When two or three gather in Jesus’s name.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 March 2020

Matthew 18.20.

Matthew 18.20 KJV
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

We Christians quote this verse for all sorts of reasons.

  • To point out the importance of group prayer: When two or three of us pray together, Jesus is there, so he must therefore hear our prayers. (Though getting him to answer “Yes” is another thing.)
  • To point out the importance of small groups. Same reason: Two or three of us are together, so Jesus is there, and supposedly his presence blesses our meeting.
  • To avoid church. “You don’t have to go to Sunday morning worship; you just have to gather with two or three fellow Christians and talk Jesus for a few minutes. That counts.” It doesn’t, but I’ll get to that.

But in context it refers to church discipline.

Matthew 18.15-20 KWL
15 “When your fellow Christian sins against you,
take them aside and reprove them—just you and them alone.
When they hear you, you’ve helped your fellow Christian.
16 When they don’t hear you: Take one or two others with you.
Thus ‘by the mouth of two witnesses or three, every word can stand.’ Dt 19.15
17 When they refuse to hear you, tell the church.
When they also refuse to hear the church: To you, they’re like a pagan and taxman.
18 Amen, I promise you whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven.
Whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.
19 Amen again, I tell you when two of you agree amongst yourselves on earth about any activity,
when you ask your heavenly Father about it, it’ll happen to it.
20 For I’m there in the middle of it wherever two or three come together in my name.”

It’s not about when we come together for any old reason, like prayer or worship. It’s when we’re trying to deal with a serious matter, where relationships may have to be suspended or end. It’s about the direction of the church; not about whether our little prayer breakfasts counts the same as Sunday morning worship.

There aren’t separate “earthly” and “heavenly” areas in God’s kingdom.

Whenever Jesus began a teaching with “Amen” (KJV “verily”), he did so ’cause he was teaching something important. Stuff his students had better remember, ’cause it reflected God’s kingdom way better than their popular culture. Stuff they’d initially be inclined not to believe, ’cause Jesus was stretching them. Heck, these amen statements still stretch us.

“Amen” is an oath. In saying it, Jesus promised these things are true. Not ’cause he wasn’t truthful the rest of the time; he doesn’t do degrees of truthfulness. He wanted us to believe him, not take him for granted. Or take him out of context.

Here, Jesus instructed us how to deal with fellow Christians (Greek ἀδελφός/adelfós “sibling,” which in context meant a fellow believer) when they sin. Εἰς σὲ/Eis se, “against you,” is a textual variant, found in copies of Matthew after the fourth century, so Jesus means any sin: If your fellow Christian robs banks, but not your bank, you aren’t off the hook. First deal with them privately; Mt 18.15 next bring one or two witnesses; Mt 18.16 then stage your intervention. Mt 18.17 As you know, your average American lacks the patience to follow any of these steps, and leaps straight to the intervention. Or petitions. Or public shaming. Or whatever the fastest method of resolution will be.

But whatever the church decides, Jesus promises he’ll back us up. Whatever binding agreements we make Mt 18.18 aren’t just a local, earthly, temporal thing—but no longer counts after the defendant dies, or once the Son of Man returns. They count. If you sin, won’t repent, and the church says you’re out, you’re out.

It might only feel binding when they’re the only Christian community in town. (As still is the case when the churches in town talk to one another, like we’re supposed to.) But most of the time you can do as many a kicked-out sinner has: You can go find another church which knows nothing about your sins. Hide ’em from this new church even better than you did from the old one. Stay there the next 40 years with them none the wiser. But that original decree of you’re out? Stands till you repent.

Yeah, the idea God backs up our decrees is an awesome thing.

Yeah, it also means it’s an ability heavily abused. Many a cult has made plenary declarations over Christians, pagans, the nation, their enemies, anyone and everyone. All because they figure God empowered ’em to do it. But they do it for all sorts of ungodly reasons.

So does God consider those churches’ decrees valid? Nah.

’Cause these churches are in the wrong. Remember, decrees are only valid when they’re done in Jesus’s name. Mt 18.20 But we can’t invoke his name when we don’t legitimately know him, and we can’t get anything done in his name if we ask for all the wrong reasons. Jm 4.3 When churches go wrong it’s obviously because they don’t know Jesus. He doesn’t know them either. So their “binding” and “loosing” never counts. Don’t worry about them. (Seriously, don’t. They can’t curse you.)

But if a church does legitimately know God, and if you are legitimately sinning—against God, against your neighbors, against them, against anyone—when they make any formal declaration over you, no matter how formal or informal it sounds, it’s binding. ’Cause Jesus said it is.

If you wanna imagine it only applies within that church, and only that church, you probably haven’t realized every single church, no matter the denomination, belongs to Jesus. Totally applies. So if you leave and go hide in a new church, they belong to Jesus too, and if they’re listening to the Holy Spirit, it’s only a matter of time before he outs you.

Yeah, your best hiding place is a church which doesn’t listen to the Spirit. Conveniently for you (but sadly for them) there are lots of those. But when you one day stand before Jesus, you still gotta answer for what your original church has against you.

Yeah, you’re gonna need better proof texts.

If the reason you’re misquoting Matthew 18.20 is because you’re hoping to make the case we Christians need to pray together, sorry: It’s not your best proof text. Prayer groups can be good things, but God never made group prayer mandatory, and actually doesn’t care whether we hold prayer groups or pray en masse. It’s nice when an entire nation of believers agree in prayer, but really God prefers we as individuals pray—and mean it, instead of hypocritically pretending there’s consensus.

Neither does God promise group prayer is more effective than solitary prayer. ’Cause it’s actually not. You wanna be heard? You pray righteously. Jm 5.16 He’s not more apt to hear us when we’re in bunches; he’s more apt to hear us when we strive for a proper understanding and relationship with him. When we take him for granted—especially when we assume we’ll be heard because of our greater numbers, as if God can be swayed by mobs—he’s far more likely to not be there, and have nothing to do with our sinful, self-serving prayer groups.

No I’m not knocking prayer groups. They’re great at teaching us to pray better, pray in public better, confirm the Holy Spirit is answering us, or confirm we’re on the right track. Go join one. But don’t assume just because two or three are gathered in Jesus’s name for prayer, you’re gonna get what you pray for because Jesus is listening. God’s always listening. Now give him something worth listening to.

Likewise with those Christians who think their kaffeeklatsch counts as church because Jesus is in their midst. He isn’t necessarily, ’cause it doesn’t necessarily.

It’s not a valid church if you can’t worship freely. If the coffeeshop manager has to tell you to stop singing ’cause it’s bothering the other customers; if you can’t do sacraments like, say, hold a baptism; if you simply don’t have the room to bring in new people; if you don’t meet regularly and frequently: You’re not a church. Now yeah, if you do practice these things in your small groups, fine, you’re a church. But most small groups never get that organized, and the justification, “I don’t need church; I got my group” is usually a rubbish attempt to avoid accountability.

Just go to church, wouldya? Jesus doesn’t wanna hang with rebels and phonies.

Anyway, you can see how our ideas of God go askew when we take this verse out of context. So let’s not.