“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” (Heb 10:24–25 ESV).
The Meaning of Forsaking the Assembly
What does the scripture mean by forsake? The word “forsake” comes from the Greek word εγκαταλειπω, egkataleipo, which means to “1. leave behind, leave, allow to remain; 2. forsake, abandon, desert” (BDAG 54). As a person may practice sinning in stealing or reviling, the apostle instructed Christians not to practice the sin of forsaking by leaving this assembly behind.
Does this mean that someone who forsakes the assembly once is sinning, or is this a sin if this is a continual act? How many times must someone miss the assembly in order to be forsaking it? One intentional or neglectful disregard for the assembly is a sin. However, the problem was that these had made it “a habit,” a practiced behavior, and have left the assembly behind. Continuing in such behavior is forsaking the assembly. All the occurrences of egkataleipo in the Bible reveals that forsaking can include just a one time act and not just an abandonment of assembling (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; Acts 2:27; Rom 9:29; 2 Cor 4:9; 2 Tim 4:10, 16; Heb 13:5). However, Christians are reasonable to infer that those who are sick, disabled, or caring for the disabled are not forsaking the assembly.
The Meaning of “the Assembly”
Which assembly are Christians not to forsake? A literal translation of Hebrews 10:25 is “the assembly of ourselves.” In Hebrews 10:25, assembly is not accurately translated “assembling” as a participle or “to meet” as an infinitive. This translation is misleading. This word is a noun neither a participle nor an infinitive; although, this word is translated in the NKJV as “assembling.”
“Assembly” is a meeting, a gathering, a congregation. The article “the” is in Hebrews 10:25 according to the NKJV but not in the ESV. The Greek article is present in this passage and operates to specify that this assembly is “the assembly” or “the gathering” from the Greek επισυναγωγη, episunagoge. This word only appears twice in the New Testament. The other use is for the day of gathering to the Lord ( 2 Thess 2:1). However, there are other references to “the assembly,” and that assembly has a specific meaning throughout the Christian Scriptures (1 Cor 11:22; 14:5; 12, 33, 34; Col 4:16; 2 Thess 1:4). The Scriptures refer to the assembly as a specific gathering where Christians met to partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. This is the assembly that consisted of teaching, singing, and praying. Hebrews 10:25 is not referring to Bible studies, home devotionals, or any other gatherings and meetings of the congregation for other works. There is precedent for Christians meeting often together apart from the assembly (Acts 2:46; 20:20).
Can “the assembly” include a second meeting on the Lord’s Day? The Christians in Troas did meet in the evening but that does appear as their only meeting on that day (Acts 20:7–12). The assembly is when every member gathers together to partake of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:22–34; 14:23). The elders of the church should decide when the assembly occurs and how to attend to those who must work, cannot attend for disability, or are giving care. This may include another meeting to attend to others in the evening. The Scriptures do not present 2 or 3 assemblies for different parties, styles, and conveniences of the congregation, but there is one assembly where the whole congregation gathers together. However, this does not mean that Christians cannot meet more than once in a day.
The Consequences of Forsaking the Assembly
Should Christians withdraw from those who forsake the assembly? Those who forsake the assembly have withdraw from God, Christ, and the church — the body of Christ. When one forsakes the assembly, they are no longer communing with Christ (1 Cor 10:16). They are no longer walking in the light and no longer have the forgiveness of sins (1 John 1:6–2:6). They have withdrawn from the congregation and the church that Jesus bought with His blood. They are forsaking “stirring one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24). These Christians who forsake the assembly are practicing sin.
If someone forsakes the assembly and took the Lord’s Supper in one’s own home, this is disobeying God’s instruction and precedent for partaking of the Lord’s Supper in the assembly (1 Cor 11:17–34). However, there may exist occasions when one may only have the option of partaking of the Lord’s Supper alone or not at all. Paul may have been in this position when at sea (Acts 27). Each Christian must decide for oneself. Those forsaking the assembly are also forsaking congregational singing, congregational prayers, and congregational edification received from teaching (1 Cor 14:3, 6, 12, 15, 18; 16:1–3; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). Christ built the church (Matt 16:18). The church is there for the edification of every Christian (1 Cor 14).
Disassociating from Those Who Sin
How can anyone withdraw from the withdrawn? Disassociating describes withdrawal. Christians are not to associate or eat with anyone who practices fornication, greediness, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, and extortion. The idea is to remove the evil and sin from the midst of the congregation. Paul commanded this withdrawal for when Christians gather in Jesus’s name (1 Cor 5). Likewise, Christians are to treat a person who personally offends and does not repent like a tax collector or heathen (Matt 18:17). Christians are also to avoid all divisive brethren and false teachers (Rom 16:17; Titus 3:10). Christians are to withdraw from those who walk in idleness and do not work to provide for themselves (2 Thess 3:6).
No scripture specifically refers to withdrawing from those who forsake the assembly. The only scripture that may apply to withdrawing from those who have left the church and forsake the assembly is 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15. However, this application is questionable because Paul wrote, “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thess 3:14–15). According to the context, this obedience was for all Christians to work to eat.
If forsaking the assembly continues, a congregation is not wrong to note and no longer associate with them when they have good reason to believe that this will restore the lost. Withdrawal takes place first in the assembly and as much outside of it by not eating with the one who openly continues in sin (1 Cor 5). Christians may have friends who are forsaking the assembly and yet seeking to keep the friendship active. This is when Christians should consider withdrawing to restore the apostate. Someone may face a decision when the congregation withdraws from a sinning family member. If this is one’s spouse, that Christian must maintain the marriage unless the sin is fornication (1 Cor 7:11–15; cf. Matt 19:9). However, whatever the relationship, one may withdrawal spiritually including no longer praying together over meals or consenting to a sinful spouse leading the prayer.
Withdrawal is for the purpose to cause one to repent (1 Cor 5; 2 Cor 2:5–11; 2 Thess 3:14). Because Christians find it hard and may want to avoid withdrawal, these circumstances should compel Christians even more to restore souls (Gal 6:1; Jas 5:19–20).
Holy Father, help us to reach lost souls. In Christ’s name, Amen.