“And forsake not…”

A look at Hebrews 10:25 in the midst of a public health crisis. 

The situation. 

In recent weeks, ministry leaders have had to make difficult, but prudent, decisions to shutter their congregational buildings, cancel weekly meetings and programs, move weekend services to a recorded or live-stream format, and risk financial stability. I know. I’m one of those leaders. As of this writing, we are three weeks into our improvised service format. In the weeks leading up to my final decision to cancel in-person services, I had been following the increasingly grim picture of the coronavirus pandemic. New York City has become the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, and my region of Upstate New York is seeing an increasing number of cases, and sadly, deaths. 

In light of the increasingly dangerous situation, I began our new service format on March 21, 2020. For full transparency, I had strongly considered canceling the previous week, March 14, 2020. 

New York State.

Governor Cuomo’s Executive Order, which took effect on March 22, 2020, did not mandate the closure of Houses of Worship in New York State, but it did strongly recommend canceling religious services and maintaining social distancing recommendations. 

It’s not a 1st Amendment Issue.

Unfortunately, as other states have adopted their own standards and practices to help flatten the curve, some faith leaders have taken the opportunity to resist a common-sense approach, and argue that this is an assault on our 1st Amendment right to the free exercise of religion and to peaceably assemble. Frankly, it’s not. This is not state sponsored religious persecution.  

This is a public health issue. One that is deadly serious.

Your building. 

Seminary doesn’t prepare a ministry leader for the dizzying array of laws and regulations that govern the business of congregations. Sadly, yes, it is a business corporation as well. Each year I am visited by our codes enforcement officer and fire inspector to ensure that our building is maintained safely, that our fire exits are clear and accessible, that our fire extinguishers are up to date, that our furnace has been inspected, and exit signs are illuminated…and that we are not using extension cords. From time to time, corrections need to be made; and failure to fix an issue can result in fines or our occupancy permit to be suspended. As a matter of course, we keep a safe and clean building, not to appease the state, but to ensure the safety, security, comfort, and well-being of our members and guests. And being that the congregational property is tax-exempt, we also have to provide necessary paperwork and documentation to our municipal government, specifically the town tax-assessor.

Additionally, the building is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health, so a “strong recommendation” from the state to not hold public services needs to be taken seriously – especially during a public health crisis. 

Am I a “pansy”?

Recently, a pastor in Florida was arrested for having religious services, and charged with unlawful assembly and a violation of health emergency rules. Again, this was not a 1st Amendment issue, but a public health issue; and his building, if it works the same way in Florida as it does in New York, must obey orders from their respective jurisdictions: the county of operation, and ultimately, the state itself. This same pastor was quoted in a recent sermon as saying that ministry leaders, like myself, are “pansies” for obeying orders issued by tyrannical government. He relented after arrest – to protect his flock, not from the virus, but the tyrannical government that arrested him. 

Be responsible.  

I’m a responsible shepherd, meaning I’m accountable: to local, state, federal, and spiritual authorities, but most importantly, before the Lord. No, I’m not a pansy, and I would like this easily identifiable pastor to make such a statement directly to me – it’s easy to be rowdy in front of the home crowd.

How serious is this?

Laying aside the increasing death toll in New York as evidence of the severity of the situation, a congregation in Hopkins County Kentucky refused to cancel a recent revival, twenty-eight people were infected, and three have died. Irresponsible leadership, as 1) they held the event, 2) they did not even attempt to practice social distancing, and 3) they held the event! 

Hebrews 10:25

Hebrews 10:25 is a verse that is tossed about all too often. Missed a weekend service or a midweek. Hebrews 10:25. Out sick. Hebrews 10:25. Vacation…unless it’s your vacation of course. Hebrews 10:25. Snowstorm. Hebrews 10:25. Global pandemic. Hebrews 10:25. You get the picture. 

Hebrews 10:25 is not speaking to an international health crisis. Stop using it as a justification to hold services in the face of global pandemic. One that may very well kill members of the flock, and it’s not your flock, it’s His. It displays greater faith to be a strong shepherd, protecting the flock and giving them direction in a time such as this, than it does to misapply a verse as an argument to keep the doors open. 

