As a Thursday series, I am posting verses from the Bible that are often quoted out of context, misused, and abused by those in our culture and church community. The Bible is God’s book, written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and recorded by the hand of human men over a lengthy period of approximately 1,500 years. Out of the totality of 66 books, many verses are difficult to explain and interpret. However, God did not leave His Word open for private interpretations. It is our tedious and humbling task of studying the Bible in such a way that we discover the single meaning of the text by uncovering the original author’s intent to his original audience.
Matthew 18:20 – For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Explanation of how this text is misused
Not long ago, I attended a church and the pastor called on someone to pray and the gentleman said, “Heavenly Father, your Word tells us that where two or more are gathered together in your name, you are in the midst of them….so we praise you and ask you to meet with us as we have gathered together to hear from your Word.” In our church culture, many pastors and church members misuse this verse of Scripture in the following ways:
1. Many people quote this text as a promise that where two or more believers are gathered in His name that God is in their presence.
2. Almost always, this verse is quoted without any reference to its immediate context. This is a bad practice that often leads people to false interpretations.
3. Many times this verse is referenced in a small group Bible study or Sunday school class setting. Once again, this completely ignores the context and purpose of this text.
Explanation of the text
We should never quote this verse to mean that if we are gathered together in the name of Christ for worship – even if only two people are gathered – we have the promise that He is with us. What if we are worshipping God alone on a Saturday morning in our backyard? Is He not with us then? Must we invite someone to join us on our back porch in order for us to know that Christ is with us? Do we not have the promise of His presence in our daily devotion time over our morning coffee? If you begin reading in verse 15 and read through verse 20, that entire paragraph is devoted to the subject of church discipline. There is no reference to any evangelistic crusade, small group Bible study, or small church plant. The point is clear, when a sinful and rebellious brother or sister is pursued and confronted out of love in order to bring them to repentance – although it will be a difficult moment of confrontation – we have the promise of Christ’s presence.
In our modern church culture that often seeks pragmatic methods of growth above faithfulness to God’s Word, we must return to the faithful practice of church discipline. If God the Father will present to His Son a pure bride, one of the means of purging out unbelieving members and bringing others back to a right relationship with God is through biblical church discipline. John Leadley Dagg once noted, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.“1 In that process, no matter how difficult it may be – we have the presence of Christ with us. As the church is given specific responsibilities for making decisions as evidenced by verse 19, when the church is gathered for the decision of excommunication (the final stage of church discipline) – Jesus Christ is in the presence of the congregation. This should be humbling and comforting at the same time. It should cause us to walk a careful line of biblically loving someone back to restoration while following the specific words of Jesus without wavering. It should also be comforting to a church who has gathered for the purpose of discipline – no matter how painful that process will be – even if that person hardens his or her heart – Jesus is in the midst of the congregation!
In an age saturated with methods to grow a church, who wants to go through the rigorous task of confrontation and church discipline? Yet, that is exactly what Jesus Himself is commanding of His church in this text. Greg Wills has written that, to many Christians in the past, “A church without discipline would hardly have counted as a church.”2 Therefore, it is essential that the biblical methods must be followed.
As always, we must be faithful to read the text of Scripture within the framework of the original context, see the original author’s intent, and apply the single meaning of the text to our present modern lives. If we do that properly, it may not prevent all faulty interpretations, but it may prevent us from quoting a text before a congregation that is gathered for worship in a way that the text was never intended to be used.