For where two or three are gathered…

One of the most abused verses in missional circles is Matt 18:20 KJV: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

It’s an important illustration of why context is so important and why decontextualized readings can be so misleading. Often this verse is trotted out in discussions about reimagining church. “You know, two or three gathered in a coffee shop could be church!”

Really?! I am all for reimagining church, but let’s take scriptural guidance a little more seriously please. Let’s look at the context, let’s look at the full dialogue. Here’s the full text of Matt 18:15-20, this time from the NIV (for ease of reading):

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But 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.’ If 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.

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

“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. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”

When the full text is read it becomes clear that the context is one of church conflict. It’s not about missional worship gatherings it’s about conflict resolution gatherings. It outlines a staged process of escalation. First, don’t gossip or back stab but go directly to the person you have a disagreement with. Second, if you can’t resolve the disagreement between you, get some elders to mediate. Thirdly, if all else fails, the community as a whole decides. If the infraction is serious enough and if there is no resolution, it’s time to admit the community bond is broken. But lest this sound too harsh, again think context. Take note of how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors.

So the final verse, what’s that all about? It’s an affirmation that where you can resolve conflicts at the early stage, without embroiling the whole church, God is with that. By implication, the two or three gathered are not the whole church. So however much we’d like it Matt 18:20 cannot function as a church formation procedure. Wherever we get our church formation theology from, here not be the place.

14 thoughts on “For where two or three are gathered…

  1. Dear my Brother,
    I think you missing an important part of your context and that is what comes after this verse. Webster defines “context”: the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning. The word surround does not mean what is only before but also what comes after the text. I agree this text is misused often in the form of gathering for worship. But if you look at the next the verse; Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” if you consider this in your context then you have to know forgiveness is part of the context.
    This entire chapter points out how important God’s children are to Him and how he does not want anyone to cause them to sin or that one should sin against the other and if he does v20 If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over”. you have one him over there is no more separation between the brothers or believers. The two have come together in one and God will be in their presence.When two or three are gathered in my name I am with them.
    Then Peter says how many time shall I forgive?
    Thank you Brother for your love of the Lord. I pray you will always continue to grown in the faith.
    Jeff

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  2. Jeff, not sure where you’re coming from. My primary claim here is “Matt 18:20 cannot function as a church formation procedure”. Are you dusagreeing with this and suggesting it can function as a church planting guideline, or are you ignoring the main question and introducing a new one. If the latter I heartily agree that forgiveness is foundational to the process. But for reconciliation to occur sin must be acknowledged and not mrerly brushed over.

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  3. Where two or three are gathered ; Matthew chapter 18;20, says, For where ever two or three are gathered ( drawn together as My followers ) in My name , there I AM in the midst of them. Reference ; Exodus 3; 14, And God said to Moses , I AM WHO I AM and WHAT I AM and I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE ; and He said , You shall say this to the Israelites; I AM has sent me to you.
    God says He is I AM , and in Matthew chapter 18; 20, read again, Jesus speaks ” For where ever two or three are gathered together as My followers in My name , there I AM in the midst of them.
    Jesus does not mention anything here about church, He is speaking of His followers.
    He says, where ever two or three are gathered together, there I Am in their midst.
    This clearly says, Jesus is in our midst, where ever we gather together to pray.
    Verse 19; tells us,Again I tell you , if two of you on earth agree together about whatever , anything and everything they may ask, it will come to pass , and be done for them by My Father in heaven.
    This tells me, if two or three on earth do agree on any thing that we may pray about, Jesus will be in our very midst, and God the Father will do what we ask of Him .
    This does not mention church, church is a human made building, where people gather on Sunday. A body of believers anywhere is a church, because Jesus lives inside of us.
    I believe when one or two of my friends gather and agree to pray for some one, Jesus is in our midst, God hears our prayer .

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  4. Jeanette, while I think gathering in prayer with two or three others is a wonderful expression of faith, do you really think Jesus is speaking on prayer in general here? I would suggest God hears our prayers even when we’re alone. For I doubt Jesus would have elsewhere recommended praying in secret, as a discipline for his disciples, if he expected prayer without two or three was bound to be ineffective. I have to conclude therefore, that whatever his intention here, it is isn’t to lay down instructions for prayer in general. The context would suggest his comments were more specifically focussed on discipline within the community of disciples, on how to challenge inappropriate behaviour in a loving way, with the aim of reconciliation. Witnesses, in this context, is important. This is about seeking God’s guidance in a far more specific situation. In general I think we have far more latitude.
    Also, I have to challenge the comment that a “church is a human made building”. That may be what the word has come to mean to many people today, but it is not what it meant to the author of this gospel. Indeed, in those days there were no buildings, so the word could not have meant what did not then exist. It’s important that we uncover the original meaning, which was church as people who had mutually committed their lives to God and one another. So I sort of agree and disagree with you here. Buildings are irrelevant, I agree, but that has nothing to do with what I’m here meaning by the word “church”. By saying the church is more than two or three gathered I am not saying a building is required, I’m just saying more people are required. Why else then would Matt 18:15-20 have been written the way it has been?

