Reforming or Deforming

By Martin G. Selbrede
September 01, 2009

The premise of semper reformanda is that the people of God are to be continually reforming and revising their viewpoints ever closer to the teachings of the Scriptures and away from unbiblical formulations and conceptions that have crept into both doctrine and practice. This is a process that could entail swinging the pendulum back, away from one extreme to another: the truth might possibly lie in the middle. Those who swing the pendulum away from an erroneous position do the church a service, even if they should swing it too far. They have at least opened up a crucial dialogue and ignited a reexamination of what may have been a long-closed matter.

When the pendulum is stuck and nobody knows any different, an error may prevail for centuries. But if the pendulum is forced loose and begins swinging, all observers instinctively know that we will need to exert some effort to prayerfully determine its correct position. Those with vested interests may wish the pendulum put back where it was, and may resist such reforms. If the pendulum was in the Biblically correct position to begin with, that will also come to light.

It is now time to swing a time-honored pendulum away from its traditional position. Pains will be taken not to swing it too far in the opposite direction, but because this particular pendulum has rested for several centuries in a place near and dear to Christian leadership, any attempt to move it will be disconcerting. Moving it may invite strong denunciations in protest. It is very important, therefore, to preempt any misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what will be asserted here. Anticipating and correcting any faulty interpretations of our thesis is the crucial first step.

Clearing Up Misconceptions

The most common reaction to the thesis to be presented below runs along these lines: “You’re telling people they don’t have to go to church!” This falsification needs to be confronted and dispelled. A faulty reliance (that ought never to have arisen) upon a text of Scripture that superficially lent itself to proof-text status has grown to the point that church attendance and this proof-text now stand or fall together. This artificial umbilical cord is the problem: motivation for church attendance is being premised on the wrong text.

The rise of this misdirected proof-text may well correlate with the emasculation of the church in the nineteenth century as men departed from it in droves. Part of the thesis presented here is that the various “motivations” concocted over the years to compel church attendance have been occasioned by the increasing loss of salt content in the churches.

Thus, a compulsory “push” into church has been sought in serviceable proof-texts, while the scriptural concept of an inexorable “pull” generated by the teaching of God’s law (Isa. 2:3) has been forgotten, minimized, reallocated, or otherwise dismissed. Abandon the very thing that pulls people into church (the teaching of His law, the light unto the peoples’ feet) and some other motivation needs to be invented (entertainment, programs, proof-texts, etc.) to make up for the ensuing lack of zeal for the Lord’s house. We then become strangers to the attitude expressed by the Psalmist: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord” (Ps. 122:1).

It is our thesis that church attendance would skyrocket if (1) this proof-text were abandoned and (2) the church provided the light of God’s law, the whole counsel of God, to the world, setting Christ forth as having total preeminence in all things. Church leaders who react to this thesis by saying “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:60) are not likely to change gears. But they are put on notice that their use of this proof-text shall no longer get a free ride.

It is ironic that, correctly understood, this supposed proof-text can be completely disobeyed evenif you have a perfect church attendance record. This fact alone should drive us to reexamine this pillar of ecclesiastical compulsion to draw out what this text of Scripture actually commands. We will be far better off obeying it as written, rather than deforming it to suit an ecclesiocentric agenda. Semper reformanda or semper deformanda? We shall soon see.

The Mother of All Proof-texts

For at least several centuries, Christians have been told that church attendance is nigh-well obligatory: whenever assemblies were scheduled by the church for its members, the members were obligated (barring illness or other compelling alibi) to attend them. The common proof-text (and perhaps the only proof-text)1 offered in favor of this moral compulsion is Hebrews 10:25, which speaks of “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 modern take on this verse is well-known: the “assembling of ourselves together” is confidently equated with institutional church functions, beginning with worship services on Sunday (the Lord’s Day), with 1 Corinthians 16:2 and Acts 20:7 cited in alleged support of this practice once the church evolved out of the earlier daily meetings (Acts 2:46).

One would be hard-pressed to find a modern commentary on Hebrews that deviates significantly from this construction. (Note the confidence with which Bromiley’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) asserts that, whatever else is true of the verse, its focus is “cultic,” i.e., centered on the local church’s formal gatherings.) If a commentary bucking this consensus were ever written, it would be hard to imagine it being carried in a church bookstore! Hebrews 10:25 has an almost sacred status as a proof-text. The last verse most churches want to give up any ground on is this one, since moral control over church attendance has been reposed in this verse.

However, this lockstep approach to Hebrews 10:25 was not always the case. In an earlier era when uncompromising scholarship took the front seat, without the ecclesiastical tail wagging the theological dog, it was possible for scholars to actually walk through the exposition of this verse in a more legitimate, grammatically satisfying, contextually consistent way.

