The Real Meaning Of Matthew 18:20 (stop taking it out of context)

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

Chances are you’ve heard this verse read during church service once or twice. It’s most commonly quoted to give legitimacy to a small gathering at church. Meaning that even though there might only be a few people gathered God is still with them. 

The problem is using this verse this way totally ignores the context. I mean borderline egregiously ignores the context. So I want to look the Matthew 18:20 meaning and see how it actually applies to our life. 

But, before we get there let’s look at how it’s misused. 

How Matthew 18:19-20 Is Misused 

Often, it’s not just Matthew 18:20 that’s abused, but also the verse that comes before it. 

In full it says: “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. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Matthew 18:19-20

Here’s the two most common ways it’s misused.

1. To Say That When Two Are In Agreement Whatever They Ask Will Be Done 

When this verse is used this way it’s implying that when two or more are in agreement then what they ask will be done. In other words, when two pray the same prayer what they pray for will be answered.

Not only is that not in the context of this verse, but it’s also not accurate theology. God listens to our prayers whether we are alone or with others. Being with others doesn’t increase the chance that He will hear and respond to our prayers. 

2. To Say That When Two Or More Are Gathered God Is With Them 

This is what I most commonly hear. Often said by a church leader at a gathering to show that God is present with them because there are two or more gathered.

But what does the inverse of this interpretation mean? If there were only one person present God would not be there? Certainly, no one believes that (I hope). But when we twist this passage this way that’s what it implies.

So what is the context of Matthew 18:20?

The Context (Matthew 18:20 Meaning)

When we ignore the context in which a passage of the Bible is written we can quite literally make it say anything. One of the simplest and most important things we should do when reading the Bible is to look at the context. Read the verses before and after. 

In this case the verses that kick off this section will tell us what Jesus is actually talking about in Matthew 18:20. 

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. ’If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matthew 18:15-17

In context, we can now see that Jesus is giving instructions about how to handle conflicts with others. When there is a conflict in community (the church) He gives some very practical steps we should take. 

Matthew 18:19-20 is the encouragement that comes at the end of these instructions. Essentially Jesus is saying you follow these steps and leave the consequences up to me. 

When the context of this passage is ignored you can make Matthew 18:20 say something it was never intended to be about. Which can lead to some dangerous theology. 

Let’s look a little at the meaning of this passage. 

Where Two or Three Are Gathered Meaning

Now that we know the context, we can get to the Matthew 18:20 meaning. We already know that Jesus is talking about how to handle conflict in the Church. So, let’s look at the process a little deeper. 

What Jesus is doing is he’s giving an order of process to follow when you have a conflict with someone. Here’s how they break down: 

1. Talk to them privately about the issue. 
2. If they refuse to repent, grab two or three people that are trusted within the church and talk to them again. 
3. If they still refuse to repent bring the issue to the church leaders. 
4. And finally, if they still refuse to repent then it’s time to remove them from the Church. Hopefully, through this final serious action, they will realize the error in their ways and repent. 

Jesus is giving incredibly practical advice. That you don’t even need to be a Christian to appreciate.

Just imagine how much healthy the church (or any organization) would be if we actually followed this process. This would solve SO many problems in the church, in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, and in our families, if we just did this. 

Now Matthew 18:19-20 comes in. Since we already looked at how they are misused let’s look at how these verses should be understood. 

God Puts His Stamp Of Approval When This Process Is Followed

In context what this verse is saying God gives His stamp of approval when this process is followed. 

Mark Moore in The Chronological Life Of Christ says it this way, The prayer of verse 19 is not for “anything” we might plan or desire, but any judicial matter. The word pragma often indicates financial matters or legal decisions (cf. 1 Cor 6:1). And the “two or three brought together” in verse 20 is not talking about worship services. (The omnipresence of God and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit assure Jesus’ presence even where a Christian is alone.) The word “come together” [synegmenoi] means “united,” not merely “gathered.” So what this text promises is that God will put his stamp of approval on judicial decisions among church members who come to a mutual agreement.

This verse is not saying that God is present when there are two or more people. Or that God will give what we ask when two or more people are in agreement. Rather it’s a process for us to follow when there is conflict and a promise that God is with us while going through that process. 

I always cringe when I hear this verse quoted in Church. I cringe because far too often I’ve seen people twist this verse into something it’s not. And that is a dangerous practice that can have disastrous results. When reading the Bible context cannot be ignored.

For more on that check out: Stop Taking The Bible Out Of Context (and how to avoid it)

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