During last week, I read one man rage at ‘conservative Christians’ for their desire to re-open churches. He then proceeded to point out that Hebrews 10:25 does not really prove that churches need to gather in physical buildings, and that all Christians who call for re-opened churches based upon Hebrews 10:25 are abusing the text.
The irony here is rich. It’s very true that were we to build the case for the church’s physical gathering merely upon a text like Hebrews 10:25 that our case would be, at best, incomplete. (And the presence or absence of church buildings is completely beside the point). But it is bewildering to the point of being speechless to read someone lecturing others on how to use the Bible who can read the whole Bible and not come away with the utter necessity of the physical, embodied gathering of God’s people. This is missing the forest for the trees in 4HD colour.
First, Scripture exalts the human body as good (1 Tim 4:4). God united Himself permanently with human nature (which includes the body), so that we can dwell in His presence forever and see His face. Jesus died not only to save your soul, but your body also. The Christian hope goes beyond the disembodied state to ultimate resurrection. A despising, or even denigrating, of physical life with all that goes with it is a Gnostic idea, not a Christian one. The body, which includes all our physical interactions, is not incidental to our spirituality.
To read the book of Hebrews as a kind of Platonic polemic against physicality is to miss the whole point of the book. Hebrews teaches not a dichotomy between “spiritual” and “physical” or between “visible” and “Invisible” but between partial and ultimate, shadow and fulfilment, temporary and permanent. The furthest thing from a Hebrew’s mind would have been some kind of disparagement of the earthly, physical or embodied. If any people ever rejoiced in the goodness of creation, it was the Hebrews.
Second, one of the points of embodied living is to do what only embodied persons can do: meet in each other’s presence. This is so manifestly the case, that Scripture repeats it incessantly.
Having many things to write to you, I did not wish to do so with paper and ink; but I hope to come to you and speak face to face, that our joy may be full. The children of your elect sister greet you. Amen. (2 Jn. 1:12-13)
I had many things to write, but I do not wish to write to you with pen and ink; but I hope to see you shortly, and we shall speak face to face. (3 Jn. 1:13-14)
Whenever I journey to Spain, I shall come to you. For I hope to see you on my journey, and to be helped on my way there by you, if first I may enjoy your company for a while. (Rom 15:24)
that I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you. (Rom. 15:32)
But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured more eagerly to see your face with great desire. (1Th 2:17-20)
Be diligent to come to me quickly (2Ti 4:9).
Third, many Scriptures require physical gathering. For example, “Greet one another with a holy kiss”. We don’t have to carry out the first-century cultural particulars of this command to obey it. It is easily applied in our setting as a handshake, hug, kiss or bow, depending on the culture. We can argue about exactly what this means to our culture, but it obviously means something, because all has been written for our learning. The best explanation is that we are to sincerely love one another, and greet each other affectionately when we can. This almost always requires physical presence. Many of the multiple “one another” commands are severely limited or impossible if only conducted or transmitted by some media, however live and realistic they may be. The Lord’s Supper and baptism are among the most physical and human of acts: eating, and washing (or burying). These necessitate physical gathering, and no technology could function as a permanent, or even subsidiary substitute.
What is really going in those who scorn the essential nature of physical gathering for corporate worship is likely a transhumanist revisioning of human life, combined with a longstanding mind-body dualism in evangelical circles. The secular culture is happy to abolish human nature, and Christians have for some time been unsure of whether Christianity is fully human. Yes, Christians can debate over the wisdom or propriety of churches opening and gathering sooner or later. But to debate over whether physical gathering is essential is to identify yourself as a purveyor of a different Christianity altogether.
When Christianity is reduced to mere information (which is what technology transmits) it becomes another ghostly, disembodied religion of mere abstractions. And the more Christianity becomes simply informational, the more it becomes simply unbelievable. People are not primarily converted by facts and concepts, but by truth that is taught, incarnated and embodied by example, imagination, and exposure to others and their lives.
Gladly, true Christianity is far from disembodied. The Word became flesh. We are saved not only in our souls, but in body too (1 Thes 5:23), and will one day see our Redeemer in the flesh on the earth (Job 19:25). Scripture anticipates the final and ultimate gathering with God in His presence.
The great irony then, is that those who deny the essentiality of physical gathering and accuse Christians of misreading their fundamentalist presuppositions into Hebrews 10:25 are manifestly reading their quasi-Gnostic and transhumanist views into the very same text.
No, we can’t build a case for the importance of physically gathering for corporate worship merely from Hebrews 10:25. But we don’t need to. A plain reading of all of Scripture will do.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.