It is likely that in many churches this morning, someone will mention that Jesus has promised to be present wherever two or three are gathered in His name. This raises some questions in my mind. Wasn’t He present with us when we got up this morning? Wasn’t He there when we read the Bible and had our morning prayer? Wasn’t He with us as we were driving to church? And if He wasn’t with us before we got to church, why would we expect Him to be present when we enter the doors of the church?
When I read the whole passage of Matthew 18:15-20, it becomes obvious that the promise in verse 20 is part of Jesus’ teaching on how to help a wayward brother. It is not about a worship service at all, it is about church discipline.
It was John Nelson Darby, a founder of the Plymouth Brethren, who first used this verse in the way we often hear it used today. One of the foundations of his doctrine was “the ruin of the church,” meaning that the church lies in ruins and cannot be reformed or revived. All churches and ministers are corrupt and fallen from grace, all that remained was for individual Christians to assemble together for worship on the first day of the week. He used Matthew 18:20 to teach that any group of Christians could gather for worship and experience God’s blessing. To this day, the Plymouth Brethren advertise their meetings, in “Gospel Halls” or “Bible Chapels,” as “Christians gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew 18:20.”
The teaching about not receiving an accusation against someone of the household of faith on the testimony of only one witness can be found in many places in both the Old and New Testaments. This teaching presupposes the existence of an organized body of believers which can hear the accusation and decide the matter. The passage in Matthew 18 fits into this context, as shown in the following verses:
Deuteronomy 17:6: At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
Deuteronomy 19:15: One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.
Numbers 35:30: Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.
Matthew 18:15-20: Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
John 8:17: It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true.
2 Corinthians 13:1: This is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.
1 Timothy 5:19: Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.
Hebrews 10:28: He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: