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

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

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.


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

    14 replies to "Where Two or Three Are Gathered in My Name (Bad Interpretations)"

    • Scully

      If you let a critical person hear your prayer he/she can also tell you how and where your prayer is not “correct”. Most prayers are spontaneous but bona fide. Is concentrating of the correctness of the grammar, phrases, vocabulary of the person’s prayer instead of praying with the person a reflection of a good fellow Christian? It is interesting that in your opening sentence you said the lady “led” in prayer but are you following her when she led the prayer or were you back-seat driving?

    • Daniel

      @ scully, he was addressing a theological point that many misrepresent. God is omnipresent, the often misquoted and misinterpreted context of the verse effects our understanding of the very nature of God. Don’t ask your silly questions which seem to lead toward accusation of his lacking ability to follow.

      In short, I think you missed the point of the post.

    • April

      Great explanation. I was just quoted this exact scripture from a Friend who is praying for a boy to like her. I almost jumped thru the phone but found this post instead. Just what I needed. Thank you!

    • Sim


      Your interpretation is an interpretation a brother recently gave me, and so i decided i would at some point take a look at the scripture again more closely, and i found your article, which perfectly explains his position he says he has adjusted too.

      Having read your article I went and re-read Mathew 18:15-20, and having done so I continue to feel quite comfortable with my original and the lady who you were in prayer with’s interpretation of v19-20, as an exhortation by our Lord, that agreement in asking for “anything” (not just “judging a matter”) between 2 or more persons, when gathered in his name, provides a powerfull inner witness, that, the Prayer has been inspired by the “Lord” himself, and so as inspired by him, and with the witness of one or more brothers/sisters in agreement with that inspiration, we can rest in a deep assurance that, that request will be honoured.

      In interpreting scripture context is everything, however in this case I believe out Lord moves from apply the principle of “two or three witnesses” from a specific situation of “diserning the Lords will in relation to a brother who may have sinned” to a far broarder situation of knowing if our requests have indeed been inspired by our Lord, and therefore whether we can rest in the assurance of our fellow brother/sister also having this witness on there Spirit.

      This confirming witness, helps us to stand firm in our requests, not doubting, thereby preventing any hindrance to us recieving by faith the gifts our Father desires to shower upon us.

      The context shows us not that Christ “is not there when we are make requests alone”, but rather we may sometimes be mistaken in our disernmwnt of his will in making requests, just as a well meaning brother can sometimes be mistaken into not recognising sinfull action when he is alone. In having additional witnesses in agreement we guard against this, and when in agreement in our hearts we may enter into great assurance of faith 🙂

      Thanks for sharing 🙂

      Bro. Sim

    • Willard

      I was always under the impression that this scripture pertains to worship services.

    • Jordan M Lewis

      My apologies, but this is about as bad of “vain contention” [Jd 1:19, Titus 3:9, II Tim. 2:23] as you could possibly get. Idolatry, really? Please accept this as your brother in Christ rebuking you, and if you disagree let’s grab a few witnesses. If you are so quick to declare “you’re wrong” about this text, your heart is in the wrong place.

      Why don’t you show us some real scholarship to indicate that we should interpret the clear text differently, like how Cardinal Langton, Cardinal Caro, and Robert Estienne parsed the paragraphs and words? You provide no real exegesis here except judgment from the straightforward English translation of the text.

      It is true that the text of Matthew 18:20 occurs after the portion related to dealing with disputes. But it’s also set in a different set of paragraphs, and the next set of paragraphs deals with Peter asking how often we should forgive our brother. The only support for your view that the phrase applies to the issue of dealing with conflict is in the headline, which was not in the original text and is merely there to assist the reader (which it clearly has not done, using this dispute as evidence).

      Finally, just because the verses (it’s not just one verse) appear along with the text does not mean that people who recite the verses are wrong. Jesus says twice in Matthew 18:

      18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be[e] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[f] loosed in heaven.

      19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

      The last verse provides supreme emphasis. So I mean this in love when I say it: “you’re wrong, brother.” You are taking offense for no reason. Please, consider your heart.

    • Kimberly Ketiku

      I have heard Christian folks say they don’t go to Church and as long as they are gathered together in 2 or 3 that Christ is in the midst, implying there is no need to attend Church. I tell them to read Hebrews 10:25, the scriptures above and below to get a better idea on what is being said. Please give some feedback, thanks.

    • Milton

      I feel He was teaching us that we’re a lot stronger when we two or three in other words encouraging us to do things together. Could this also be the reason He sent out His disciples two by two?…is the number 3 also an indication of strength? …i believe so

    • haun

      it is my desire to see that we, as believers, take special interest in how we are viewed by the lost. We all make our own choices as individuals but we also represent something greater than ourselves. We can’t do anything about the impression that our brothers and sisters make on others, which should not change our attitude concerning how we demonstrate the love of God in our lives.

      That being said i would like to encourage everyone with a voice to use it for the advancement of God’s kingdom. I can’t say that us debating the finer points of a few verses with opinion and personal conviction is doing that. It’s just not productive to tell each other we are wrong about what they mean because we can use other sources to put together a persuasive argument.

      The Bible is more than words that make up sentences and paragraphs that go together and make up books. It’s divine and has power.

      Take any set of verses and listen to 100 different sermons that are inspired by them. God moves through His word and can use the same verses to touch us in any way He chooses. It’s not a history book to be picked apart, it’s a gateway to God.

