Early on Sunday morning millions of Christians wake up and get ready for Church. This has been the practice for millennia among most believers across board. In modern times growing discontent with organized religion, an associated emphasis on private spirituality (see It’s not personal) and the technology to choose what you prefer, this way of life has come under serious threat.
More and more people do not associate with the Church but rather claim some kind of connection to Jesus. The Church’s reaction to this growing phenomenon has been varied. One general approach is to change the way Church is done is to make it more appealing to the youth and the marginalized, the two categories that seem most likely not to attend. Some have seen this as a clarion call to address the problems head on. I personally have struggled with this even though I grew up in a thoroughly Christian home. I recognized attending Church was not a bad thing but I found no other compelling reason to do so. Perhaps what was more worrying was that my friends could not come up with good reasons either. Beyond denominational membership and participation there seemed to be no theology for actually going to Church as a Christian. The most quoted response is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews,
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV
Even though this verse is often paraphrased to mean “go to Church”, few endeavour to actually explain why it says so. This passage in context will provide the locus from which we will explore the issue. The text is actually the end of one long Greek sentence that starts from verse 19. He basically says Jesus has reconciled us to God by sacrificing himself so we need to stay faithful to him, be pure, and encourage ourselves to do things out of love for one another. It is interesting that he should add meeting one another as a requirement. The fact that church attendance was mentioned in section about atonement, purity, confidence in the faith and judgement says it was no mean issue. Church was attendance was not optional and it was theologically significant.
The Greek word that is translated “meet together” is episunagoge. It is from the root that we get the word synagogue. An attentive reader of the Gospels and Acts would recognize synagogues as part of Jewish life, a place where Jesus and the apostles often went (Luke 4:16; Acts 14:1.) It is not surprising in the most Jewish book in the New Testament that this word should appear. Scholars agree that early Christian meetings were modelled on the Jewish synagogue and its practices. The word synagogue simple means a place of meeting or the meeting itself.
As it is demonstrated in the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christians as the new people of God, re-imagined the scriptures and Jewishness around the person of Jesus the Messiah and the outpouring of the Spirit. They redefined Jewishness (i.e. membership in God’s family) because as Paul says, “to them were given the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2.) Hebrews begins with the fact that for generations the Jewish people had fashioned their existence around the word of God (Hebrews 1:1.) They were the “People of the Book.” Jewish customs and practices therefore provided a fertile soil for Christian tradition to grow. Christianity began as a messianic sect (among many) with in Second Temple Judaism (Acts 5:35-39, 24:14.) Since they believed Jesus the Messiah was the fulfilment of the hope of Israel, the early Jesus movement naturally had continuity with the Judaism of the period.
The Jesus and the first Christians were all faithful practicing Jews. Recent scholarship really appreciates this now more than ever. They observed the customs of their people including attending the synagogue. We would have to defer to others for a more detailed account of what the ancient synagogue actually was like. However, as a layman I will offer a quick overview.
The synagogue was simply the meeting place of the Jewish community. It was the very centre of communal life and expulsion from the synagogue was like exile from the community. As a para-temple institution it served as the local place of worship, the central activity being prayer and the study of the Torah. The chief day of synagogue activity was the Sabbath. As I have already mentioned the first Christians regularly attended the synagogue on the Sabbath. However, when Gentile converts were added to the faith it presented a challenge. The Gentiles could not participate in the synagogue yet the entire Christian community had to meet. Through the content and the structure of the Epistles in conjunction with the rest of the New Testament and in the context of the period we learn about early Christian meetings.
Firstly, the Gospel is the central message of the New Testament. For them it occupied the role the Torah did in the Old Testament. They were a biblical community and they believed the scriptures had been fulfilled in and through Christ Jesus. The Gospel message was that faith in Jesus made you a member of the family of God. Therefore, all Torah regulations and ethnic practices that separated Jew from Gentile had to be set aside.
The Christians met on the day all four Evangelists testify Jesus was raised from the dead. Meeting on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is an example of a significant mutation in Jewish beliefs. No one had vested the first day with such special interest. The resurrection was the cornerstone of Christian faith right from the beginning so it is fitting they commemorated it by meeting on that day. Contrary to popular belief Sunday did not become the new Sabbath. Sunday church was a unique innovation. Jewish believers continued the observance of the Sabbath and never described any other day as such. The Christians did meet on other days but Sunday was their chief meeting day (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 6:2.)
Another important feature of their meetings was the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion as it is known in some circles.) As the name suggests this modified Passover meal was instituted by the Lord himself. This practice was not only a memorial to the Lord’s sacrifice but also to the communion of all believers sitting at one table (1 Corinthians 10:16-18, 11:20-26.) The Lord’s Supper combined with meeting on the Lord’s Day was overflowing with symbolic wealth. The crucifixion, resurrection, new covenant, the communion of all saints, and his future return were all represented. Meeting on Sundays was not optional neither was it the wrong day. It was a theologically significant institution.
As with the other symbols and praxis we have already observed the early Christians were wonderful innovators and adaptors of already established traditions. The synagogue, which served as the template for Christian Church, especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. served as a surrogate Temple. Similarly, Christianity did not have a man-made temple but for completely different reasons. The Church believed it was the fulfilment of the temple, that is, God dwelling among his people through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22.) Church meetings adapted not only the synagogue but also temple worship enacting it’s fulfilment in the Messiah. Christian liturgy was therefore an integral part of the believer’s cultural identity as the new people of God in the same way worship was to Israel.
In this light it is not hard to see why the author of Hebrews insisted on Christians meeting. In the Old Testament exclusion from the congregation of Israel meant either you were ritually impure or you had been exiled from God’s people. The exile of Israel effectively meant both, they were an unholy people and not the saints of the Most High. Attending Church affirmed your membership in God’s family in the same way attending the synagogue meant you were a part of the global Jewish community. Attending Church was a non-negotiable marker of Christian identity.
The writer of Hebrews further adds they should continue to meet as they “see the Day drawing near.” The Day is none other than the Lord’s return among his people (Hebrews 9:28.) During Church services they brought the future into the present. The imminent gathering of the Lord to his people was enacted in real time. The Church believed the coming Kingdom of God had already been inaugurated but would reach its conclusion in the future (Hebrews 6:4-5.) The author mentions “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23.) Hebrews is alluding to the Lamb’s Book of Life. Attending these meetings meant you were marking yourself present in the heavenly register. (Before anyone accuses me of teaching a salvation by works as opposed to grace we should take note.) There were certain standards one had to adhere to be in the Christian community. Participation meant you were being faithful to the Lord Jesus. The early Church excommunicated those who were Christian in name only (1 Corinthians 5:11.) In fact they fervently fought people who misrepresented the faith (Jude 3-4.)
Since Christian meetings brought the kingdom on earth they were seen as very spiritually potent events that represented the entire family of God (1 Corinthians 5:4.) Church served as the new temple of God, a microcosm where heaven and earth touched and God is gloriously present among his people. Attending Church is a crucial Christian practice we cannot afford to miss out on.
We can say most of the traditions of the first century Church have survived into the present in one form or another. Of course every generation has to rediscover for itself what it means to be a Christian so there are things we are probably not getting very right. Early Christians also went through this period of self-exploration as it endeavoured to grasp its God given mission and purpose in the Messiah. Christian identity is only meaningful as a part of the Christian community. This is more than a person’s name being found in a Church’s database. We are named by one name and what other believers do affects us, we are members of each other (1 Corinthians 12:26-27.) We are not made to function alone so we should embrace and encourage each other.