It would be difficult to find such expositions in today’s discourse. Even scholars who know of this earlier exegetical work don’t directly quote the relevant portions of it, but cite only fractured snippets as alternative interpretations of one particular word or another without ever reaching the core issue being methodically laid out in this passage in Hebrews. We might also add that today’s acceptable, modern approaches actually fail to discern the cross reference in the Old Testament that Hebrews 10:25 was almost certainly based upon (namely, Mal. 3:16–18).

It is worth examining such a fractured citation of earlier, better expositions in a recognized modern theologian. We see an allusion to a piece of the puzzle in Philip Edgcumbe Hughes’s 1977 commentary on Hebrews where he makes passing mention of the meaning of episynagoge (“assembling together”) as understood by Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687–1752). Hughes has done Bengel a major disservice in how he cites the earlier scholar, because Bengel had laid out a systematic approach to interpreting Hebrews 10:25 that cannot be properly assessed unless the cumulative weight of his entire analysis is disclosed. By clipping out a small piece of Bengel’s argument, Hughes gives the appearance of thoroughness, but Bengel’s full argument is never actually given a day in court. One wonders why this might be.

Let us consider the view of Bengel, which to modern ears comes off as a radical deconstruction of Hebrews 10:25, but which in actual fact is the most grammatically-sound interpretation of the verse. It is necessarily technical in orientation, but no less important on that account.

The assembling of ourselves together—The modern Greek version interprets episynagoge as equivalent to sychnosynazin, the assembling of a multitude; but the apostle alludes to the Jewish synagogue, while the preposition, epi, somewhat changes the meaning of the word. The meaning is: you should not only frequent the synagogue as Jews, which you willingly do, but also [the additional force of epi in composition] the assembly as Christians: and yet an assembling in one place, is not strictly implied, nor an association for promoting one faith; but the expression is used in a middle sense, the mutual assembling in love, and the public and private interchange of Christian duties, wherein brother does not withdraw himself from brother, but they stimulate each other. For even spiritual heat separates things of different nature, and unites those of a similar nature. This interpretation explains the order of the discourse, in which, next to faith towards God, love to the saints is commended; the verbal substantive episynagogen, assembling together, and the fact that it is singular; the pronoun, which is eautoon, of ourselves, not our; the complaint, as the manner of some is; and the antithesis, exhorting. Some—Who perhaps feared the Jews. Exhorting— The power of exhorting, which is required, includes the peculiar ardor of every individual. And so much the more—This refers to the whole exhortation from ver. 22: compare ver. 37. Ye see— From the signs of the times, and from the consummation of the very sacrifice for sin, ver. 13. The day approaching—the day of Christ.2

Note how Bengel pulls the rug out from a strictly ecclesiastical (institutional) context for the verse. He applies it to all levels of mutual exhortation between Christians regardless of formal context, as is consistent with regard to the way the verse treats exhorting as the opposite of forsaking episynagoge. Since the strong Greek adversative alla is used, episynagoge, a word even Bromiley’s TDNT acknowledged is “harder to fix” as to its meaning, should be taken in a sense that forsaking it opposes the meaning of exhorting.  More importantly, Bengel also keeps the verse’s conclusion (about the coming day of judgment) tied together with the body of the verse. This is significant in helping us identify the proper parallel passage to the primary thought in Hebrews 10:25, which appears in Malachi 3:16–18, a passage following hard on the heels of a description of the scoffers’ “stout words” against the Lord in Malachi 3:13–15.

The Authorized Version translates Malachi 3:16–18 thus:

Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.

C. F. Keil translates this more accurately in this manner:

Then those who feared Jehovah conversed with one another, and Jehovah attended and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for those who fear Jehovah and reverence His name. And they will be to Me as a possession, saith Jehovah of hosts, for the day that I create, and I will spare them as a man spareth his son that serveth him. And ye will again perceive the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth Him not.

The “approaching day” of Hebrews 10:25 is the same day spoken of here in Malachi 3:17–18, the day of the Lord, a day of temporal divine judgment. God-honoring, exhorting conversation is tied to the awareness of an approaching day of judgment in both passages.

C. F. Keil further comments on this passage in Malachi:

The introductory then indicates that the conversation of those who feared God had been occasioned by the words of the ungodly. The substance of this conversation is not described more minutely, but may be gathered from the context, namely, from the statement as to the attitude in which Jehovah stood towards them. We may see from this, that they strengthened themselves in their faith in Jehovah, as the holy God and just Judge who would in due time repay both the wicked and the righteous according to their deeds, and thus presented a great contrast to the great mass with their blasphemous sayings. This description of the conduct of the godly is an indirect admonition to the people, as to what their attitude towards God ought to be. What was done by those who feared Jehovah ought to be taken as a model by the whole nation which called Jehovah its God. Jehovah not only took notice of these conversations, but had them written in a book of remembrance, to reward them for them in due time...3

Keil then links this to the “day,” for “the day which Jehovah makes is the day of the judgment which attends His coming.” The writer of Hebrews also ties the “approaching day” with the exhortations and mutual conversations that should proliferate at a time of pending judgment, which did in fact loom over Jerusalem and Israel as the nation surged toward its fatal war with Rome.

