A few years ago my wife and I asked some of our friends why they had stopped coming to church on Sundays. Their response was: “Yeah, we do church online now, every Sunday our family gathers around the TV to listen to music, hear a sermon and they even have great kids’ content.” My response at that time was, “Oh come on, church is more than that! Don’t you think that it is important to be plugged into a local church? It seems to me that you are neglecting to meet together with other Christians, and the Bible warns us against this.” The verse I was referring to was Hebrews 10:24-25:
“Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Now, what’s interesting about all of this is that, apparently, if you insert “a global pandemic” into the situation, all of the sudden online church begins to ‘count’ and this passage’s advice no longer applies in the same way. In fact, this past week I have used the same passage of scripture to encourage people to gather virtually and to avoid physically gathering during this time. So which is it?
Well, to answer that question I would say that context is everything. We do not interpret and apply scripture in a vacuum, we do it in the context of cultures. Let me suggest three things that we should always be aware of when seeking to apply a text in our culture.
Original Context Matters The book of Hebrews is written to a group of people who have a good grasp of the Old Testament story and are facing trials and persecutions because of their association with Jesus and his followers. The message of the author, throughout the letter to these people, is that Jesus is better in every way. So, in light of this context, our understanding of the author’s urge to not neglect gathering becomes clearer. He is not appealing for perfect church attendance, rather, he is letting believers know that one of the means God provides for them to persevere in their faith amidst cultural pressures is to gather together. Simply put, when Christians gather, we are encouraged in our faith, so don’t neglect gathering because we will need encouragement.
Our Context Matters You might say, “But you still haven’t answered the question… does gathering online count or not?” Our friends who stopped attending church should heed the advice of the author of Hebrews and recognize that they need the encouragement of fellow believers as they seek to follow Jesus amidst cultural influences to the contrary. They should not neglect gathering to worship God with other Christians for the sake of their comfort or preference. On the other hand, those of us who have stopped gathering together out of love for our neighbour and obedience to authorities, during this time, should continue to do so. However, we should also heed these words by not neglecting to gather online right now because we also have cultural pressures that can discourage us from following Jesus. In times like these, we need the encouragement of one another.
So there you have it… don’t worship alone online unless there is a pandemic…
God’s Word is After Your Righteousness This little exercise reveals something important about Scripture and the way we interpret it. Scripture is a gift from God that corrects, rebukes and trains us in righteousness. In other words, Scripture reveals to us our need for Christ and the righteousness he makes available to us by grace through faith in him. The author of Hebrews knew that neglecting to gather together would cause a troubled and fearful group of Christians to forget who Christ was and what he had accomplished, it would affect their righteousness.
So, in this cultural moment, may we not neglect to meet together online and continue to encourage one another over the phone. May our virtual gatherings remind each other that Jesus is still better and he is still our righteousness.