Where Two or Three Are Gathered (Matthew 18:20)

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“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
– Matthew 18:20

This has to be one of the most misquoted verses in all of the New Testament. This verse is used to talk about Christian gatherings like a worship service or Bible study to say that Christ is in our midst when we gather. But if you back up and look at the context, this verse is in the context of dealing with sin among Christians and how to bring brothers back into harmony with one another. Jesus is saying, when this type of reconciliation takes place it is the type of thing he wants to be a part of and is best represented in those events. Let’s look at the context:

15“If your brother sins against you,[b] go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’[c] 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be[d]bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.

19“Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
– Matthew 18:15-20

If you only look at verse 20 it is very easy to go away thinking these verses are about any and every gathering of Christians. But in context you see over and over that Jesus is mentioning two or three people joining in the task of reconciliation together in order to deal with sin and bring unity to the “church.” I also wonder if Jesus saying “there am I with them” if he is referencing himself as a witness in these matters. I am not sure on that but it is a possibility.

The next issue is what did Jesus mean by “church”? I had a hunch this was not talking about Christian assemblies specifically (although it could still certainly apply) as the church as we know it was not yet in existence. The word church in Greek really just means “gathering” or “assembly.” I checked Davies & Allison’s Matthew commentary to see if I was on the right track and they confirmed my hunch. What is more their conclusion also shed light on verse 17 “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”:

“The local community is here meant, not the church universal. Its role is not to rebuke or condemn, but rather to support the individual disciple in his final attempt to convince and reconcile his brother…To treat someone as a Gentile and toll-collector would involve the breaking off of fellowship and hence mean exclusion from the community – no doubt in hope that such a severe measure (it would have dire social and probably economic consequences) would convict the sinner of his sin and win him back. The passage is therefore about excommunication. Once a brother has refused to heed the whole church, there can be no appeal to a higher authority: the matter has been settled.” – Davies & Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: Matthew 8-18 (International Critical Commentary)

This brings out an interesting dynamic from their culture that we often miss when we read these verses. Their identity and even socio-economic status was tied to their community. Today, if someone were to be forced to leave a church for flagrant and unrepentant sin it would hardly be as severe as the punishment described here. They would just pick another church and go where no one knew about their issues. Not so in their communities. They depended on each other in more ways than just showing up for worship one hour a week. Their lives were inextricably entwined. This points specifically to our lack of connection today. It points to our lack of dependence upon one another. Church discipline is powerless in an environment where people can “church hop” until they find just the right flavor of what they are looking for or to avoid having to repent of their sins by simply going to a new church.

Have a look at Mark Adam’s post from 2 years ago for more on this passage.

How has your congregation created communities of faith that foster more dependence and connection with other Christians?

5 Responses

  1. I also think Mark’s point is spot-on when he says, “The verse serves to say that when faithful Christians come together in making a decision for the good of the Kingdom in following God’s will, God is there with them.”

    I think verses like this should dramatically reorient how we operate — our discussions on authority and autonomy and fear of judgment.

  2. Jesus was, in Matthew 18, engaging in a time-honored rabbinical tradition: the linking of thoughts one to another, in a stream of consciousness. Sort of a Hebraic poetry format. Examples can be seen in other parts of the scriptures, e.g., Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, or in ancient rabbinical literature. Thus, there is no overarching “context” involved; only one with a Greek/Western/Hellenistic mindset would look for one in this type of passage.

    Loosely put, Jesus starts his discussion with children and the Kingdom of God, then discusses abuse of children by evil people, then discusses, after a brief interlude, what to do with evil people in a church body context, how one ought to have two or three witnesses, then picking up on the two or three theme, discusses how whatever we ask in the father’s name will be given if two or three are asking, then finally, again picking up the two/three theme, states that God is with us when we’re gathered in grouops of two or three.

    Each of these are timeless truths standing alone, they are linked only by theme, by common words or thoughts–again, very much like a Hebraic poetry format–but not by overall context, to try to do so does violence to the truths Jesus was conveying.

    These truths are not linked in a pedantic manner, such that the last “two or three” reference in verse 20 needing be related to church discipline, evil doers, children, or suicide by drowning! We need to take the text for what it is, understanding that Jesus was an easterner speaking to easterners. His ministry was not to the gentiles, and He most certainly did not speak to them or their mindsets. For several sterling examples of transcendent truths put into linear and deductive western thought, see the Pauline epistles, do your word parsin and overcontextualizing there; don’t try to order Jesus’ thoughts around western logic, you will almost invariably come to the wrong conclusions.

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