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Out of Context: Matthew 18:20 – Where Two or More Are Gathered

carpool_sign_500To continue our series looking at commonly taken out of context verses, I wanted to take aim at one of the most famous of them all, Matthew 18:20.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Typically, I’ve heard it quoted in church services by pastors and worship leaders praying in front of the congregation: “Lord, thank you so much that You are here with us right now as we worship. Your Word says, ‘Where two or more are gathered, there I am also.’ We have at least three hundred here just to be safe, so we know for sure you’re here.” I’ve also heard it in small prayer meetings: “God we know you can hear our prayers right now because Sebastian and Helga are praying with me.”

It’s used as an encouragement to the others listening that God approves of their worship. We know something really extra-special and spiritual is going down because God is actually here with us.

I’m definitely not innocent in my use of this verse. This verse is so commonly used that it’s become another prayer-ism that people naturally say along with “Heavenly Father,” “Place a hedge of protection,” “Bless this food to our bodies” (Because you know, of course, nutrients only travel through your bloodstream if you pray—especially fast-food), and “In Jesus’ name.” Sometimes we don’t even think about it. We just say it.

This is a public service announcement to not take all our Christian-ese as given truth. We need to think through what we say and do in the Christian life, even if it’s been said or done by pastors, and see if what we’re doing is actually founded on the Bible. If it is, then that’s great! If not, then we need to reevaluate our spiritual habits.

(1 + 2 = God) is an equation we really don’t need.

THE CONTEXT

Here’s the context to Matthew 18:20. It’s a little long, but stick with me.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But 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. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 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. 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Jesus here is teaching His disciples how things are to work in His kingdom, in His church. He has just finished teaching the disciples about true greatness (18:1-6), how to fight sin (18:7-9), and God’s heart for the lost (18:10-14). Then in verse 15 (our context), Jesus transitions to talk about how we deal with others who sin against us. Justice is not found in taking matters into our own hands but in an orderly system of checks and balances, and in restoration. Jesus gives the disciples four steps to follow in such a situation.

1. Talk about it

Jesus tells His disciples that if they’ve been wronged by someone else in the church, first and foremost they are supposed to confront that person one-on-one (18:15). Not gossip. Not put passive-aggressive statuses on Facebook. Lovingly face-to-face. The goal in all of this is restoration and redemption.

2. Take one or two witnesses with you

If for some reason the perpetrator does not believe you or is not sorry for their sin, you must take one or two people to again confront them (18:16). This shows the person proof that the accusations are not the result of a grudge but in reality seen by multiple people. Jesus says, “every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (18:16). Does that number sound familiar?

3. Have the leadership confront them

If the perpetrator again rejects your loving correction, Jesus says you and the witnesses are to bring it before the “church” (18:17). I don’t have time to explain it all, but I take this to mean the church leadership and not the entire congregation. Hopefully having all the pastors confront the person will make them see the severity of their sin.

4. Send them out of the church

If they still won’t repent, even after multiple confrontations, the church is to send the person out because they are willfully rebelling against God’s Word (18:17). They will bring others down if you don’t (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Timothy 2:16-19; Titus 3:10-11).

Then Jesus ends this sermonette with a reassurance, “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. 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” (18:18-19). He’s saying, if you go through this process correctly then God agrees with you. This is encouraging because proper church discipline is not a fun deal for anyone.

As a part of His encouragement Jesus ends saying, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (18:20). Remember that number? It’s the same amount of witnesses needed to properly confront a person in sin. Jesus isn’t saying you need two or three people praying to Him to have Him present. Jesus is encouraging believers that if they go through this process of church discipline properly then He supports their decision.

It’s almost hilarious how different this is from the common misinterpretation of this verse.

IMPLICATIONS

So, is Jesus present when two or more gather in His name? Yes.

He is also present when only one gathers in His name. Or none. God is always with you (Psalm 139) and you can call out to Him at anytime or anyplace. He wants you to. He’s not waiting for a magical number of people to appear.

If that were the case, then what do you do if you have two people gathered but one secretly and nefariously has not gathered in Jesus’ name? Is fellowship broken? No.

Instead, we can come to Jesus at any time, knowing that He is ready and excited to hear from us.

Other Out of Context posts:
Philippians 4:13 – Can I do all things through Christ?
How to take a verse out of context

The Pastor: Thoughts on Congregation and Church

I have been slowly plodding through the memoir of Eugene Peterson (the man responsible for The Message paraphrase of the Bible), entitled The Pastor.

Think what you will of Eugene Peterson (he is sometimes too ecumenical for my tastes) or The Message (more of a commentary than an actual translation of the Bible) but this is a pretty good book so far (I am halfway through it).

There are a few criticisms but I will save those for when I finish the book.

What I really appreciate are Eugene’s insights on congregation and the church. Eugene and I are both people who easily gets caught up in the academic and intellectual side of ministry and theology. We have to really try hard to remember that we are in the “people business” to quote Michael Scott, and Eugene’s openness about that struggle has helped me immensely.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts regarding this:

I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls—immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. (7)

Congregation is composed of people, who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them. A church can never be reduced to a place where goods and services are exchanged. It must never be a place where a person is labeled. It can never be a place where gossip is perpetuated. Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, in Jesus’s name. A place where dignity is conferred. (40)

The life of David that comprised prayer and adultery and murder could be written and told as a gospel story, no one in my congregation would be written off. For me, my congregation would become a work-in-progress—a novel in which everyone and everything is connected in a salvation story in which Jesus has the last word. (59-60)

Everything that I had imagined or expected in the formation of church was wrong. I had a lot of remedial learning ahead of me. (106)