From Bengel, we gather that the nature of the episynagoge cannot be ascribed solely to formal, institutional worship services, which are not in view in Malachi 3:16 either. In fact, we see a general condemnation of such formal assemblies in Amos 5:21, a condemnation arising out of the prevailing lawlessness of the nation, which drove a wedge between God and the hypocrites professing to be keepers of His law and Word (cf. Jer. 8:8f.), an important contrast made explicit in the first chapters of Isaiah.4

The words surrounding episynagoge in Hebrews 10:25 are different than in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 where the term also occurs, and Bengel takes this difference into account whereas other commentators fail to do so. In Hebrews 10:25, the English translation of episynagoge eautoon is “gathering of ourselves” whereas in 2 Thessalonians 2:1 the English translation is “our gathering together” (to translate episynagoges ep auton). These do not mean the same thing, and Bengel acknowledges the differences in the wordings and the internal-grammatical logic of the verses in which the wordings appear. The term episynagoge refers to all fellowship between the faithful that is edifying and hortatory. This dovetails nicely with the directly preceding context in Hebrews 10:24, which instructs us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (ESV). This instruction leads into the idea of episynagoge, which Bengel asserts involves all public and private interchange of Christian duties of a spiritually stimulating nature.

This approach to the verse means that Hebrews 10:24–25 no longer stands as a proof-text for attendance at formal church services, but rather sets forth the same duty as Malachi 3:16 does, in a way that can be just as decentralized and detached from formal, institutional worship as it is in Malachi’s situation. As asserted earlier, this means that a person could have a perfect church attendance record and yet never actually obey the command in Hebrews 10:25, simply by failing to converse with his or her brothers and sisters in the sense prescribed both here and in Malachi 3. It is to this mindset that Isaiah 1:12 is directed: “When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?” Isaiah’s charge of lawlessness against institutional religion in Isaiah 1:10–15 is contrasted with the attractive power of God’s house as the center of the proclamation of His law (Isa. 2:3).

A Pull, Not a Push

Where God’s law is observed and preached, the people flow into His house with gladness and incite others to do the same. There is then a basis for men to exhort one another “and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:3). But Zion is a mountain that Hebrews 12:18 affirms “cannot be touched,” although all Christians have already “come unto it” (Heb. 12:22).

The arbitrary and gratuitous limitation of these expansive, Kingdom-oriented ideas to the local church is an inappropriate limitation imposed on the text, apparently motivated by a desire to have a handy proof-text for mandating church attendance. Far from Isaiah 2:3 being applied to church attendance, wherein the peoples exhort each other with excitement to come and learn God’s law from Him because they are attracted by the law-based content of the service and music (Ps. 119:54) and the sacraments of baptism and communion (conceived of as a true love feast and not the reductionist version we see in emblem form), we instead see this verse in Hebrews being used to compel attendance (treading of His courts) regardless how unattractive and dead the service might actually be.

It is significant, further, that once Hebrews 10:25 is set aside as an unsuitable proof-text concerning compulsory church attendance, no other substitutes seem to be available to carry that weight. Moreover, there are no apparent Old Testament precedents for the commonly-accepted teaching of Hebrews 10:25 being challenged here. The few cross-references that initially appear to compel attendance at His house (e.g., Zech. 14:16–19) fall apart on closer inspection (in the passage described, Egypt is threatened with drought if the nation fails to appear before the Lord to worship Him and keep the feast of tabernacles). If Hebrews 10:25 made mention of withheld rainfall as a sanction against miserly attendance, such a connection could be established, but it would conflict with our Lord’s statement in John 4:23–24 and the globe-wide interpretation of Jerusalem, Zion, and Israel taught in Hebrew 12:22, Psalm 87, and Isaiah 27:6, among other passages.

Death Throes of an Illicit Proof-Text?

In the face of the thesis presented here, some well-intentioned theologians have attempted to put forward some support for the long-standing interpretation of Hebrews 10:25 by citing supposed cross-references (which is well and proper: such a shift in orientation needs to be carefully weighed and debated). The appeal to Isaiah 58:13 concerning not doing one’s own ways and one’s own pleasure and speaking one’s own words on the Sabbath has been proposed as support for the traditional view.

However, this appeal fails to satisfy the problem being posed, since formal worship is completely absent from this chapter of Isaiah, a chapter which focuses on violations of God’s laws by individuals, replacing formal worship (like literal fasts, v. 3–5) with spiritualized individual righteousness and lawkeeping (v. 6–7) according to His divine covenant. Only by substituting the word “formal church service” for “Sabbath” (which is arbitrary in the extreme) does one arrive at the modern view.

