‘Where Two or More are Gathered’ Doesn’t Make a Church

The context has everything to do with how the church operates – but not in the sense it is often conveyed.

What people want this verse to say is that any time two or more Christians are gathered, there’s a church, because Jesus is in their midst. On a closer examination of the whole passage, we find this text to specifically deal with the practice of church discipline.

 

I can’t recall the number of times I’ve heard the phrase Where two or more are gathered in my name in a conversation referring to what constitutes a church. Matthew 18:20, though widely quoted, is just as widely misunderstood simply because people wish to divorce this from the larger context of the passage. The context has everything to do with how the church operates – but not in the sense it is often conveyed.

What people want this verse to say is that any time two or more Christians are gathered, there’s a church, because Jesus is in their midst. On a closer examination of the whole passage, we find this text to specifically deal with the practice of church discipline.

The passage from Matthew 18:15-20 reads:

If your brother sins against you, go and confront him privately. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he 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 he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, regard him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you truly that if two of you on the earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three gather together in My name, there am I with them.”

The first clue we have to understanding this verse comes with the preposition “for” at the beginning of verse 20. As an interpretive principle, the preposition can be used in many different ways – but as a general rule, you will do just fine inserting “for this reason” when you see the word “for” in many cases. The natural question arises: for what reason? All this should do is train us to look to the text and see what the biblical author is speaking to. In this case, the preposition is explanatory. Secondly, this verse is not the main point of the passage, but it is subordinate to the main point, which is the often neglected practice of church discipline.

The structure of discipline is quite simple:

  1. If a believer sins against you, confront them privately. If he repents and seeks forgiveness, there is nothing more to do. The first stage of church discipline is over and you can both move on with your lives. If they do not repent, the individual moves to stage two discipline.
  2. If this individual does not repent and seek forgiveness, take one or two other people who can account for the sin of this believer. If they can faithfully bring you to the text to show it isn’t sin, the process is over and the person accused of sin is exonerated. If they agree this is sin and have a valid testimony of the offense, the confrontation must happen (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6, 19:15; Jn. 8:17; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). If this person repents, the second stage of church discipline is over and you can all move on. If they still do not repent, the individual moves to stage three discipline.
  3. Once an individual reaches stage three discipline, they are brought before the entire church. The idea is that in being part of a covenant community, the unrepentant one professing Christ is brought to open shame for their sin. If they repent, they do not proceed to the final stage of church discipline. If they still refuse to repent, they move to the final stage of church discipline: excommunication.
  4. Excommunication is precisely what it sounds like: they are removed from the church on the basis of their unrepentance and they are not welcome within that community until they repent. They are not to be treated with contempt, but rather, “tough love” wherein they are not allowed to associate or participate in the blessing of being part of the local church. If they repent, they are to be welcomed back into the community with graciousness and love, and led down a path of re-establishment.

A Couple of Key Qualifiers

The simplicity of the discipline process does not necessarily transfer over into each and every situation. There are times where the sin is so heinous that the level of discipline must be elevated, and in many cases, the individual must be brought to the proper authorities. What this brings to the table is a sense of uniqueness to each case, yet ultimately, the application of this process remains much the same.

The restoration process is what will end up being unique to the circumstances of the case and individual. A person who has been unfaithful to their spouse will not undergo the same restoration process as an individual who habitually lies. Secondly, it must be stated that restoration does not necessitate restoration to one’s former role. In the case of pastors and elders, that becomes all the more strict on the basis of their qualifications – yet in general laity this principle remains. If a church member repents of stealing from the offering plate, it would be unwise to have them handle money in the church.

In similar thought, the restoration process will vary in length of time. Depending on the nature of the offense, the longevity of the practice, and the role (i.e. elder), this process can and should often be a lengthy period of time. A person demonstrating true repentance will continue in genuine repentance, yet they will also likely continue to stumble as they put this sin to death. Regardless of all the peculiarities of this process, substantial evidence for repentance must be evident, which means there will be a period of examination.

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