The careful reader will notice immediately a discrepancy between the title of this article and the above text. "The title reflects the way preachers of the institutional church would have the verse to read, and often interpret the passage. Dyed-in-the wool Sectarians and Denominationalists think and talk in this manner. They are quick to let you know that God does not want you to "forsake the assembly!" and will often quote Hebrews 10:25. They believe that God has a law that requires there to be some kind of an official assembly that all Christians in the vicinity must be a member of, support, and attend. This, all under the threat of God's wrath. Their assembly is usually referred to as "the local church." Preachers in these "local churches" have used Hebrews 10:25 to intimidate, threaten and cajole members to attend and support every "service of the church." The beaten-down sheep are admonished to "come, every time the doors are opened." They are afraid to do otherwise, for they have been conditioned to believe that missing a "church service" will cause them to miss eternal life. Some obligingly go to "services" when they do not feel like going, but go under threat of recrimination.
Most preachers know that Hebrews 10:25 does not teach that it is sinful if one fails to assemble with Christians on a regular basis. But, because they need the physical and financial support of the members, even for their own livelihood, they "fashion" the interpretation of this passage into a religious "club," by which they clobber believers into submission. After all, attendance and collection numbers have to look good. In the most sophisticated "local church" organizations, very expensive building facilities are used to coax the members to attend. Some are encouraged to support a function of the church every night! Often members are saddled with tremendous debt to maintain elaborate "church buildings." Constantly, there is an appeal to "give until it hurts." The family that pays together, stays together, broke!
There is not a single scripture indicating that God desires Christians to form some kind of an organization called "the church," "local church," "blood bought institution," "Baptist Church," "Church of Christ," "Methodist Church," etc. No, not even the euphemism, "assembly!" There is not one hint from God that He requires Christians to "place membership in," "become a member of," "join," "support," and/or "attend" any one of these organizations. This whole concept is a contrivance of man, dating back many centuries. The idea behind it is, and has always been, for inert to control the masses. I repeat, THE CONCEPT IS FROM MAN, NOT GOD!
Ekklesia was a word among the Greeks denoting an assembled body of people. It was used in Acts 19:39 of a city meeting; in 19:32,41 of a riotous mob; and in 7:38 of Israel of old. Jesus coined this word to describe his followers, when He stated, "I will build my community" (Mt. 16:18 SEB). Jesus never suggested that there would be an official meeting place or organization to which his followers would owe allegiance. In fact he indicated to the Samaritan woman that true service (worship) to God will not depend upon the right place, but upon the right disposition of heart (Jn. 4:21-24).
It is quite evident that Christians in the scriptures assembled, i.e., came together for one reason or another. They got together to pray (Acts 4:24-31); to arrange for the care of the needy (Acts 6); to hear about the work of conversion (Acts 14:27); to debate pertinent issues (Acts 15); to eat the common meal (Acts 2:46; 20:7:1 Cor. 11:20-22 cf. 34); to judge sinfulness (1 Cor. 5); to eat the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 10:16-17; 11:11-34); to edify: teach, pray, and sing (1 Cot. 14). Today, it is good if Christians choose to come together for any or all of these, purposes.
So, what is the point? Most preachers, elders, and theologians are not content to leave these examples of the Bible in the realm of suggestions, but rather resist on welding them together into a "Divine pattern of laws." The basic problem here is known as legalism. Legalism is a theological process by which man presumes to speak for God. A legalist sees examples and inferences as God's law, and, of course, he gets to pick and choose which examples and inferences qualify. Legalism is a failure to understand the true nature of "salvation by grace through faith." It is a denial of two important points. One, the efficacy of the atonement of Jesus that sets us free, and two, the liberty that we enjoy in Christ (i.e., freedom from the bondage of "law").
Until Jesus died on the cross paying for all our sins, we were hopelessly lost for eternity. There was nothing we could do to earn the approval of God, not even baptism (Tit. 3:3-7). Just as one man, Adam, was responsible for our being dead in our sins, one man, Jesus, was responsible for our free gift of God, eternal life (Rom. 5:15-17). Our salvation is not dependent upon how well we understand and execute good works, but is given to those who put complete trust and confidence in Jesus Christ (Rom 5:18-21). A true believer will respond out of a strong love for Him.
When men dictate that you cannot be saved unless you support "the local church" with your attendance and money, they are not only advocating that which cannot be substantiated by scripture, but they are violating the teaching of Christ through Paul, i.e. "we are saved by grace through faith, not of yourselves, it (salvation) is a gift of God, not of works lest any man should glory" (Eph. 2:8,9). Attending a thousand "services" cannot save you! Furthermore, by imposing demands to assemble to do all their prescribed liturgy, legalists would have you in bondage not unlike what the Pharisees did to the people of Jesus, day. "We have freedom now. Christ made us free. So stand firm. Don't turn and go back into slavery" (Gal. 5:1).
Jesus said, "If you stay with my teaching, you are truly my followers. You will find out the truth, and the truth will set you free" (Jn. 8:31,32,36). We are made "free" when we respond to the invitation of Jesus through the "Good News." We learn as sinners that our "works" cannot justify us before God. Paul said, "No one will be made right (righteous) by following (doing) law" (Rom. 3:20). Also, to the Galatians, Paul emphatically stated:
We know that a person is not made right with God by following law. Committing oneself to Jesus Christ is what makes a person right with God. So, we made a commitment to Christ Jesus, because we wanted to be made right with God. We are right with God because we made that commitment, not because of following law. NOBODY WILL EVER BE MADE RIGHT BY FOLLOWING LAW (Gal. 2:16).
