In the wake of COVID-19 and the pandemic we are currently experiencing, many churches have taken to cancelling or redirecting Sunday services. This has led to quite the outrage from some on social media, who have cited Hebrews 10:25 against those who cancel Sunday services. Their argument is that, since scripture tells us we should be “not neglecting to meet together”, then those who are failing to do so are in clear violation of scripture. One example that got a bit of attention is shown below:
Let me begin here by assuring the reader that I absolutely, positively affirm the need for believers to gather together in corporate worship. If you don’t meet regularly for corporate worship, I advise with all gentleness that you examine how sanctified your view of worship is. We are saved as a flock, and the Good Shepherd desires us to worship together as a flock, as has happened since man began to call on the name of the Lord (cf. Gen 4:26). I do not take the subject of corporate worship lightly, and I do not believe there is any such thing as a “lone wolf Christian.” If I can be excused for spiritualizing a verse… if the devil is a lion prowling about looking for someone to devour (cf. 1 Pet 5:8), it would do well for us to remember that the easiest targets for a lion are those who wander far from the herd.
I’ll also grant to the reader that I don’t know the state of every single church in the country, and it would be foolish of me to try to cover every single situation. If a church has reacted to the situation by shrugging their shoulders and saying to their members, “Just stay home,” with no further contact with their members, or absolutely zero attempt to encourage worship at home or elsewhere, or zero attempt to host worship via YouTube or Skype or any other outlet… then those churches are in the wrong. Furthermore, it should be understood when I speak in this post of those churches responding to the COVID-19 virus, I am not referring to those churches.
With that established, let’s see Hebrews 10:25 in context:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.[Hebrews 10:23-25]
The author is building off what he had said earlier to the Hebrew Christians, which is that “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus”, and we can “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:19, 22). With all this in mind, we “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (v. 23). The Hebrew believers should therefore strengthen one another to love and good works. The author then adds that we should not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some,” but rather encourage one another, and all the more as we see the Day (of judgment) drawing near.
A very important thing to note here is this part of verse 25: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some”. This phrase we must unpackage a bit, as it will assist us in examining the current situation of the church.
What the ESV translates as “neglecting” is ἐγκαταλείποντες in the original Greek. The root is a conjugation of the Greek words for “down” and “to leave”, hence it gives the visual image of “to put down and leave behind,” much like the ancient Greeks would do to unwanted infants in the wild. This word is used by the Gospel writers to translate Christ’s words “Why have you forsaken (ἐγκατέλιπές) me?” (Matt 27:46; Mk 15:34). It is also used by Paul when saying that Demas had forsaken (ἐγκατέλιπεν) him (2 Tim 4:10). The point is, the word designates a complete removal or abandonment of something.
The Greek for “as is the habit of some” is καθὼς ἔθος τισίν, or “as is the rule/tradition of some.” The word ἔθος is frequently in scripture, such as in Luke 22:39, where we are told Jesus went to the Mount of Olives “as was his custom” (ἔθος), or in John 19:40, where it is described that Jesus was bound in linen cloths and spices as was the burial custom (ἔθος) of the Jews. The word signifies a regular occurrence of something, hence the translations of “habit”, “custom”, or even “tradition”.
These individuals referenced by the author were most likely Hebrew Christians who were not gathering with other believers. There is a debate about why they weren’t, whether out of fear of the unbelieving Jews, a poor understanding of worship, a preference for the Jewish festivities of the old dispensation, etc. Given the author’s previous mention of “wavering” (v. 23) and his later mention of those who “go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (v. 26), one is inclined to think of those who were starting to return to the services and rituals of the old Jewish dispensation. Whatever the reason, the point is the author of Hebrews is condemning those who make it a regular habit of forsaking altogether the gathering of saints. In other words, these people have abandoned corporate worship to such a point that this is a regular occurrence for them.
It isn’t hard to apply this in a modern context, as many of us are familiar with these people – indeed, I’m sure many of my readers have heard of at least one person like this. These are those Christians who think listening to a John MacArthur sermon on Sunday counts as worship. These are those Christians who think reading an apologetics book on Sunday afternoon counts as “church.” These are those Christians who never attend a church because they don’t like the eschatological views of that one elderly couple, or they don’t like the Christmas tree put up every year, or for whatever other petty reason they can find. These are people who have but one tradition, and that is the forsaking of the gathering of saints. It is these people that the author of Hebrews is arguing against.
Now let me ask… are those churches who have canceled Sunday services and redirected their members to other means, in light of concerns regarding the coronavirus, in violation of Hebrews 10:25?
