by Pastor Jerry Marcellino
Answer: This is a favorite passage that is regularly quoted among many Christians, but it is rarely and correctly understood. In fact, its chronic overuse and abuse is just an example of what many sincere believers have done to numerous other well-known passages from God’s Word. Such mishandling of God’s Word reminds me of the quote, “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.” This column will aim to engage many of those “prooftext” passages in the months and hopefully years ahead. But, let us begin by reading the context that is typically ignored when one interprets this verse:
“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. 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. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:15-19).
Now, read “For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20) -- please note -- it must never be severed from verses fifteen through nineteen, if we are to properly understand its true meaning.
The classic application of this passage uses it to claim the Lord’s presence at a small worship service or prayer meeting where at least two or
three believers have gathered in spiritual agreement -- but “Christ
is always present with His people, even with a lone believer totally separated from fellow Christians by prison walls or by hundreds of miles” (John MacArthur). This common misinterpretation ignores the context and incorrectly handles “about anything” in verse 19 as being prayer (but the Greek word’s actual meaning and the context agree and therefore should be understood as meaning “about any judicial matter”). The context is clearly about how a Christian should handle repairing a fractured relationship with another believer, which could lead to the church body passing judgment if their conflict is not resolved Biblically (a process which is commonly called “church discipline”). Therefore, we learn from this whole passage that Jesus is with His church in making a judgment based on evidence Biblically attained. That is, heaven agrees with the decision of the true church when two or three have established the facts and the church passes a verdict in seeking to reconcile a relationship.
So, may our sincere “desired intent” never ever trump “authorial intent,” which is always spiritually unwise:
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Thank you for your question!
Pastor Jerry Marcellino, Audubon Drive Bible Church, PO Box 8055, Laurel, MS 39441-8000