Matthew 18:20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

A Confession

I sat quietly as a young lady led us in prayer. It was hard. I had to bite my tongue.

Wait . . . I have a confession to make: In the past, I have been hyper-critical of what people say and how they say it. I used to evaluate everything everyone said in a sermon or prayer. I think it was the residual seminary-know-it-all. Back then, if you went off even in the slightest, I would become hara (Heb. “red nosed,” “angry”). But I have learned to set aside my hara. I get it. I am not perfect. You are not perfect. Other people are not perfect. I try to be like my hero Martin Bucer, who taught that there are very few things to become hara about. Today, during public prayer, I am not so critical. (It can get kinda long and boring, but that is another subject).

So I sat there praying with this group of people, saying my “umms” and shaking my head at the appropriate times (I hope). Then something made me red-nosed angry . I tried to brush it off, but it was too difficult. She said the unthinkable . . . I cannot believe she used this verse. It was manipulative, irresponsible, and downright misleading. What was her crime? She used the “where two or three are gathered in my name . . .” trick. She misused Matthew 18:20. Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek. She did not really have any ill-intentions. She was just following the folklore about this verse, which she had probably heard herself countless times in the past. We have all done it so don’t get smug. Let’s look at the verse.

Invoking Christ’s Presence

Matt. 18:20
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

It happens all the time: Prayers which invoke the presence of Jesus during the gathering . . . well, so long as there are “two or three.” What does this mean? Does it mean that Christ is more likely to answer your prayer? Does it mean that Christ’s actual presence is in the middle of your prayer circle . . . a ghost, phantom, or floating entity? Maybe he is there holding our hands. And which is it, for goodness’ sake? Two, or three? The idea is this: we have to have more than one person to get this mystical real presence of Christ invoked and some people have made a sacrament out of this.

The Real Meaning of “Two or Three”

However, this is not what this verse means. And I do get somewhat upset about this because it can mislead us about the power of God and our prayer life.

Matthew 18:20, like every other passage of Scripture, has a context. When we look at the context we find that the pericope (single unit of thought) in which this verse occurs starts in verse 15:

Mat 18:15
“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.”

Notice, this is the section dealing with how to engage a brother or sister in Christ who has sinned against you. The first act is to go alone and discuss the issue. It is emphatic that one does not spread the details of another’s offense before you talk with him or her one on one. Notice the numbering system here.

The passage continues:

Matt. 18:16
“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.”

Here is the second step. If your brother or sister does not repent of their sin, then you are to get some witnesses. Now, these people are not your wingmen who are coming to back you up just in case things get ruff. They are objective parties who are going to listen to both sides of the issue. But notice here the numbering: this is where the “two or three” phrase is first brought into the picture. This is a reference back to the Mosaic law:

Deut. 17:6
“On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.”

This is a system of accountability. God’s law has never allowed for the conviction of another without a “fair trial.” In Matthew, we have the same situation. There is a brother or sister who has been charged with an unnamed offense. God says if you cannot take care of it on your own, get some others to listen to each side. The final act, if the previous encounter was unfruitful, is to bring it before the church (pastors, elders, etc). If he or she is deemed guilty by the church and still does not repent, disassociation is necessary. Why? Because the case has been brought through a process that God approves of. “Two or three” have gathered in the name of Jesus (i.e., seeking his will) and Jesus was among them (placing his stamp of approval on the decision made). Now, this does not mean that we are to see this prophetically, as if the process guarantees that the outcome is always going to be true. Jesus being in their midst simply means that this is a God-ordained process.

So, to be brief, this passage has to do with church discipline and Christ’s approval of a process, not to do with some special presence of Christ in prayer gatherings.

Further Implications

But one of the reasons why I claim to have been so upset about this the other day was because of how misleading this can be. When we say that Christ is present in our midst when we are praying with two or three others, we imply something terrible about personal prayer: that he is not present when we pray alone. This is not true. Christ’s presence cannot be any greater in one situation than another. He does not hear you better when you have others with you. He is not more inclined to listen to your cries as long as you have a couple of buddies holding your hands saying “umm” and “amen.” There is simply no way to have more of Christ’s ear than you do right now. He is in your midst now because, being omnipresent, he is always in the immediate presence of everything in all creation.

