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Hebrews 10:23-25 says

"Let us hold resolutely to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds. 25 Let us not neglect meeting together, as some have made a habit, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."

How do churches that have shuttered in-person services for months (if not over a year) voluntarily (without the government forcing them to) account for this verse? In particular, what is it about meeting together that they hold motivates St. Paul's verse here? Do they hold there isn't actually a Biblical requirement to gather in person, but meeting in person historically was just how certain ends were met that is no longer required by new technologies (and so gathering virtually is relevantly equivalent)? Or do they hold that St. Paul would actually have not encouraged in person gathering if some threshold of in-person risk obtained? Or is it something else?

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    Have you read this answer? christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/79725/… Aug 31 at 17:45
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    @DJClayworth Thanks for this link - it seems that question is about the government saying they can't have services. This question is about churches who have voluntarily done so (without the government saying they can't have services). Aug 31 at 18:01
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    Just a facetious comment: the question is how would St. Paul (an eminently practical and flexible church leader) clarified his own exhortation? I would say in the age of Internet, Zoom / Youtube streaming meeting / worship would be acceptable, or maybe occassional outdoor worship (I have seen a church does that), outdoor fellowship with masks on, etc. Encouraging can be virtual. What's more at issue is receiving communion and other sacraments. Aug 31 at 18:13
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    Not that I don't agree with the sentiment, but this is one of those questions that is impossible to answer. For one thing, within various teaching authorities there are differing levels of suspension of in-person services. If you're only asking among sola-scriptura reformed Protestant churches who are entirely governed by their current interpretation of the Bible then it might be worth it to include that.
    – Peter Turner
    Aug 31 at 18:20
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    Was saint Paul addressing the infirm or the invalid, who cannot walk, when writing these verses ? Was he writing them in times of pandemics ? Is the requirement to meet regularly the only requirement in the bible ? Isn't the sixth commandment also a biblical requirement ?
    – Lucian
    Aug 31 at 18:27
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Let us start this answer by pointing out that while churches have stopped in-person meetings "indefinitely" according to the technical usage (which means "for an unknown time period") they have not stopped meeting permanently (the common use of "indefinitely"). There is absolutely an expectation that in-person meetings will resume when it is safe.

Different churches will have different reasons as to how they address the passage in question.

  1. Nobody is "neglecting" to meet together. The decision to stop in person meetings was a deliberate one. Neglect was not a factor.
  2. Meetings do not have to be in person. While in the first century all meetings were in person, in a technological age in-person is not necessary. While it may be generally preferable to meet in person, nobody is breaking a command by doing it in another way when circumstances require. Jesus himself said that where 2 or 3 are gathered, he is there.
  3. Teachings must be held in balance. Not all commands are applicable at all times. An exhortation to meet together may not apply to all times, and other teachings may take precedence in different times.
  4. In particular the commands of Jesus are summarized as "love your neighbour". Continuing to meet together in a pandemic risks serious harm or death to my neighbour. This command, which Jesus considers one of the most important, takes precedence over any others. It is even reinforced in the immediately preceding verse.
  5. The Bible is not primarily a rule book. It is a serious mistake to simply consider the Bible as if it contains nothing useful except a series of commands, and that our primary use of it is just to follow those commands. The Bible needs to be taken as a pointer to God and Jesus, and nothing in the Bible indicates that Jesus would insist of our putting our neighbours in danger voluntarily.
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    (+1) for your first and last two points. The first one is basic textual exegesis, the latter two are of substance, going right to the heart of the divide between Christianity and (Pharisaic) Judaism, who tended to interpret the letter of the Old Covenant in such a distorted and oftentimes absurd manner, as to negate its very spirit or meaning.
    – Lucian
    Aug 31 at 19:51
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    +1 The term often translated as 'neglect' seems to emphasize 'no longer doing'. It is sometimes translated instead as 'forsake' or 'abandon'. What St. Paul is describing seems compatible with deliberate choices, so I'm not sure point 1. applies. Aug 31 at 21:17
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    I find point 4 the most interesting one, because it is specifically scriptural. I could see this argument flipped on its head, with someone arguing 'loving your neighbour' involves keeping churches open if at all possible for various reasons. Thanks for this - I think you've captured some common, important arguments being made for this. Aug 31 at 21:22
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    @OneGodtheFather I think the crux of the argument comes down to whether Hebrews 10:25 is about the church body itself, or individual "Lone Ranger" Christians who "forsake" or "neglect" meeting together with others based on their own desires or interests. Sep 1 at 15:58
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    The question was how churches that have suspended in-person services understand the verse. The answer says that. The question does not ask how churches that disagree understand the verse, so the answer doesn't cover that. Sep 2 at 17:06
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We live in an age where "meeting together" doesn't have to mean face to face services. I noticed in the comments you said:

But that depends on getting what is so important about meeting together, and then seeing if that extends to 'meeting together' at a distance by screens.

