A Pepper Grinder Post

Pillars of Churchianity: Go to Church – Part 1

I’m not sure where I got the word ‘churchianity.’  I know it isn’t in the dictionary, because my spell checker is complaining to me about it.  I would love to think that I coined the word, but I don’t think I did.  I have thought about the word for a long time.  I like it, because it encapsulates an idea about how the western church has taken Jesus and institutionalized him.  We have taken the Son of God, who delighted, infuriated, baffled, and ALWAYS surprised the people with whom he came into contact, and made him safe and predictable.  We had to make him predictable, because it is very difficult to found stable institutions around someone who is unpredictable, and we like stable institutions.  If I am brutally honest with myself, I like stability because it keeps me from having to rely on God in a desperate and intimate way.  Replacing that dangerous character Jesus with a stable church allows me to have confidence that I am doing what I should as a Christian, while still being mostly in control of my life.  I think Jesus hates that.

churchI am not saying that all organized churches are bad, or that everything taught by churchianity is incorrect.  Lots of what is taught in western churches, especially ones that take the Bible seriously, is absolutely true.  It does seem to me, however, that some things had to be added in or modified to make Jesus, the consummate revolutionary, fit in with the institutional church.  There are probably all sorts of things I could write about in this regard, but there are three primary teachings that come to mind.
1. You should frequently and regularly attend church.
2. You should tithe 10% of your income to your local church.
3. Your local congregation IS the church.  (I’m not sure if I’ll write about this last one or not.  I feel that I touch on this a fair amount in talking about the first two pillars of churchianity, and in other things I have posted.)

Today, I want to deal with teaching #1.  Ever since I first became a Christian, I have been taught that every believer must commit to a local Bible-believing congregation, start attending its services regularly, and become involved in that congregation’s programs.  This sounds logical, but there is one difficulty.  The writers of the New Testament seem to have forgotten to exhort the believers to whom they were writing about this teaching.  But, never fear, the mysterious author of Hebrews comes to our rescue!  Along with giving us an amazing chapter on faith, and a couple of passages that believers in eternal security need to read with their eyes shut, this book gives us the one passage that presents this critical teaching—you must go to church. 

Here is my translation of Hebrews 10:19-25:

So, brothers, having confidence to go into the holy place through the blood of Jesus, which opened a new and living path for us through the curtain (which is his body), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us come with honest hearts with the confidence that comes from faith, and our hearts washed clean from a guilty conscience, and our bodies washed with clean water.
Let us hold fast the confession of unwavering hope, for the one who promised is faithful.
And let us think of how to spur each other to love and do good things, not giving up on gathering together as some are, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day getting near.

Torah scrollsHebrews is an interesting book.  If you asked me what the theme of many New Testament books was, I would have a hard time saying, since they hop around to all sorts of topics.  Reading Hebrews, on the other hand, I have been amazed by how much the entire book has one single theme: The new covenant is vastly superior to the old; don’t go back to the old.  It is clear that the main audience of the book was composed of what we would call messianic Jews.  The Jews that the book of Hebrews addresses were people who had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but now, perhaps because of persecution—or perhaps because the initial excitement had worn off--were feeling more and more tempted just to go back to living life the way they had.  This sounds like a big change, but you have to remember that Jewish believers in the first century were still pretty Jewish.  Jewish believers still went to the Temple if they were in Jerusalem, or to other Jewish gatherings on the Sabbath if they were elsewhere.  Some Jewish believers were still zealous about keeping the Law, and even someone like Paul would still have looked pretty Jewish to us.  Now think of the pressure on these people.  The Romans had cut the Jews a lot of special breaks in terms of allowing them religious freedoms many other people in the Roman Empire didn’t have.  The Christians didn’t have those breaks.  Then imagine seeing your Aunt Esther every Rosh Hashanah and having her say something like, “Oh, Moishe!  Why do you want to hang around with all those Goyim?” with tears in her eyes.  Think of all your old friends looking at you the way an Ivy League professor looks at Sarah Palin.  It would be so easy just to start pulling back from the Christian stuff and emphasizing more of the purely Jewish stuff.  The Holy Spirit jumps into this situation, speaking through the author of Hebrews, and says, “Don’t do it!”

flowering bushes and treesI want to talk about reading in context for a minute.  I remember when I was young, watching a comedy show where they would sometimes do a mock interview with some famous person like the President of the U.S.  They would have the interviewer ask some question and would then show a clip of the President on a big screen “answering” the question.  In reality, they had found some clip where the President was talking about something completely different than what the question was about.  The results were hilarious.  They had taken the exact words the President had said, but had given them a completely new meaning by changing their context.  This is funny, but the tragic thing is that we often do something similar with the Bible.  We pull one verse away from all the other thoughts that surround it and sometimes miss the real meaning completely.  One of the most dramatic examples of this is a verse I found in a list of memory verses when I first became a Christian:
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life:  (John 5:39a, KJV)

This sounds like a great message—read the Bible every day!  There is just one problem.  This half of a verse is not found in a section where Jesus is teaching his disciples or even the crowds—this is a passage where Jesus is blasting the Pharisees for their unbelief!  He is saying, “Look, you study the Bible because you think you’ll get eternal life by doing it, and yet it talks about me and you are rejecting me—the real source of eternal life.”  Jesus is actually saying exactly the opposite of what my collection of memory verses implied. 

With the exception of a few parts of the Bible which are collections of unrelated sayings (Proverbs is the main example of this), most of the Bible is written as a coherent narrative.  To understand a passage, we have to look at where the Holy Spirit was going with the whole, not just the one little piece.  The really cool thing about reading in context is that it is one of the most important tools for understanding a passage, yet it is something anyone can do.  You don’t have to know Greek or Hebrew or have seminary training.  All you have to do is read a big block around the passage you’re looking at and ask yourself why this verse is where it is.  How does it fit into the flow of the larger section?

