‘Where Two or More are Gathered’ Doesn’t Make a Church

‘Where Two or More are Gathered’ Doesn’t Make a Church March 14, 2018

I can’t recall the number of times I’ve heard the phrase Where two or more are gathered in my name in a conversation referring to what constitutes a church. Matthew 18:20, though widely quoted, is just as widely misunderstood simply because people wish to divorce this from the larger context of the passage. The context has everything to do with how the church operates – but not in the sense it is often conveyed.

What people want this verse to say is that any time two or more Christians are gathered, there’s a church, because Jesus is in their midst. On a closer examination of the whole passage, we find this text to specifically deal with the practice of church discipline.

The passage from Matthew 18:15-20 reads:

If your brother sins against you, go and confront him privately. 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, regard him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, 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 truly that if two of you on the earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them.”

The first clue we have to understanding this verse comes with the preposition “for” at the beginning of verse 20. As an interpretive principle, the preposition can be used in many different ways – but as a general rule, you will do just fine inserting “for this reason” when you see the word “for” in many cases. The natural question arises: for what reason? All this should do is train us to look to the text and see what the biblical author is speaking to. In this case, the preposition is explanatory. Secondly, this verse is not the main point of the passage, but it is subordinate to the main point, which is the often neglected practice of church discipline.

The structure of discipline is quite simple:

  1. If a believer sins against you, confront them privately. If he repents and seeks forgiveness, there is nothing more to do. The first stage of church discipline is over and you can both move on with your lives. If they do not repent, the individual moves to stage two discipline.
  2. If this individual does not repent and seek forgiveness, take one or two other people who can account for the sin of this believer. If they can faithfully bring you to the text to show it isn’t sin, the process is over and the person accused of sin is exonerated. If they agree this is sin and have a valid testimony of the offense, the confrontation must happen (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6, 19:15; Jn. 8:17; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). If this person repents, the second stage of church discipline is over and you can all move on. If they still do not repent, the individual moves to stage three discipline.
  3. Once an individual reaches stage three discipline, they are brought before the entire church. The idea is that in being part of a covenant community, the unrepentant one professing Christ is brought to open shame for their sin. If they repent, they do not proceed to the final stage of church discipline. If they still refuse to repent, they move to the final stage of church discipline: excommunication.
  4. Excommunication is precisely what it sounds like: they are removed from the church on the basis of their unrepentance and they are not welcome within that community until they repent. They are not to be treated with contempt, but rather, “tough love” wherein they are not allowed to associate or participate in the blessing of being part of the local church. If they repent, they are to be welcomed back into the community with graciousness and love, and led down a path of re-establishment.

A Couple of Key Qualifiers

The simplicity of the discipline process does not necessarily transfer over into each and every situation. There are times where the sin is so heinous that the level of discipline must be elevated, and in many cases, the individual must be brought to the proper authorities. What this brings to the table is a sense of uniqueness to each case, yet ultimately, the application of this process remains much the same.

The restoration process is what will end up being unique to the circumstances of the case and individual. A person who has been unfaithful to their spouse will not undergo the same restoration process as an individual who habitually lies. Secondly, it must be stated that restoration does not necessitate restoration to one’s former role. In the case of pastors and elders, that becomes all the more strict on the basis of their qualifications – yet in general laity this principle remains. If a church member repents of stealing from the offering plate, it would be unwise to have them handle money in the church.

In similar thought, the restoration process will vary in length of time. Depending on the nature of the offense, the longevity of the practice, and the role (i.e. elder), this process can and should often be a lengthy period of time. A person demonstrating true repentance will continue in genuine repentance, yet they will also likely continue to stumble as they put this sin to death. Regardless of all the peculiarities of this process, substantial evidence for repentance must be evident, which means there will be a period of examination.

Obviously, this process must be done in accordance with biblical precedent. The steps outlined and criteria for sin must be heeded when undergoing church discipline. Nothing does more damage than a church that neglects to hold an individual culpable for their sins, or holds them culpable for things that are not sinful. If a church does not exercise church discipline, or exercises it with a zeal that would make the pre-converted Paul blush with envy, it will not be for the edification of the body.

God Takes Sin Seriously

Excommunication is the last step in this process for a reason, in that it is severe, and geared to lead the sinner to see the ramification of their sins. The Western church has an especially difficult job seeing this – but the whole of the New Testament highlights the importance of the unity of the Body of Christ. We often think in individualistic terms; because of this, we tend to see sin as a private affair – but this simply isn’t the case. Your sin seeps into the lives of the corporate body and destroys the unity thereof.