In your quote you include the "what is so important"

"Let us hold resolutely to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds. 25 Let us not neglect meeting together, as some have made a habit, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."

The reasoning is that we must spur one another on to love and good deeds - things we can do over zoom and perhaps to greater effect. I know many people who are reluctant to meet again in large groups, despite rules being relaxed by government, and being able to join services over zoom has been a real life-line. Arguably love and good deeds are what drives us to reach those in their time of need.

And encouragement, those words can come through a phone call, a zoom call or even letters to those in your community.

The wording, also, is not perscriptive of a single method but to encourage you to use your own methods.

24 And let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds

The method is not set in stone, as long as you spur one another on the act is more important than the method.

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  • +1 "The reasoning is that we must spur one another on to love and good deeds - things we can do over zoom and perhaps to greater effect." I think this is a reasonable interpretation of the passage. If so, though, would it not be better to both be open physically and have virtual meetings? St. Paul knew all about writing letters or sending messages, which were common in his time. He knew these were valuable (of course, he wrote many himself). Yet he didn't seem to think therefore gathering together wasn't important. No? Sep 1 at 18:52
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    @OneGodtheFather I can't speak for all Churches, just as I wouldn't have said all services should be streamed online pre-covid I wouldn't say they all have to be open physically now either. I think the real key is that each community should consider the risks and benefits to each. For example if a minister is visiting the sick in hospital, where their risk of catching/carrying the virus is higher, they may well judge that leading in-person services would be irresponsible. We cannot say for sure, only trust that the consideration has been made with the community's needs in mind. Sep 2 at 13:16
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The Reformed Presbyterian group I worship with has eagerly resumed in-person services as soon as it was possible to do so. But services / sermons remain as recordings either for those with Zoom or who like old-fashioned CDs. This is because some vulnerable people (mainly elderly and those with compromised immune systems to begin with) have not yet returned to the building and may never do so. It seems that a combination of worship service systems will be the new way. This applies to most of the congregations within 'my' denominational group.

For gatherings such as the men's and the women's monthly fellowships, no 'virtual' version did, or will, happen. For years before Covid, a group from various local denominations met monthly in our building for prayer, but it switched to Zoom since lockdown. Now we are hoping to get back into the building for prayer, and those other monthly get-togethers (which include boys and girls).

However, I just received a quarterly journal from a disparate group of Protestant Christians who do not form one particular congregation. They can be all over the country but the journal, and now Zoom events, link them together. They are really keen on virtual events, as these quotes show, first from an article headed "Not giving up meeting together - Heb. 10:25" with the strap-line, "Perhaps we need to rethink how we interact with each other?" There was no single person credited with the article; it just came from "the community". Here's what was said:

"The fact is that, in these Days of COVID, we need to redefine what it is to meet together. I have to confess that, since I have been forced to conduct my meetings on ZOOM, I have never been so encouraged than I am now! We need to adapt to this new reality in our lives, rather than giving up. One lady has even published the fact that our ZOOM Bible Studies are better than any face-to-face meetings she has attended!"

The unknown writer then detailed three weekly virtual times, one for a moderated panel discussion where anyone can join in to comment (some 'heavy' topics are tackled.) The second was "our safe place for people to really get to know each other and support each other through chat and prayer. Sometimes there may be guided meditation on the Word, other times we discuss the trivialities of life, such as what we had for breakfast!" The third one is a series of "Gospel snapshots" held in "a friendly, accepting atmosphere, where all are encouraged to take part, rather than being led by 'Bible scholars'."

Another page advertised "A place of Scriptural safety, discussion, interaction and online teaching - without geographical boundaries. A place to go and grow." A web-site link was given.

Yet another page quoted Heb. 10:25, adding Jesus' words, 'For when two or three are gathered in my name there am I...'. Then came this quote:

"Despite being considered inferior to meeting in person, screen meetings have taken on an unexpected virtue. Within small groups, close and intimate fellowship is surprising[ly] possible; added to which there are no geographical boundaries. When our Bible studies met in each others' houses, we found they had something special, but we had no idea how connecting online with a wider world would bring an even greater richness and depth to our studies. If you are seeking something more than the 'wood veneer' of many church groups and want to dig deep into the Scriptures, why not get in contact with us?"

