“Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) the Psalmist writes. This blessing can be fulfilled among those who are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (1 Peter 2:9), when we gather together as the church of Christ. But our fellowships will not always realize this ideal until the new creation. A Christian may at times hear the call of God in his heart to leave a fellowship, even a fellowship of true saints. “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house,” (Genesis 12:1) God may say, and although He told Abram something of His plans, He did not give Abram anything to do besides go. We have no recorded commission for Abram to evangelize the Canaanites, or build altars, or slay the sinful. We know that he did at least two of those on occasion, but God did not send him out of his homeland for the express purpose of accomplishing these things; His instruction to Abram was simply “Go.”
A contemporary church will not object to a Christian leaving the congregation on a God-given mission (provided that church’s particular processes for approving the mission are followed), but a Christian who feels called to depart without any positive objective in mind will usually face strong opposition. There are many motives for leaving a gathering of believers, and among those are many wrong motives; so, too, there are many legitimate cautions against departure. Church solidarity advocates especially favor Hebrews 10:25 as a prohibition against leaving a gathering of Christians without transferring expeditiously into another. The verse reads, in its most immediate context,
“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. For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
If we consider this passage as quoted above, it leaves a strong impression that any Christian sins who does not regularly meet with other Christians. However, this impression does not fit into the general shape of Hebrews and the teaching of the rest of the Scripture on Christian fellowship. We need first to get a broader perspective on this passage within the book of Hebrews. Shortly after the passage already cited, the author of Hebrews presents an extensive review of the faithful throughout the ages. All of these saints kept their faith at great cost. To look at one example,
“By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he looked to the reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, no fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:24-27, emphasis added).
Notice the word ‘forsook.’ Moses forsook Egypt not simply by walking outside of its borders; he repudiated what it stood for and what it offered him. This no Christian should ever do toward the general body of the saints. When Moses forsook Egypt, he took up a burden of suffering that all the faithful should expect to bear (cf. John 17:14). The writer of Hebrews strives throughout his work to give strength, hope, and confidence to those who are facing the same afflictions:
“But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward […] we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:32-39).
In the context of the book of Hebrews, then, we understand that it is not the mere circumstance of assembly that is in mind in Hebrews 10:25. Those who had claimed the name of Christ were facing severe persecution, and to avoid those agonies some were repudiating their Christianity or attempting at least to hide it. Associating with the Hebrews cost Moses all the comforts and pleasures of his life, yet he persisted. The author of Hebrews addresses readers who know of others who turned back and regained their happiness in Egypt; he reminds his readers that the pleasure of the faithless is fleeting, and the affliction of the saints will have an end.
Contemporary American churches face nothing similar. Those who would leave churches are not motivated by abuses they bear for associating with Christians (if that is their motivation, they bear their own condemnation). Much more typically, the departing church member disagrees with some practice of the church or yearns for more satisfying spiritual food. The defenders of the church frequently acknowledge that there are faults in the church, but admonish that no church is perfect and that one must not forsake the assembly. It will be true until Christ returns that no church is perfect; what sort of imperfections are proper cause to leave a church is the subject of some other paper. In any case, the principle is far different than abandoning a fellowship for material reasons.
Rather than forsaking Christ for a crowd of worldly pleasures, many who leave a church are leaving behind their friends and family, and walking into a social wilderness. Doubtless they still have some contact with other people, but they may be without any friends of substance, and deal only with casual or work acquaintances. In this they greatly resemble the faithful reviewed in Hebrews 11, who were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (v. 13) and “wandered about” (v. 37). The saints remembered in Hebrews were not faithful pew-sitting members of churches. They were mostly alone, dissidents, rejects, outsiders; not faithful members of an organized group.
It is a shallow subterfuge to say that these had no church to belong to as we do now. The author of Hebrews recalls those who were Israelites and those who were not, like Noah; he is concerned with all the people of God, regardless of names or denominations. He calls them out by their faith, and shows that one who is faithful has not forsaken the assembly of the saints, no matter how alone he may be, because every faithful man or woman is surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Some of those prophets had to stand against the people of God themselves, as they were reckoned in those times.
Paul provides an example that the faith of an individual believer cannot be profitably weighed against a crowd of other believers when he refused to heed the church at Caesarea, and continued on to Jerusalem (Acts 21:7-21). He stood on the same principle when exhorting the Galatians (Galatians 1 – 2, esp. 2:14). Walking contrary to the will of the believers around you cannot be freely equated with faithlessness. Denying Christ to retain worldly status is condemned in Hebrews 10:25 and in many other places, but this verse does not provide a basis to compell the attendence of every believer at a gathering of Christians once every seven days; nor does any other New Testament scripture. Faith has no such simple ritual.
Nothing thus far examined supports individualistic Christianity, which is based on what the individual believer wants and feels most happy doing. It is to Christ we each owe our allegiance. If Christ is not alive and speaking to the individual believer, the believer is already lost, whether inside our outside of a church. If Christ leads the believer into a fellowship with other saints, he is that much more blessed. And if Christ calls the beleiver to depart from a particular gathering, he must go as Abraham went, “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Neither the pleasure of fellowship nor the pain of isolation should stop him. Nor should the rewards or abuse of the world lead him away from associating with the meek of the earth; but in whatever way he goes, he must consider the faithful servant, Christ Jesus, who has in store for all his children family, fellowship, and great reward, when at last He comes again.