The practice of excommunication mirrors that of the OT where the unrepentant one was cast outside of the camp and entirely cut off from the people of God. They were not provided for, nor did they maintain fellowship with anyone inside the camp. They chose sin and separation, therefore, they were to feel the full consequences of this. Similarly, the heir of the New Covenant is to be utterly cut off from the Body of Christ when they continue to walk in sin rather than holiness. God doesn’t wink at sin, therefore, we are not to do so either.

When someone reaches this final stage of discipline, it is a pronouncement of judgment rendered upon the individual that effectively cuts them off from the benefits and blessing of God’s people. They have, by virtue of their unrepentance, demonstrated they are more in love with their sin rather than their Savior. Think of the man in 1 Cor. 5:13, who upon unrepentance in the act of incest with his stepmother, was cast out. Yet this had a specific purpose: he was to be handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit might be saved (1 Cor. 5:5).

Yet this process also highlights another important purpose, in that by casting the unrepentant one out of our midst, we preserve the unity and purity of the church in the bonds of holiness. This is precisely what Paul deals with in the context of the incestuous relationship. The Corinthians, rather than lament over the damage of this man’s sin, boasted of their tolerance and inclusion and thereby, infected the whole congregation (1 Cor. 5:6-8). Notice Paul’s firm language though as he corrects this notion; there is to be zero tolerance in associating with such a person (1 Cor. 5:9-13). Paul says we are not to even eat with them (v. 11).

For these reasons, we don’t go and get coffee with the unrepentant one as if there are no substantial issues at hand. We don’t minimize or side-skirt the issue. We must be willing to steer things back to the necessity of repentance because what has transpired is a severe judgement wherein condemnation rests upon them. In essence, when church discipline is exercised properly, it is for the good of the individual and the corporate body. If the person demonstrates fruit bearing with repentance (Eph. 5:8-9), we are to welcome them with forgiveness and even comfort them (2 Cor. 2:5-11).

So What Does “for where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them” Mean?

The clauses from verses Matthew 18:18-20 are all subordinate to the main imperatives of the passage outlined in each step of the disciplinary process. The reason being that we find a conditional clause when Christ said that if you shall bind [the one in sin] on earth, so too will it be done in heaven (for you Greek nerds, it is the preposition ἐάν + the subjunctive δήσητε). The second conditional clause speaks of the church “loosing” the one in sin, which will likewise effectively “loose” the person in heaven (again, the preposition ἐάν + the subjunctive λύσητε).

Binding and loosing is not some mystical experience, but a measure in which judgment and forgiveness, through the authority granted to the church, is exercised. This statement is then followed by another conditional clause wherein Christ reaffirms His previous statement to say that whenever two are gathered in agreement, this process of “binding” and “loosing” will be done by the Father (referring back to this disciplinary process: think of the establishment of multiple witnesses within the covenant community in vv. 16-17). But why?

Jesus says, “For this reason: for where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them.” Again, the conjunction “for” is explanatory, giving the reason why the Father would even consider such a request from the church to “bind” or “loose” an individual to or from this judgment.

What this demonstrates to us is twofold:

1.) The church does have authority over individual members within the congregation, and therefore, has the authority to cast them out on the basis of unrepentance. God the Father will actively carry out this judgment in heaven on the basis of Christ’s presence in the midst of the disciplinary process. What this means is that when church discipline is exercised appropriately, in accordance with Scripture, Christ is a present witness to the offender’s sin (see also 1 Cor. 5:4). Christ Himself said this is a present reality without reference to completion at the beginning of vv. 18-19 and His witness before the Father is wholly accepted.

2.) This is not a model for building an ecclesiology, but a model for church discipline. While it coincides with a proper understanding of ecclesiology – it is not dictating that when you have two Christians together in the same room, it is a bonafide church. The church has structure to it, and this includes a plurality of elders, a specific makeup and quality to it, and much more. It may be a gathering of church members, but two people do not constitute an ecclesial body. Moreover, the presence of Christ is not limited to two Christians getting together; Christ does not remorsefully look upon the individual Christian and say, “Boy, I hope another Christian comes along so I can be present with them. In the meantime, good luck little guy!”

Conclusion

This verse is often used by people to support the notion that they can excuse themselves from the gathering of God’s people at a church, and still remain part of the church. The reality is that this passage shows precisely the opposite of this, in that Christ advocates the one removed from the body of believers is cut off from the blessing and benefits of that body. If one is cut off from the body, they are also cut off from the Head of that body. Thus, it stands to reason that using such an argument is not only incredibly faulty, but presumptuously assumes you can love Christ and not be part of His church. This simply is not so.

