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

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 hara. 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.

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.

However, this is not what this verse means. And I do get somewhat red-nosed 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.

But one of the reasons why I got hara 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.

“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

    141 replies to "“Where Two or Three Are Gathered” . . . and Other Bad Interpretations"

    • Rebecca

      Mike (not Patton)…I did notice. I noticed you never said you hadn’t read my comments. I was dissed by our teacher. No worries. I’m a little narcissistic and need the attention like was noted by another blogger. Die to self, die to self, die to self.

    • Alex

      He should have left it at that! A needless and hyper-critical article. Needless, in that the context of Matt 18:20 is plain for all to see, and hyper-critical in that nothing the woman prayed was untrue. The verse still teaches us, despite the specifics of the context, that Christ is dwelling with His church. Whether it be during times of discipline, rebuke, group prayer or solitude – Christ is in the midst. Other scriptures we could ‘quote’ during such a prayer time might be Matt 28:20 or Rev 1:13. They all refer to the fact that Christ has informed us that He is and wants to dwell in the midst of His church. To claim that this woman “did the UNTHINKABLE” by referring to Matt 18:20 during a prayer time, to accuse her of being “manipulative, irresponsible, and downright misleading” is preposterous! Maybe this guy should be more worried about the fact that he finds group prayer times “long and boring” than whether or not others are quoting verses within the context of his interpretation of scripture.

    • John Metz

      A few comments:

      The context of Matthew 18:20 goes back to at least v. 10 and revolves around gaining the brother who has sinned. First, the offended one goes to the brother; then two or three; then, if the situation is not resolved, the involved two or three take it to the church. All these verses relate to solving a serious problem and gaining the sinning brother and should be interpreted in that light.

      We should enjoy the Lord’s presence in our private times with Him and in corporate times with Him & other believers. Perhaps because the context of these verses deals with something unpleasant (a sinful brother and resulting damage of the sin), something sober & serious (gaining such a one), and something that may ultimately require a judgement on earth (let the sinning one be considered like a Gentile and a tax collector); there is the practical need for the reassurance of the Lord’s presence– even in dealing with such a matter.

      Another misuse of 18:20 is to say that the two or three constitute the church and that the church is defined merely by having the Lord’s presence. But v. 17 says that the two or three, if they are not heard by the sinning brother, should “tell it to the church” (probably to the leading ones in the church) showing that the two or three were members of the church but did not in themselves constitute the church.

      Thanks, Michael, for addressing this matter. I find that I once again have to apologize for coming in so late.

    • Rob

      Good word on a misunderstood and mistakenly applied verse. Can you “take on” Psalms 37:4 next.

      On a different note, I thought your reporting of the “real life” scenario was handled well. This lady in question was not “humiliated” as a “public example”, nor was she “so discouraged and embarrassed” in the course of being “castigated publicly”.

      CMP, I think that you have some readers who “look” for fault and are over sensitive. I mean really, this ain’t the “trail of tears” here. When I think that there are approxiamately 1,000 Christians martyred every day around the world, I am ashamed by that which some people choose to become upset. We American Christians lack perspective because of our relative wealth and safety. There’s a blog topic for you. Peace.

    • Alan Lininger

      In regards to the context of the passage. I have one question and that is how does verse 19, fit into the context, I may just have a mental block. The NIV reads “Again, truely I tell you that if two of you on earth agree abiout anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in Heaven.” Everything else in the passage is making great sense. I appreciate all of the deep thinking that I have been reading over the past few months. Thanks and God continue to Bless.

    • anonymous

      With all due respect, Rob, (in comment above), the Lord cares deeply about every single need of every one of His beloved children. He is jealous for each and every one.

    • Dean

      Here is one of my favorite prayers. God grant my fellowship to be free from pompous pharisees that are there to critique the prayers of others.

    • Dean

      Michael your interpretation is only partial. This passage certainly deals with church discipline. The discipline is to be done through prayer. Prayer must precede the outcast of a church member. I believe the entire world is in the presence of God. However there are special manifestations of God’s presence. Old timers said He is thick in here tonight. When two brothers meet for the purpose of praying about disciplining another brother Christ promises to manifest His presence there in that meeting in a special way.

