Vol. 2 - No. 5
A Study Of Matthew 18:20
by Larry Houchen
The eighteenth chapter of Matthew is a practical one in that it deals primarily with erring. Since "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), chapter eighteen concerns us all. However, more specifically the chapter deals primarily with ones who would be numbered with "those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47). Jesus' comments are directed to the disciples (vs. 1) who came to Him, saying, "Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Verse 20 has often been lifted from its context and abuses of the passage have resulted.
In verses 15-17, Jesus gives a step-by-step procedure in regard to the one who sins. Jesus then said, "Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18, NASB). In keeping with the context, the binding would represent exclusion of membership in the local congregation and loosing would represent restoration of fellow-ship in cases of repentance. (Of course, in 16:19 the statement is given a broader application). In regard to verse 19, Albert Barnes comments, "The promise here has respect to the apostles…it cannot with any propriety be applied to the ordinary prayers of believers."
Before presenting some thoughts on verse 20 which states, "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst," consider some abuses which have been made from a misunderstanding of the passage. Those who are religious but who are not Christians will sometimes quote this verse to prove that one need not worship God in a public manner. These are individuals who minimize the importance of the Lord's church and reject that anyone needs to be a member of the church. They take comfort in the thought that God is pleased with them for reading and perhaps studying their Bibles at home even though they neither attend services anywhere nor are members of any church. However, the apostle Paul said that Christ purchased the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28) and thereby showed its importance. The Hebrew writer admonished his readers to not forsake their "own assembling together" (Hebrews 10:25) which shows that an inspired writer put a premium on attendance to worship services. The conflicting idea espoused by some religious folk in regard to such passages indicates their lack of understanding in regard to the church.
Outsiders are not the only ones who misunderstand Matthew 18:20. Some brethren have attempted to justify taking the elements of the Lord's Supper to the mountains while vacationing and partaking of the Lord's Supper on Sunday. In such cases, no plans were made to meet with faithful brethren of a local congregation -- convenience took priority over duty. Matthew 18:20 is often used as the proof-text for such action. Such statements from our Lord as, "But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness…" (Matthew 6:33) are ignored aside from the fact that the passage has been lifted from its context. What, then, does the passage mean?
Since Jesus had just given assurance to the apostles that God would hear their prayers if they met God's conditions, it would seem that verse 20 would have an application limited to the apostles. If, however, it be contended that verse 19 applies to all faithful brethren and therefore verse 20 applies to us today, the passage still has nothing whatsoever to do with not meeting with saints of a local congregation.
It is certainly true that the Lord is in the midst of those who are "walking in the light," but one is not "walking in the light" when he fails to exalt the Lord's church to its rightful place or is disposed to offer an alternative to God's divine arrangement of saints meeting with fellow-saints of a local congregation.