Does the author of Hebrews when he/she writes “forsake not the assembling…” mean by that phrase, “you had better go to church on Sundays”?
Simple Answer: No! That’s not the intended meaning of that author with those words.
Collins English Dictionary defines a “sacred cow” as “a person, institution, custom, etc., unreasonably held to be beyond criticism.” Merriam Webster is similar: “someone or something that has been accepted or respected for a long time and that people are afraid or unwilling to criticize or question. I think the Collins definition gets to the heart of it with the phrase “unreasonably held to be beyond criticism.”
At one time in my Bible-teaching career, I would start courses in First or Second Testament surveys by Butchering Sacred Cows. I let the folks know that when they heard one of their Christian sacred cows being slaughtered they should “moo.” That little game resulted in some useful conversations. On one occasion, I chose 1 Thessalonians 5.22 in the King James Version, which was the only version my mom would read. It reads, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” This was her all-time favorite Bible verse to quote to me. When I announced the verse on that evening in Tennessee, one of the ladies on the front row sighed openly, “oh no, not that verse.” As I proceeded to unravel the context and suggest a different meaning, it was too much for her; she got up from her chair and walked out of the room. She did return, but only for a short time. She left at the break but did not return for the rest of the weekend class. For her, that verse was “beyond criticism.”
Christians of all stripes have Bible verses that are held as sacred cows and are carted out when the occasion arrives to defend their long time beliefs.
Hebrews 10.25 is one of those verses.
The first thing to recognize is that verses were not a part of the original writing of the Bible text. They were added in the mid-1500s. Second, a lot of verses are not even complete sentences. Quoting them often makes it look like God cannot speak in complete sentences. The one mentioned above fits this idea of a sacred cow verse which is not a complete sentence: By itself, it reads: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” The previous verse makes it a complete sentence and together it reads: And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
The common interpretation of this verse is that it declares that folks should not forget to go to church on Sundays.
Where does one start to try and comprehend if that is what the author is here trying to say? A brief overview is to try and expand our view of when the ecclesiae had its beginning. A good place to start a conversation about this verse then is the beginning of the story in Genesis. The first couple and their visits with God in the garden is a picture of “ecclesia.” The creation of a nation from other nations was a picture of an “ecclesia.” The choosing of the 12 was a picture of “ecclesia.” The day of Pentecost was a picture of the “ecclesia,” but surely not the beginning of the “ecclesia.” The story in Acts was the about expansion of the ecclesiae beyond the boundaries of Judaism. Much to the chagrin of some, the book of Acts does not present one model for “ecclesia,” nor does it present a specific day for “ecclesia,” to meet or the frequency of which the “ecclesia” meets as Luke tells the story about its expansion. An off used set of verses is Paul telling the Corinthians to set apart some of their income on “the first day of the week” for an offering for the Jerusalem church (1 Cor. 16.1-4). It is often assumed that this means “give in the Sunday meeting.” That surely is reading into the text a meaning that is not really there.
In one story in Acts (20.1-12), there is a mention of meeting on Sunday, but it is altogether possible that it was a special meeting and not an attempt to state a specific day to meet. Some years before this story, Followers of Jesus had met on a daily basis (Acts 2.46). Meeting on a Sunday was most likely done to avoid conflicting with synagogue gatherings on the Sabbath, i.e. Saturday. The celebration on Sunday is thought to be in remembrance of the resurrection (Luke 24.1). Luke shares stories about eight meals in his Gospel. The last one is the first one after his resurrection. We should not overlook the significance of what a meeting on Sunday means: it was the birthday of the new creation.
The letters by Second Testament authors were instruction about dealing with problems within a local “ecclesia,” whether the “ecclesia” in the Galatian territory or in Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, etc. There were also letters/books in the Second Testament that are written to persons, Philemon, Timothy, and Titus. That brings us in this short survey to the book of Hebrews, which is a bit odd in its arrangements in that it does not list an author nor a specific group of Hebrews that were being written.
Two important points from the above description are important. First, no one knows who wrote the book, so that by the time of the third century, Origen could write “Only God Knows….” Second, the book was written to Hebrews who were being tempted to deny Jesus.
The “sacred cow” verse (Hebrews 10.25) is part of the last section of the book of Hebrews, which is addressing faith as the superior way for Jesus followers. When one isolates and quotes the verse, it usually comes to mean that the followers of Jesus should not stop attending church on Sundays. This meaning is pervasive and delivered by almost every pastor universally.
The problem with this interpretation is that this passage it is not addressing “going to church” on Sunday, even though that could be the day the early Jesus followers chose to meet. This text addresses something completely different.
One should begin with verse 23 to get the gist of the context, first, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” We are to help each other be hopeful in our decision to follow Jesus as the promised Messiah. Second, verse 24 tells the readers “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds…. These readers were to incite one another to love (the Messiah) and the good works of the Messiah.
The word “assembling together” (KJV) or “not giving up meeting together” (NIV) should be translated by the words “gathering together.” But, here’s the catch, the word is only used one other time in the Second Testament (1 Thess. 2.1-2) where it means being gathered together to Christ. So, the way in which the original word and its derivatives are used in the Second Testament, it is about “gathering” (assembling) together unto “Christ” as opposed to gathering around other religious ideas, i.e., in this case Judaism. The clarion call of the author of Hebrews is not to commit apostasy, not to turn away from Jesus to return to Judaism. How and why? By …encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Sacred Cow: Hebrews 10.25 is usually thought to mean the Jesus followers should not forsake going to church on Sunday or some other day of the week.
Butchered Sacred Cow: Hebrews 10.25 has nothing to do with going to church but rather has everything to do with gathering ourselves to Christ so that we don’t turn our face to another way of life.
Some might want to extrapolate that this is the roll of going to church on Sunday. Not so! This text does not teach that, it is simply a warning about not becoming an apostate.
What might you do in relation to this corrective of popular theology? When you hear someone and especially church leaders condemn you or others for not going to church every Sunday, offer them a different point of view.
Finally, it should be said that the idea of “going to church” or “attending church” is a misnomer. You can’t go to something that you are. The church is not a geographic location you can attend. Should you gather with other Jesus followers? Absolutely! But the times, places, and duration of those gatherings is all optional, along with what a group does when they gather. A church is never a building, even though our language betrays us to think that it is. A local expression of a gathering does not have to be thought of as an ongoing structure that must live year after year and decade after decade. Short term gatherings, which have no accouterments of what is thought of to be a church, such as buildings, Sunday school, hymns/music, preaching/teaching, youth departments, children’s church, tithes, professional staff members, and more recently coffee bars, are also an expression of the “called out ones.” The idea of the church as an organization/institution, what I have come to call ChurchWorld, is not a biblical concept. Two thousand years of Greek culture has produced what we call church today. While God is adept to work through what he is faced with, I’m sure that his continued hope is that something different than what presently passes as a church would be created. After all, with the ingeniousness of the Creator of the World, who spoke the world into existence, don’t you think with his creativity that we could create something that is more useful than what we presently have reduced it to be? Don’t you think?
Since the church is made up of people, not bricks and mortar, buildings and pews, sermons and songs, what if ad hoc gatherings could produce a more creative and dynamic way of gathering so that we could truly bring change and shape the world instead of being changed and shaped by the world to look, feel, and think as it does?
Go ahead, make God happy, butcher some sacred cows.