And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24-25)
This passage is one of the proof-texts I have seen used to push for inclusion in a Local Church, and especially regular church attendance. However, does this passage actually teach that, and if so, in what sense?
On the surface, the verses themselves call upon us to
1) Stir each other to love and good deeds
This means that believers are exhorted to be actively provoking or stirring up each other as we meet, that such is to be geared towards growing in love and the doing of good deeds. We are to encourage each other towards godliness, through the practical outworking in being more loving towards the brethren and others and doing good to all.
2) Meet together for encouragement
Believers are exhorted to meet together for encouragement, which is to say that our meetings are not just a social gathering for catching up with each other, but we would also be intentional in desiring to help and encourage our brothers and sisters in their spiritual walks with God. The outflow of love which we have in Christ must be first and foremost directed towards our brothers and sisters in Christ, to seek their good.
3) Do so regularly
Believers are exhorted to meet together regularly to encourage each other in our respective walks with God. We are to do so eagerly, as the text says, especially as the Last Day approaches.
Does the passage therefore speaks about the necessity of regularly going to church? Not directly, for the passage does not tell us how often and in what manner are we to meet up as such. The eagerness to meet up with our brethren however would mean that we would meet up as much as able. To use this to apply to regular Sunday attendance is too restrictive for this passage, yet it certainly should not be less than that. After all, how can it be said that we are eager to meet up and encourage each other if the most basic of gatherings on the Lord's Day is not maintained?
So it does seem that this passage teach us the necessity of being involved in a community of believers, in their lives, and of coming together regularly, which should not be less regular than the weekly Sunday services. That said, there are a few cautions we should take note of when applying this text, which would distort it into a weapon used against believers.
1) We must understand these exhortations in light of their previous indicatives
The larger context of this passage talks about how Christ has come to offer the perfect sacrifice for sins once for all (Heb. 10:14), and how we therefore can have full assurance of faith because of Christ's perfect sacrifice on our behalves. This background of what Christ has already done FOR us (indicative) is what give rise to the imperative to come together as brothers and sisters in Christ in encouraging each other and stirring each other to love and good deeds. The exhortation does not exist in a vacuum and is therefore not a moralism which we must do merely because it is the correct Christian thing to do.
The indicative always comes before the imperative. The danger here lies in trying to short-circuit the process and calling on believers to come to church because the Bible says so (often with self-serving reasons ie tithing). The Scripture is abundantly clear that we join a Local Church, participate in it and come regularly for service and even perhaps more, not because of duty and obligation, but because we want to and love to.
What this practically translates to in teaching and biblical counseling of those who have lapsed in church attendance etc is not hammering them with the commands of Scripture for regular church attendance, probably bringing in the 4th commandment also to strengthen our case. The Law can be of help in showing the standard, but it can never function as the impetus for correction. Ministers and leaders who use Heb. 10:24-25 as a club to promote Church attendance are not preaching the Gospel, but Law, and the Law brings death. We must therefore reason from the indicatives of Scripture to exhort believers to come together regularly, and make the Gospel real to ourselves and to others instead of proclaiming loudly the Christians' duty to join a Local Church and attend regular services, as if anyone will ever be converted by the Law!
2) The call to meet does not give any visible church the right to command absolute fidelity to that church
We are called to meet together for encouragement and exhortation, and such commitment would necessitate commitment to a Local Church. Yet such does not give any particular visible church the right to demand of its members absolute commitment and fidelity to the church such that all members MUST go for all prayer meetings, and cannot contemplate change in church without what the leaders think are good reasons (ie going abroad to study or work etc) without "incurring the curse of God" and possible excommunication.
The Church exists for her members, not the other way around. The pastors/elders and lay leaders (if any) in the church should be desirous of building up the Kingdom of God and of feeding the sheep in their particular fold, not in building their own kingdoms and/or "Gospel Empire"! Therefore, their concern should be of what is best for the spiritual health of the sheep, not the possible impact any decisions have on their coffers and their pet [ministry] projects, or worse still their reputation.
This therefore means that pastors/elders are to even recommend that a particular sheep in the church who has doctrinal differences or irreconcilable conflicts with certain people in the church, who have exhausted all other means of reconciliation, to leave the church and join another Bible-believing church. If such people decide to leave for another church even without exhausting all possibilities of reconciliation, the pastors and elders are to release them and guide them to another biblical church where they can settle. In all things, the spiritual health of the sheep is to be considered. The church that is only interested in "keeping people" at all costs, or even cursing all who leave for what they consider errant reasons, have abused their authority as undershepherds. Heb. 10:24-25 cannot be used to support such lording over Christ' flock, and any who do so distort the text in support of their anti-biblical agenda.
In conclusion, let us desire to spend time with our fellow believers in encouraging and exhorting each other towards "love and good works". Yet let us do so with the proper motive of the Gospel rather than of legalism. For church leaders, do so with the proper motive of care for the flock instead of self-aggrandizement. Amen.