      This does not in anyway take away from private personal prayer. However, church discipline is not a personal and private matter. Christ promises us His presence in the prayer meeting about discipline. Do not skip verse 19 it is part of the passage as well. The presence is not merely God’s approval of discipline but His promised presence in the prayer meeting about discipline.

    • Xander

      I think I am following what you are saying with this, but what do we do about verse Matthew 18:19? It seems to tie to verse 20, but does not pertain verse 16, unless the two or three people that are confronting the disobedient member are now beseeching God for some action against the person.

    • […] of the Bible  I was reading a post over at Reclaiming the Mind over the misuse of Matthew 18:20 by a woman who was praying.  I have been trying to not be […]

    • heather fry

      Forgive me if this has already been brought up. I read some comments but not all.

      I appreciate your suggestion that this verse is more in reference to verses 15-17. This quote has always bothered me because the natural conclusion is that He’s somehow not there ‘as much’ when we pray alone. BUT you completely ignored verses 18 and 19 which immediately preceded the verse in question. Don’t you think these would be just as, if not more, important to dissect?

      And I can see why people have come to this conclusion about this verse because of verses 18 and 19- which I have no idea what they mean. I have heard verses 18 and 19 quoted many times by the more ‘charismatic’ brothers and sisters, and the name it and claim it crowd.

      Do you have any comments on these verses? How do they tie into verse 20?

    • […] “Where Two or Three Are Gathered and Other Bad Interpretations” […]

    • […] straight explaining what is a more probable interpretation. Some examples are Jeremiah 29:11, Matthew 18:20, 2 Tim 2:13, and the notion “all sins are equal in God’s eyes” or “one […]

    • […] is Matthew 18:20 (one I am guilty of misusing myself), interpreted as Jesus being present when “two or three are gathered in his name” (in prayer, in worship, etc.). However, in context of the passage, this verse is about church […]

    • Lois Tverberg

      I completely agree with your dislike of prayer that attempt to manipulate God, as if humans are should order him around. And overall, I agree with your argument that the context is legal here.

      But I thought I’d point out a different context that is quite relevant. There are a number of first-century rabbinic saying that are very related to Jesus’ words.

      For instance, “When two sit together to discuss the Scripture, the Shekinah dwells among them.”

      And, “When three gather at table to eat and exchange words of Scripture, it’s as if they’ve eaten at the table of the Lord.”

      These sayings (and many others) emphasize the importance of studying God’s Word together. The idea isn’t that some sort of magic takes place, it’s that God will bless their efforts to work together to understand the Scriptures.

    • C. Barton

      One the one hand, Jesus spoke about two or three in agreement, and that He was in the midst of them. This speaks to me of communion and agreement, things that we are called to practice in the body of Christ.
      On the other hand, I think the “critical mass” concept is bogus: just because I am gathered with a lot of like-minded people doesn’t guarantee that we somehow have more power or persuasion: this is, I believe, a worldly concept which has nothing to do with faith.

    • Callie

      I did not know this. thanks for sharing – a total eye opener!

    • Peter

      As many commenters have pointed out, the word “anything” in v19 certainly suggests that this principal of two or three who are in agreement asking God for something probably isn’t limited to church discipline. So maybe the girl didn’t misuse scripture.

      Michael, I think you’re right about the phrase “I am there among them” in v20. As you said in the post, it certainly cannot mean that God is not present when we pray alone.

    • Peter

      Then again…I guess “anything” could mean anything they ask relating to church discipline. Perhaps like Paul saying the church in Corinth should “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

      I wonder if the phrase “on earth” in v19 limits what the two or three carring out the discipline couldn’t ask God to do. In other words they could ask God to sick Satan on him while he’s here “on earth,” but they can’t ask God to damn this person to hell.

    • Peter

      Here’s a great article that deals with these verses (scroll about half way down).

    • Sherry Levin

      I sincerely appreciate this. I was taught that same way and have always wondered about that… thanks so much!! It not only opened my eyes, but made me feel a lot better about praying alone!

