Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.
These two verses constitute a fine example of what comes from taking Scripture out of context. I bet I’ve heard both preached, taught, and quoted over 1,000 times (no exaggeration). Yet I don’t recall ever hearing them discussed together, nor in light of their preceding verses. The New International Version combines Matthew 18.15-20 under the header “A Brother Who Sins Against You”. Every scholar and commentator I’ve researched follows suit. Thus, it makes sense to read verses 19 and 20 as Jesus’s guidelines for managing disagreements among believers. So why is 19 commonly used to advocate “agreeing in prayer” and 20 interpreted as Christ’s promise to be present when believers assemble for worship? The irony of reading both “agreement” scriptures in this fashion is neither reading agrees with Christ's intended meaning.
Jesus sets the context with a four-step process for resolving differences between people of faith. If a fellow believer wrongs us, we first handle it privately, “just between the two of you.” (v15) We don’t complain to the pastor or seek sympathy from other Christians. How wise this is. It spares both sides potential embarrassment and prevents the situation from affecting others. Second, if the offending person doesn’t come around, Jesus says to return for another talk, this time with one or two believers as unbiased observers. This adheres to Deuteronomy 19.15’s admonition that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
Should that fail, Jesus gives a third alternative: “tell it to the church.” (v17) Now it’s time to bring the issue to the attention of the pastor and elders—not because they’ve got more clout, but because the matter has gone from a private disagreement to a congregational problem. Finally, if the person still ignores the misunderstanding he/she caused, Jesus instructs us to “treat him [or her] as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (v17) This sounds harsh, possibly even cynical, particularly coming from Jesus—until we read on to discover He’s not recommending we shun errant believers. And here again, the irony of extra-contextual interpretation rears up, because seldom is this next passage taught to convey its actual meaning.
Catch and Release
When most Christians read verse 18 and hear Jesus say, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” their minds kick into search-and-destroy mode. What’s out of control in our lives that we’d like to bind? What’s tied up that we’d like to loose? Before we get too drunk on this carte blanche authority, though, it’s smart to slow down and consider why Jesus connects “binding and loosing” with believer-on-believer conflicts. It then becomes apparent He’s teaching us to neutralize harmful things fellow Christians do and say to us without their expressed consent. We catch their behavior before it spreads further. We release its influence on our minds and emotions.
With this, Jesus’s “pagan or tax collector” comment makes perfect sense. While both groups carried political credentials, their spiritual credibility was nil. Pagans held no sway on Jewish life because they didn’t honor the Law or believe in The One True God. Many tax collectors were Jews, but their loyalty to Caesar classified them as idolaters. In both cases, their opinions about all things spiritual held no water. That’s how Jesus encourages us to regard those who unrepentantly misuse or wrong us. To paraphrase the self-help guru, Wayne Dyer, what they think of us is none of our business.
Once He settles the correct approach to those who disagree with us, Jesus reinforces why it’s vital we agree. Verses 19 and 20 inform us it’s better to build consensus for good than mount campaigns against evil. Had Jesus never taught us this, common sense should have. Haven’t we learned by now the numbers game always favors the side that rouses fear and panic? Can’t we see since it’s easier to scare people than inspire them, the side for positive progress will never outnumber the negative crowd in face-offs? Verse 19 subverts this dynamic by reducing the consensus quota for good to two.
If only you and I to agree to work for what’s right and just, Jesus says we are the majority. What we ask our Father to achieve through us will be done. When we come together in Christ’s name, He will be with us. Proverbs 21.1 declares, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” It’s not about God being on “our side.” It’s about agreeing to rely on His power and Christ's presence in us to change hearts. We do the praying and listening. He does the moving and shaking. Instead of disagreeing with those who oppose us, let’s agree with one another to do what’s right. Positive consensus works better for us. It makes better use of our time. It provides God a better platform to prove Who He is.
When no more than two of us agree to work for what’s right and just, God’s power and Christ’s presence makes us the majority.