In Matthew 18:20, Christ said: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” It is important to note the context. Christ’s comments in verse 20 follow the description of the proper procedure for conflict resolution between brethren. At least two of our Updates address this issue, including the fact that Christ gave the final authority to the ministry, to disfellowship or excommunicate an unrepentant brother or sister –and not to the entire membership. Verse 20 must be read in this context–it does not address at all the question of Church attendance.
The Nelson Study Bible explains:
“The passage [in Matthew 18:19, 20] specifically refers to church DISCIPLINE. It is a promise for guidance for the two or three who confront, and a promise for the church to claim wisdom, and restoration for the erring brother.”
We explained the following in a Q&A on conflict resolution:
“We have always understood and taught, and the Church of the Eternal God and its corporate international affiliates uphold and teach this understanding, that the reference to ‘the church’ in Matthew 18:17 is the ‘ministry,’ not the entire Church congregation (Please see Q&A in Update #147). The Church congregation was, in a sense, already involved, in a representative capacity, in the persons of the witnesses. Matthew 18:17 continues: ‘… But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.’
“That is, the ministry will have to make the decision in such a case to temporarily suspend or even disfellowship the person until he shows real and sincere repentance. At that point, depending on the gravity of the situation and in a rare case, the local Church congregation or even the entire Church might have to be told.
“How can we be sure that the ministry will make the correct decision in such cases? By having seen to it, that the proper procedure has been followed, as discussed and set forth in Scripture, and by praying to God for wisdom to render the right decision.
“Matthew 18:18-20 tells us:
“‘Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you [the ministry, now called upon to render a decision] bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you [in the ministry] agree on earth concerning anything that they ask [including wisdom to make right decisions], it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three [ministers] are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.’
“God, through His Holy Spirit, will give His ministers the discernment, if they are close to God and diligent in following the Biblical procedure for conflict resolution, to see what needs to be done in a given case (compare John 20:21-23). And if God should reveal to His ministry that the accusations against a member were false, then the ministry will have to deal with the accuser (compare Deuteronomy 19:15-21). Many times, accusations and problems develop because of misunderstandings. That is why two members need first to talk about those problems ALONE, IN PRIVATE and ONLY between themselves.”
We also wrote, in Update #147:
“The Bible does not teach that God’s Church be ruled by democracy. Rather, God’s government is that of a hierarchy — with God the Father above all. God’s Church is administered by His ministers, with love and mercy, but with the authority to rebuke and correct, if need be. Local ‘Church’ groups which have disassociated themselves from the ministry to ‘rule’ themselves and to independently administer their own affairs are in clear violation of God’s command that His Church be administered through His ministry. This is also true for those ‘Church’ groups that are being ‘administered’ by self-proclaimed or ‘elected’ ministers, not approved by God (compare 2 Timothy 4:3-5; 3 John 9-10).”
Although some commentaries and those who reject the concept of “organized religion” and who believe in “individual Christianity” claim that Matthew 18:20 declares fellowshipping with the Church of God and attending Church services as being obsolete, this is clearly not the Biblical teaching. Christ gave ministers to the Church to enable the membership to grow into the fullness of Christ (cp. Ephesians 4:11-16). Paul warns those who forsake assembling together, that they are risking to lose their very salvation (cp. Hebrews 10:24-31). Those who might be scattered still need to be a part of the true Church of God. Since Christ is the Head of the Church, His Body, and since His Body is organized (cp. 1 Corinthians 12:18, 24-25, 27-28), those who have cut themselves off from that Body will wither away (cp. John 15:1-6). Scattered brethren, for whom it is impossible to physically attend Church services, must still be a part of organized services, for instance, by listening to live Internet services–or, if this is not possible–by listening to sermons which are posted on the Internet, or which can be received on audio cassettes. They also must make every effort to study the written Church material provided to them, to strengthen them in the truth–avoiding dissident material from false “brethren” or self-proclaimed “ministers,” who are disseminating unbiblical concepts.
The Broadman Bible Commentary wrote this regarding Matthew 18:20:
“This paragraph provides the model for church DISCIPLINE, including motive, spirit, and basic procedure… this is to be understood as assurance of divine presence and help as Christ’s people undertake the difficult work of the care of one another, even to the extent of corrective and redemptive discipline for the erring… A rabbinical teaching… spoke of the Shekinah, the presence of God, as being with those occupied with the words of the Torah (Law)…”
The Forerunner Commentary explains the passage of Matthew 18:20 in a straight-forward way:
“Many stay-at-home members use this verse to justify not fellowshipping with a larger organization. On the surface, it seems to support their argument. However, we must look at it in context… The context of the entire chapter is interpersonal relations and offenses… If the offender will not listen…, the offense should be taken to… the church… The very context assumes the existence of a larger group… In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul shows how this works in practical application when a church member was unabashedly committing sexual sins. Notice that Paul had ministerial, hierarchical authority over the Gentile church in Corinth… Did he allow every group of two or three in the congregation to make a judgment? How would God have bound the conflicting judgments that surely would have arisen between the people of varying levels of understanding and maturity in Corinth? The church would have been divided… had Paul not exercised his authority… This misapplication and twisting of this one scripture automatically repudiates any authority God placed in an ordained ministry.”
One of our Q&A’s, explaining Acts 14:23, discusses the role of the ministry and includes many Biblical examples to prove that God has ordained the ministry for His Church–requiring both the existence of the Church of God–the Body of Christ–AND of the ministry. In addition, Q&A #213 addresses the question whether “independents” will be saved.
To use Matthew 18:20 as justification for staying at home, rather than attending Church services, if possible, and for cutting himself or herself off from the Church of God, is NOT in accordance with Biblical teaching. Sooner or later, scattered brethren and those whom God may call, if they are yielding to God’s lead, will be guided to spiritually connect with the Church of God.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link