19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 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 10:19-25, New King James Version)
Unless you’ve removed yourself from world events entirely, I’m sure you’ve heard of the coronavirus crisis and the havoc it’s wreaking on the world at this very moment. While there are many that have recovered from coronavirus, over 8,000 have died from the disease (also known as COVID-19). Italy is one country that has witnessed a massive tragedy from coronavirus. Video footage of coffins lined up characterizes the sadness in the country of Italy currently. South Korea has seen its coronavirus infections die down due to vaccination, but the US has been dragging its feet. Vaccines are in testing, but they aren’t certain to come immediately. It could be months before the first vaccines make their way to the American market. Other countries could see vaccinations in a matter of months, too.
US President Donald Trump said at one point that it could be July or August before American life resumes. Now, that number has jumped to as much as 18 months, critics say. Those who thought the coronavirus crisis would die down soon are discovering otherwise.
And in this climate, where disease is moving global leaders to encourage social distancing, local churches find themselves having to practice something that goes against their usual traditional worship routine(s). I read one response in a local Facebook group where a person said that he wasn’t a fan of meeting online to have church because “I’m a 9 Marks kind of guy.” For those who may not know, “9 Marks” is a reference to what was formerly known as “The Center for Church Reform,” led by Mark Dever. Mark Dever, among other things, is a complementarian who doesn’t believe in women in leadership positions.
The statement made on Facebook was a response to social distancing and the mandate of churches to comply with the President’s order in America. The individual believed that gathering in the same room for corporate worship is one of the marks of a healthy church — and churches that don’t meet in the same room are something unholy.
Not everyone believes the way the young man responded above on Facebook. And yet, there are many traditionalists who do. They believe that Hebrews 10:25 encourages believers to not forsake assembling for corporate worship. In other words, “corporate worship is important to God,” and coronavirus is preventing God’s people from gathering together.
But is it? Is coronavirus, in effect, preventing God’s people from obeying the words of Hebrews 10:25? That is the subject of this post.
Hebrews 10:25 and traditional worship
Hebrews 10:25 says to “assemble ourselves together,” but that is all we read about how to assemble. And yet, traditionalists have their own personal take on what the verse means. “We should assemble in a building, and any attempts outside of that violate Scripture.” Others combine their interpretation of Hebrews 10:25 with Jesus’ words “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Traditionalists say that “where” is the key; “where” is all about location. Jesus is in the midst of two or three believers who gather in the same physical location.
Traditionalists say that worship has always been about believers gathering in a physical location of some kind, whether it be a church building, house, or even a school or gym. What matters is that believers gather in a physical location. That is the only way to do church, traditionalists say. Anything outside of that violates Scripture and “doesn’t provide the entire worship experience.”
While traditionalists like to use a little Scripture here and there, the position essentially amounts to the following: “We’ve always assembled in a building, and thus, will only assemble in a building. There is no other way to do church because we’ve always done it this one set way. We’re not open to a new approach because we’re just old-fashioned. We grew up going into a physical building, and if it’s good enough for my parents and grandparents, then it’s good enough for me.” This isn’t a biblical position; what it amounts to is an “I’m set in my ways and don’t want to change” stance.
Lots of believers are “set in their ways about their sin,” but surely, we can’t expect God to just tolerate that.
The problem of the traditional worship stance: it ignores the biblical and current contexts entirely
Traditionalists are very much like the Pharisees: stuck on the letter of the Law while completely ignoring the Spirit thereof. They read the literal words, hold to a set interpretation, and then force that interpretation on everyone else.
They believe they’re doing the right thing, but they’re making a mistake. God’s Word does not change, and His Word is unchanging. And yet, we live in changing times and circumstances. In applying Scripture in the day and time in which we live, we must understand that our circumstances are not exactly the same as those we read in Scripture. For example, we’re currently in a coronavirus crisis where social distancing is the mandate in order to avoid a large growth in infections and deaths. Do you think the Jewish Christians to which Paul wrote the Epistle of Hebrews were struggling under coronavirus? Were they avoiding assembling together because of such a deadly disease?
Not at all. What we find in Hebrews 6 is that Paul encouraged Christians to continue gathering together in the midst of their persecution. They were suffering simply because they’d come out of Judaism and embraced Christianity. This is why we read Paul’s words that “we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end” (Hebrews 6:11, NKJV). Paul wants believers to avoid “becoming sluggish” (Hebrews 6:12).
In Hebrews 10:23, Paul exhorts the Jewish Christians, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” This verse is in the same context as Hebrews 10:25. Paul told the Jewish Christians not to “forsake” assembling together, “as is the manner of some.”
These six words (“as is the manner of some”) indicate that some believers had stopped assembling in public places due to persecution. Paul wanted the Jewish Christians he wrote to not follow the example of others and cease meeting because, by meeting, believers could encourage one another to endure trials and temptations and hold onto their faith. Without such encouragement, believers could easily give up because they would have nowhere to go and no one to turn to.
Not only does the traditional interpretation of Hebrews 10:25 (that is, corporate, physical gathering in a building) ignore the biblical context of Hebrews 10:25; it also ignores the current social context in which we find ourselves. The coronavirus crisis is deadly. Those who have already been infected have caught it through various encounters with others who had the disease. But the scariest part about COVID-19 is that you can contract it from someone who shows few to no symptoms. It’s a silent infecter, and that makes it a deadly one.
Do you think Paul would have wanted us to assemble in large gatherings in public places in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic? Would Paul have approved of Christians disobeying their national governments to meet? Would Paul have put himself and the lives of his early churches at risk by telling them to assemble publicly anyway? Would Paul have encouraged churches to disobey the powers that be?
I think we all know the answers to those questions: no, no, no, and no. The answer, in a word, is “no.”
There’s never enough time or space to say it all, but what we’ve covered above is good enough to get started.
Hebrews 10:25 was designed to encourage Christians (both in the first century and today in the 21st) to assemble despite the persecution they endure. Paul would tell us to continue assembling together.
But there are two factors that today’s believers must consider over those Jewish Christians in the 1st century. First is that we’re living in the midst of a deadly disease that is killing and infecting every day. It’s so bad that social distancing is the only thing that can prevent a spike in infections and deaths. There are no vaccines on the market for most countries, which means there’s no way to currently fight the disease apart from social distancing.
Google is adding a COVID-19 message to medical locations in Google Maps to warn users that, if they believe they have the disease, to call their doctor and stay away from the hospital so as to not infect others. The only thing doctors can do currently in the face of the disease is help patients learn how to breathe easier.
Apart from breathing instructions, doctors have nothing to offer in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. With no vaccines, medicines, and little in the way of doctor advice, global citizens have no choice but to socially distance themselves.
Next, we’re living in an internet age where there’s a way to assemble, even when we cannot meet in person: online. Churches can still assemble via platforms such as Facebook Live, Facebook Messenger video chat, Google Hangouts Meet, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and others. Video chat applications still allow believers to see each other in person, face-to-face, without worrying about an infected person coughing or breathing on others.
Internet church, or having worship service online, is an approach that seeks to prevent infection and death while still glorifying God and reinforcing the assembling of believers. Traditional worship in the face of the coronavirus crisis is irresponsible because it denies love of neighbor, obedience to the state, and tempts the Lord God by putting believers in a deliberate life or death situation. In contrast, internet church obeys the state, shows love of neighbor and self, and shows faith in God and human responsibility simultaneously.
We’ll get into the strengths of internet church in light of the coronavirus crisis in the next post. Stay tuned.