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  5. Everyone who reads the Bible interprets it differently.
    God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. I think that this verse means that “if two or three people are gathered together in the Spirit of God,” God is present. Those who gather in the name of God gather in love. So, that verse means that although there may only be two or three people gathered together, the small number is insignificant because where there is LOVE there is GOD. GOD IS LOVE.

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  6. “Everyone who reads the Bible interprets it differently” This is true, we all read it different because we are all different, but attention to context limits what counts as plausible interpretations. If the bible is to function as a “window” to God, rather than a “mirror” reflecting the reader, then I should think it’s counter productive to willfully read texts out of context. In this case the context is explicitly one of church discipline, the text itself tells us quite plainly, so we should at lead factor this in as we interpret “if two or three people are gathered together”. I completely agree that “those who gather in the name of God gather in love” but to interpret Matt 18:15-20 that way is to read such theology into it rather than out of it. Which I find completely unnecessary, as there are other verses that say this far more explicitly (John’s letters for example). Saying Matt 18:15-20 relates to church discipline does not deny God is love. On the contrary, if we hold both Matt and John in tension we get to see how disciple can be applied more lovingly and Godlike.

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  7. The verses you speak of, Matt 18:15-20, were also written to address bickering back and forth within the church. Something seems to be happening here. God is good.

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  8. Greg, I’m unclear why you use the word “also”, for this is precisely what I’ve been trying to demonstrate throughout the thread: that the passage was written to resolve conflicts within community. You’re not introducing an additional point, it’s the point. I know its ironic that what is in dispute is whether the passage is about dispute resolution, but there is additional irony here you know. By affirming the passage is about disputes, you’ve entered into the dispute even as you critique the dispute. We could catch ourselves in an infinite regression here!
    Backing up the truck though, are you sure all debate is bad? Looking at scripture holistically I get the impression that the New Testament writers value truth and love equally, for true reconciliation requires both. Truth without love is problematic, but so is love without truth. I don’t think Matt 18:15-20 is calling for the latter. Nor am I aiming for the former. The question is, I believe, can disputes be resolved constructively or destructively? I think Matt 18:15-20 is a procedure aimed at constructive outcomes. An interesting question this debate raises for me is, is it applicable for internet debates which are conducted beyond the confines of mutually committed community, and if so how, and if not what alternative procedures may apply? Personally I don’t think debate is bad as long as it’s kept civil. It’s been civil enough so far so I’m interested in what issues it brings up and we can mutually learn from it.

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  9. Frst of all when jesus is in th mist, th question become where is he, for jesus is a spirit,so ow can he be in th mist of people.

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  10. Book of Concord, Smallcald Articles Part III Article[4:] Concerning the Gospel
    We now want to return to the gospel, which gives guidance and help against sin in more than one way, because God is extravagantly rich in his grace: first, through the spoken word, in which the forgiveness of sins is preached to the whole world (which is the proper function of the gospel); second, through baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters. Matthew 18[:20*]: “Where two or three are gathered . . .”129
    Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 319.
    While the immediate context deals with church conflict, the broader context, starting right after Jesus sends Peter to fish for the Temple tax (Matt 17:27), answers the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Church conflict, by definition, can only happen in the context of the church. To minimize Christ’s presence solely to “dispute resolution” is to ignore Jesus’ promise that “I will never leave you nor forsake you” in Hebrews 13:5 and “I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” found in Matt 28:20. While people can misuse God’s promise, they can also limit it, as it seems that you have done here.
    Blessings!
    Delwyn X. Campbell

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  11. If anything, I see this passage, not as defining when Christ will be present, but as assuring us that He won’t flee from us due to our fleshly foolishness.

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  12. Wow,I never realized there were so many ways to take something out of context! I’ll restrict my comments (in context) to the idea that prayer is also a part of the context of this passage. So if your walking in the woods by yourself and a bear starts chasing you your prayers are not likely to be effective? In context, you’d better have a buddy with you being chased so your combined prayers for deliverance from the bear will be more effective? Plleeese!

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  13. I am not sure how a bear in the woods is relevant when I am saying the passage, in context, is about conflict resolution within the body of Christ. Whilst conflict with woodland creatures occur from time to time, generally we don’t consider them fellow disciples. As for solitary prayer, that is dealt with elsewhere in the New Testament.

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  14. What about healing physical pain. Jesus told us if we are true believers we will move mountains. If you are true and I am true, he is there and if I hold your hand, do you believe that in true faith he will heal you if asked. Some think if I do this it is bad. Why would Jesus tell me I could if he didn’t want me to. Kev

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