Thursday, July 19, 2018

Two or Three Mistakes

“Where two or three are gathered …”

I’ve heard this little phrase quoted for years in churches all over the place. I’ve almost never heard it quoted correctly, meaning in its context and referring to the situations to which it actually applies.

When I’ve heard it quoted, almost invariably it is used to suggest that any local gathering of the church, no matter how small, is important enough to the Lord that he will, in some spiritual way, be present and involved with that situation. And really, I can’t say that isn’t true. But I can say for sure that that isn’t what this particular verse was given us to teach us.


I’m not trying to be the Grinch who stole your Christmas. Really, I’m not. You may have loved to quote that verse to reassure yourself that however lonely and discouraging it may feel to be in a small or beleaguered gathering of Christians, it’s always worth going on, because the Lord is there. And the warm glow generated by that may have infused you with the incentive to persist, despite a fair bit of discouragement. Good for you.

But warm, glowy feelings do not give us any justification to stop paying attention to what the word of God actually says. And in the case of this verse, that’s just what we’ve done.

Two bad things follow: firstly, that because we have found a comforting meaning, we stop seeing whatever it is that the verse actually says. We need it to shore up our warm feelings, so we stop looking at it for anything else. Then, secondly, we begin to tell ourselves things that the Lord just did not say. We say to ourselves “All is well” because we think we have a broad blanket of approval from God that is derived from nothing more than the fact that two or three people have shown up.

That attitude gives us a recipe for weak (and even errant) doctrine, plus a recipe for sleepy self-satisfaction, despite all problems. Not good.

So let’s get this right.

The Broad Context

Notice firstly that this quotation occurs in Matthew. That means that the Lord was speaking at a time when there was no church. The church was formed at Pentecost, after the Spirit had been given to bind believers in the risen Christ in unity. But we’re looking at a pre-resurrection, pre-church teaching. How strange, therefore, that the vast majority of Christendom seems to interpret this verse as if it weren’t.

Then notice that our verse is right in the middle of a whole lot of teaching on a very specific subject. The disciples have asked the Lord about the “kingdom of heaven”. The Lord starts by exhorting them to “become like children”, and then has turned to the subject of people who cause others to stumble. Then there is teaching about how the Good Shepherd reacts when one of his sheep goes astray.

Right after the verses of our concern, the teaching continues, when Peter specifically asks the Lord what to do when a brother sins against him personally. And the Lord not only tells him to forgive a genuinely repentant offender “seventy times seven”, but goes on as well to expand into the parable of the unforgiving debtor. Only afterward does Matthew say, “Jesus had finished these words,” which shows us again that all of chapter 18 forms a complete, single piece of teaching. It’s all about how disciples in the kingdom are to react to sins and repentance.

That’s the broad context: a disciple’s perspective and reaction, in light of the kingdom, to those who sin. Some will cause others to stumble. Some will stray, and need to be brought back. Some will fail, at least at first, to recognize their sin. And others will do something against the disciple, and then repent. What should be done?

The verses we care about here are from the third section listed above: the one that deals with a “brother” who sins and who fails (at least initially) to recognize it.

Now, within all that, do you see anything there that suggests we’re talking about the common, casual idea that is often taken from this verse — namely that the Lord is bound to show up whenever two or three believers get together?

I don’t. That is obviously far too vague and general a conclusion to take from such very specific subject matter, don’t you think?

The Close Context

Now let’s tighten down the focus.

The word for “sinned” is the ordinary one for things done contrary to God; but there’s a bit of a problem with the phrase “against you” added in some later manuscripts: it changes the focus of the “offense”. What we can safely say is that it is a situation in which a “brother” has done something wrong — against the Lord, definitely, and maybe against you as well. But it’s not just a mild thing you find personally distasteful; that much is very clear. It’s a sin. And whether or not it offends a particular disciple, ultimately, the offense in question is against “heaven”.

You’ll also probably know the ensuing procedure: that the one who has noted the fault (you) approaches the sinner (him) to “tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” The principle here is to keep the sin as private as it may be, while repentance and correction are offered. But there is an expanding procedure if that doesn’t work: “Take one or two others along with you” as “two or three witnesses”. (Notice, for future reference, the “two or three” there — that number will appear again.) And if all that fails, the instruction is, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Well, I don’t like tax day — who does? But I can’t say that as a modern Westerner, I bear any ill will toward tax collectors. They do their job — an unpopular one, maybe; but an honest and a necessary one if we are going to have roads, schools and so forth. So if I take this as referring to myself, it would mean, “Treat the brother who has harmed you as if he were a government official.” That’s not very instructive, really. And as for the second part, I can’t say I have any ill feelings toward Gentiles: after all, I am one. Moreover, I spend all day every day with Gentiles. So am I to understand that the instruction is, “Treat the offending brother as normal”? That doesn’t sound right at all.

Clearly those two references have a first-century Jewish context. Tax collectors were colluders with the Roman occupation, and were notoriously corrupt. Respectable people had nothing to do with them. As for Gentiles, they were both religiously pagan and ceremonially unclean, and unless converted fully to Judaism, were not even allowed in the outer temple precincts. They were second-class citizens, even on best terms. But you’d really have to be a first-century Jewish person to get that allusion at all.

