Because of the large numbers of people who are struggling with the “requirement” to attend the “worship services,” be involved and actively support (if not become members) of an institutional church, Hebrews 10:25 is becoming one of the most frequently cited verses in the Bible. You’ll hear believers discussing it at the local Starbucks. “But we have to go to church. Hebrews 10 says, ‘don’t forsake assembling yourselves together as is the manner of some.” They usually add something like, “It’s not a question of if you have to attend church, it’s where. I know that no church is perfect and I can’t find one that really seems to function like the New Testament describes, but opting out is not an option.'” Because of this perceived “requirement,” institutional churches have a captive market – all believers are required to go somewhere. Those that do church better will naturally gain a larger market share (more people will fulfill their “requirement” there). Maybe we’re missing the point.
Because this verse is central to this discussion happening in coffeeshops all around the country, we would do well to look at the actual text within its context and attempt to interpret it in light of our current question. Here’s the passage under discussion:
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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. [Heb. 10:24,25 ESV]
Before we dive in to the interpretation of this particular sentence, let’s remind ourselves of the bigger picture.
The letter to the Hebrews was written by an unknown author to the Jewish believers in and around Jerusalem who were being tempted to return to Judaism under the pressure exerted from their families and the extended Jewish community. The whole argument of the letter is centered on the main point: Jesus is better. The main application follows: Don’t leave what you have (Jesus), to go back to the old system which is inferior (Judaism).
The writer organizes the letter around comparisons between Jesus and the Old Covenant, piling up evidence along the way to persuade the readers not to turn back. Turning back to the Old System is discouraged through the use of various warnings. The most famous warnings occur in chapters 6 and 10, both of which speak of the redemptive danger of turning away from Jesus, Who is the only One that makes us right with God through His perfect sacrifice and continuing priesthood. Jesus is the central figure of the book of Hebrews. He is the unique Prophet, Priest and King the writer points the Hebrews toward.
Chapter 10 opens with an argument about the superiority of Jesus’ sacrifice as compared to the Old Testament system. His is better in every way [Heb. 10:1-10]. Then Jesus’ superior priesthood is compared to the inferior Levitical system [Heb. 10:11-18]. Jesus offered once-for-all a perfect offering that make us acceptable to God and He continues to live as our perfect High Priest to apply the benefits of that once-for-all sacrifice to us. He’s the point. He’s the unique Leader (and in fact, the only Head of the church).
In light of that, the author begins to make application to the Jewish readers:
19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us 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. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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 [Heb. 10:19-25 ESV].
This is the immediate context of the often quoted verses. The argument is basically: since we have this superior sacrifice that makes us right with God and a perfect High Priest, we can and should draw near to God rather than turning away (the main temptation of the Hebrews). In verse 23, the writer tells them to hold fast to the faith they have confessed in light of God’s character trait of faithfulness. Then, the writer gives them a practical means of staying connected and not drawing back: meeting together [v. 25].
Why are they meeting in the first place? What kind of meeting together is going to help them not pull back from Jesus in light of the community pressure to do so? What is the main thing their meeting is to focus on? Notice the purposes of their gathering. The writer answers these questions as follows, saying essentially:
Don’t fail to get together and do these three things: stir each other up to love, stir each other up to good works, encourage each other.
The writer added that these things become even more relevant and important as the Day draws near. What day? The Day of the Lord, the Day of judgment, when our lives are assessed by our continuing in relationship with Christ (knowing Him [Matt. 7], abiding in Him [Jn. 15]), not turning away from him because of adversity. Let’s look at these three main things their meetings are to focus on:
Stir each other up to love.
How do you stir each other up to love if love is a feeling? Love for who? Love for God? Love for others? I think it’s love for both. The two great commandments are to love God and love others. In times of testing and adversity, like the Hebrews were going through, the real Christian community can help us avoid the common pitfalls of forgetting to love God or others (enemies?) in the midst of our own pain.
Stir each other up to good works.
Good works? I thought we were against works and for grace. Aren’t grace and works opposites? Absolutely not! In fact, we demonstrate the reality of our love for God and others by our works. This only sounds radical or heretical to our anti-law (antinomian) American evangelical ears. It’s hard to keep doing the “right thing,” when you’re going through persecution. The Christian community, if it functions like it’s supposed to, can help each other do this very difficult thing.
Encourage each other.
They need mutual encouragement. They are experiencing the rejection of family and the entire Jewish community for their profession of Jesus as Messiah. Without this encouragement from each other, it will be far easier for them to give in to the pressure and go back. Sadly, most confessing American Christians are woefully inadequate at giving helpful encouragement. Instead, they, like Job’s famous “comforters” frequently dispense all kinds of unhelpful and uncompassionate platitudes, half-truths and truisms.
The Point: Mutual Ministry to One Another
All three of these things are about mutual ministry to one another. There is no mention of someone in authority stirring them up to love and good works or of one person attempting to encourage every one at the meeting. It is a description of the “body edifying (building up) itself in love” [Eph. 4:16]. Each part of the body does its part in the meeting. The result is that no one is lost in the process. No one fades away or disappears from the Christian community. They stay together and help each other so that they get to the finish line together. What a challenging thought to the rugged individualism of American evangelicals!
These verses are too often lifted from their context and made to mean something entirely different than their original intent. I frankly don’t see the direct correlation between this biblical exhortation and the requirement to “go to church.” In fact, that phrase would have made no sense to them in the first century. What the writer is saying is that it’s unwise and likely to lead toward danger to try to go it alone. As many have rightly said, “There are no lone ranger Christians.” This lines up with Gen. 2:18. It’s not good for us to be alone. We need each other and we need the “one anothering” that helps us keep going in the midst of difficult times.
A relevant question for the modern American church would be, “How much one anothering is actually going on in the context of the Sunday morning meeting, anyway?” I think it’s pretty common for people to come in, get a bulletin, sit in a seat, greet a neighbor for thirty seconds, pick up the kids from Sunday school, get in the car and leave. If we go to church and do it like this, have we really taken to heart the intent of this passage? So, if you go to church, you haven’t necessarily fulfilled this “requirement.” Now that you know, if you go to church, that would be a good place to put this into practice (there are a lot of other discouraged Christians there) but even if you don’t do church, you should still practice this as an integral part of being a Christ-follower.