Church is a core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not that kingdom complete, but it is that kingdom. It had taken me a long time, with considerable help from wise Christians, both dead and alive, to come to this understanding of church: a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God. (110)

This is also part of the church as story. Not everyone wants to be in the story if she (or he) doesn’t have a starring role. (121)

The people who made up my congregation had plenty of problems and more than enough inadequacies, but congregation is not defined by its collective problems. Congregation is a company of people who are defined by their creation in the image of God, living souls, whether they know it or not. They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered…And my work is not to fix people. It is to lead people in the worship of God and to lead them in living a holy life. (136-137)

The Question of Authority

I live in a town stuck in the 60’s and 70’s.  If anyone has ever called Eugene, Oregon a hippie town it would be an understatement. The town’s identity formed during that time-period influenced by the University of Oregon and the likes of Ken Kesey and Steve Prefontaine. Afterwards the people never left town or the 20th century. In many ways, the rest of the country has remained in the days of drugs and disco too.

Viva La Revolución

Under the shadows of the Vietnam War, the JFK assassination, the Cold War and Watergate arose a social revolution. Those in authority were deemed responsible for the rampant materialism and corruption of the Western world. Standards and inhibitions were cast aside like a broken bongo drum and up rose a new morality—free love, free living, and free experimentation that was free from “the Man,” and free from God.

While the tassels, leather vests, bell-bottoms, big hair and VW buses have now left most of the US except Eugene, our country’s mindset remains unchanged.

Are we asking the right questions?

The popular bumper sticker of the 70’s ordering its readers to “Question Authority” is still riding on many cars. A quick scan of television channels will yield pictures of clueless parents, students rallying against teachers and principals, athletes arguing with coaches, employees sticking it to their bosses, and revolutionaries upending governments.

You can be independent, you can do what you want and no one can tell you otherwise.

The Question of Authority

What does the Bible have to say about authority?

The Bible pictures the Christian life as one under authority and that ultimate authority belongs to the Lord (2 Chronicles 20:6; Psalm 115:3; Isaiah 46:10).

Lucifer’s attempt to begin his own “social revolution” and his failure to respect God’s authority sent him crashing out of heaven faster than the USS Enterprise at warp speed (Isaiah 14:12-17; Ezekiel 28:11-17). Herod’s willingness to be called a god made him worm food (Acts 12:20-23). Christians would do well to not try and assert themselves over God’s authority.

A popular idea in the church, especially among young men, is that they need no authority in their life other than God. It is a holy version of Batman and Robin (Adam West version)—them and Jesus against the world. I have watched many of these believers beat their chests against the church and the government, giving loud criticisms with no real solutions.

The reality is that believers who are unwilling to submit to the authorities God has placed over their lives are therefore unwilling to submit to God (Romans 13:2).

While God is the ultimate authority, the Bible also reveals that Christian’s are to submit to other authorities too. Those who refuse to submit to authority are not humble but are considered prideful (1 Peter 5:5-6). Those who want authority must first learn to be under it (Matthew 20:25-28).

Government, Church, Family

The New Testament authors believed that all human authority has been given by God (John 19:11; Romans 13:1). The authorities the Bible calls Christians to submit to are traditionally described as three main institutions: government, church, and family.

The notion that God established the government may be the hardest for most to swallow. Scandal has ravaged the United States government in ridiculous and novel fashion as of late. Power plays, self-aggrandizing speeches, and congressional dysfunction seem to be the norm. How could God expect any self-respecting human to place themselves under such a flawed organization? Does anyone actually follow the speed limit and pay their taxes?

The government that the believers of the first century were under makes ours look as innocent as the von Trapp family. Nero, the emperor of Rome, lived a debauched lifestyle. It is even rumored that to make room for a new palace, he set fire to Rome. He blamed the Christians for the fire and attempted to systematically exterminate every believer. It is this emperor Paul calls his Roman readers to be subject to (13:1). It might not kill us to pay our taxes.

In spite of the potential for its own slew of scandals, the Church—specifically the church leadership—also retains authority over believers from God. Paul informs the elders of Ephesus that it was the Holy Spirit who placed them in leadership over the church of God (Acts 20:28).

It is popular today to criticize church leaders, to tell them that they have lost sight of Christ and that we are here to put them back on track.

Instead, the Bible states that because a church leader’s authority comes from God, believers are to respect and obey them (1 Thessalonians 5:12; Hebrews 13:17). Pastors, in turn, are not to use this authority to dominate other believers but shepherd them (1 Peter 5:2-3).

The authority of a parent is so important to the Lord that He orders respect for mother and father in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16). Now, I have heard many a disgruntled teenager proclaim that they respect their parents but that does not mean they need to obey them, as if some divine loophole was discovered. Paul obliterates such an excuse when he equates obedience with respect (Ephesians 6:1-2). Like it or not, you need to do the dishes.

Civil Disobedience

Of course, the inevitable question comes, “Is there a time when it is ok to disobey authority?”

Yes.

It is right and good to disobey authority that commands you to disobey God’s authority. The book of Daniel is a shining example of civil disobedience. Unwilling to worship idols, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to bend a knee to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue (3:1-30). Unwilling to stop communing with his Lord, Daniel violated King Darius’ prohibition of prayer (6:1-28). See also the book of Acts.

God’s authority must be preeminent in our lives.  Part of placing ourselves under that authority is respecting and obeying the men and women He has placed in authority over us.

Ultimately, the Bible states, submitting to authority is to our benefit in so far as it does not question God’s authority (Hebrews 13:17). Who would question helping themselves?