    • Garth

      The Father and I are one. WE. I can do nothing without the Father. If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. It does not negate the power of personal prayer, as the Master said, You will leave me alone, but I am not alone because the Father is with me. Perhaps, it is to emphasize again, unity, oneness. WE. Where two or three are gathered in my name. That’s why he COULD NOT (notice it’s not DID NOT) do any miracles in his hometown and he was amazed at their lack of faith. It is WE that results in connection with God, because it is through our relationship with our brother and sister that we can have a relationship with our God. Why? Because we are ONE. The Lord thy God is ONE. That’s why when we give a glass of water to someone we do it to the Christ. Because we are ONE. When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there also, because when there is more than one, it becomes WE instead of ME, just like when WE become one with the Father, it becomes WE instead of ME. WE love you 🙂

    • […] I write about this more here. […]

    • dVisser

      Thank you for this word. I study the Bible deeply, but this passage is not one I have studied out for myself yet. I was googling to find the exact reference so that I could misuse it myself. Thank you for stopping me just in time!

    • Tom Howard

      I have not read all the comments, but, from the many I have read there seems to be misunderstanding of this verse. C Micheal Patton did not mention that the verse just before the one in question is all about prayer! Verse 19, “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” Thats a promise of an answer to prayer for those two agreeing “as touching anything”. Then he speaks about 2 or 3 gathered! This verse reminds me of Hebrews 10:25,
      “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is;” Two or more is a gathering!
      So, I think there’s a problem here as to saying this has nothing to do with prayer, don’t you? Why its a call to prayer!!! Let us pray.

    • Tom Howard

      When it emphasizes “anything”, it means more than just ‘church discipline’.

    • rose

      Excellent logic but another aspect to remember is that perhaps, hidden in the story, is a teaching that there are benefits when we relate to one another in physical presence and that once this happens, overcoming obstacles, between at least two people then the presence of Christos comes into being. Christos being a state of being. Perhaps the teaching is that we can bring that about in each other. Christ certainly taught brotherly love throughout and this would seem another illustration of it.

      The teaching seems to say there is a limit to the number of people who, at any one time, can have this experience, hence up to three. As a therapist working one-to-one with clients, by comparison with my everyday life I can say that this happens quite often in my professional work compared to experience of it in my personal life.

    • Dawn Huff

      Thank you very much for your explanation. I have been considering this topic myself recently. Here is what happened, I said this in a prayer because a lot of people say this all the time. I guess it was just a recorded thought. Also a lot of people ask me to pray for them often. Using this verse as a reason they are asking. It has been sitting with me as not correct but I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why. Thank you. I love to learn more all the time.

      Public prayer can be a daunting thing… It makes me nervous when I am asked to pray in front of a group. I worry I might say something wrong. I lean on The Holy Spirit for help. There are many who are more eloquent or theological. I will try not to be even more nervous next time. Haha! I am glad that God understands what I am trying to say and loves me anyways and I glad he can untangle my heart and words to not be a burden on someone else’s heart. I get really tongue tied.

      Also as far as someone thinking an illustration is about them. Usually I find that people are convicted on their own. If they feel guilty they think it is about them whether it is or not. Otherwise they never have a clue.

    • Frank Pontillo

      I have heard this verse used out of context by teachers trying to make a case for dressing up for church because there was a “special” presence of God in a church service.

    • Wolf Paul

      What bothers me particularly is when this verse is used to minimize or downplay the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Table:

      “Well, he says He’s there in the midst where two or three are gathered in His name. How can He be more present when we break bread? No, the Lord’s Table is a mere remembrance, nothing special about it.”

    • RB

      “…this passage has to do with church discipline.”

      I would say instead that the passage can be _applied_ to church discipline.

    • Paul M

      TCG has a good treatment here that meshes well with CMP.

