In church meetings across the world, week after week, we hear this rather encouraging portion of Scripture, reminding us that God is with us when we are gathered together in His [Jesus] name. Is it true that where two or three are gathered, God is with us? A resounding yes, He is. Is this what we are supposed to understand from Jesus’s words when He spoke them, a resounding no, He did not. Why do I say this? Read the words of Jesus in Context:
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. 17 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. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:15-20)
A simple reading of the text ought to suffice for determining what is meant by “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in there midst,” and yet we will happily begin our meetings this way. Why does this bother me?
There is a fundamental principle at stake when interpreting Scripture. It is always vitally important that we try to determine what was meant by what the original author said, before we attempt to add any application to our lives and practice. Unless we do we may apply something to ourselves, which was never intended, or worse, commit heresy and lead others to do the same; many false doctrines have lead a lot of people astray in this way.
With that in mind, the text before us when misapplied doesn’t do much damage, as it is true that God is with us when we gather in His name. But, the principle above is at stake, which applied to other texts could be potentially catastrophic for the believer or for the church gathering. For example: One could take James 2:14 and conclude that we are saved by works, but reading on makes it clear that our faith is demonstrated by our works, not gained by them. To misunderstand this could have eternal consequences and result in an exhausted, worn out and discouraged church-goer! We are saved by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-10).
“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b)
Here is my other objection: is God not with us when we are alone? Are our prayers not heard unless we gather in His name? Did not Jesus send the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5) and promise to be with us always (Matthew 28:20b)? This demonstrates the principle of cross referencing, where the Bible interprets itself. If we take the time to read and get to know what is written, we will be better equipped to avoid these errors. This takes time, but is worth the effort.
It would be remiss of me not to offer something about what the text is really saying: Without going into too much detail, simply put, the text is part of a section which is talking about church discipline and the forgiveness and restoration of our brethren, who may have sinned within the fellowship. Jesus has given the church authority to use its best judgement in dealing with these issues, and tells them that whatever decision they come to as a group, He will agree with them:
“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18)
(Matthew 18:18 also represents a commonly misused scripture and has nothing to do with spiritual warfare, as clearly demonstrated by the text it sits in).
Whenever you hear this Scripture misappropriated in this way, take a moment to think about the fact that God is, “with you always, to the very end of the age,” and be thankful.
One thing I would add in attempting to correct people who misuse Scripture in this way, if you feel so compelled, is to remember to do so with much grace and to try to avoid humiliating them; after all we are all God’s children, we are all on different stages of our journeys and we are all at different stages in our understanding, according to the time we have given to it.
“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one will bear his own load.” (Galatians 6:1-5)