Jesus' words about His being present whenever two or three are gathered in His name are often drawn upon with all kinds of broad applications for Bible study groups, prayer gatherings, and the like. Some people even claim that worshipping with a local church is unnecessary and that any informal meeting between any two believers constitutes a "church" because, after all, "two or three have gathered." These words, however, come from a very specific context about rebuke, discipline, forgiveness, and restoration. The verse has a far more precise meaning and cannot possibly be used to redefine or minimize the importance of the local church in Christian life.
The Verse in Its Context
The words we are discussing here come from one short verse in Matthew:
"For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst," (Matthew 18:20).
But who are the "two or three" about whom Jesus is speaking? What does it mean for them to be "gathered in My name" and why is Jesus there "in their midst"? If we rip the verse out of context and read it by itself, it seems broad enough to apply to virtually any gathering of Christians, but what was Jesus actually talking about in Matthew 18? Reading the entire passage is enlightening:
"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 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. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst," (Matthew 18:15-20).
Notice that this entire passage is talking about confronting a person who has fallen into sin. It addresses how to proceed in hopes of restoration and what to do in the unfortunate situation where the person refuses to repent. It speaks of the Christians' authority to "bind and loose," (i.e., to discipline the unrepentant brother and to forgive and release the repentant brother.) This is the specific focus of the passage.
Indeed, if we expand our gaze out a bit, just before this in Matthew 18:12-14 is a parable about restoring a lost and wayward sheep, ending in the phrase "So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish." We then have our present passage on discipline and restoration, followed immediately by Peter's question "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?" and a subsequent parable about forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-35. Thus, this entire large section is about how to respond to a wayward brother. There is no reason whatsoever to think that Matthew 18:20 is a departure from this subject. The most straightforward reading is that the "two or three" gathered together in Christ's name are the "two or three" believers who are confronting a brother in sin. The context is specifically one of discipline, with the obvious goal of restoration and repentance. Notice verse 16:
"But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed," (Matthew 18:16).
So the idea of "two or three" has already come up, and it is the "two or three" who bear witness to the sin and try to bring the man to repentance! This itself is a citation of an important Old Testament verse:
"A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed," (Deuteronomy 19:15).
This passage in Deuteronomy is actually referenced often in the New Testament (for example, see John 8:17, 2 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:19, Hebrews 10:28). Indeed, when the phrase "two or three" is used by a New Testament author, it is almost always a citation of that verse! In context, the most obvious meaning of Matthew 18:20 is that when two or three gather in Christ's name to testify to someone's sin and call them to repentance, Christ is with them doing so. The direct, primary application of this verse is to matters of repentance, restoration, and discipline rather than prayer meetings, Bible studies, or worship services. Two or three witnesses can act in Christ's authority both in rebuking a brother who falls into sin and in forgiving him when he repents of that sin. Christ is there with them in the act.
"I am in Their Midst"
In our concern over who exactly constitutes the "two or three," we might miss the significance of the fact that Jesus says that He Himself will be in their midst. This phrase seems to have profound implications. In later Rabbinic sources, we have strikingly similar phrases that may shed some light on just what Jesus' words imply. The closest parallel is in the Babylonian Talmud, where we read:
"Three who sit in judgment, the divine presence is with them," (Talmud, Berakhot 6a)1
The same tractate contains the broader claim that:
"The Divine presence listens to any two God-fearing individuals who speak with one another" (Talmud, Berakhot 6a)2
And earlier, in the Mishnah, it was said:
"But if two sit together and the words of the Law are spoken between them, the divine presence rests between them," (Mishnah, Aboth 3:2)3
The significance of these and other apparent parallels is debatable. While these Jewish sources certainly preserve some early traditions, they were not written down until centuries after the time of the New Testament. It is difficult, therefore, to prove how much of it, if any, goes back to the time of Jesus. However, since there is no reason to think that the Talmudic Rabbis would have willfully borrowed Jesus' words from Matthew and reworked them in a way that would help Christians draw a parallel between Jesus and the "divine presence," it seems highly unlikely that the New Testament directly influenced the later Jewish sources in adopting this language. These sorts of expressions seem to have already been present in the Jewish community. Thus, a fully reasonable conclusion would be that Jesus chose to use an expression about Himself that an ancient Jewish audience would normally have associated with the personal presence of God. It would be most natural, when Jesus claims that He Himself will be in their midsts, to understand Jesus' claim as an assertion of deity. Jesus is the divine presence.
Broader Application and the Local Church
Though the most direct application of Matthew 18:20 is specifically to the matter of rebuke, discipline, and forgiveness, it is true that, throughout all of Church history, Christians have often applied this verse (and frequently verse 19 before it) to broader contexts where Christians gather with one another for prayer, study, worship, decision-making, and other contexts which might be considered to be explicitly gathering "in Christ's name." Such would, at best, be secondary and derivative applications and thus ought to be approached with caution. They certainly cannot be used to overturn the plain, primary meanings of clearer passages that address the nature of the local Church, the authority of elders and deacons, the importance of cooperate worship, communion, preaching of the word, etc. Matthew 18 does not turn your one-on-one coffee shop sit-down with your Christian buddy into a substitute for the church.
Even if we allow that there is a broader secondary application to other small gatherings of Christians, that still does not allow for the "two or three" gathering in Matthew 18 to fulfill or replace the need to gather with a local church under the leadership of biblically qualified elders. Indeed, to obey Matthew 18:17, the two or three must have a church community to whom they can take the appeal if a wayward man does not repent! It is clear from the context that the "two or three" do not constitute the entire church and are expected to have a specific, local Christian assembly with whom they are connected.