MISUSING HEBREWS 10:25

By David Christensen

“God told us not to stop coming together to worship Him during times of increased illness and persecution,” one pastor said, citing Hebrews 10:25.[1] Pastors throughout history have used and often misused Hebrews 10:25 to motivate Christians to attend Sunday morning worship services. The goal is worthy. We want people to gather in worship – to assemble. After all, the word church translates the Greek word ekklesia, which means an assembly. Worshiping as an assembly of believers is vital for Christians, and we miss out when we miss the assembly. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pastors have repeatedly invoked Hebrews 10:25 to support worshiping in dedicated church buildings with hundreds and thousands of people in defiance of state regulations. John MacArthur, a pastor I highly respect, announced, “Christians are therefore commanded not to forsake the practice of meeting together (Hebrews 10:25)—and no earthly state has a right to restrict, delimit or forbid the assembling of believers.”[2]

The argument is simple.

  1. We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
  2. God commands us to gather in corporate worship (Heb. 10:25).
  3. Therefore, we must gather in our church buildings for corporate worship.

However, is this what Hebrews 10:25 means? Does the text command us to gather in our church buildings with hundreds and thousands of other people for corporate worship? If so, does that mean that many churches and Christians are disobeying God by following the government guidelines for churches?

No! We are misusing Hebrews 10:25 when we apply it in this way. A careful exegesis of the text should be the starting point for our ecclesiology, and our application of the text should rise from our exegesis, not our feelings. The application to our current situation should match the reality of the biblical situation to be legitimate, so let us unpack this verse carefully to see what God is telling us.

Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling 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)

NOT A COMMAND

The first and simplest observation of the text shows us that the verb “forsaking” is not a command. It is a participle describing the way in which some have rejected the command in verse 24.[3] The imperative is, “let us consider one another,” a command to care about other believers. It is the third command in a series of three appeals beginning in verse 22, which are grounded in the confidence we have in Christ (v.19). We are commanded to love other believers by not abandoning our fellowship with them.

We are not commanded to assemble in corporate worship. We are commanded to love one another. We show that love by not forsaking the church under duress, pressure, distraction, or apostasy. God does not tell us to gather in corporate worship in this verse, as crucial as that is. God tells us to love one another. Staying in fellowship with one another is how we love each other. Abandoning others in need is how we forsake the church.

MEANING OF “FORSAKING”

The verb means to abandon or desert the church. It was used for deserting someone in danger or of feeling abandoned by God in our circumstances.[4] The author of Hebrews uses the same verb to assure us that God will never abandon us in our distress (Heb. 13:5). We are not to leave our fellow-members of the church “in the lurch” because that would be a lack of love for them.[5] God does not leave us in the lurch, so we should not leave others in the lurch. God never deserts us in our distress, so we must never desert fellow Christians in their distress.

What does it mean to desert the church?

Lack of attendance at a Sunday morning worship service does not necessarily mean that someone has deserted the church, especially if the person does it for health reasons. Deserting the church means to go AWOL in the battle. Leaving the church in a lurch means to turn away from helping other believers in need or standing with other Christians under duress. Someone might leave because he is ashamed of being a Christian or doesn’t want to deal with the demands of discipleship anymore. A person might leave a fellowship because it does not fit his personal tastes or because she had a disagreeable disagreement with another Christian. We must avoid an individualistic spirit in the church. The context (vs. 26-31) indicates that the abandonment could be apostasy, the desire to pursue sin in rebellion to God knowingly.[6]

NATURE OF ASSEMBLING

Apparently, it was the custom of some to withdraw from their assembly and “go it alone.” What was the nature of the assembly, and what promoted the desertion? The text offers us a clue. The word for assembly used here is not the common word for the church – ekklesia. It is the word synagogue with the preposition epi prefixed to it. Literally, it could mean “in addition to the synagogue.” It is possible that the Jewish Christians were coming to church in addition to their attendance at the local synagogue, making it an additional gathering. The author did not want them to abandon the meeting of Christians to return to the synagogue.[7]

However, the word itself does not necessarily mean something different from the usual meaning of synagogue.[8] The word synagogue simply means a meeting or a meeting place. In Hebrews 10:25, it is a church meeting. F.F. Bruce suggests that the author could be addressing a house church that was deserting the other house churches in the city.[9] Whether that is the case or not, the nature of the church meeting is essential. Early Christians met in house churches scattered throughout large cities. The house churches, like many synagogues, were small, usually numbering under fifty people. Each house church, like a synagogue, maintained fellowship with a network of other house churches in the city.