I also know that groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses stopped all meetings in their Kingdom Halls (globally) once lockdowns started, and they have not resumed. They continue to meet via Zoom. And instead of doing their door-to-door work, they write letters to people in their area, usually providing a contact e-mail or phone number to encourage their readers to find out more. Given their end-time theology, it is unlikely that they ever will resume in-person meetings at their Kingdom Halls.

As an over-view of Protestants (though Jehovah's Witnesses do not call themselves 'Protestants'), there seems to me to be three main attitudes to virtual events in light of Hebrews 10. (1) Virtual 'meetings' are better than no personal getting together in worship, but nothing equals actual meeting in person (especially for sung praise, communal prayer, and the sacraments). (2) Virtual 'meetings' are so good, they should not only be continued, but can be better in some respects, so let's increase them. (Some particular views of 'church' and end-time beliefs can promote that idea.) (3) Virtual events should be back-up to gathering in person to worship, helping those who simply cannot attend, or to cut down on much traveling, which turns out not to be as necessary as we thought, so let's use modern technology in a subsiduary way.

I'm not going into any theology about Hebrews 10 with regard to virtual meetings, because all this has been a purely circumstantial event due to the pandemic. But theology will have to be thrashed out sooner or later given how nothing is likely to be the same again, with regard to global health issues. Christians are at a crossroads, really, with choices to make about on-going fellowship and worship. Their leaders need to weigh up what's really going on behind the scenes, spiritually speaking.

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    Great. Thanks. While no one can say what Paul would think or say etc. I found the other answers rather weak when they even lightly alluded to the notion that the martyr and inmate would be weighing factors and wondering. Glad you didnt. We can’t know and that wasn’t the question, but - and just imo - I find it ridiculous to imagine he would be ok with not even making services available, esp when legal. But I digress. Appreciated couple points you made. Off to (real) church... God bless 🙏🏻👍🏻
    – Al Brown
    Sep 12 at 13:33
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Short Answer

Paul would have connected the reason for meeting with the reason for "doing church" in the first place, "doing church" being an important practical implication of his sermon in Hebrews. Being an eminently flexible and practical pastor, as long as the most important goals of "doing church" are met (which can be summarized as building up the body of Christ through teaching, doing good, encouragement, communal worship) Paul would have instructed local church leader(s) to decide what form of meeting (physical, virtual, or combination) is best to build up the body of Christ. The key point of Heb 10:25 then is to NOT stop building up the body of Christ, instead of requiring physical meeting.

Long Answer

First, we need to ask why Paul exhorted the congregation not to neglect meeting together. I think the best clues should come from within the sermon text itself (the whole book of Hebrew), especially within the section (Call to Faith and Endurance, 10:19-12:29) and within the paragraph (10:23-25) contexts. From a survey of commands involving more than one person, commands that Paul sprinkled throughout the sermon (see the next section below), we have a very good picture of the most likely PURPOSES for the meeting:

  • to help our fellow Christians to stay on the race despite trials and suffering (through teaching, encouragement, and motivation) so at the end everyone can go to heaven
  • to praise God together
  • to do loving good works
  • to show hospitality to strangers and share with those in need
  • to stay peaceful and be accountable to each other in order to avoid sin

I think it is clear that the "neglecting to meet" (by some who made the habit) can be interpreted as those who ALSO neglected the purposes of why they should go to church in the first place. They probably have "dropped off the radar" completely. Remember that in Paul's time going to church meant going to someone's house, a social situation similar to a house party now. Each church was relatively small (up to 100-200) so if one didn't come to meetings for a while others surely would have noticed. They also needed each other much more, being a persecuted group without legal and societal recognition, similar to underground churches in hostile countries nowadays.

For us in the modern era, even before the pandemic started, some of the above purposes have ALREADY been neglected by some church members who just go to a mass / service then go home without talking to anyone. For them, going virtual wouldn't make much difference. But for a church whose members have a healthier community which really tries to embody the above purposes, going virtual would present some challenges.

We know Paul to be an eminently practical and flexible pastor, so I think we can safely conclude that for churches which read Heb 10:25 in the context of all of Paul's letters, any creative solution involving virtual meetings, small group meetings, social distancing outdoor activities, etc. should be acceptable to mitigate prudent governmental or self-imposed restrictions until the pandemic is over, as long as the above PURPOSES are met. Meeting physically should simply make it easier.

