No need to gather to meet Jesus: Matthew 18:20

It’s happened again. And I still get not only disappointed, but surprised. A Christian author with otherwise sound thinking misusing Matthew 18:20. This time it’s Brian Sanders in Microchurches: A Smaller Way[1]:

The challenge is, how will the church present itself to a world that is becoming more and more relationally isolated…The answer is to look to smaller expressions of church…We know that Jesus poured his life into just twelve men and that where “two or three gather” in Jesus’ name, he is there with them (Matt. 18:20)[2](emphasis mine).

No, Brian, this verse is no support for your argument for small churches.

It is not about knowing that Jesus is present when at least two Christians are together. I mean, stop, and think for a second: what does that mean for you on your own?

Reading the verse in its context[3] gives the lie to[4] this common mistake[5].

This is what precedes verse 20:

15 “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. 16 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.’ 17 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.

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

And the subsequent verse:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

So, what verse 20 – For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – is saying, is that when the church decides to remove a sinning brother or sister from the assembly, it is done with the authority of Jesus.

Discipline. Ex-communication. For some Christians, then, it’s time to recycle their dining room sign, buy a different notebook, reconsider buying these books, and consider a different coffee cup for a present.

Let’s get…back to the gospel. Don’t give up gathering [Hebrews 10:25].

 

 

  1. I got to this via his book Life in Intentional Community, sent to me by my friend Trevor Russell, Rocky Cape Company, and a leader in Detention River Christian Community.
  2. Sanders, Brian. Microchurches: A Smaller Way (p. 50). UG Media. Kindle Edition.]
  3. What respected guides Fee and Stuart identify as ‘the crucial task’ in [biblical] exegesis: “Essentially, literary context means first that words only have meaning in sentences, and second that biblical sentences for the most part have full and clear meaning only in relation to preceding and succeeding sentences” [Fee, Gordon D.; Stuart, Douglas. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (p. 31). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
  4. The first meaning here: https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/give+the+lie+to.
  5. One of my favourite theologians, Craig Blomberg, agrees [Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, pp. 280–281). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, accessed via my Logos library.