Matthew 18:20 is a beautiful sounding verse. In it, Jesus says:

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

As unbeautiful as it might sound, though, the context the verse is in is about processes of discipline within the church:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. {16} But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. {17} If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. {18} Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. {19} Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. {20} For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

The ‘two or three’ mentioned in v20 are the same two or three mentioned in v16: if someone who has sinned against you does not listen to you when you meet up with them to try to sort the issue out, then take one or two others with you, ‘that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses’. The process being described is one which, if someone is unrepentant, leads to them being treated by the church as ‘a Gentile and a tax collector’ (v17) — i.e., someone outside of the church. This might sound harsh to our ears today, but in Matthew 18 Jesus is giving his approval to the process: he is with this process (‘there I am among them’), if it’s done in the right way.

It’s worth noting, though, that when a member of the church becomes ‘as a Gentile and a tax collector’, then the appropriate response to them is to try to reach out to them again, to try to bring them back into the church, just as Jesus reached out to the tax collectors and sinners (Mat. 9:9-13). The goal of the process described in Matthew 18:15-20 is restoration of the person who becomes as a Gentile or tax collector.

Paul has some very similar words to say on this in his letters to the Corinthians. In the first letter, he writes:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife….{4} When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, {5} you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. [1 Cor. 5:1,4-5]

Notice the similarities with Matthew 18:

  • ‘When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus’ = ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name’
  • ‘with the power of our Lord Jesus’ = ‘there am I among them’
  • ‘you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord’ = ‘let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure — not to put it too severely — to all of you. {6} For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, {7} so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. {8} So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. {9} For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. {10} Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ [2 Cor. 2:5-10]

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