A gathering of 2 or 3: church, jury, or none of the above?

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” {Mat 18:20, ESV}

Moving through a study of 1 Corinthians, our adult Sunday school classes explored 1Cor 3:16-17 where Paul declares “you are God’s temple” and “if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him”. One of the points that we tried to make in our study is that the “you” in vv16-17 is plural (in the Greek) which means the temple Paul has in mind is the church not the individual Christian. Seizing the moment to emphasize the significance of the local church the author of our Sunday school literature wrote:

Tragically, many Christians dismiss the importance of the local church. They argue from verses like Matt 18:20 that when two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, He is present; therefore, I don’t need to attend church. I can “have church” at home or at work if I am with at least one other believer. The only problem with this proof-text is that this verse is not talking about public worship; instead, it is dealing with church discipline.

This created a stir for at least one church member who read the paragraph as a denial of the long-held belief that 2 or 3 do, in fact, constitute a church. How should we think about this?

1) Two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name does constitute a church. The “2 or 3” expression is Jesus’ explanation as to why the church retains the authority to make binding judgments (18:17-18). Consequently, 2 or 3 gathered in Jesus’ name is a pithy way to allude to the church.

2) The point of Mat 18:20 is to show that the local church is authorized to exercise church discipline. Equating the role of the church (18:17-18) with the judgment of two or three (18:19-20) is a way to clarify that church discipline is binding for any church gathering regardless of the church’s size. Church discipline exercised by an assembly of 50 is just as authoritative as discipline enacted by an assembly of 5,000.

3) A church may not be less than a gathering of two or three but it is certainly more than that. In other words, the number of the gathering is not as important as the nature of the gathering (why have they assembled: to fish? to watch TV? to hear the Word? to share communion?). In this light we would need to go further and ask what it means for two/three Christians to gather “in My name”.

My conclusion: Two or three make a church except for when they don’t.

Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Lead pastor at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian, theological Luddite, and long-suffering Atlanta Falcons fan. A student of one book.

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