    • Steve

      HI Michael. Just stumbled on your post now and am aware it is some years old. I was just siting here and the above verse came to me regarding issues of community and how Jesus takes part in that. I’d be really curious on some deconstruction on your comment in the second para “Then something made me hara.” It seems that we all have cause to find upset at the hands of others. Perhaps you’ve already unpacked this concept in other posts. I think I’m particularly interested in the reactions and offense we take in response to others supposed transgressions of our own sacred beliefs. Thanks heaps. Cheers. Steve

    • Dave Widener

      First, If you are, so easily, criticizing the person praying. You are not praying, yourself. Is your focus on God? Do you trust Him, to hear and understand what the person praying is trying to relate? Obviously, you don’t. You are too busy making sure that they pray in a way that is acceptable to you. Newsflash: they are not praying to you. You don’t answer their prayers. So the manner in which they address their prayers, to God, is none of your business. All that this post tells me, is someone has an overinflated sense of self-importance. The whole taking verse in context, is another example of this. When I read my Bible, I’m not trying to see what God said to this, or that, person. I am reading it to see what God has to say to me. You finish by saying “God is bigger than that.” But, apparently He needs you to read the heart of the person praying. Get over yourself.

    • Sid

      Michael, You are right, it is a verse taken out of context and it should not be used in such a way. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a power in gathering together. In fact, I would say it is the wrong verse to make the correct point.
      It isn’t the kind of power considered important or even worthwhile from a earthly point of view, but it is present. Look at all the advice given by Paul in 1 Corinthians and many of the stories in Acts. Something special happens when Christians gather together with good intent and with love in their hearts then welcome the Lord in their midst. I would even go as far as to say things the “world” would see as powerful do happen. It doesn’t make personal prayer unimportant nor does it mean Christ isn’t there in the same way when a person prays alone.
      But we are called together to an altar (or table, I don’t know your tradition) to jointly take the bread and wine. We are called to be baptised in front of witnesses. Christ loves us independently, but he wants us to be joined in the Church. There is a power we cannot understand or should we ever try to control present when the Church gathers (physically or not) in his name.

    • Dave

      This proves the necessity of exegesis when studying the Bible. I highly recommend the book “How to Read the Bible for All It’s worth”. Written by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.
      It points to a lot of misconceptions we have about what is written in the Bible and how we interpret God’s word.

      This is a great article!

      • Ted Paul

        Hi Dave… you’ve made a great book recommendation!

    • Dave

      It is a straw man argument. It presumes the heart, and intent, of the person invoking the verse. I agree with mbaker. Most people don’t use it as some kind of talisman. This is nothing more than an attempt to show how “wise” you are. But, if you were wise, you would understand that God inspires scripture. Who are you to tell me that God didn’t say that to me, through this verse? For that matter, by your logic, God’s inspiration would be severely limited. After all, in context, the epistles were each written to a specific recipient. Therefore, they have no application, to me. The books of the law? that’s right, for Israel. No sir, this is not wisdom. This is arrogance. Putting yourself in place of God, when it comes to the inspiration of scripture.

    • Kevin Wells

      It’s also quite possible this is a parenthetical, like Jer. 29-11 (which I’ve heard said that we shouldn’t apply to non-jews. It’s all about context, right?) In other words, it’s a general statement about God’s character and faithfulness, which He has chosen to insert in its respective place by way of emphasis and / or reminder. “I wI’ll restore you, Israel, cause its My nature to keep my promises, and i only every have good intentions for those who call on my name”, and “take this discipline thing seriously and soberly –remember I am in your midst”.

      It would be helpful to supply from one’s wealth of knowledge a section of God’s Word which DOES support the principle the verse in question is being used to support. If there isn’t one then the principle is error or worse, and should perhaps be pointed out.

      This would be true teaching. But I must always remind myself that a gifted preacher will lead more people to the Lord with poor exegesis, and a gifted pray-er will “move more mountains” (yeah, I said it) than I ever will by correcting technicalities in their prayers and sermons.

      I say that as self-critically as I can manage. I feel called to be a scholar, but I also really enjoy feeling smarter than other people, which is straight-up sin, as well as a manifestation of self-perceived inferiority to others.

      BTW, scholars report that ancient exegetes played very fast and lose with scripture, and felt free to pair passages together which had originally no relation to each other, or change wording, etc. to make a point they felt was true to the original (or maybe even throw some pagain poetry in for free). If that’s the case maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on preachers, pray-ers and evangelists whosee exegesis and hermeneutics is off, but whose fruit tallys up just fine.

      Just venting at myself.

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