As asserted at the outset, this in no way means that we are arguing that nobody needs to go to church. But we do assert that church attendance is properly motivated by a pull originating from His Word and law, and not by a compulsory push wrongly extracted from a defective interpretation of a lone passage in the book of Hebrews. Using “forsake not the assembling together of yourselves” as a club to beat on Christians will recoil back on the heads of those leaders who do so. The text must be used properly, and not out of a sense of expedience or pragmatic considerations.

It should be pointed out that there are things more important than a church service: when offering a gift at the altar, the giver must leave the temple and be reconciled with his brother before he can come back and offer his gift to God. This harmonizes well with St. John’s comment that you cannot love God who is invisible if you’re unable to love your brother who you can see. Even more telling is the fact that while failure to support one’s family financially means you are “worse than an infidel,” we never see a similarly strong condemnation for missing church services in Scripture.5

While we obviously do not oppose regular attendance at church, we must recognize that “community and fellowship” in our antinomian churches has only deepened our spiritual apostasy from God. This suggests that our priorities are all wrong: we should put the law first when we “do church” (which also magnifies the gospel more). Since the law can only be embraced, never imposed, we should apply that principle to fellowship in church as well.  If we promote God’s law, then the promise of Isaiah 2:3 will be fulfilled, and people and nations will flock to church services with a hunger to receive good things out of His law.6

Repositioning the Pendulum

Until such time as we reconstruct the content of “church,” the idea of making church attendance mandatory (imposing it by proof-text) doesn’t make a lot of Biblical sense. “Thy people shall be willing in the day of Thy power,” Psalm 110:3 promises. Compulsory attendance7 at church, using Hebrews 10:25 as the crowbar verse, seems to dovetail with the church’s ecclesiocentric claim to the entire tithe, when in fact it is only due a tithe of the tithe (Nehemiah 10:38). These two examples of over-reaching (attendance and tithing) stem from the same mindset, and both practices need to be corrected from the Scriptures. This will not be an easy or quick battle. By rights, the basiliocentric (Kingdom-centered) view should align beautifully with church prerogatives in a glorious harmony of interests, but ecclesiocentric tendencies distort this relationship. This many corrections to modern church practice might require a true second Reformation—there is an awful lot of new wine here that stands to burst a lot of old wineskins.

Semper deformanda or semper reformanda? There is no motive to reform something if you don’t regard it as deformed to begin with. Restoring His Word to its original intended meaning cannot possibly be harmful. Because it is the Word of the King, it can only heal us of our infirmities to get it right. And with likely temporal judgments looming ahead, we’d be wise to converse and exhort one another as Malachi and Hebrews actually teach us, for God has promised to write up a book of remembrance containing the names of those who spoke exhortations one to another as the coming day approaches.

Will your name be in that book?

1. Certainly, one can cite examples of historic New Testament practice regarding customary attendance, etc., but see note 6 below.

2. Johann Albrecht Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, Vol. 2, Kregel edition, 650.

3. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), 466m.

4. The magnetic pull of the mountain of the Lord’s House in Isaiah 2:3, whereby the peoples of the world invite one another to go up to learn His ways and His law, is in stark contrast to the religious institutions of the nation so roundly condemned in Isaiah 1:10-15, perhaps never so severely as in the probing question of Isaiah 1:12, “Who hath required this at your hand, to tread My courts?” [capitalization added]

5. There is a passage in which a well-known leader complained about folks not being in church like they were supposed to be for a major spiritual confab, but the final decision went against the critic. Cf. Num. 11:24-29.

6. In describing the synagogues of His time, Christ says of the Pharisees and scribes that they “sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do.” In other words, Christ’s example of church-going was premised on the law going forth from the local congregation, which was at least nominally theonomic in orientation, which is precisely the point being urged in the text above. Christians are to “establish the law” (Rom. 3:31). It is the antinomian church that reaches for faulty proof-texts, which amounts to plugging a hole in the dyke with one’s finger. The leak is occasioned by antinomianism, meaning appeal to Hebrews 10:25 is resorted to for symptomatic relief, but never heals the underlying illness.

7. Interestingly enough, most reconstructionists oppose compulsory education when the state engages in it. But this inconsistency goes undetected, since nobody has ever questioned whether the alleged proof-text was being misconstrued. This is another instance that underscores Dr. R. J. Rushdoony’s incisive comment that the word “translator” is related to the word “traitor,” insofar as a faulty translation can betray the Author.

Topics: Biblical Law, Reformed Thought, R. J. Rushdoony, Biblical Commentary, Epistles, The, Church History, Church, The, Christian Reconstruction

Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s magazine, Faith for All of Life. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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