What’s it about? 

Endurance. It’s that simple. 

The entire epistle of Hebrews is the authors attempt to persuade other believing Jews to not forsake Messiah Yeshua/Jesus, and return to the Temple system. 

After the resurrection of the Messiah, believing Jews rejoiced at persecution (Acts 5:41), and the stealing of their possessions (Heb. 10:34). They endured public abuse, and came to the aid of those being mistreated because of messianic faith (Heb. 10:33). But for some, as the years wore on, the price of following the Messiah became too high, and they lost the endurance to follow Him. 

The author is attempting to prevent a falling away of the faithful, not because they couldn’t open the doors, or soccer practice interfered, or vacation was too long, but actual persecution became too much for them to bear. To answer this, he points them to Messiah, and the better way in Him and His faithful promise.

He encourages them to hold fast without wavering (Heb. 10:23); and to not risk destruction by timidity, but endure faithfully (Heb. 10:39). 

What is verse 25 about? 

To set the context of v. 25 correctly, it needs to be attached to the preceding two verses, 23 – 24. As the author writes:

         “Let us hold fast the unwavering confession of hope, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds. And do not neglect our own meetings as is the habit of some, but encourage one another – and all the more so as you see the Day approaching.” TLV

Verse 25 is the conclusion of verses 23 and 24. Hold fast, He is faithful (10:23). To stir up, we must draw near to each other (10:24). Here is my amplified translation of verse 25:

         “not laying aside our gathering together, which has become a habit for some; but calling to each other, all the more, as you see the day drawing near.

“Laying aside,” as in leaving behind, or to abandon. As the author makes clear, in the context of his argument, he is imploring his audience, believing Jews, to not “lay aside,” “leave behind” or “abandon” faith in Messiah. The word often translated as “manner,” which I translated as “habit,” is ἔθος, meaning “custom,” or “character.” What is the author saying? Some who had once gathered, ἐπισυναγωγή, with the faithful are no longer doing so – it stopped being their habit, and they abandoned faith. 

They are: no longer holding fast, drawing near in fellowship and accountability, or receiving and giving encouragement. They are no longer among the faithful. 

The author is saying that the pressures – persecution – we have endured to this point, will only become more intense, “as you see the day drawing near.” This is why we need each other. The audience who received this epistle are simply trying to live their ordinary, everyday life in the midst of persecution, to the point that some see their way out as a return to a traditional, non-messianic, Jewish life – for lack of a better phrase.

Yes, we will survive this. 

Why? Because He is faithful.  

Our congregations will survive this. Provided that we provide faithful, godly leadership. This, as stated above, is not a 1stAmendment issue. It is not a Hebrews 10:25 issue. As those of us who have made the decision to suspend public gatherings, in favor of live-streamed, Zoom, or YouTube provided services have not and are not leaving the faith – we have NOT forsaken the Messiah.

I am personally in contact with more members and friends of our congregation on a regular basis now, than I have been able to be for years. When things are “normal” we are all involved with our schedules and commitments; but in these days, especially with those vulnerable to this virus, virtual door knocking means that we are able to reach those shut in, isolated, or self-isolating – sharing some time, praying, encouraging, laughing, crying or just saying “hey, thinking of you.”

As a shepherd, I have been personally blessed to know that members of my congregation are setting up their own prayer Zoom rooms, and having regular times of fellowship and contact…without me, but inviting me. 

We have this technology, and during a health crisis, we can use it to advance the Kingdom of God. With our services streaming on several platforms, I’ve heard directly from people who are not saved, who want to know more, have questions, and “really enjoyed” what they experienced. 

So a closed door can be a door that the Lord has opened.

Please use caution. 

Enough said. Please use caution. Do the right thing by the Lord – protecting His flock – by your congregation, and by your local community. Stop arguing. Stop trying to prove that you are the most faithful. The boldest. Let’s stop trying to out Bible each other, it’s not a competition.

And finally … “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ll leave you to figure out what that means in this application.              

Shalom. Be well.