The church did not meet in dedicated buildings devoted to large group worship gatherings in the first century. They primarily met in homes. The average middle-class home could cram fifty people in at a time. The early church sporadically gathered in larger groups for worship and instruction. When they did, they met in places like Solomon’s porch, a covered but open-air section of the temple (Acts 5:12), or a rented school (Acts 19:9). The network of house churches, synagogues/meetings, stood with each other to strengthen and encourage one another (Acts 12:12-17). It was vital that they not desert one another under the pressures of the world.

THRUST OF THE PASSAGE

We must not read the church life of today back into the first century. The assembling in view in this verse referred to small group meetings designed to encourage and strengthen one another in the faith. Once we understand the nature of the assembling, we can grasp the purpose that the author stresses for not abandoning them. They were to stimulate each other to love and good deeds as they waited for the return of Christ. The assembling in house churches was primarily interpersonal and supportive. Loyalty, not attendance, was the thrust of the passage.

The author of Hebrews is not thinking of gathering in buildings dedicated to worship with hundreds and thousands of other people. He is focused on small group meetings designed to encourage other believers through their commitment to one another. The thrust of the passage is horizontal, not vertical. It is life with one another that is the focus of Hebrews 10:25. Christians must remain connected to each other and stand with each other, so life pressures do not pull people away from the faith. Loyal love should characterize the attitudes of Christians. There must be no “lone ranger” Christians, and we are not to leave each other in the lurch while we pursue our own goals in life.

LEGITIMATE APPLICATION

In his book Exegetical Fallacies, D.A. Carson writes, “critical exegesis … is exegesis that provides sound reasons for the choices” we make and the applications we preach.[10] Legitimate application flows from sound exegesis. We must match the biblical situation to a comparable current situation to find our exegetical application. Why? Because application is the easiest place to misuse Scripture as we push our ideas and promote our positions. We misuse Hebrews 10:25 when we preach that people are disobeying God if they attend church online during a pandemic despite their support of the church in other ways.

What, then, are some examples of legitimate applications that we can draw from Hebrews 10:25? Here are some representative examples of legitimate applications.

  1. Christians drop out of a local church to pursue their lifestyle goals.
  2. Christians think they do not need the local church to live the Christian life.
  3. Christians turn away from the local church to follow their sinful desires.
  4. Christians forsake one local church to go to another church because of a personal dispute.
  5. Christians desert believers in one local church to go to another local church merely because they like it better.

[1]“A Louisiana Pastor Defies a State Order and Holds a Church Service with Hundreds of People,” CNN, 3/19/2020, https://www.wtva.com/content/news/568926132.html

[2] John MacArthur, “The Church’s Duty to Remain Open,” 9/1/2020, https://decisionmagazine.com/john-macarthur-the-churchs-duty-to-remain-open/

[3] It is a participle of manner. Fritz Rienecker and Cleon Rogers, A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Zondervan Publishing House, 1980, 703.

[4] William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, second edition, revised and augmented from Walter Bauer’s fifth edition, 1958, The University of Chicago Press, 1979, 215.

[5] James Moffat, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, in The International Critical Commentary, T&T Clark, 1979, 147.

[6] For a full discussion see Moffat, Hebrews, 147-149.

[7] F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964, 254.

[8] Arndt & Gingrich, Lexicon, 301.

[9] Bruce, Hebrews, 255, fn.119.

[10] D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Baker Book House, 1984, 12.
 
 

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