Legalists attempt to brad upon all Christians, "church membership" with all the trappings, i.e., attendance, giving financially, Lord's Supper, singing, listening to the preacher, etc., under threat that if you "forsake" these things, God will not be pleased. Understand, that "forsake" to the legalistic mentality means to "absent oneself" from the assembly where all these things take place. In other words, to be pleasing m the sight of God, one must do all these things at the assembly at least every Sunday! Therefore, legalists say that to be right in God's sight you must obey these works of law. Now re-read Paul's statements recorded above. Who has the truth?
Simply stated, the Hebrew writer is encouraging his readers not to abandon the Principle of meeting together. Absent from the verse is a command to meet regularly. In fact, nowhere in the scriptures is there a command from God for Christians to meet a prescribed number of times a week, no, not even to meet every Sunday. Instead, there are inspired statements that would lead us to conclude that the place for, and frequency of "assembling," is a matter of free choice. It could be regulated by expediency.
The Lord's Supper can be taken whenever and/or wherever Christians feel the need, as long as it is done for the proper reasons and with the right attitude. This prompted Paul to say, "For AS OFTEN AS ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:26 ASV). There is no set time for this observance. "As often as may apply to every day, once a week, or once a month, or whenever. In reference to the "day" for assembling, some make a law where God did not. Many today think God set aside Sunday to be holy. Did He? Where is it so stated? Instead, I read that it really doesn't matter with God. This controversy existed in the first century. Notice how Paul handled it.
Who are you? Can you judge the servant of someone else? That servant's master decides whether he is a good or bad servant, not you. He will be successful; the Lord is able to make him successful. ONE PERSON THINKS THAT ONE DAY IS MORE HOLY THAN ANOTHER DAY. BUT, ANOTHER MAN THINKS THAT EVERY DAY IS THE SAME. Every person must be sure in his own mind. When someone is honoring a special day, he is doing this for the Lord .... If we live, let's live for the Lord. If we die, let's die for the Lord. It doesn't matter whether we live or die -- WE BELONG TO THE LORD! (Rom. 14:4,5,8 SEB).
The context of Hebrews 10:25, immediate and general, helps us to understand the verse. Many of the Hebrew Christians were abandoning their faith in Jesus Christ and returning to Judaism. The book of Hebrews was written to stop this defection. Key statements for this understanding are: "We must really pay attention to the things we have heard. If we don't, we might drift away" (2:1); "Brothers, be careful! If you're not, some of you might develop an evil, unbelieving heart that pulls away from the living God" (3: 1.2); "The promise of going into God's place of rest is still open, but we should be afraid. If you're not, some of you might not make it" (4:1); "So, we have a High Priest who has gone through the heavens. He is Jesus, the Son of God. We must hold on to what we stud we believed" (4:14): "Some people once had the light. They tasted some of the heavenly gift and shared in the Holy Spirit. They tasted how good the word of God is and the powers of the future world, but they have fallen away. It is impossible to bring them back to a change of heart. In their lives, they nail the Son of God to the cross again, shaming him publicly" (6:4-6): But the death of Christ was the price to set them free from sin. Now those people who have been called by God may receive the eternal inheritance that God promised" (9:15); "We have a great Priest serving over God's house, too. So, let us come with a true heart and be sure of our faith. Our hearts should be made pure from a guilty conscience. Our bodies should be washed with pure water. Let us hold tightly to the hope we said we believed in" (10:21-23).
It is against this backdrop of strong admonishment that the writer says, "And let us think about how we may cause one another to love and to do good things. Do not quit meeting together, as some people are in the habit of doing. Instead, encourage one another even more, since you see the day coming closer" (10:24-25). Be assured that it was not the author's purpose to lay out a law of attendance for an organization, an institution set up by man, called by some sectarian and/or denominational name. This is the figment of a Legalist's imagination. No, the writer's purpose was to encourage the Hebrew brethren to continue their practice of getting together periodically for mutual edification and reassurance.
Incidentally, "the day" of verse 25 is not Sunday: nor is it any regular meeting time. In my opinion, it refers to an expected calamity that would really test their faith even further.
My purpose for this line of study is not to discourage Christians from assembling together, but to encourage such periodic meetings with proper understanding and motivation.
Christians should not be coerced to serve God under threat of being "disfellowshipped," or at best, being relegated to second class citizenship! Forcing people to occupy a pew week after week, year after year is not what God desires. Service should be voluntary and out of a willing heart. Serving God can be a very happy experience. Serving God is serving others. Real happiness is serving others. Certainly, there should be no thought that our salvation depends on our faithfulness in "church attendance," or for that matter, any kind of work program we may invent. The purpose for wanting to meet with our brethren is plainly stated in Hebrews 10:24: "Let us think about how we may cause one another to love and to do good things." We can accomplish this in a chance meeting with one person, or meeting periodically with a group of people. Either way, we should not forsake the principle of getting together with others for mutual edification. (Next issue: What can Christians do in lieu of "church services"?).