In light of this I want to look at the flow of arguments in chapters 9 & 10 in particular.  Here is how I see it progressing:

  • Discussion of the Old Testament tabernacle, contrasting it with Christ’s ministry (chapter 9)
  • The Law is a shadow of things to come.  Old Testament sacrifices can’t take away sins—they can only remind us of them (10:1-4)
  • Christ’s sacrifice is the only perfect one, and it was predicted in the Old Testament (10:5-10)
  • Old Testament sacrifices had to be repeated over and over; Christ’s was once and done (10:11-14)
  • In the New Covenant, the Law will be in our hearts and minds, and we will have complete forgiveness (10:15-18)
  • Since we have the new and perfect way, let us draw near to God, hold unswervingly to our hope, and think how to encourage each other (10:19-25)
  • The terror that awaits us if we turn our backs on such an amazing salvation (10:26-31)
  • Remember how well you did at first (10:32-34)
  • Don’t throw away your confidence; don’t shrink back (10:35-39)

Remember how I said that the theme of the whole book was that the new covenant was better than the old, and we shouldn’t turn back?  We find the same thing when we zero in on chapters 9 and 10.  The author spends some time explaining different ways that the new covenant is better, and then he gets to the verses we’re focusing on.  Since the new covenant is so much better, he says, let’s live like it!  In our passage, the author has moved on from showing that the new covenant is better than the old, and is now saying what we can do practically to avoid getting discouraged and going back to the old covenant.  Remember this crucial point—this passage talks about how to avoid the discouragement that was causing people to turn their backs on Jesus.

lone treeNow let’s dig into Hebrews 10:19-25 and see what the author said about how to do this.  Bear with me while I talk a little about grammar—trust me, it will help us understand the passage.  For those of you who were actually taught grammar in school, do you remember how every sentence needed to have a verb (an action word)?  And remember how you were supposed to avoid “run-on” sentences?  Well, I don’t think the Greeks knew about the run-on sentence rule!  Paul is especially famous for having sentences that just went on and on, but whoever wrote Hebrews is right up there with him.  I think our whole passage really has just 3 sentences.  The reason I say this is that there are only 3 primary verbs.  There are lots of verbs in a special form (very common in Greek) called a participle, but this is not the same.  If I say, “He told me the whole story,” told is the verb—it’s what he did.  On the other hand, if I say, “Kicking at the dirt with his toes and staring at the ground, he told me the whole story,” there are two other verbs thrown in, but they are participles.  The main thing he is doing is still tellingKicking and staring are just secondary things he did while he was doing the main thing.  In our passage there are actually five verbs that aren’t participles,  but two of those are in secondary clauses.  Here’s what I mean.  If you say, “She walked through the door, which he opened for her,” the main thing that is happening is her walking.  Opened is also a verb, and it isn’t a participle, but that whole phrase, “which he opened for her” is secondary—it tells us something about the door—but the main action is still her walking.  “Opened” in verse 20 (it describes the new way) and “see” in verse 25 are in secondary clauses.  Before people who don’t like grammar have their eyes glaze over any more, let’s quote the passage again, but this time I will highlight the three primary verbs.

So, brothers, having confidence to go into the holy place through the blood of Jesus, which opened a new and living path for us through the curtain (which is his body), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us come with honest hearts with the confidence that comes from faith and our hearts washed clean from a guilty conscience and our bodies washed with clean water.
Let us hold fast the confession of unwavering hope (for the one who promised is faithful).
And let us think of how to spur each other to love and do good things, not giving up on gathering together, as some are, but encouraging each other and all the more as you see the day getting near.

In lots of parts of the New Testament, it’s easy to miss the basic point in a flood of words and secondary clauses, so I want us really to look at those 3 main verbs.  Those are the 3 things that the Holy Spirit is telling us to do to avoid getting discouraged and going back to our old way of life.

Let us come.  The first response is God-oriented.  We should not hide guiltily from God as Adam and Eve did after eating the forbidden fruit, but we should turn to him in confidence that we have been forgiven because of what Christ did.

Let us hold fast.  The second response is focused on our inner selves and thoughts.  In many areas, our society teaches us to be emotionally driven, and this is even encouraged in many Christian circles by focusing on the emotions experienced at conversion and in later experiences with God.  The Bible is not at all anti-emotional, but I believe that this verse tells us to dig in our feet and hold fast to what we know is true, regardless of how we may feel.

new flowersLet us think how to spur (or encourage) each other.  The final response focuses on other Christians.  It’s so easy to get discouraged and lose perspective, and God wants us to be helping each other see things the way they truly are.  The author gives two examples of how we are to do this.  It’s clear, once again from the grammar, that these two are sub-points of “Let us think how to spur each other” because that is the phrase with the active verb, and the others have participles (which is why I translated them with verbs ending in ‘ing’).  Here are verses 24 and 25 in outline format:

  1. Let us think of how to spur each to love and do good things
    1. Not giving up on gathering together (as some are)
    2. But encouraging each other (and all the more as you see the day getting near)

Many times, I have heard this verse used as though the main point was, “You must go to church!”  When we look at it in context and as it is written, the main point is to encourage each other, and one of the ways to do this is by gathering together.

Now we’ve looked at Hebrews 10:24-25 in context and have a general idea what is being said.  , I’d like to zero in on these two verses themselves, and see what else we can learn and how this applies to us and our attitude toward the institutional church.

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*Photo Credits: Church by , Torah Scroll from rhollick.wordpress.com