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.
What Does “Gathered in My Name” Mean?
Let’s look at the verse.
Matthew 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:
“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:
Matthew 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:
Deuteronomy 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.
Is Jesus Present When We Pray Alone?
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.