From Richard Roberts:
I know that there is a lot of frustration out there after over two months of not gathering together physically. I have heard a number of our brothers and sisters express frustration and even some who have expressed the idea that EBF defy the government restrictions and gather anyway because we are told “not to neglect gathering together” in Hebrews 10:25.
So, I wanted to take a moment to evaluate whether or not the command to “not neglect gathering together” in Hebrews 10:25 is properly applied in a defiance of our current government’s restrictions on all public gatherings for all its citizens (which I recognize is an oversimplification of the State’s position).
The full statement in which this particular command in Hebrews actually begins in verse 19. The argument is that since Jesus has created a way into the Holy Place through giving His own body, removing the veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies by His own blood, and since he stands as a priest over all of us in the household of God, then we should respond in a set of particular ways. These ways are laid out by a series of three subjunctive verbs which operate as proposals, or as commands. Those three responses to the access provided to us by Jesus are: let us draw near (v22), let us hold fast (v23), and let us consider (v24). Each of these is followed by clarifying phrases which help us understand how we are to draw near (to God), “with a sincere heart in the full assurance of faith, having had our hearts sprinkled [clean] from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (v22); and we hold fast “the confession of our hope without wavering, because the One who promised is faithful” (v23); and we are to consider “how to spur one another on to love and good works” (v24).
Now, it is this last proposal, in v24, in which the command not to neglect gathering together is given. But, the verb in v25, “not neglecting”, is not actually the command, but a participle which explains the manner of the command “to consider how to spur one another on to love and good works.” Therefore, the primary command is to encourage one another to love one another and to do good.
Now, the Scripture tells us how to do this. We do it in a positive and in a negative way. The positive way, which is listed second, helps us understand the negative. We are to be “encouraging one another.” This is that wonderful word used to describe the Holy Spirit, given by Jesus in John 14-16, “the Helper” or “the Comforter.” It means to come alongside others and help them carry their packs. That is the manner of the command. That is the means of our spurring one another on to love and good works.
Now, the negative participle is what is now being used to question our decision to submit to our governing authorities and not meet physically. Yet, the word is actually “abandon.” It is not merely not to gather together for a time, but to abandon, or leave behind permanently, the gathering. This makes sense in the light of the governing command, “to consider how to spur one another on to love and good works.” For, if you abandon the community, how could you do this? How could you encourage one another, if you have given up the very community which you are intended to encourage.
Therefore, I do not believe that this verse is properly applied in our current situation. I believe for three primary reasons.
First, we are not abandoning the household of God, the people of whom we are family. This current physical distancing is neither permanent, and thus not an abandoning, nor is it without the primary command to spur one another on to love and good works. For this to be true, the church leadership would have to conclude that our social governing authorities were demanding the permanent closure of our worship gatherings, which we do not believe. In fact, the current stay-at-home orders are applied to all citizens, not just religious citizens.
Remember, this is temporary. Therefore, we are still obeying the proposals of Hebrews 10, because we have a High Priest who has plowed the way into the Holy of Holies on our behalf. We live in the light of that now, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in the stores in which we shop. That is our hope to which we encourage one another in love and good works.
Second, there is the spurring of one another on to love and good works happening now, in spite of our inability to physically gather. The church in the days when Hebrews was written did not have the opportunities to communicate such encouragement like we do. We have telephones and video-communications, emails and texting, things which were not possible for them are now possible for us. Therefore, encouragement and spurring one another on is happening now, even without physical intimacy of the gathering at a home or church building. Is this ideal? Of course not! But, neither does it somehow neglect the commands of Hebrews 10.
Third, we are commanded to submit to the governing authorities in Romans 13 because they are put in their place by God, and for our good. Paul even refers to them (and probably Nero at his writing!) as “servants of God.” Their social authority is a service of God, whether they acknowledge it or not. Therefore, since their current laws are not commanding us to sin, and since they are applied to all citizens equally, I think that it would be an arrogant defiance which would bring unnecessary dishonor upon the name of Christ in the eyes of the world to do defiantly gather.
And since we are still free to spur one another on to love and good works, to encourage one another daily as we see The Day approaching, to proclaim the hope that we have in Jesus Christ, then we ought to honor our authorities with our submission and continue to encourage one another in all the ways which we are able to put our hope in God, to see with the eyes of eternity, to proclaim that The Day is coming (Heb 10:25) in which all people will be judged by God in His holiness. There is a greater judgment coming upon the world than this virus and the economic fallout of the actions taken to protect against its virulence. "The Day" is coming when there will be no escape from such a wrath of God. Do we consider this when we look upon those who disagree with us about such temporal things? Do we see our neighbor in the light of "The Day." Have we placed our hope in that Day, or are we placing our hope in today's sustenance?
What are we “considering” in our thoughts, our values, our words and our works? That is the greater issue, the priority of our obedience and our aims and our goals. Are we considering how to spur one another on to love and good works? Are we reminding one another of Hebrews 10:19-24, too? May the gracious words of our eternal hope fill our mouths and compel our loving deeds today, even as we pray for the better times of our gatherings to return.