I have a couple Christian friends who, as far as I know, have not been going to church. Other Christian friends go to a military chapel, which I do not consider to be a real church. What is the biblical basis for urging them to go to church? The verse Heb. 10:25 comes to mind about assembling yourselves together, but sometimes an objection is raised that any gathering of Christians would qualify in this verse. What in the Bible exhorts Christians to be part of a formal church?
It is not easy to counter the exaggerated individualism of our present-day American culture, but there is probably no text that reproves this mind-set more directly than the one you yourself cited:
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one anotherand all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Heb. 10:25)
But there are a lot of other things in the Bible that speak to this issue as well. Let me just remind you of some of them.
In the book of Acts we see the Christian Church in the days of its first love when "all who believed were together and had all things in common...and the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" (4:42,44). While we can recognize that this was a heightened spiritual state that the church has not consistently maintained, it is clear from the teaching of the apostles that this is the way it ought to be, with Christians voluntarily sharing with one another to meet one another's needs. (Incidentally, note that the sharing is to be voluntary; the Bible does not encourage involuntary sharing or "Christian communism"; see Acts 5:4, where Ananias was punished not for refusing to share, but for lying. Giving and caring for one another are to be done willingly and voluntarily, motivated by the love of Christ; see 2 Cor. 8-9, especially 8:13 and 9:7.)
We can see this divine pattern in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, whoinstead of dwelling together in unitywere characterized by a sad state of division (1 Cor. 12:12-26). The fact is that under normal circumstances one cannot even come close to being an authentic Christian in isolation from other believers. Just as the "eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you'" (v. 21) in our own physical body, so it is with the body of Christ which is the church as a body of believers (v. 27). (In addition to 1 Cor. 12, see also Rom. 12.)
Note Paul's frequent use of the phrase "one another" in the following passages (and you can't be obedient to these "one another" commands in isolation from other believers):
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. (Rom. 12:10)
Live in harmony with one another. (Rom. 12:16)
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another. (Rom. 13:8)
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Rom. 15:7)
I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. (Rom. 15:14)
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. (1 Cor. 1:10)
Greet one another....(2 Cor. 13:12)
...do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. (Gal. 5:13)
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (Eph. 4:2)
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving [one another], just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph. 4:32)
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (Eph. 5:19)
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Eph. 5:21)
Bear with [one another] and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col. 3:13)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom. (Col. 3:16)
Therefore encourage one another and build [one another] up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thess. 5:11)
We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for [one another] is increasing. (2 Thess. 1:3)
Hebrews 10:25 is not the only verse in Hebrews that speaks of our obligation to "one another." Here are some more:
But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today. (Heb. 3:13)
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. (Heb. 10:24)
Keep on loving [one another] as brothers. (Heb. 13:1)
What we see in Paul's epistles and in Hebrews, we also see in James, Peter, and John:
Therefore confess your sins to [one another] and pray for [one another] so that you may be healed....(Jas. 5:16)
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. (1 Pet. 1:22)
Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. (1 Pet. 3:8)
Above all, love [one another] deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Pet. 4:8)
Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Pet. 4:9)
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. (1 Pet. 5:5)
Greet one another... (1 Pet. 5:14)
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another... (1 John 1:7)
This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. (1 John 3:11)
And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. (1 John 3:23)
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.... (1 John 4:7)
Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:12)
And now,...I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. (2 John 1:5)
It should be obvious that you cannot "one another" by yourself!
When we exhort people to be faithful in church attendance we often receive answers such as these: "I just don't get that much out of it!" or "I can worship God wherever I happen to be." The problem is that they have "I" trouble. The passages cited above teach me to stop thinking and acting in such a self-centered manner.
There is no better summary of this vital concern than the one found in our Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 26 ("Of the Communion of Saints") which says this:
1. All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their head, by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in [one another]'s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.
2. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving [one another] in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.
In the new proof-text edition of our Confession and Catechisms many other texts are cited that might be helpful to you in giving wise counsel to these persons.
One other part of your question remains to be addressed. It is obvious that obedience to the Scriptures involve meeting ("assembling") with other people, but isn't it sufficient for Christians to meet together in a military chapel, a private home, or some other gathering together of Christians (such as a college or university fellowship group)? Isn't that the same as "going to Church"?
No, it isn't! According to the Scriptures, "elder oversight" is part of God's plan for his Church. See, for example, Titus 1:5: "The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you." (See also passages like Acts 11:29-30; 14:23; 15 [entire chapter]; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 4:14; 5:17; Titus 1:5-9; James 5:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4.)
The traditional "marks of the church" are the preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's supper), and the administration of church discipline. All of these assume the presence of elders and of elder oversight. Similarly, the traditional "means of grace" include the preaching of the Word, baptism, and the Lord's Supper. As already noted, these assume elder oversight (at least for a church that is seeking to do things biblically).
Where things like "elder oversight," the Lord's supper, etc. are lacking, there may be an "assembling together" of believers, but it is something less than a biblically-constituted church. For those who want to be fully obedient to the Scriptures, it is not an option simply to stay home and watch a religious broadcast on television or even meet with other Christians for "chapel" or a fellowship group (unless, of course, for some reason it is impossible to attend a church that has proper elder oversight, as set down in the Word of God.)
I hope that these thoughts are helpful to you in your future discussions with your friends. Gently instruct them from the Scriptures which are "the rule of faith and life" and the "supreme judge" (Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 1). May God's grace be with you!
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