Then there’s the declaration that “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (and likewise, “loosed”). All we can safely say about this is that it means that decisions made here have eternal implications, if made in the prescribed way. But it is echoed in the following promise: “If two of you agree … it will be done … by my Father in heaven,” as you can tell by the word “again”, which signifies that what follows is a re-saying of something already promised earlier, but in slightly different terms.

What It All Means

All of that forms the context of the verse in question. And with that context, we can now decode the meaning of it: the “two or three” we can take as an indicative, minimum number (in other words, not “one”, as is emphasized by “agree”). Interestingly, it’s exactly the same number as the number of witnesses called to observe the proposed reconciliation between offended and offender. And “two” is the number given who must “agree on earth” that it may be confirmed in heaven, which is again the minimum.

The “there am I among them” turns two witnesses into three, or three into four (or more into more); but this time, the confirmation in heaven by the Father is substituted by the witness of the Son on earth … with, presumably, the same effect: that what is “agreed on earth” will be confirmed by the judgment of heaven.

What About “Tell It to the Church”?

The obvious objection to all of this is easy to anticipate: doesn’t the passage specifically say to involve the church in the dispute? Doesn’t that mean that the “two or three” in question are all members of the church, and doesn’t that mean this passage refers to church situations, even though the church as we know it today may not have existed at the time? Is Christ maybe prophesying of a “church” that would be in the future, but was not yet? And maybe, then, can’t we take this verse to be teaching us that the Lord is with us in all church meetings, just as we so often like to think?

But a lot speaks against this. Firstly, though that word and the modern word “church” are both translations of the same term, ekklesia, there is absolutely no indication that this was a church as we know them, or as the Christians formed them after Pentecost. At the very time of the Lord speaking, that word there was already in broad use, in a Jewish and Greek context. It was a general-use term, meaning “a group of people called or selected out of a larger group for some specific function.”

In short, I think an honest exegesis of the passage has to be very modest in its claims. The truth is that there is no indication at all that this verse is about church meetings, and every reason to see it as I think it is: a pre-church teaching for disciples generally, one that refers to kingdom perspectives, and one that is not specific at all to church situations.

In any case, anyone can see that it certainly is not about casual meetings of Christians for worship, fellowship, social activities or joint ventures, as we see them today. Our penchant for making every verse speak about ourselves and our own experiences just will not do here. It will make us misunderstand both the message and the audience of this bit of teaching.

The Purpose

Finally, we must not overlook that little phrase “in my name”. Where it appears in scripture, it is never insignificant, never a throw-away phrase just tossed off for religious effect. In this case, it specifies what the focus of the offense-restoration process must be: not for mere justice, and not for the vindication of the one offended, but for the righteous representing of the name of Christ — so that those who call themselves his disciples should act like it, looking out for his interests, not their own, and seeking that his name would be honored.

In fact, this passage is about how any disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ is to handle situations in which an offense has taken place between those who normally ought ordinarily to be companionable (“brothers” in a very general sense, not the specific sense in which we Christians use it). There is a procedure to be followed, if the disciple of Christ is to work for the restoration of someone who has offended in some way: first, tell him; then, take a witness or two; then tell it to the assembly of those called out for judicial purposes. And if all that fails, make no more alliances with that individual at all.

And the promise is this: that the Lord will be with his disciples, if they follow this procedure.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The teaching here is not that the Lord is guaranteed to make a casual appearance in church meetings. Sorry. That’s just not what the passage says. We really should stop using it as if it does.

Rather, it deals with what happens in a situation of judgment of sin: the Lord promises to add his influence to the deliberations of the believers — the one who has identified the sin, and the witnesses who have seen the attempt at recovery of the errant brother — and to back their judgment, made “in [his] name”, with his authority.

They must have the preservation of the Lord’s reputation in mind, and they must follow the procedure he has prescribed for them. But if they do, he promises to be spiritually present among them, and to stand with them. That’s a lot of power for them to be wielding, yes; but they have it only within the limits specifically prescribed by the Lord.


It’s only taken two or three basic interpretive mistakes to deprive us of the verse, “Where two or three are gathered.” And these mistakes have been driven by well-meaning sentiment: we want to think about the Lord always being with Christians in the church, so we’ve adapted this verse for our purposes.

We meant well: but have we done well?

Now, maybe if we listened to what this verse actually says, we’d realize how important the restoration of a sinner is, and we would attempt it more often. And maybe if we realized there were divinely-appointed procedures for getting that delicate operation right, we’d get ourselves into fewer pickles when we did. And maybe if we realized that the Lord himself backs us with his presence and authority when we put his name first, and maybe we’d be less squeamish about undertaking this very serious task.

Maybe more people would be reclaimed from their sins. Maybe fewer rumors would get started, and fewer people would be defiled by them. Maybe those who would repent would be given their opportunity to recover their integrity and dignity and get back into full fellowship, instead of becoming so bad that eventually they cause factions or have to be evicted in disgrace. And maybe we all would endure fewer false teachers and errant believers among us, because we would know how to stand for truth in a principled, merciful and ultimately firm way.

But we would need this teaching. And we have currently buried it in empty sentiment, so that we no longer even realize it exists. So my argument here is that we need to dig it out again, restore to it its original meaning, and start applying it in practical ways.

Can anybody really disagree with that?


  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this article. It was very instructive and thought provoking. I'm sure there are plenty of others like me who have never really looked into the meaning of this verse and have missed the boat altogether. Thank you!