While I am interning at my church, one of our pastors is providing some church-based training in addition to the seminary training I’ll receive. I have created a vitae page that chronicles this training, and I’ve added a few papers I’ve written in the first couple months of the internship.
Out of all my pet peeves when it comes to verses taken out of context, Matthew 18:20 ranks at the top. The verse says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”
Let me tell you what it does not mean. It does not mean that Jesus is more present or more gracious when a group gathers for prayer. If you believe that, you 1) have never read the passage, and 2) are wrong.
Here’s what the verse says in its full context, Matthew 18:15-20 in the English Standard Version:
“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. 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. 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. 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Jesus is teaching his disciples about church discipline. In the context, verse 20 means that when Jesus’ disciples agree on a matter of church discipline concerning an unrepentant church member, Jesus will be divinely present among them as they seek Christ-like unity and wisdom in making their decision.
That’s what the verse means. Plain and simple. So the next time the big-haired church lady with a tambourine tries to guilt you into showing up at the 5 am prayer time by quoting Matthew 18:20, you’ll know how to (lovingly) respond.