It happened again Sunday. I was in our Bible class and there was a question raised and one of the responses to the question was this gem: “Where two or more are gathered…”
We heard this cliché response a lot during the lockdowns of the covid pandemic a couple of years ago. If we are in our homes with our families worshiping, then God is there with us because “Where two or more are gathered I am there with them…”
The problem with this response is that this isn’t what the passage says and it isn’t what it means. I spent a good amount of time in my ministry dispelling myths and teaching the truth during one of my Zoom calls during the early parts of the pandemic when we actually locked up in our homes in early 2020. I would recite the myth of that week and then teach the actual biblical truth about it. I never did do this one, but as I wrote in my article Why Go To Church? this statement about the church meeting together bothers me because while I do believe we should meet together and there are good biblical arguments why, this quote from “scripture” isn’t one of them because this isn’t what this passage is necessarily about. Please follow along as I do my best to uncover another myth of scripture.
We have to read the passage in context, so let’s read Matthew 18:15-20 together:
15 “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. 16 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. 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 be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
As we can see, this passage is in the context of someone sinning against another. Jesus taught that if this happens, you should go to that person to try and resolve your dispute. If he won’t listen, you take one or two people with you. And if that doesn’t work, talk to the church and have them help talk to him. After that you treat them as a Gentile or tax collector.
This passage is about church disputes and discipline. This is definitely something that we need as members of the body of Christ. Part of our calling to a life of faith and discipleship is that we submit to the authority of the church which is Christ. And under Christ, the elders of that church are charged with leading and guiding the sheep. This, again, is why I made such a strong statement about meeting together as the body of Christ in the article I referenced above.
Instead of embarrassing someone publicly, we are called to go to them privately first. If we do not succeed, we escalate by bringing more witnesses and brothers in Christ along with us to continue to try and reconcile the relationship and resolve the issue at hand. You go with friends as concerned family members. There is power in this way of resolution.
This style of resolve has roots in the Old Testament law. Under the laws concerning how witnesses were viewed, we read this:
15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
It was important to have people be witnesses. Having two or three witnesses agree on the events that happened was necessary to even bring a legally binding charge against another person. It was there to protect individuals from unjust litigation. It was there to be able to go to a brother in sin. And as you can see, the language is very specific to reflect this well-known passage among the Jews at that time. It isn’t “wherever two or more are gathered”, but “where two or three are gathered” because it is a reference to this Deuteronomy passage and a reflection of the need for that exact number of people.
In the Gospels of Mark and Luke, we also have a couple of accounts of Jesus sending out groups of disciples; first his twelve and then the seventy-two:
7 And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— 9 but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. [Mark 6:7-13]
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. [Luke 10:1]
Again, having 2 people together was important. It served three purposes:
It would be a challenge for one man to be on his own without the escort of another. It served to protect them as they went to different towns to speak to people about the coming Christ. It might be easy to fight, assault, and kill one man, but if he has someone with him, there would be more resistance. This would also provide them protection from false accusations because they would have someone there to witness what is being said.
With two men traveling together and teaching together, you have someone to get ideas from about how you might approach the teaching in the next town. You also have someone to pray with you and keep you on task to teach the truth. You also have someone to disciple you along the way. And if someone is in sin, you have another that can be a witness to help correct and discipline someone who is in error.
On a long journey, it would be nice to have someone to talk to, laugh with, and pray with. Someone to prevent loneliness from setting in.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 gives us these three exact reasons why the disciples went two by two on their journeys:
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
But what does this have to do with the passage (Matthew 18) in question? Yes, it is important to know that gathering together with a couple brothers or sisters is good. Small groups are good in the life of the church, but they cannot be the only thing we do as a body. In fact this passage becomes an indictment against only meeting as small gatherings and not meeting with the larger body as a whole (as I wrote about in Why Go To Church?)
This passage in Matthew 18 was for the disciples to know that they needed to have another person or persons with them as they traveled and as they teach. They need people who are on their side to keep them going strong in their evangelistic efforts. They need witnesses to their life and to the truth so they will not become victims of “he said/she said”. They need a second brother to fulfill the law in Deuteronomy by correcting a brother who has sinned.
What about the rest of verse 20? God is “there among them” to protect them. This passage isn’t about His presence sitting listening to a small gathering praising Him (though He does do that). This passage is about God’s leading people with the Holy Spirit when He is guiding and protecting them as they are His witnesses on the earth. This passage is also about having the Spirit of God behind them in situations of discipline. The Holy Spirit is there to guide us as we correct a brother in sin and to be able to confront them with a clean conscience.
And this misrepresentation in this passage is amplified when we use suspect paraphrases and translations that inject false commentary about what the passage actually says. Bibles like The Message and The Amplified Bible mistranslate and mischaracterize this Matthew 18 passage by making it sound like it is about a worship setting or small group. We have to be careful about what translations we use or we will continue to teach myths like this one here today.*
So hopefully the next time you hear someone say “Wherever two or more are gathered…” you will remember this article and spend a moment to correct this erroneous teaching about the small group gathering at home during a lockdown or on a weekday evening (even though those gatherings are/were good). Where two or three are gathered to evangelize and teach is important because God is guiding those individuals from harm and accusations from the enemy the devil. Now go and gather in His Name.
*all Scripture quoted in this article are from the English Standard Version.