“For where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20, N.K.J.V.).
Countless pastors, leading sparsely attended church services, have justified continuing on with those meetings by quoting this verse. As a guy who has pastored small, rural churches for the entirety of his ministry, I myself have played this card more times than I care to remember. It reminds me of the pastor who said, “I know that Jesus said wherever there are two or three gathered in His name, He is there in the midst of them. But that doesn’t mean that He wouldn’t prefer a larger crowd!”
It is worth mentioning, though, that a closer inspection of the context for Matthew 18:20 reveals that Christ’s words don’t specifically have anything to do with church attendance. Instead, they come at the end of His teaching on church discipline. Church discipline, in case you don’t know, has to do with excommunicating an unrepentant church member from the congregation. The old timers used to call it “churching” someone.
In the verses that precede Matthew 18:20, Jesus lays out a step-by-step plan for how to handle a fellow believer who has sinned against you. First, you should go to that person and have a one-on-one conversation in which you tell him exactly how he has sinned against you (18:15). Second, if that private conversation does not produce the desired confession and repentance from the person, you should take one or two witnesses along with you when you pay him a second visit to discuss the situation (18:16). Third, if the person still refuses to confess the sin and repent of it, you (along with the witnesses) should bring the matter before the entire church (18:17). Fourth, if the offending party still won’t muster up the appropriate confession and repentance, even after the church congregation has heard the case and agreed with you and the witnesses, the person should be put out of the church (excommunicated, churched). That’s what Jesus means when He says, “But if he refuses to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (18:17).
Jesus then verifies the church’s God-sanctioned authority to excommunicate a member in such a way. He says, “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven” (18:18-19, N.K.J.V.). The promise is that God will honor in heaven the corporate decision, which was based upon the testimony provided by at least two witnesses, that was made by the church on earth. This applies whether the church decides to excommunicate the member (“whatever you bind on earth”) or reinstate the formerly churched member who has now confessed and repented (“whatever you loose on earth”). Finally, Jesus concludes the teaching by giving us our text verse: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (18:20, N.K.J.V.).
As we read the entirety of the passage, we notice the repeated importance of having at least two witnesses involved in the process, with the offended party himself serving as one of the witnesses. Concerning the second step of the process, Jesus says the offended party should take along one or two more witnesses. That, according to Jesus, will fulfill an important precept that God actually built into the Old Testament law. That precept is: no one should ever be pronounced guilty based upon the testimony of just one person. In verse 16, Jesus even quotes a law passage, Deuteronomy 19:15, as His proof text on that.
By taking along at minimum one other person to serve as a witness, the offended party can meet God’s requirement of “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” Ideally, the offended party will take along not just one but two other witnesses as he himself serves as the third witness. All of the witnesses should then be heard by the church if the situation reaches the next stage of the process. The one or two other witnesses will verify that the offended party made a legitimate effort to settle the matter in an “out of church” setting.
Understanding this important precept about the “two or three witnesses” allows us to understand the totality of the passage correctly and not make the two common mistakes that get made in applying the passage. The first mistake is the aforementioned one about church-goers claiming verse 20 for every poorly attended church service. The second mistake is the one about Christians claiming verse 19 (“…if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.”) for prayer requests. You see, verse 20’s “two or three gathered in my name” refers to the two or three witnesses involved in the church discipline situation. Likewise, verse 19’s “two in agreement” refers to these witnesses as well.
As long as I am passing through here, let me also throw in that the New Testament teaches that church congregations, not civil courts, should decide disputes between fellow Christians. Paul affirms this teaching in 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 when he rebukes the Christians of Corinth for suing one another in the courts of Corinth. The very idea of two Christians having their dispute heard by and decided by lost people in public courts horrified Paul. You can hear his horror when he asks those Corinthian Christians, “If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people?” (1 Corinthians 6:1, N.I.V.).
In closing, let me say that it is not my intention here to minimize the validity of two or three Christians assembling together and calling it “church.” As a pastor, I’m all for having church. Likewise, it is not my intention to minimize the power of two Christians agreeing for something in prayer and taking that request to God. As a believer, I’m all for praying. My purpose with this post is simply to draw our attention to the importance of a verse’s context when we are attempting to rightly interpret that verse and rightly apply it. Context is our friend, not our enemy, and any interpretation or application that can’t pass the test of context is not one upon which we should be relying. No, it’s not an offense that should get you churched, but it is one that can create wrong thinking on your part. And that, of course, is never a good thing.