By Robert F. Turner
Is it heresy to suggest we may be placing too much emphasis upon the presence of each and every church member at each and every service? Well, the Scriptures still read, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. . . ” (Heb. 10:25); and many years of experience testify that “oncers” and those who frequently “miss services” are the weak, and the first to “fall away.” But our stress on “attendance” may be out of balance with other aspects of the problem. While we are counting bodies it is possible we are neglecting the very basis for coming together: selling short those elements that give attendance its proper sphere and meaning.
Jesus taught, “Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life” (Jn. 6:27). He was not saying it was wrong to work for food, but that there was something more important than food for. the body. Peter said of wives, “Whose adorning, let it not be the putting on of apparel; but . . . the hidden man of the heart”. (1 Pet. 3:34). He did not question the wearing of clothes, but put them in a less important place than “the ornament of a, meek and quiet spirit. ” In like fashion, while physical presence is a part of “together” worship, there are other essential elements without which our presence means little. We need to seek and understand these things, and stress their importance.
Malachi wrote 100 years or more after the Israelites returned from captivity, apparently in the days of Nehemiah. Despite God’s goodness and mercy in bringing the exiles home and the blessings of a rebuilt temple, the priests, and the people had allowed their worship to degenerate into a farce. They offered polluted bread upon the altar, and sacrificed blind, lame and sick animals (Mal. 1-6-8). God said through Malachi, “Oh that there were one among, you that would shut the doors, that ye might not kindle fire on mine altar in vain.” Better to close up shop than to make such a mockery of their service to God. In verse 13, “Ye say also, Behold, what a weariness is it.” One need not say this to show it in his attitude and conduct.
The real problem is identified in Malachi 2: “If ye will not hear, and if ye will not lay it to heart to give glory unto my name, saith Jehovah of hosts, then will I send the curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings; yea, I have cursed them already, because ye do not lay it to heart” (v. 2, emphasis mine). Brother Homer Hailey comments, “Malachi teaches that although ritual may be important in religion, it is not. an end in itself. Ritual is only of value when, it expresses a deep and sincere spiritual worship unto God” (The Minor Prophets, p. 403). Here “ritual” refers to the form or order of conducting worship, N.T. examples stipulate elements of approved worship, but the “five items” are vain if we do not lay it to heart. We must not neglect the “spirit” of “spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:23-24).
Jesus identified something else more important than mere presence, in worship. “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). This is placed in an old covenant setting, but the principle is clear. We can not worship acceptably when we have made no effort to correct our life and standing with our brethren. McGarvey-Pendleton comment: “Reconciliation takes precedence of all other duties, even of offerings made to God. . . . The offering of unclean hands is an abomination” (Fourfold Gospel).
The Hebrews passage (10:24-25) gives assembling a purpose other than and in addition to worship. “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking . . . but exhorting.” Lightfoot says, “The thought is not so much that they were to encourage one another to meet together but that they were to meet together where such encouragement was available in the assembly. A chief function of public worship, according to Paul, is the edification of all who come together (1 Cor. 14:26ff)” (Jesus Christ Today). Obviously the benefits of assembling can not be had by those who neglect and forsake coming together, but we should be able to see that “attendance” alone is barren and of little value.
Sometimes the forsaker says, “My parents made me go when I was a child, and I determined when I was older . . . . ” Parents have obligation and authority to direct their children in right paths, but “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4) goes far beyond forced attendance. The far more needful and difficult task is to teach the child to love the Lord and the brethren, to understand the reason and purpose of worship, and to want to serve God. Preachers, elders, and other zealous members may make the same mistake when they pressure the delinquent into attending. “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (2 Cor. 10:4-5) but involve “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” It is not enough to capture the body, we must capture the heart for Christ.
Look carefully at 2 Corinthians 5:14f. “The love of Christ constrains us.” The “constraint” or police force of the kingdom of Christ operates through glad tidings upon the heart. We are made to realize we are lost in sin, to appreciate Christ’s unselfish sacrifice in our behalf, and are “forced” by fear, appreciation, and love to obey him. But this divine discipline does not stop with baptism. The true convert, being “renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Eph. 4:23), is a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17), and the law written on the heart (Heb. 8:10) dictates his life. Discipline must not be allowed to degenerate into mere social pressure. The conscience of taught and converted persons becomes the police force of the Lord’s kingdom.
What then are our obligations to delinquent members? We must seek to “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1); “stir you up by reminding you” (2 Pet. 1: 13); exhorting and warning (Heb. 10:25ff). It is extremely important that our disciplinary actions be just that: an effort to teach more perfectly, and to stir their latent conscience to action. Even Paul’s delivery of Hymeneus and Alexander unto Satan was “that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20). The “punishment” of the incestuous man was inward, for Paul said forgive and comfort “lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:6-7). The withdrawal of 2 Thessalonians 3 was “that he may be ashamed” (v. 14). Camal weapons do not bring souls to Christ, nor can brow beating make faithful Christians. But a properly taught and tender conscience is a powerful force indeed.
We may place too much emphasis upon attendance alone or “per se,” but I would never suggest we could over emphasize the true need and reason for assembling with the saints, or meeting any of our divine obligations. It is important however, that we teach brethren to “lay it to heart,” if we would have faithful attendance and a worship which is acceptable before the throne of God.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 18, pp. 551-552
September 21, 1989