by Jack Wilkie of Focus Press
Desperate times call for desperate measures, the saying goes.
While there are plenty of varying opinions as to how desperate these times are, there’s no denying that the coronavirus spread must be taken seriously. For this reason, churches far and wide are having to consider how to comply with either laws (for large congregations in some areas) or recommendations (for groups of almost any size, anywhere in America). Such consideration has led many congregations to close their doors for the time being.
In response to this, some have made the claim that churches that cancel are violating the Bible’s command in Hebrews 10:25 to not forsake the assembly. In my experience, those who believe such are greatly outnumbered by those who don’t. It may be that this is one of those cases where the backlash to the backlash outnumbers the actual backlash itself 99-to-1. (Remember the case of the Starbucks cups that didn’t say “Christmas?”)
However, I still wanted to write to address the issue because, coronavirus or not, I believe that verse is one that has been misunderstood and misapplied for a long time.
First, let’s look specifically at the coronavirus-driven cancellations.
Neither biblically nor logically does it hold that such congregations are violating Hebrews 10:25. Biblically, the word “forsaking” has a meaning akin to the idea of desertion, somebody abandoning their church family. The book of Hebrews revisits the idea of falling away a number of times, and in this specific section the writer is heavily emphasizing the need to stand strong in response to all Jesus has done for us. He gives us a list of things we can do to stay strong, and this one that we can’t do if we want to stay strong. That’s why this verse doesn’t apply to our current situation. We aren’t talking about people who are drifting from the Lord. We are talking about people who would love nothing more than to be together worshiping Him. Hebrews 10:25 was not written with such people in mind.
Logically, just think of how often we use this same line of reasoning. Are our shut-ins forsaking the assembly because their medical status is such that they aren’t able to make it each week? Are people who have a decimated immune system due to cancer treatment forsaking the assembly by staying home? Is a healthy parent who stays home with their sick child forsaking the assembly? Of course not. I can’t imagine anyone would claim they are. Therefore we can understand that no one is forsaking the assembly when medical needs insist on our absence. Why, then, would it be a leap to extend that same understanding to our current situation?
Second, let’s look at the deeper misunderstanding of Hebrews 10:25.
It’s because we have a backward, businesslike view of the church that many see attendance “every time the doors are open” as the sign of faithfulness. Church is the location and/or the event that happens on Sunday, so their participation in “church” is centered on attendance. In the New Testament, the sign of a faithful Christian is the fruit they bear. Obviously a fruit bearing Christian is going to want to worship God, gather with their church family, and partake of the Lord’s supper each Sunday unless extreme circumstances prevent them. But that faithful attendance is a natural byproduct of a truly converted heart. It is not the end in itself.
On the other hand, there are those who are there “every time the doors are open” who bear no fruit whatsoever. If we get a person to attend regularly through guilt trips and threats of hell but they don’t love the Lord and don’t bear any fruit, we haven’t accomplished anything. This was why Jesus so heavily emphasized the anti-Pharisaical proposition that we should serve God from the inside out rather than merely performing external acts with a cold heart (see Matthew 23).
The other facet of this conversation is the immediate context of Hebrews 10:25. Because we tend to cite book-chapter-verse to prove points, it’s very easy to separate a verse from its context. If you’ll notice, though, this verse isn’t even a complete sentence, demanding us to read at least the rest of the sentence for context.
In verse 24, we are to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works.” In other words, we need to be thinking about our church family and looking for ways we can push each other toward greater closeness and involvement. The “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves” phrase is then contrasted with a call to be “exhorting one another.” This is the same terminology used in Hebrews 3:13, where the writer called his audience to “exhort one another daily” so that no one would be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. In other words, the opposite of “forsaking the assembling of ourselves” is not “be there every Sunday” but rather considering your church family, stirring each other up, and encouraging each other.
This isn’t to say that attendance (in regular circumstances) is unimportant. Quite the opposite. These verses set the bar way higher than just “you need to be there on Sunday.” Hebrews 10:25 is not just a call for people to stop skipping church. In fact, Sunday morning attendance really doesn’t even meet the bare minimum. Is it possible that there are those with a perfect attendance record who have done no more to encourage the brethren than a “How are you?” in passing in the hallway? Is it possible that there are those who have perfect attendance but never see or talk to their Christian family outside of the building? If so, have such people truly grasped the point of Hebrews 10:24-25?