We need to be a people that examine the Scriptures thoroughly to not only ensure we know what the Scriptures teach, but actually put that teaching into practice. A church that avoids confrontation and disciplining its members is not a church, nor is the one that abuses its members to no avail. The process of discipline is a healthy barometer for any church, as it reveals much about their theology and practice. If a church is to be consistent with the teaching of Christ, they will walk faithfully in these commands and deal with sin in their midst.

Ultimately though, we must be able to understand the true nature of the church. When people say, “Where two or more are gathered in my name” they almost never use it correctly. It certainly doesn’t mean that when two Christians are together they magically form a church. A church is far more wondrously beautiful than a meeting of two like-minded Christians. It is a conglomerate of sinners who have relatively nothing in common but the salvation afforded to them through Christ, gathering together on a weekly basis to worship their Savior, and serve one another through their unique giftedness.

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  • Iain Lovejoy

    This is an example of ignoring what the Bible says because you want it to mean something else.
    You completely ignore v19 as if it wasn’t there. Verse 19 says that if two people are in agreement God will answer their prayers, and v20 explains v19, not verses 15-18. It is interesting that although using the Berean Study Bible translation you have removed the paragraph divisions in that translation that make this clear.
    Also, while this is a common understanding, vv15-17 actually fit very poorly a description of church discipline, since the entire passage repeatedly refers to “you” in the singular. It says if one person has been wronged by another person he should confront him privately (v 15) then take along 2 or 3 people to support him, (v 16) then take it to the “assembly / meeting” (not “church”, of which more later) and if he still won’t listen, the wronged person themselves is instructed to treat he who wronged him as a “foreigner (not ‘pagan’) or tax collector”. The “you” is again singular, not plural, and Jesus is saying that if you can’t resolve your quarrel by taking it to the assembled community, give it up and treat the wrong as if one done by a Roman or one of their lackeys (i.e. as if there were nothing that could be done about it). There is nothing here about collective action expelling someone from the church.
    That much is clear from any translation. If we are going to go all nerdily Greek, what verse 18 means is actually extremely difficult to determine. Firstly, you re-write the verse when you talk about binding and loosing the “one who sinned” since the Greek (and indeed the very translation you are using) says “whatever” (plural) is bound or loosed, so it is not a person but things which are either “bound” or “loosed” (in the context presumably wrongs done). Also, which is not reflected in the translation used, “bound” and “loosed” are perfect passive participles, meaning, according to my Greek grammar, the binding and loosing have taken place prior to the action of the main verb I.e. Jesus is saying anything “bound” on earth will subsequently be found to have been “bound” in heaven, and anything “loosed” on earth will be subsequently found to have been “loosed” in heaven. This simply makes no sense as a reference to God endorsing human judgments on sinners, but makes perfect sense as our being let off in heaven for what we let off on earth, and not let off for that we don’t. This also matches the rest of Jesus’s teaching, the correct understanding of verse 17 as above and explains Peter’s subsequent question to Jesus in verse 21 as to how often a brother should be forgiven, and Jesus’s answer, which otherwise make no sense if the previous verses are about (as you maintain) not forgiving sins.
    (It is not strictly relevant, but verse 19 is also a bit odd, in that the Greek “panta pragmatos” which literally means “every matter”, or indeed, since pragmatos is singular, “every single matter”, is almost invariably rendered “any matter” or “anything”. “Whatever they ask for” (rendered “you ask for” in the translation you use for some reason”) may be attached to either the preceding of succeeding phrase, so you could equally (and arguably more accurately) read v19 “if two of you on the earth were in agreement about every single thing, whatever they asked for would be done for them by my Father in heaven.” – which fits v20 better.)
    Your point re the “church” is simply wrong. The very word “church” is post-Biblical. The Greek word poorly rendered as “church”, ekklesias, just means any kind of assembly or gathering, even just a spontaneous assembling of a crowd. Any gathering of people, even 2 or 3, is an “ekklesias” and the first “churches” were precisely just groups of individuals gathering in someone’s home to meet, pray, eat together and hear and discuss the word.

