20,33,34; 14:26), to “call a sacred assembly” (Joel 1:14; 2:15; Num. 29:35; Deut. 16:8; 2Chron. 7:9), to hold “holy convocation” (Exo. 12:16; Lev. 22:3), and to gather in “assemblies” (Isa. 1:13; 4:5; Amos 5:21; James 2:2). God makes note of the “meeting places of God in the land” (Ps. 74:8). Nor was this weekly gathering in the synagogues simply a matter for the Old Testament (Acts 15:21) or for Christ (Luke 4:16). God expected Christians to belong to a “synagogue” (James 2:2) and to “come together as a church” (1Cor. 11:18). And they did. Acts tells us that “all who believed were together” (Acts 2:44; cf. 2:2).
In a word, God’s people are to act as if they truly are a “flock” (Acts 20:28,29; 1 Cor. 9:7; 1 Pet. 5:2,3) in need of human shepherds (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). They need the “one-another” ministry of the church. Just as the Old Testament saints needed the ministry of the synagogues “every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21), God calls us today to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:25). May this pamphlet spur a renewed love for Zion and a renewed commitment of the saints to one another. Amen.
Here are some Hebrew dictionary definitions: “assembly, calling the community together, usually for a religious ceremony” (NIV Hebrew). “term. techn. for religious gathering on Sabbath and certain sacred days.” (BDB) “convocation… such days (and the weekly Sabbath as well) included a formal summoning of the people to worship…” (TWOT). ↩ ↩
S.H. Kellogg, The Book of Leviticus (Originally printed by A.C Armstrong and Son, 1899; republished by Kock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1978), p. 453. Jordan says much the same: “According to Leviticus 23:3, the sabbath day was also the time for worship in the local synagogue. The prophetic, teaching form of worship was decentralized in Israel, with local Levites teaching in local synagogues.” (The Law of the Covenant, p. 182) ↩
There was a synagogue attached to the temple that worshipped every Sabbath, though many attended other synagogues scattered throughout Jerusalem. ↩
Notice the word “for” in verse 26, which draws the connection between what is discussed in verses 19-25 and 26-39. It is clear that there is a relationship between forsaking the assembly and the gradual backsliding that is described in the next verses. ↩
For example, Scripture calls us to “avoid” apostates (Rom. 16:17), “from such withdraw yourself” (1 Tim. 6:3-5), “and from such people turn away” (2 Tim. 3:5), and “do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil” (2 John 10-11). The call to families who are in such churches is to “come out of her My people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). But those who pulled out of the apostate synagogue system formed new churches that followed the teachings of the apostles, had godly church government and properly exercised the sacraments. ↩
Note that just as the firstborn were previously bypassed if they were spiritually unqualified (see 1 Chron. 5:1; 26:10; Jer. 31:9; etc), individual Levites could be bypassed if they were spiritually unqualified (see Ezek. 44:10-31; 48:11; 1 Chron. 15:12,14; 2 Chron. 29:5; Ezek. 48:11). ↩
Delitsch says, “Mēhem must refer to the converted heathen, by whom the Israelites had been brought home. Many Jewish commentators even are unable to throw off the impression thus made by the expression mēhem (of them); but they attempt to get rid of the apparent discrepancy between this statement and the Mosaic law, by understanding by the Gentiles those who had been originally Israelites of Levitical and Aaronic descent, and whom Jehovah would single out again. David Friedländer and David Ottensosser interpret it quite correctly thus: ‘Mēhem, i.e., of those heathen who bring them home, will He take for priests and Levites, for all will be saints of Jehovah; and therefore He has just compared them to a clean vessel, and the Israelites offered by their hand to a minchâh.’”
On Isaiah 66:21 JFB comments that “of them” refers to the Gentiles and by making them “priests …Levites” they can enjoy “the direct access to God which was formerly enjoyed by the ministers of the temple alone (1 Peter 2:9; Rev. 1:6).” ↩
The literal rendering of “your assembly” is “your synagogue.” ↩
The one-another ministry of the church that takes place not only on Sundays, but also during the week, has often been described as “body life.” It can be summarized in the following verses with the phrase “one another” in them. It calls us to be committed to:
- “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50)
- “love one another” (John 13:24-25)
- “be devoted to one another” (Rom. 12:10)
- “honor one another above yourselves” (Rom. 12:10)
- “live in harmony with one another…be willing to associate” (Rom. 12:16)
- “the continuing debt to love one another” (Rom. 13:8 NIV)
- “stop passing judgment on one another” (Rom. 14:13)
- “pursue … peace … [with] one another” (Rom. 14:19)
- “building up one another” (Rom. 14:19)
- “be of the same mind with one another” (Rom. 15:5)
- “accept one another” (Rom. 15:7)
- “admonish one another” (Rom. 15:14)
- “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13)
- “restore [those caught in sin and]…bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:1-2)
- “show forbearance to one another” (Eph. 4:1-2)
- “speak truth [as] … members of one another” (Eph. 4:25)
- “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other” (Eph. 4:32)
- “be subject to one another” (Eph. 5:21)
- “do not lie to one another” (Col. 3:9)
- “bear with one another” (Col. 3:13)
- “forgive…one another” (Col. 3:13)
- “teaching …one another (Col. 3:16)
- “admonishing one another” (Col. 3:16)
- “increase and abound in love for one another” (1Thes. 3:12)
- “love one another” (1Thes. 4:9)
- “spur one another on to love”(Heb. 10:24-25 NIV)
- “spur one another on to … good deeds” (Heb. 10:24-25 NIV)
- “meeting together” (Heb. 10:25)
- “encourage one another” (Heb. 10:25)
- “do not speak against one another” (James 4:11)
- “do not complain against one another” (James 5:9)
- “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16)
- “pray for one another” (James 5:16)
- “fervently love one another” (1Pet. 1:22)
- “fervent in your love for one another” (1 Pet. 4:8)
- “offer hospitality to one another” (1Pet. 4:9 NIV)
- “serving one another” (1Pet. 4:10)
- “humility toward one another” (1Pet. 5:5)
- “love one another” (1John 3:11)