      That verse can mean anything at anytime. If it inspires us to come together and pray, that’s a good thing! If it inspires us to structure our church discipline based on its instruction, that’s a good thing!

      It really limits our access to God when we start trying to say we know exactly what Jesus was saying and it can’t be anything else because there are fact A, B, C and they can be arranged to prove it.

      We don’t know if Jesus was being specific about only matters of discipline, or if he was strictly speaking about one subject, or if He was saying literally when 2 or 3 gather in my name I accept that as corporate worship or come together as a group and pray together because God is love and loving each other as we are loved by God is a command, coming together and praying at the same time because we have a brother in need or whatever the situation is shows love for each other, He is in the midst because we do it because he said to. Not that it means we will be more likely to get what we want because got people to pray for the same thing which increases the odds, just that we show obedience. It can actually mean any or all of those things, and lots of other things, the final statement is certianly meant towards the issue at hand but how do you know it wasn’t a statement that can be applied to everything in life… you don’t, you can’t, it doesn’t have to be so black and white but it can’t be something you highlight and quote anytime you wish to strengthen another point with scripture. You can’t say that the intention of the quote is to only be accepted as a specific instruction based on the topic at hand, and you can’t say well it says this right here so it can apply to anything I want just because it’s in the Bible. I can’t rightly say that either one of those attitudes show a willingness to read God’s word and let it be a guide for your life. You need a little of each but you should also leave yourself open to allowing God to reach you in His own way with His word. That is what the Bible is for, if it is used to grow God’s kingdom then it’s being used properly. Even if misquoted. If it’s contents are inspiring someone to connect with God, that’s awesome.

      You know, just because 2 or 3 people come together and take a side over a situation doesn’t mean that they will reach a proper verdict. Injustice can still be done. Are we going to say God will be in the midst of that? What about conspiracy? Are we going to stand firm that 2 or 3 praying together promises that God will be persuaded by our numbers? That implies we have not surrendered our will to His. Do we wish to boldly state that when 2 or 3 come together in His name that God will manifest a spiritual presence and be actually there with us on Earth? That suggests we can summon God like a wizard and also that God isn’t with us always as it is.

      See, no good will come from trying to take any side of this issue. No matter how compelling of a case we can make with any kind of information. It isn’t productive and makes us look like we are divided as Christians. We can’t lead the lost to Jesus with it. Stand on a position that informs and encourages. Please do not use your passion for God and your knowledge of His Holy creations and also your free will in a way that does not inspire faith. We can teach each other and debate and discuss the Bible without trying to prove someone is wrong because we know we are right.

      Keep reading, go back over the chapter, with a clear mind and open heart, do it today, weeks later, random times during your life, and do it with the attitude that you wish to learn and seek divine inspiration from God. My wish for you is to do this in hopes of receiving a blessing every time you do it, and to weaken your defenses against the insight you can receive when taking a fresh look.

      God bless

    • LP

      Really thankful for this article and for all the comments. You’re right, all of you. God’s Word is Truth, and He is the Living God!
      Higher and deeper than our minds can fathom.
      Teaching and reaching every crevice of our hearts and understanding. It all applies.
      Thank you for sharing.

    • Mike Koenig

      I was reading your post about what Jesus says if two or three are gathered in my name there I’m in their midst. Jesus said this why would you think other than this.

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    • Angelo Babudro

      I am grateful for this exegesis and discussion. “Come now, and let us reason together”, said God in Isaiah 1:18. God wants us to think deeply on what He has told us.

      Please permit me to add some thoughts that may be helpful to other readers.

      In the text “are gathered” (συνηγμενοι) is in the passive. It does NOT say “where two or three gather”. We are not commanding God’s presence, although I agree with the author that this is how most people read it and it is how I was originally taught it by the example of others.

      I would say that reading Matthew 18:20 as if we are doing the gathering and we are commanding Christ’s presence by the force of our will is blasphemy rather than idolatry, but either word sounds a warning.

      When two or three are gathered, by God Himself, in the name of His son, then we know we have the Father’s approval on what we are doing, whether it is assembly discipline or some other important matter concerning our faith.

      When we read “there am I in the midst” we do not think that Jesus appears physically in our midst as in John 20:26. He is physically in Heaven. If we can look deeper than the literal words at the consequence, then we should do the same for the condition/premise.

      Not to be misunderstood: I believe in reading the Bible literally as well as looking for deeper meanings. Similes/proverbs are pointed out and in some places a literal interpretation simply does not fit. Where a literal interpretation fits, I find benefit in first establishing my belief there before looking for metaphors and deeper meanings. When my wife asked me if I truly believed the Bible it changed my life.

    • J. Noonan

      Your going to need a bandaid for that tongue. A car moving down the road gets into a wreck due to excessive speed going around a curve. Two people observe the crash., one person on one side of the road and one on the other side of the road. I guarantee they will give different accounts to the investigating officer. What I am trying to say is not, you are wrong, but that the last I heard Jesus may answer the various needs of various people using the same verse out of the Bible. That one verse may mean many things to many people. Seems to me like your not wrong but just stretching the truth pretty far for scholarly purposes. I for one always took the verse to be Jesus telling me that if two or three people got together or if Bible class was only six in attendance, that Jesus was with us and yes, maybe he had his arm around me and everybody else in that small gathering. Nothing in what I have said devalues individual prayer. I don’t mean in any way to berate you, but once an unbeliever ask me, who do you think you are, God? I replied no, but he gives me all my answers, and he does the same for all who seek him and call on the name of the Lord.

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