“Come to the prayer meeting this Wednesday. Even if there’s only two or three of us, Jesus will be with us.” This is the usual line to persuade church members to attend its sparsely-attended prayer meetings. It is based on Matthew 18:20, where Jesus says to his disciples, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” However, is Jesus talking about a prayer meeting, a Bible study fellowship, or even a pre-game group prayer in the locker room? No, and here are three reasons why:
1. The verse is about exercising church discipline. As with many other texts, many Christians lift this verse off its context in Matthew 18:15-20. The passage is introduced in the beginning of verse 15, “If your brother sins against you…” So Jesus is talking about resolving church discipline cases, not about any church event. He outlines various orderly steps to be taken in exercising church discipline.
First,“go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (verse 15). Second, “if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (verse 16). Here, Jesus refers to the law of Moses, “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness” (Deut 17:6; see also 1 Tim 5:19). These first two steps involve only the affected parties plus the two or three witnesses.
2. The verse is about two or three (or more) elders meeting under Christ’s authority. The next step goes farther, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (verse 17). By “telling it to the church,” is Jesus commanding that at this point, the church shame the offender (and his family) by bringing him and his sin before the congregation? Not at all. Rather, in the Bible, the two parties and the witnesses are brought to the elders for adjudication. This was the procedure for judging cases in the Old Testament (Deut 31:28) and later in the synagogues. In the churches, there were also elders who are tasked to do this. Paul instructs Titus, the pastor in Crete, “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Tit 3:10-11; see also Acts 20:28; 1Tim 3:1; Heb 13:17; 1Pet 5:1-2).
And the final step is excommunication, or placing the offender under church discipline, “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (verse 17; see also 1 Cor 5:5; 2Thess 3:14, 15). Here is where the matter is brought before the whole congregation,“As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim 5:20).
The decision of the elders is not spurious, or to be taken lightly, for it comes with the authority of Christ,“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (verse 18). The apostles, and later, pastors and elders, are given authority by Christ to admit or prevent a person to church membership (see also John 20:23). Jesus reiterates this authority delegated to the elders in verse 19, “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” The decisions of pastors and elders are ratified in the heavenly Supreme Court.
This is why Jesus says in the next verse,“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Together with his Father in heaven, he also backs up the decisions of the elders regarding church discipline.
3. Praying alone does not exclude Jesus. Our prayers, whether we are alone, or in a small group of two or three, or in a whole congregation, are heard by God according to his will.
So next time you hear someone quote Matthew 18:20 in your prayer meeting or Bible study or even worship service, remind him that you are not elders judging a church discipline case.