    • Gilsongraybert

      I am not remotely surprised to see you uphold this. Albeit, it is consistent with your hermeneutic from what I’ve been able to piece together over the last year or so. It also makes sense why you tend to read in what you think I am saying as opposed to what I have actually said in many instances – save the sexual ethic.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        I am aware that I also read the Bible in a manner consistent with what I regard as its overall sense: everybody does. In this case, I read the passages which are difficult or ambiguous as being internally consistent within the chapter itself, in that the latter half deals with the forgiveness, not punishment, of sins.
        As I said, although I disagree, fair enough on reading vv15-17 as being about church discipline, since this is a common reading: I’ve said why I myself don’t think it fits this context. V18 is a tricky verse because of its grammar, so again, fair enough if you have a different reading, particularly since it is the more conventional one. What I object to is your distortion of vv19-20, which is unsupported by the text, or any traditional understanding of it, and this is consistent with your hermeneutic when reading the Bible, which seems often to be that every single verse, regardless of its actual sense, has to be wrenched around to support a specific narrow theological position.
        If you wanted to talk about church discipline, 1 Corinthians 5 does fit that context nicely, but vv19-20 here do not. (I should say, however, that there is nothing in 1 Corinthians 5 to say that the Corinthians are boasting of their tolerance in allowing the incestuous person to stay: it’s another one of those perfect passive participles, so the puffed-upness would seem to be related to having got him to join, so I rather read it as them having got themselves some kind of celebrity convert while ignoring his scandalous, public sin, something of course the church would never do now…)
        I actually agree with you, too, that there is really no substitute for joining a proper church (in the modern sense) but don’t agree with you in taking a Bible verse which clearly says a small gathering of two or three is a little “ekklesias” as a meeting in Jesus”s name and contorting it in to something else to artificially support the case.
        (BTW how do you square your injunction that Christians should not even have a cup of coffee with “sinners” with Mark 2:15-17?)

        • Gilsongraybert

          First, ekklesias is nowhere in this passage. It just isn’t present. You have the participle συνηγμένοι, but this doesn’t indicate it to be a church, but would be more accurately rendered as people gathering together (we can get into the intent of the function of the preposition εἰς – but again, no usage of this would define that gathering as the structural church laid out in the NT). A church has a specific structure and it is not simply a gathering of two or more Christians. You literally have to force the text to come away with what you are trying to say. Secondly, ekklesia doesn’t even always mean “church” when it is seen in a given passage. It often does, but to define the gloss the same way every time is an exegetical fallacy. Finally, I did not say one is to avoid sinners, but the unrepentant one professing Christ. Big difference there and if you can’t see that, I don’t believe I’ll the person able to help you.

          All of this to say, it is truly fascinating to me that you continue to try and be a corrective force in interpretation when you can’t even get something as basic as sexuality correct. You realize the irony of this, right? Especially when you say I am guilty of wrenching things out of context to fit a narrow theological position and it doesn’t fit a traditional understanding of the text. Listen, I’m just going to level with you: I don’t take you even remotely seriously. I am at the point of dismissing your comments as soon as I see them because I view you as more of a contrarian than anything. I may be wrong in that assumption, but at this point, you have to realize that over the year or so of you commenting on various posts and “correcting” my theology, I just haven’t placed even a little bit more respect in your opinion. In fact, it has lowered. I have plenty of people who disagree with me that I am willing to be corrected by, but you are not one of them. Call it arrogant, misguided, or whatever you wish. I have seen enough of your comments at this point to know you have just enough knowledge of Greek to be a heretic, and a matching hermeneutic to boot.

          • Iain Lovejoy

            I still read your articles from time to time because I am interested in Reformed theology and in particular how it uses (or misuses) the Bible to support its conclusions.
            I comment occasionally because I find drawing up a response a good way of ordering my thoughts on the passages cited and the interpretation put on them, and in case some readers might be interested in an alternative view.
            I don’t write in the expectation of a reply, or because I hope to change your view on anything, or have any expectation of any such change.
            You replied to my post so I responded as I thought you might be interested in a dialogue, but if you are not I have wasted my time and yours and I apologise.

    • summers-lad

      Your interpretation of v18 is new to me, although I see that Young’s Literal Translation agrees with the “..will be subsequently found to have been …”. I agree it makes no sense as a reference to God endorsing human judgments on sinners, and I would go slightly further in that it is also hard to see that it could apply to actions which we foolishly permit or needlessly prohibit. You seem to be saying that it means we will be judged as we ourselves have judged (compare Rom 2:1) – have I got you right, and is there more you would say about how this verse applies to us in a practical sense?

      • Iain Lovejoy

        It’s not my original idea that there is something screwy about the standard translation of v18, nor is it that the tense is “will have been”, but it is really only my best guess that what it does mean is that what we won’t let slide on earth won’t be let slide for us in heaven either. If I’m right, however, it does then exactly match the parable of the debtor Jesus tells a few verses later.
        It also ties in with “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in the Lord’s Prayer. If we forgive others’ sins, God will forgive ours.

