‘…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.’ Matthew 18:19f. (ESV)
It is not at all uncommon to hear the above verses mentioned as an encouragement to small local churches. If Christ is present when only two or three gather together in his name, so the argument goes, we can be assured Jesus is with us in a special way despite our small number. Alternatively, these verses may be used to encourage small prayer meetings or as a spur to others to be more active in corporate prayer. The reasoning is thus: you are missing out on the special presence of Jesus when you don’t come to the prayer meeting. Those who are there will experience Jesus’ presence in a different and special way compared to one’s personal prayer-time.
In an altogether more noxious and abusive way, some have distorted v19 to such an extent they offer to ‘join their faith with yours’ or ‘agree with you in faith’ so that we can demand whatever we want from the Lord. When ‘two of you agree on earth’, they reason, God is duty bound to grant us all the selfish desires of our heart because of these verses.
To be honest, leaving aside the pernicious abuses of v19, the common misreadings of v20 are not particularly dangerous. In truth, I have stood up and (erroneously) made such comments myself. However, such a reading is to miss the point of the passage altogether.
A brief glance at the context makes clear Jesus is speaking of church discipline; namely, how to deal with a believer (or supposed believer) in sin. Most people agree that vv15-17 outline the subsequent steps in proper church discipline. Verse 18 then says ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’. This is Jesus giving the church immense authority. In other words, when church discipline is enacted properly, upon biblical grounds, God himself approves the decision and it is binding in his eyes.
This then brings us to our verses in question. Verse 19 is a restatement of the promise in v18, as indicated by the word ‘again’. Where two or three agree – on biblical grounds – concerning church discipline, God ratifies and agrees with the decision. Verse 20 is a logical extension of the statement in v19. Namely, where church discipline has been enacted properly, God agrees with, and ratifies, the decision whilst Jesus guides (by his Spirit) and validates it. In other words, when the church enacts discipline properly, upon biblical grounds, it is as though Christ himself has delivered the verdict.
There is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest that when two Christians get together in Jesus’ name, he is somehow more present than when they are apart. Indeed, Jesus himself says in Mt. 28:20 ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’, despite his imminent going away. This is surely best explained by reference to the nature of the trinity i.e. Jesus is forever with us by the Spirit he gives us. How can the Spirit be any more present with us than when he has taken up residence in our hearts?
Why, then, do so many Christians try to divorce this text from its immediate context? As I said, I have been guilty of this error. Despite my having delivered an otherwise accurate exegesis of the passage (as far as I’m currently aware), and even having noted the immediate context and application of vv19-20 correctly, I still insisted on the special presence of Christ in the gathered meeting of the church. For me, it was simply sloppy exegesis prompted by tradition – I had always been fed the line and it worked its way into my application.
Perhaps for others it is what seems to be a “nice thought”. The view seems good – Christ is present when believers meet ergo this is a good spur to not forsake meeting together. Sadly, nice though the thought may be, it ignores Christ’s ongoing presence with us and rides roughshod over the obvious context.
Whatever the reason – and some of them are laudable, no doubt – we probably err to suggest these verses relate specifically to the gathered meeting of believers.
*Reformed blogger, Tim Challies, made much the same argument in reference to these verses c. 10 years ago. His article can be accessed here.