Yes, being there when the church assembles together is important. No, church leaders are not being faithless if they choose to limit or cancel Sunday gatherings for a time. Pray for them, trust their judgment, and respect their leadership. And if you’re in that camp of critics, that goes for respecting God’s leaders in other congregations, too. Stop looking over the fence to judge what other Christians are doing and focus on serving your own instead.
But whether or not your church building’s doors are open this Sunday, I encourage you to ponder the true meaning of Hebrews 10:24-25. God wants us to build relationships with each other so we can keep each other from drifting and can help each other grow in the good works He has planned for us. If we have to do that without Sunday morning gatherings for a time, then let’s do so. But carry those habits with you. Once we get back to normal, let’s make sure we don’t fall into the mistake of thinking we’ve “not forsaken the assembly” just by our attendance.
Jack Wilkie is the editor of focuspress.org and author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education.” He also preaches for the Forney church of Christ in Forney, TX, where he, his wife, Allison, and their daughter reside. You can find his full bio here.
By Kevin Cauley June 5, 2004
When my wife and I got married close to thirteen years ago and my parents asked us why we wanted to get married, we replied, “because we love each other.” I will never forget the words that my dad told me that day. He said that we had a love, but that we really did not know what it meant to love each other, but that as the years went by, we would learn more and more of what it means to truly love one another. I confess that I did not completely understand what he meant at the time. However, thirteen years later, I think I am beginning to understand. Loving another person doesn’t just mean that you have “positive feelings” toward them all the time. It means that whatever feelings you do have for another person, whether those feelings are positive or negative, you do not forsake that other person; you remain steadfast, loyal, and true regardless of what comes your way, and always seek the best for that person (as God defines “best”) regardless of their circumstances.
This past week, I received e-mail from our web site in which the questioner stated, “I am not in love with my husband.” It was sad for me to read that statement. Part of the reason that such a statement is made is that people in our society today simply do not understand what the word “love” truly means. And so, when they stop having the “feelings” of love, then they assume that they no longer “love” someone. Such does not have to be the case. I don’t have tremendously wonderful feelings for my enemies, but I must love them nonetheless (Matthew 5:44-48). Could we not then love those who, while they do not engender the greatest of feelings, nevertheless are undoubtedly not our enemies? Surely if loving our enemies means being children of our Father in heaven, we can love those who are undoubtedly not our enemies.
Society, however, places a premium not upon this kind of love, but upon the kind of love that is defined by emotion only. If there is no emotion, then there is no love. It is no wonder that we see so many in our society today who seek for divorce due to “incompatibility.” They are “incompatible” because they do not want to be compatible; because they do not want to do what it really takes to love someone else. Jesus’ words on the subject ring loud and true, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). I’m convinced that the reason Jesus said this was because if we can love our enemies, then we can certainly love our spouse. There is, therefore, no excuse for divorce, save for the one Jesus himself gave (Matthew 19:9).
Not only, however, does society define love as mere emotion in the marriage relationship, but in many of our relationships today. One is said not to love his friend if he opposes something that his friend desires to have in his life and bad feelings result from that opposition. One is said not to be loving his fellow man if one points out wrong behavior and incorrect attitudes in another person, due to the negative feelings that one has as a result from having to face one’s own problems/mistakes. Even among those who claim to be Christians, if one does not project a positive, sappy, syrupy emotionalism toward his fellow Christian, then one is immediately labeled as being “unloving.”
This “unloving” label often comes as a result of someone pointing out that another is either not living right, or is incorrect in some point of doctrine or religious practice. However, in such a situation, the “unloving” label begs the question, “Should one love his fellow man above God?” The immediate answer to that is, of course, no (Mark 12:30). However, is this not, in essence, what one is saying in response to someone who is seeking to resolve incorrect beliefs or behavior? “If you make me feel bad about my spiritual condition, or practices, then you just don’t love me.” What about loving God first? The very fact that God demands that we love Him above all others means that there are going to be some whose feelings that we have to hurt in order to please God. It doesn’t mean that we intentionally want to hurt other people’s feelings, or that we even like to hurt other people’s feelings. It is merely a matter of doing what is right in the eyes of God.
One cannot sustain love as mere emotion and love God in the way that God demands that we love Him. Sooner or later, God’s will is going to come into conflict with those emotions. If we take, as our foundation, love to be mere emotion, we will end up compromising God’s will in the long run. However, if we understand that true love involves more than mere emotion, then when the emotions come, whether good or bad, we will stay with our commitment to God and His will. It is upon these grounds that Jesus can demand of us, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15, see also 1 John 5:3).