Concluding Thoughts

“Lord, you promised that when two or three people are gathered in your name, you will be in our midst. Well, here we are. Because of this we call upon you to bless us and answer our prayer.” This prayer is the very essence of idolatry. Now, take that statement in the context of my realization that we all commit idolatry more often than we realize. But this misunderstood prayer invokes the presence of our God through a formulaic incantation, which is empty of any power and resembles the manipulative schemes of a polytheistic system which is continually dependent on the physical presence of their gods if blessing is to occur. We are not limited to such. Our God is bigger than that. So think again before you pray in such a way.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    10 replies to "What Does “Where Two or Three Are Gathered in My Name” Really Mean"

    • dlarryB

      God is omnipresent and He is with us even when we are alone.
      Matt. 18 is simply a restatement of Deuteronomy:
      God exhorts us to resolve issues in the “assembly” with two or three witnesses.
      The term “church” here can be misleading. Jesus is addressing Israel.
      The Church that Jesus is building is a mystery (Eph. 3) beginning to be revealed at Pentecost.
      The Church is unknown in the OT and practically unknown in the Gospels.
      The term, “ekklesia” appears only twice in the Gospels.
      One is the “two or three witnesses” account – take it to the assembly, and the other is when Jesus said, “I will build my Church” – ekklesia.
      ekklésia: an assembly, a (religious) congregation
      “Church” in the English translation is a term that arose around the 13th Century.

    • Brian

      Thank you for this timely blog post. I had a similar reaction in my men’s bible study when the study itself and members of the group sited this version to prove Christ’s presence during prayer. Our church is notorious for, in my opinion, misusing this verse. Last week I finally decided to say something. It was not well received. I think they felt I was trying to take away from them a verse many cherished. The leader, one who attends the church’s “School of Ministry” (a sort of lay person’s seminary) even admitted that we need to consider context when interpreting scripture but believed even though the verse was referring to church discipline there are many applications of a verse. He felt justified to decouple this verse from its content to apply it the way the church and my group often do. I chose not to divide over the issue and just let it go. I just don’t think using the verse in this way is what Paul had in mind when he charged Timothy to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” – 2 Tim 2:15

      • C Michael Patton

        Very true. And thank you for the testimony of frustration, yet endurance. I think you are doing the right thing.

    • Bibliophile

      Okay. Stuck record alert, so y’all don’t get triggered 🙂

      Interesting blog, once again illuminating very well the protestant problem of subjectivism with no controlling authority to define what is and isn’t the correct interpretation or application of a text… So, why even wonder why the challenge of denominationalism is impossible to resolve? Most of those groups formed just like this, with mounting disagreements and disillusionment amongst congregants over how a text is supposed to be read and applied, leading to splits and schisms – the main characteristic of protestantism.

      • Brian

        Thank you for contributing to the conversation. I always enjoy hearing the Catholic perspective on these issues. In response I would suggest that the freedom to hold, express and debate different views on interpretation is a feature, not a glitch of protestantism. Where we get into trouble, as you so rightly pointed out, is when we divide over such differences. But maintaining fellowship with those we disagree with is a virtue worth developing. When you read many of Paul’s letters he’s often encouraging congregations to find peace and unity among their different views, backgrounds and social status.

        • Bibliophile

          Brian, I wouldn’t call the inherent schismatic feature of Protestantism the “ability to hold, express and debate different views”. There really is no way to put a positive spin on devolving from true Christian unity into the superficial “fellowship” of protestant denominationalism.

      • Brian

        Well, the feature isn’t the schism. The schism is the potential byproduct, a byproduct inherent in fallen humanity, not in freedom of thought. That same falleness of humanity, by the way, is the same reason why one man determining truth for everyone else isn’t ideal either. We don’t have to review the stains this has left on the Catholic church through periods of its history. They are well established. The Catholic church is also partly responsible for one of the greatest schisms in church history. It would appear that the church’s approach to unity is simply agree with our leader or you have no part with us. That doesn’t sound like true unity to me. Diversity within humanity is baked into the cake. I don’t think we will have true unity until we are out of this fallen world and in God’s kingdom. Until then I believe unity among diversity is the virtue we should be pursuing.

        Thanks again for engaging on this topic. I’ll let you have the last word on this thread. God bless.

    • Bibliophile

      Y’all need to cross the Tiber 🙂

    • Bibliophile

      Brian. You reject Magisterial authority because “just fallen humanity”; you ignore that “fallen humanity” has always been the chosen vessel through which God reveals his will – not to mention that you are yourself a fallen human who claims to be able to interpret the Bible for himself! What arbitrariness and inconsistent double standards.
      Personal incredulity, much?
      Protestants need to wake up to the reality that by rejecting the Magisterium, they have not accepted the Bible as the final authority, but merely claim themselves to be mini popes. It’s a total farce.

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