“Does the New Testament teach that Christians must be present at every meeting of the church?”
This is not a question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” There are several elements to the issue that must be taken into consideration.
Perhaps the most controversial passage relating to this matter is Hebrews 10:24-25. Before we consider the text specifically, perhaps some background would be helpful.
There is a sense of urgency to the book of Hebrews. Written perhaps about thirty years after the establishment of the church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), this inspired document was a warning to Jewish Christians.
Some of these saints were being encouraged by Hebrew false teachers to abandon Christianity, and revert to Judaism. The sacred writer thus seeks to inoculate against this danger.
The disciples were cautioned against “drifting” from the truth (Heb. 2:1), and developing “an evil heart of unbelief in falling away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). They were admonished to throw off their “dullness of hearing” (Heb. 5:11), and hold on to their “boldness” and “patience” to the very end (Heb. 10:35-36).
“Let Us ...”
One of the grammatical devices employed to accomplish the goal of encouragement was a grammatical form known as the “hortatory subjunctive.” This is a mechanism whereby the writer urges his readers to join him in certain actions. It is generally rendered by a “let us” phrase.
There are about thirteen of these in the book of Hebrews—a cluster of three being found in chapter 10 (Heb. 10:22, 23, 24). “Let us” note the final one of these three.
“[A]nd let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the practice of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).
First, these Christians were to “consider” one another. “Consider” (
katanoeo) is meaningful. It is a compound of two Greek words,
kata (“down”), and
noeo (“mind”). The idea is that of putting the mind down on something, i.e., reflecting upon it deeply and continuously.
Earlier in the book, this verb is used of the sort of meditation that we are to entertain with reference to Christ’s work (Heb. 3:1). In Hebrews 10:24, the word emphasizes the intense and abiding reciprocal concern and mutual helpfulness that must prevail among Christians.
When children of God have a proper consideration for one another, they will “provoke” each other to love and good works. “Provoke” normally has a negative thrust in the New Testament (cf. Acts 17:16; 1 Cor. 13:5), but here it connotes the idea of “spurring on” (the root denotes something “sharp”) or “stimulating” others—in a healthy, positive sense.
The foregoing exhortation is then followed by a participle phrase, “not forsaking.” As one scholar notes, “The words contain an enforcement of the preceding exhortation” (Owen 1980, 520).
“Forsaking” is a present tense form, hence denotes a practice that is repeated. The phraseology does not describe, as some have argued, a once-and-for-all-time abandonment of the faith. Rather, it depicted what had become a customary habit into which some of the Hebrew saints had fallen—which could lead to total apostasy, if correction was not made.
The original word is an intensive compound, suggesting “to leave behind, in straits, helpless, in the lurch” (Thayer 1958, 166). The term strongly emphasizes the sort of disregard for others that characterizes some children of God—in this case those who persistently, without valid reasons, neglect church meetings.
Forsaking the church assemblies is an egregious form of both arrogance and selfishness.
Some of the Jewish Christians had gotten “into the habit of excusing themselves from the meetings” of the church (Spicq 1994, 402), perhaps as a result of the fear of persecution, materialistic pursuits, or downright laziness.
Owen noted that the assemblies were of two sorts: regular, e.g., on the Lord’s day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), and those of special occasions (e.g., meetings convened for the exercise of discipline—1 Cor. 5:4; cf. Mt. 18:20) (Owen 1980, 521). He also observes that these assemblies were the very life of the disciples, without which they could not survive.
Finally, the author, in his admonition regarding church attendance, “changes gears,” as it were, to an even higher level urgency, “and so much the more, as you see the day drawing near.”
What is “the day”? Is it the Lord’s day? Almost no expositor takes that position. That surely does not fit the context.
Is it “the day” of the Lord’s return, i.e., the judgment day? While some so argue, others, with greater force, point out that the time of Christ’s return is unknown (Mt. 24:36), hence, one would not able to “see the day approaching.”
Many conclude that since this book was written not long before the horrible destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) and as there were “signs” to identify the imminence of that event (Mt. 24), this may be what the writer had in view.
If that is correct, then to us the principle would be the same as the final judgment. The occasional heated debates over this, therefore, are rather pointless.
Is Missing a Service, Forsaking?
There are various extremes with reference to church attendance.
Some appear close to contending that one may not be absent from any congregational meeting unless he virtually is on his deathbed. Others—far more common in number—allege that corporate worship is entirely optional (except, perhaps, for a Lord’s day morning service), and so one may do as he or she pleases for any preferential distraction.
The truth is somewhere between these extremities.
Surely it will be acknowledged that one could remain at home to care for the infirm.
Too, aside from the primary Sunday obligation, it must be admitted that other service times are set by the elders (or leaders) so as to accommodate the spiritual needs of the majority. By implication, this will deprive a minority from assembling on occasion.
Moreover, it is a reality of life that not all people are suited, by virtue of education or skill, for a 9:00 to 5:00, Monday-through-Friday vocation. Some, who truly love the Lord and are devoted to his cause, have to work at other times. Shall we conclude that when they are forced to miss some of the services they are apostate? That is absurd.
Is the Christian physician who must rush to the hospital at 9:00 on Sunday morning to deliver your baby remiss his duty—while you are not culpable for being absent from the same service?
On the other hand, there are others who are shamelessly flippant about their obligation to meet with the saints. With but the slightest deterrent—be it a sports event, a family outing, or that I’m-too-tired rationalization—it matters little to them.
The truth is, frequently church service delinquency is a heart problem. The Lord’s kingdom is not first in some saints’ lives (Mt. 6:33). It runs a distant somewhere else.
“What Are My Obligations?”
Here is a provocative thought. Do the elders of the church have an obligation to “feed the flock” (Acts 20:28)?
If so, do the “sheep” have a duty to yield to their persuasion (Heb. 13:17), utilizing the nourishment they provide? Quite clearly they do.
If, then, the elders attempt to nourish the church at reasonably appointed times, and the Christian is not occupied with truly crucial responsibilities otherwise, does he have the right to frivolously decide whether or not he will follow their leadership in this regard?
A spiritual person will reflect deeply about this matter.
To argue, as some occasionally do, “Prove to me that I must attend the Bible classes,” reveals a pitifully blighted condition of soul. Where else would a spiritually minded person want to be if he or she is able?
It is not up to the elders, ministers, or anyone else to micro-manage or dictate the attendance patterns of every Christian within the local congregation. We are, however, on our honor to do the best that we can in our service to the Master.
Flagrant, sustained truancy is another issue altogether. Such certainly could become quite possibly a disciplinary matter.