It is a common enough trope around churches to hear somebody throw out the line, ‘where two or three are gathered…’ and go on to insist that two or three people in a room together definitely constitutes a church. I have dealt with the fact that the context of these verses has absolutely nothing to do with what constitutes a church before. You can read those comments here.
But there is a more immediate problem. There is a ground on which we can deny a church exists even without going into the detail of what Matthew 18:19f is talking about. It is what Voddie Baucham calls ‘the common sense problem’.
You see, those verses are explicit that Christ is in the midst of us when two or three are gathered together. Now, if Jesus is in the midst of us when two or three are gathered, we have something of a problem when we get up in the morning and start to pray because Jesus won’t be there! If we legitimately have a church because Christ is in the midst of even two or three, then it follows that Christ will not be there if there is only one of us. And that has huge ramifications for all of us whenever we are on our own.
It gets worse because this causes some problems when it comes to Jesus’ own words at the end of Matthew. When Jesus said, ‘lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). If Jesus is only there when two or three gather, how is he with us even to the end of the age? If Matthew 18:19f means that Christ is present when two or three gather together, Jesus is wrong to say he is with us to the end of the age. He isn’t even with us when we roll out of bed!
But, as we then begin to consider the context, things get worse still. The preceding verses in Matthew 18 tell us, when a brother is in sin, we are to go privately and resolve the problem. If they don’t listen to us, we are to take one or two others along to establish the facts of the matter. Now, if you insist that two gathered together constitutes a church, we are struggling. There is you with your problem, there is your brother against whom you have the problem (my maths makes that two people) and this verse insists you need to take at least a third person with you to establish the facts.
How can you take a third person when your church has only two people in it? There isn’t a third person to take. The you have the problem that we are then called to establish the matter on the evidence of two or three witnesses. So, if you can have a church with two people, how are we establishing the facts of two or three witnesses (so, presumably, two people apart from the plaintiff and defendant) when there are only two of you?
Now, you may at this point insist that perhaps the higher gathering of three is the minimum. But even if you land on the higher gathering of three, how on earth do you follow the command – if your brother doesn’t listen to two others – to bring it before the whole church? The whole church has already been involved – all three of you are there!
Evidently these verses have absolutely nothing to do with what constitutes a church. It has nothing to do with the minimum number of people required to be a church and nothing to do with whether you have a church based on the number of people at any given meeting. The context has everything to do with church discipline and nothing to do with number of people required to make you a viable church.
Here are some facts for you. The Lord is with every believer, even when they are on their own. He is with us by his Holy Spirit. That is how he is with us even to the end of the age. So if we are landing hard on ‘where two or three are gathered’ we maybe need to reckon with the fact that the Lord is with every believer, all the time, by his Spirit.
Likewise, churches are not constituted by the number of people in the room. We can extrapolate from these verses that there is a number below which we cannot function viably as a church (by my reckoning, according only to these verses alone, that has to be somewhere around 6 or 7 if we are going to be able to take three others to establish facts and subsequently bring a matter before the rest of the church). But these verses really aren’t here to lay down requirements for that which constitutes a church. They are here to tell us what should happen within the church when one brother sins against another.
I have said before that the application of these verses to encourage small prayer meetings and the like isn’t all that dangerous. But I have since come to think that there are, indeed, circumstances where that lack of context is dangerous. It is the context in which a limping, dying church is propped up with reference to these verses.
The danger is twofold. First, and most importantly, it is a danger to the cause of the gospel. We insist that churches must continue despite everything telling us they are no longer fit for purpose. We use scripture to insist our church must continue when it is not a credible use of gospel resources. It would be far better for the gospel for us to acknowledge that we are not a viable church and use our resources to serve fruitful, viable gospel works.
But the second is the danger to those insisting on staying in a church that is simply not viable. How will their souls adequately receive care? How will they get credible gospel preaching? If there are only two or three of them, how will they credibly sustain gospel work, fulfil the commands of believers that are specifically given in the context of a local church and themselves be encouraged to continue on in the Lord? It strikes me there is a genuine danger to those who are in no position to be fed limping on in a context which is not able to feed them on the grounds that they believe scripture insists on something it patently doesn’t say.
That is why two or three does not constitute a church. It is not viable for those in that place and it is not sustainable for gospel work. It is not even beneficial for gospel work but can, in certain cases, be actively detrimental to it.