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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!”
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.