What if a church decides to stop physical meetings altogether even after the pandemic is over, making them a virtual church? They should then question themselves on how to achieve the goals that Paul clearly taught in the book of Hebrews in order to truly function as a body of Christ.

Summary of the Book of Hebrew and a Survey of commands

The main purpose of the book is to call the congregation to remain faithful to Christ despite the trials of following Him. Paul then reminds them of their faith and instruction, highlighting Christ as better than angels, better than Moses, better than earthly temple, better than old covenant of sacrifices to expiate sins (1:1 to 10:18). Paul concludes that if they reject this better provision, they are doomed since God gave nothing better than Christ (Heb 10:26-31). Then Paul reminds them how they used to practice their faith with love and endure suffering with joy (Heb 10:32-39). Paul then spurred them to emulate the great cloud of witnesses of faith from the past and to run the race of endurance and to see trials as the Father's loving discipline (Heb 11:1-12:13). Paul concludes with encouragement to listen to God, pointing out that instead of coming to the terrible Mount Sinai in the company of rebellious Israelites who were afraid to listen to God, they now have come to the glorious Mount Zion (city of the living God) in the company of the joyful assembly of God's firstborn children whose names are written in heaven, so they can listen without fear (Heb 12:14-12:29). Chapter 13 is some practical applications of the sermon.

Clues from Paul's action sentences to why they should meet (in the book context):

  • For those who remain mature to teach those who revert to Christian babies because of trials and discouragement (Heb 5:11-6:3).
  • To love and encourage one another so they will not be spiritually dull and indifferent (Heb 6:11-12)
  • To keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters (Heb 13:1)
  • To show hospitality to strangers (Heb 13:2-3)
  • To remember their leaders who taught them the word of God and to follow the example of their faith (Heb 13:7)
  • To offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God (Heb 13:15)
  • To do good and to share with those in need (Heb 13:16)
  • To obey their spiritual leaders because they have the responsibility to watch over our souls and they are accountable to God (Heb 13:17a)
  • To give their spiritual leaders reason to do the above with joy (Heb 13:17b)

Clues from Paul's action sentences to why they should meet (in the section context, Heb 10:19-12:29):

  • To boldly enter heaven's Most Holy Place into the presence of God (Heb 10:19-22)
  • To avoid continual sinning because there is no better sacrifice offered beyond Jesus (Heb 10:26-10:31)
  • To remind the "good old days" of joyful endurance in the midst of trials and suffering and to help others who suffer similarly (Heb 10:32-34)
  • To apply this confident trust in the Lord to the expectation of reward for their suffering (Heb 10:35-39)
  • To work at living in peace with everyone (Heb 12:14)
  • To look after each other so none of them fails to receive the grace of God (Heb 12:15a)
  • To watch out so no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble them, corrupting many (Heb 12:15b)
  • To be thankful and please God by worshiping Him with holy fear and awe (Heb 12:28)

Clues from Paul's action sentences to why they should meet (in the paragraph context, Heb 10:23-25):

  • To hold tightly of God's promises (Heb 10:23)
  • To motivate one another to acts of love and good works (Heb 10:24)
  • To encourage one another, especially when the day of Jesus's return is drawing near (Heb 10:25)
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  • +1 "the most likely PURPOSES for the meeting" Great summary here. Sep 1 at 18:54
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    @OneGodtheFather Thanks. Bringing the whole book context to bear on "meeting" is probably an overreach, but since the sermon itself is one big persuasive argument (comparable to Romans) I think we should at least consider the outer context as remote possibilities of what exactly Paul was thinking in Heb 10:25. Sep 1 at 18:58
  • "Meeting physically should simply make it easier." It seems to me some aspects of worship are simply not practical or perhaps even impossible with virtual meetings, though. Meeting in person is qualitatively different in many aspects. I am guessing St. Paul would agree with that. If he knew about telephones, the internet, and so on, he would still exhort people to gather together physically, because it is a powerful way to advance the goals listed. Sep 1 at 19:16
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    @OneGodtheFather Of course. I think the same applies to music lesson and to K-12 schools. (a local music school here do violin & piano lessons via Zoom, but quality suffers). Therefore, at the end of my answer I wrote about the churches that want to do virtual only: "They should then question themselves on how to achieve the goals that Paul clearly taught in the book of Hebrews in order to truly function as a body of Christ." So my point being Paul would have pointed out at the results, and said to that virtual church: "You see, it didn't work!" Sep 1 at 19:27
  • I didn't know you were big on Paul being the author. I always feel it's very distracting when people put a name to the author of Hebrews. Sorry.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 2 at 23:28

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