First, it is erroneous to apply Hebrews 10:25 to these churches, as these churches are not forsaking worship itself. Many churches are encouraging their members to worship God with their immediate family in their homes. Many churches are moving their worship online for their members to watch and worship from home. Many churches who cannot do the latter are giving resources to other churches that are doing this, so that their members can still be edified and take part in worship, even if virtually. Many churches have sent emails from their deacons, telling members that the church is still offering services for assistance, such as elderly members who may need groceries or other needs. The point is, the churches have not completely abandoned worship, as the individuals in Hebrews 10:25 had done. Rather, churches are telling their members to continue worshiping God, and are seeking ways to continue doing good works and building one another up.
Second, it is erroneous to apply Hebrews 10:25 to these churches, as these churches have not made it a habit or custom to forsake worship. This is a temporary thing that has been done in light of what is now a national emergency. I have absolutely zero doubt that, once this pandemic has settled and is less of a problem, many of these churches will renew public gatherings.
Some reading this may may agree with what I have presented here, but will still insist on the command “not neglecting to meet together”, insisting that, regardless of the reason, these churches are still in violation of that command. Others might say that even if this is worship, it is not worship that involves the “gathering together” mentioned in Hebrews.
I respond that this is a very legalistic and ungracious use of the passage, isolating a handful of words and creating a great burden to hoist upon churches. It reminds me of an atheist I encountered who attempted to point out a contradiction in the Bible with Matthew’s statement that Joseph was “a just man” (Matt 1:19). His argument was that the Old Testament Law decreed women who committed adultery were to be put to death, yet Matthew chose to divorce Mary quietly rather than have her stoned. His argument forgot two things: first, Joseph had no clue how Mary had become pregnant (she could have been raped for all he knew); second, Matthew says Joseph was “a just man” grounded upon the reason that he was “unwilling to put her to shame.” The Greek of this phrase suggests the idea of being put on display: in other words, Mary would have been stoned not out of justice, but as a show for others. (Although it’s a textual variant, the story of the woman caught in adultery, found in John 8:3-11, is an example of this.) It was for this reason that Joseph wished to put her away quietly, hence Matthew’s labeling him “a just man.”
My point in bringing this up is that the gentleman was taking a very narrow, legalistic view of the command to put adulterers to death, and applying it in such a way that it ignored the full situation in the case of Joseph and Mary. Similarly, those who apply Hebrews 10:25 in this narrow, legalistic view are ignoring the larger point the author of Hebrews is making, while ignoring circumstances that might affect the gathering of saints. It is the exact same mindset which the Pharisees used against Christ when He healed on the sabbath. After all, weren’t we commanded to not work on the sabbath? Any work, therefore, must be considered a violation of that. Even Christ pointed out this narrow view of theirs, when He asked them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matt 12:11)
On this note, I must remind the reader that, similarly, churches are currently dealing with an extraneous circumstance: there is a pandemic sweeping this country. The elderly and the “immunocompromised” are the most at risk, with their death rates far higher than many other groups, even when compared to other illnesses like the flu. Furthermore, if this pandemic is not controlled, there is a danger that American hospitals (like their Italian counterparts) will experience an overwhelming surplus in COVID-19 patients, to the point that others in desperate need of attention will not be able to receive treatment. (A good article discussing all this can be found here.) The best way to protect the vulnerable and to lower the growth rate of sickness is to minimize social interaction, hence the move by many churches to temporarily suspend public worship.
Is this a sign of a lack of faith? Not at all. I have no worries about COVID-19 killing me or anyone in my family, as it doesn’t seem to do anything with babies and toddlers, and my wife and I are pretty healthy. However, even if I contracted it and lived, I know many brothers and sisters in Christ who are advanced in age, or who have some serious immune disorders, and who could be very well placed at risk for death… and all because of me. I can’t carry that burden for the sake of rugged individualism or a legalistic view of one verse.
Does this mean all worship has ended? Not at all. My church has found ways for all of us to gather and worship virtually for future Sundays. Last Sunday, when it was too short notice for virtual worship to be organized, my family gathered together to sing, read from the Bible, and pray, both in the morning and the evening. I’m sure many, many others in my congregation were doing likewise. God was still praised by His saints that day. Nobody forsook the gathering together of saints and made it a habit – rather, given circumstances, the saints have temporarily taken other means to gather together and worship their King. On top of this, individual church members are still reaching out to each other, checking on each other, and building one another up. Churches out there are still attempting to function as best they can with the cards that have been dealt, and all to the glory of God.
In conclusion, Hebrews 10:25 is in no way a condemnation of those churches attempting to temporarily adapt to the current pandemic situation. It is simply wrong to apply it to condemn churches.
Some additional thoughts, and advice on how to do home worship on Sunday, can be found over at R. Scott Clark’s blog.