  • ravitchn

    What is a church? A place where people who hardly believe in God meet others who hardly believe either and listen to a preacher or priest who also hardly believes — this is fellowship, group pressure designed to reinforce your very weak belief in the nonsense of Christianity.

  • summers-lad

    While the passage (and vv16-17 in particular) does address church discipline, I see the greater emphasis being on restoration – which is the purpose set out in v15, albeit it may not be achieved. But when there is agreement (including reconciliation), Jesus is present, which seems to me to be the main purpose and point of the passage, especially vv19-20.

  • paganmegan

    Whenever someone uses the term “church discipline” I always hear “inquisition.” Maybe it’s because, with the exception of confronting somebody one-on-one, most of this behavior would fit my definition of bullying. Taking two people to confront one (or, worse, forcing the one person to defend him or herself in front of the entire church), creates a power dynamic where it may be too intimidating to defend oneself, even if innocent. It’s like Jesus’ confrontation before Pilate: why bother to defend yourself if you know you’ve already been found guilty?

    Isn’t this why we have the laws that we do today? Innocent until proven guilty? A trial by one’s peers? You have the right to an attorney…

    The problem is the biblical approach is so culturally archaic that I doubt it’s all that successful today. I’ve even seen people post their excommunication letters online as a badge of courage, as if they had survived the Diet of Worms. Perhaps this is why the people I’ve known who’ve faced church discipline have generally left the church and never reconciled.

  • John Purssey

    Two points.

    1) The “wherever two are three are gathered in my name” may well be a counter to the contemporary Jewish understanding that 10 adult males are required for corporate worship in Judaism, and/or possibly against the background of a Jewish saying: “If two sit together and the words of the Torah are spoken between them, the Shekinah rests between them. Matthew does not restrict this to at least 10, nor to males or adults, and Matthew is emphasising that Jesus takes the place of the Law (Torah).

    2) The larger context is much larger than Matthew 15-20. Matthew provides us with five discourses of which Matthew 18 is one. He has very carefully structured this discourse to provide teaching on how to be a caring community:-

    a) The greatest disciples are those who are humble like a child. Welcome them. Vv 1-5

    b) Beware that you do not cause my children/little ones to stumble. Vv6-9

    c) Jesus’ is more concerned over His children/little ones that go astray than for the faithful Vv10-14

    d) A process for dealing with those that go astray (“against you” is not found in all manuscripts and may well be an emendation). Vv 15-20

    e) Peter asks how often the person is to be forgiven. In Rabbinic discussions it was sufficient to forgive your brother four times. Peter is extending this, but has yet to learn that you can set no limits on Christian forgiveness. Vv 21-22.

    f) A parable on the consequences of not forgiving (from your heart) Vv 23-3

    So, if we look at the full context of Ch 18 we find that the process (or rules) of discipline (that the audience of Matthew’s church may have been following) are of much less importance, and subservient to the message of forgiveness and the requirement of the church being a caring community, than the misreading of Vv15-20 out of context would lead us to believe.

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    “If one is cut off from the body one is also cut off from the head of the body.” Be careful ,you cannot extrapolate in this manner. Dont let your zeal carry you away! As christians cannot be cut off from Christ. Christ never leaves a true believer. He can grieve over a believer, but he will not cut him off.

  • Thank you, Grayson for pointing out the immediate context. Certainly the passage is not teaching that being part of a local church is not really needed. But I believe the last part of the passage is opening up a more inclusive principle than about just discipline, “Again, I tell you truly that if two of you on the earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them.” “Anything you ask for” is too broad a phrase to be limited to this circumstance. Jesus is opening up the subject here. Jesus is teaching he brings a special presence with a very small group of his disciples and this is helpful in this particular situation.
    Thank you John Purssey, for pointing out the greater context. I believe both immediate and greater contexts are important for understanding this passage. Let me point out another broad context on the subject. We see Jesus pulling Peter, James, and John out from the 12, in combination of two or three fairly often. The transfiguration is one instance, the garden of Gethsemane another. In the later, Jesus is deeply disappointed to find these brothers, in particular, asleep in his greatest time of need. A closeness can occur with three or four that is greater than with a larger group. Understanding, encouragement, correction, and restoration can thrive in this atmosphere. I’ve seen this work out in my own life. I find it a great help to have a spiritual review of my week with one or two brothers regularly. I highly recommend it.