Perhaps of all the doctrines in the Bible, the one that is most falsely taught and interpreted is the Doctrine of Prayer. It may be because my life and calling of encouragement is in the Doctrine of Prayer that I am so sensitive to the incorrect teachings. And these wrong applications are not only used by the laity, but those of higher education and leadership positions. Wrong teachings are dangerous and frustrating because the so-called promises are in error. The devil laughs us to scorn, and our prayer lives as individuals and as the church suffers and weakens. There are many false interpretations that ought to be dealt with, but in this writing, I will deal at least now with the one that seems most abused: Matthew 18:20.
“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” The Prayer Meeting is always the least popular and attended meeting or function of the church. I have been blessed to conduct prayer conferences in hundreds of churches in the last 24 years. I am excited to be asked to assist any church in the area of prayer. When I am scheduled to spend a weekend with a church there are usually several weeks to announce the event and encourage attendance of the members. I have noted on many such events that churches that regularly have a worship attendance of approximately 500 persons, we are fortunate to have 20-30 show up at a conference of prayer. You can then see what happens in the smaller churches.
So consequently, when the prayer meetings are embarrassingly small, often Matthew 18:20 is quoted as a way of excusing the lack of interest or obedience. It is often used to give legitimacy to a small prayer meeting or church service.
This often brings comfort for the lack until it is examined and taken to its most likely inference. What about when there are not two? What if only one is praying alone . . . at home or elsewhere? Does that mean Jesus is not there? Of course, the answer is “no.” So then, what does Matthew 18:20 really mean?
Let’s look at the context of “where two or three are gathered.” Most translations of the Bible, as does my NKJV, place Matthew 18:15-20 as one paragraph or section of teaching. The paragraphs and verse number divisions, of course, were not in the original texts or manuscripts, but they are extremely helpful in our studies and memories of where certain teachings and verses are found. In spite of this, the paragraph division which is based on the context of this section seems to be precisely right in this defense. The first part of this paragraph speaks of how to deal with church discipline when there is open and blatant sin in the church.
15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
It continues then with verse 18 giving us the assurance that, if we follow this guidance, God is working through it with us: “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The LORD continues without question with the connecting words, “Again I say” in verses 19-20: “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. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
The contexts, the context, the context, beloved, don’t lose the context! The circumstance of “where two or three are gathered together in My name” has only to do with confronting willful sinner and the church discipline which may follow. In verse 16, the law has been cited of the necessity for “two or three witnesses” in putting together an indictment as we see in Deuteronomy 19:15. The reference of “two or three” in verse 20 reiterates that law; the “two or three” are dealing with sin in the church. The method of church discipline clearly calls for “two or three” in the Old and New Testaments, and this appears to be the most outstanding interpretation of this verse.
Matthew 18:20 is not a reference of a small group coming together for a prayer meeting, nor a worship time. This is clearly God putting His approval on church discipline. The church, in humility and love, has called a known sinner within to repent, and that sinner refuses to repent in the moment, and so the church follows the instructions given. And beloved, I believe the process of prayer then moves toward the redeeming of the one removed. This is loving fellowship in action, and God works with them to restore. Beloved, Pray On, Rightly!