Monday, 23 November 2009
The passage is a familiar one:
Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.The application is familiar as well. Perhaps I should say "applications", since there are two very common, but distinct, uses to which this passage is often put:
-- Matthew 18:19 - 20
1. Description of a legitimate church: "Two or three gathered together in my name".
2. Promise for powerful prayer: Two agreeing concerning anything that they ask.
I had already assumed that the second application was a mite "stretchy" but, the more I studied this, the more I realized that the first application (descriptive of a true church) also had a degree of, well, wishful thinking.
I had often used verse twenty as a justification for the various house churches I had attended and, just a few years ago, one that I had started with another brother. But this verse is not a blueprint for God's church; It is a guideline for discipline in the church. Consider the context. First, verses 15-16.
Did you catch the connection? The two or three who are gathered together in verse 20 are the same ones who are confronting a trespassing brother in verse 15. This is not a worship service being described, but an intervention. Christ is assuring Christians in verse 20 that He is with them as they undergo the difficult but necessary task of confrontation of one of their own.
"Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between him and thee alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established."
Returning to the context, verse 17, we find another surprise - at least it was for me:
"And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican."
This thought struck me: "Wait a minute. I thought the 'two or three' were the church (at least minimally). Now, in this verse, the 'two or three' are definitely not the church." They are a separate step of confrontation for the erring brother: If "he neglects to hear" the two or three witnesses then - and only then - is the matter brought to the church. The church, then, is something separate from the two or three.
This principle of confrontation is found elsewhere, as in 1st Tim. 5:19 – 20:
“Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all [This is the “Tell it unto the church” part], that the rest also may fear.”
Notice the two or three witnesses in the Timothy verses. We can also go back to the Old Testament passages that were quoted from in our Matthew verses, Deut. 17:6; 19:15, etc. Notice that first verse:
“Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses...”
But what about the agreement part, verse 19? The answer is that it definitely does not mean what many today think it means; as if merely two Christians agreeing on whatever carnal object or purpose occurs to them obligates God to grant their wish. No, since it is tied in with the next verse it must share, also, the same application: church discipline.
Another interesting topic having to do with this passage – the whole chapter, in fact - is the overlying theme of self-judgment, that of the beginning of the chapter (“cut it off and cast it from you”) is personal, that of our present verses above (“let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector”) is corporate.
In conclusion: I hope the case has been made that this passage should not be used to describe church. It describes what a church can do – must do – in the unfortunate event of erring and misbehaving brothers who name the name of Christ. But it does not describe what a church is. For that we must go to the more detailed writing of Paul and the other Apostles.
Do you agree with this perspective? What do you believe this passage means?