Matthew 18:20—probably one of the most oft quoted and yet misunderstood verses I can think of. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them (ESV). It is a great promise of Jesus along the lines of Matthew 28:20, “behold I am with you always!” He is the Lord who will never leave us or forsake us and indeed he dwells among us as we gather together in his name.
But…I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard this verse referenced to somehow comfort us in the fading numbers of a Wednesday night prayer meeting (which, by the way, I’d like someone to give me a good reason why I can watch 20 church members show up at the same time as prayer meeting to help with a children’s program, but on weeks that children’s program is not operating most of that 20 is nowhere to be found for prayer), or to justify why going to an evening Bible study in a house counts as “church” and gives a free pass to skip gathering with the saints on Sunday for worship.
At the moment, my church is entering the process of reworking the by-laws, and one of the first tasks is biblically defining membership. At the same time I’m working with some who legitimately think sitting at home with an open Bible and another person or two counts as doing church. The confusion of Matthew 18:20 doesn’t help either case.
Yet what we find if we look at it in context is a wonderful statement about membership and part of the purpose of the church.
The passage (18:15-35) is about properly dealing with a brother or sister who sins against you. On the one hand, we don’t ignore sin under a misguided veil of “grace” and the persistent cry “who are you to judge me?” And on the other hand we don’t seek to beat a person into the ground and boot them out of church at the first opportunity we get.
Instead, we first deal with the sin privately—we go to the person, show them their fault, rebuke their error and if they listen it is a good thing: we have “gained” our brother and brought “back a sinner from his wandering” (James 5:19-20). There is restoration and forgiveness—even if that means we have to forgive the same old thing not just seven times but seventy times seven times (18:21-22). After all, consider your own forgiveness and how many times you have asked God to forgive you for the same, stubborn failures!
But if they don’t listen, we go with two or three others to plead with them and establish the facts. It is a cry back to the Old Testament legal system, that a person is condemned only on the testimony of multiple witnesses. And if the person still doesn’t listen, then we take it before the church as a whole. The church pleads with them seeking repentance, forgiveness, and restoration; but if the person refuses even the church then they are no longer considered a part of the fellowship but rather a Gentile and tax collector—a sinner who is on the outside, without grace, yet in desperate need of the Gospel so we share it with them not as a brother but as one who is lost.
Then comes the line: whatever we bind or loose on earth is bound or loosed in heaven, and if two or three agree and ask it will be given because where two or three are gathered in my name…
Jesus tells us a church as a whole has an authority individual Christians do not possess on their own: the authority to declare (based on words and deeds) whether a particular individual is saved and belongs to the church or is lost, not a part of the church, and in need of the Gospel.
Church and meaningful church membership is not simply gathering together for prayer, Bible study, and other acts of worship. It is about an individual submitting their life to a group who has charge to watch over their soul, confront them when they sin, and declare if they belong to Jesus or not.
Somewhere along the way we lost this in many American churches just as we have lost discipline/restoration and accountability, and have gained a plethora of inactive or nominal church “members.” May we quit hiding under misunderstandings of particular texts, and lovingly push on to a church that more closely resembles Jesus.
(As a side note, to give some credit where credit is due: Jonathan Leeman provides a detailed and articulate argument about this and other facets of church membership in his book The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love. In a mere personal endorsement, I highly recommend it!)