On Not Neglecting to Gather1
This week, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz extended the stay-at-home order for two additional weeks and has made clear that any lifting of the order will come in incremental phases. Though precision is impossible, it appears that the re-opening of churches will come later in the process rather than sooner.
Biblically minded Christians almost instinctually ask how the stay-at-home order relates to the responsibility to regularly gather as an assembly. The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to work out their faith in the context of the Christian community, “not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25, CSB). Are Christians disobeying God by staying home?
Before investigating the text, it is important to note that the answer to that question differs based on the situation. Though I intend to answer the question for our present moment, envisioning a time where governmental authorities restrict the gathering of local assemblies with a decidedly anti-Christian agenda is not difficult. In fact, in many places across the globe, this is the case. However, it seems that even if the stay-at-home order might seem unreasonable, it is not targeting Christians or houses of worship. If it were, the answer to this question would likely take a different form.
The text in question comes at the end of a paragraph exhorting Christians to godliness based on the “once for all time” atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the resulting forgiveness of sin (Hebrews 10:9, 18). Because of this sanctifying work, Christians are encouraged to enter the sanctuary (read: God’s presence), looking to Christ as the great high priest (Hebrews 10: 19-21). In other words, Christians are set apart, cleansed, and welcomed into God’s presence by faith in the heavenly realm because of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
As we find so often, heavenly realities are intended to be pictured on earth. Just as Christians are welcomed into fellowship with God in the heavenly, they are also welcomed into fellowship with one another in the earthly realm. But this welcome is not merely a suggestion. It is a vital part of what it means to be sanctified by Christ. The fellowship of believers includes mutual encouragement in the Christian life—particularly encouraging one another to love and good works. Apparently, an important part of this fellowship also includes regularly gathering together—and even more frequently as we await the return of our Lord.
Commentators debate the exact context intended for the gathering described in Hebrews 10:25. Some understand this phrase as a reference to smaller, private gatherings of Christians while others understand it as a reference to the larger, gathered assembly. I am inclined to think that the author of Hebrews intends both. Christians are to regularly gather both on the Lord’s Day as an assembly and as often as they are able throughout the week.
Apparently, some known by the assembly were failing to gather together—and not just occasionally. This failure had become habitual. By all appearances, these Christians had the opportunity to meet together, but they intentionally neglected that opportunity. This neglect proves to be out of step with Christ’s redemptive purpose. Christian gatherings are bought by the blood of Jesus Christ and every Christian should strive to meaningful engage in them.
Watch Out For One Another
Unlike the Christians referenced in Hebrews 10:25 who chose not to gather together (either as an assembly or in smaller groups), we are under restrictions that do not allow either kind of gathering. It is this significant difference that helps us respond rightly to Hebrews 10:24–25. If the option to gather were before us, and we chose not to gather, a good argument could be made that we were failing to obey this biblical teaching. However, this simply isn’t the case. In fact, almost every Christian that I know would be happy to gather if we could.
To be clear, then, churches that are not gathering as an assembly and individual Christians who are not gathering with other believers are not disobeying Hebrews 10:25a.
However, it is possible that Christians are consequently disobeying Hebrews 10:24–25. Even though the ability to gather has been restrained, the other Christian responsibilities mentioned in this text are in full effect. We still have the responsibility to watch out for one another to provoke love and good works and to encourage each other all the more as we see the day approaching (either the end of the stay-at-home orders or the return of Christ).
Perhaps more creativity is required to live in obedience to the text now than before the stay-at-home order, but that does not neutralize the command. In the absence of physical gatherings, we must work all the harder to fulfill our covenantal responsibilities to one another.
All the More
How can we do so “all the more”? I offer two suggestions.
First, leverage whatever technological skill and savvy you have to meaningfully connect with others in the assembly. We are blessed with computers and smartphones, Zoom, Facebook, Email, and a host of other platforms of communication. Work hard to leverage those platforms to promote love, good works, and encouragement.
At Crystal Lake Baptist Church, there are two great aides in this endeavor. The first is the member interviews that have been available. Take the time to listen to the interviews to know better other members of the church, as well as to be encouraged by their stories of God’s grace in their lives. The second is the church directory that was recently emailed out. Utilize the directory to make contact through phone calls, emails, or letters as you seek to deepen relationships during this time apart.
Second, take advantage of every gathering that is available during this time. At Crystal Lake, we are seeking to continue to feed on God’s Word together by watching recorded biblical teaching every Sunday, followed by a Zoom discussion. Starting this Saturday, we are also beginning a weekly prayer meeting for members and regular attendees where we can share our burdens and requests and pray with one another. We can in a real, though diminutive way, still gather.
Though some will be limited by internet speeds, outdated technology, or lack of tech-savvy, we are blessed to have a plethora of platforms that help us obey Hebrews 10:24–25. Though we long for the day when we can gather together, let us seek to make the best use of the opportunities that we have—and all the more as we see the day approaching.