Every Lord’s Day, Christians assemble together to worship. The purpose of that worship is, first and foremost, to honor God through praise, devotion and thanksgiving and the joining together around the Lord’s table in commemoration of his death. It was, and is, God’s plan that his people join together weekly to worship him and encourage one another.
Sometimes a brother or sister will fail to assemble with the Christians. Perhaps they are tired from the evening before or maybe they are traveling and have not prepared by finding a church assembly near their vacation destination. When asked, they may respond thusly: “We just had church at the hotel. You know, where ‘two are three are gathered together’ the Lord is with them.”
Sadly, this is a misunderstanding of what Jesus was saying in Matthew 18:20. In fact, the passage actually argues for a regular assembly together of the body and not for a quickie method of worship.
This passage occurs in the context not of worship, but of church discipline. Two chapters earlier, Jesus foretold the coming of his church. These to whom he speaks will see the coming of the church very soon. Aware that problems arise among followers, Jesus has given a formula for retrieving the erring brother from sin (Matthew 18:5). He directs his followers to use a four-pronged method. First we approach directly involving no one else. If that fails, we take along one or two with us thus confirming what is said. Finally, the problem is discussed with the church generally in hope of regaining the lost soul. Fourth, the impenitent person is excluded from the assembly and treated as a “Gentile and a tax collector (Matthew 18:17).
It is this fourth and final task – the exclusion of the impenitent brother or sister – that Jesus is speaking of when he declares that “where two or three have gathered together in my name, I am in their midst” (Matthew 18:20). The text here is similar to that in Matthew 16:13-20 when Jesus promises that he will establish his church and promises that doctrine taught through the apostles and in the church will have already been made in heaven. In our text, Jesus is simply saying that when making the decision to withdraw from a member, he is present in their decisions – it is not simply a human decision. The passage is meaningless unless there is a regular assembly together of the saints and thus argues for the regular gathering together. If there is no regular assembly together there can be nothing to be withdrawn from and nowhere to make that decision.
What is more important from our perspective, Jesus is not discussing the gathering together of the church for worship. There is nothing here to suggest that Jesus desires anything other than attendance together with the body for worship.
Consider what normally happens when someone does not attend and uses Matthew 18:20 for justification:
1. The so-called worship is abbreviated – it is hasty and usually skimps on some aspect.
2. There is little or no preparation for worship from the one leading the “service.”
3. The gathering about the Lord’s table, if done at all, is very brief and with minimal meaning.
4. There is usually no attempt to lay by in store a contribution to the work of the church.
5. There is no spiritual oversight by elders who are the Lord’s appointed ones.
6. There is no allowance for an invitation, which, while not required, points to the lackadaisical attitude inherent in such a “worship service.”
Our intention is not to lambaste some brother or sister. In fact, we have no recollection of any specific member making this claim to us. Our goal is guide and teach and avoid the dangers of seeking to make worship soft and meaningless. Ample resources are available to locate and investigate churches before leaving town on vacation. Find and assemble with your brethren. You will encourage them and yourself.