This is a rather long post, but it seemed important to offer it here.
The most common text used to get believers to attend regular Sunday worship is Hebrews 10:24-25:
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. Hebrews 10:24-25(NKJV)
Let’s take a look at this passage. First, I want to be very careful to stay true to the text and to the intent of the passage. I recognize that I have a new grid through which I see the Scriptures and I have to be careful that I am not reading what I consider a grace message in a place where the Lord means something different. If He is telling us that we ought to attend Sunday worship every Sunday, I want to know that.
- This is the letter to the Hebrews—that means the Jewish believers. They are under serious persecution and are probably still struggling with the cultural changes of being connected to the Gentiles through Christ. They are susceptible to deception by those who try to bring them back under the Law. They are trying to understand how the Christian gospel fits with what they have been taught. This is why the letter was written.
- There is strong agreement among Biblical scholars that this passage refers to the regular gathering of believers as believers. In other words, this is not just a community gathering or a chance meeting. This is what we would call “church.” It is good and right that believers should gather to support and encourage each other. (Somewhere along the way, “exhort” has become “preach at” instead of “encourage” as it was intended. This is sad. To exhort a friend meant to encourage, to walk alongside and support.) If possible, Christians should find each other and be a blessing to each other.
- However, here’s where the interpretation comes in. Are we talking about Sunday mornings or some other regular meeting? If two believers see each other on the street and plan a gathering for Tuesday evening, would that fulfill the spirit of the passage? We know that the Jews set aside the Sabbath for worship and we know that some believers gathered in some communities on the “first day of the week” for worship. Is this the only format that is taught in our passage?
- One of my general rules of interpretation is that God could be as specific as He wanted in His Word. There are very specific commands, detailed instructions on rituals and behavior, in the Old Testament. So, if He is not specific, I think He intends to give us some leeway. I know this is uncomfortable for the legalists, but the truth is that God could have given us intricate details for anything He wanted. He could have told us exactly how long a woman’s hair should be; exactly how much money New Testament believers should give to the church; exactly what the governing structure of a church should be; and exactly when and where and how we should worship. Since He didn’t give us these details, we must be free to seek His leading on a more personal level.
- So I think our passage is intended to bring believers together. These Hebrews may have been frightened of gathering because of the persecution. They may have been concerned about gathering with Gentiles. They may simply have been confused about how to live their relationship with Jesus because everything was corporate before and now their faith was personal. Or maybe their community was so segmented that they couldn’t imagine getting together with people they didn’t really know. Whatever the reason(s), they had to be told to get together with other believers.
- Also, this is a message for the Christian community, not so much for individuals. The Christians should come together to encourage each other. This is not meant to be a mandate for every believer and every Sunday. I think that is a misuse of the passage. In fact, they should especially consider this because “the day” is approaching. What day? Well, again we don’t have a specific, but it is fair to suggest that this is the Day of the Lord, the day when all believers will be brought together forever. You see, in spite of what some may think and teach, we will all be one big happy family in Heaven. Skin colors, nationalities, social class, doctrinal positions—none of these will matter in that day. The only thing that will matter is that we come trusting Jesus alone. In Him we will have a unity we have never experienced here. So the message in our passage is about becoming that community, in a small and precious sense, here and now.
- Would it be good for all believers to be and feel part of that community? Of course! But there are a couple of things to consider. First, all believers are a part of that community. Just because they don’t attend church, for whatever reason, doesn’t change the fact of their place in the kingdom. Second, instead of trying to convince every believer to come to church, church leaders should set the goal of making their congregation a place of welcome and grace. I think all believers should be a part of a grace-filled church. The only problem is that there are very few of those churches out there.
- Sometimes it is helpful for us to look for wisdom in other areas. The Lord tells us to give. How? Generously and without grudging obligation. Maybe that’s how we should look at church attendance. We should gather with other believers joyfully and without feeling a negative obligation. We should come together because we want to. Husbands and wives are to be together physically. However, the Lord makes allowance for healing times and for special times when the Lord is working in the life of one or the other. Maybe there is a place for setting aside the “gathering of ourselves together” for worship so that we can have a time of healing and/or drawing near to the Lord.
Bottom line for pastors: Tell the preacher that he could use this passage to encourage the believers of a community to come together in Jesus’ name to love and encourage each other. Tell him that he really shouldn’t use it to demand that you come to church at his church every Sunday.
Rather than trying to beat believers over the head with a Bible passage, pastors could try to get to the real question: Why do you feel unwelcome? What is it about church that makes you afraid or feel inferior or put off? The answers to these questions might change what happens at the church and might actually minister to the heart of the person who doesn’t feel like attending.
Bottom line for you: Go to church—or not. Just do what Jesus leads you to do. It’s about you and Him, after all. Yes, others are a part of Him, but let Him lead you to others. Ask Him to show you safe and kind people with whom you can share love. It may be a church you have never considered “good enough” doctrinally. It may be a home fellowship. It may even be an online community. Just follow Him and let others do the same.
(Oh, and remember that Christians are not perfect. In their flesh they aren’t even good. That’s why they needed a Savior. Don’t expect more than they can give.)
Your comments are welcome!