If memory serves, the first time I heard the phrase “where two or three are gathered” misquoted was on a blustery winter evening in the fellowship hall of my first congregation. A few minutes after Bible study was to begin, the unusually small group concluded that no one else was coming on this cold evening. It was at that point when one of the members said, “I sure am glad Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered, I am with them.’ Looks like we just make the cut tonight!”
We all recognized the good-natured joke. No real harm was done by the misapplication of Matthew 18:20; after all, Jesus’ presence among us is not dependent on the number who have gathered. But do we realize that Jesus’ promise to be with “two or three gathered in my name” is intended for times when sin has badly damaged the relationships within the church family?
This study returns to the topic of conflict resolution, previously discussed with the phrase “It’s not my place to judge” in the March issue. Our focus here will be Matthew 18:1-20.
The urgency of reconciliation
Brethren have long realized that the love we have for our brothers and sisters in the church is a commentary on our love for God. This love includes a commitment to confession of sin and reconciliation. Knowing that our self-centeredness would create problems, Jesus gave specific instructions on how to proceed in times of brokenness.
But while Brethren have often looked to Matthew 18:15-20 for instruction on healing broken relationships, this process of reconciliation is not the only thing Jesus had to say on this subject. All of Matthew 18 is relevant for understanding the urgency of reconciling broken relationships in the church. Jesus began by emphasizing the importance of the so-called “little ones” in verses 18:1-7. These people are the standard by which spiritual authenticity is measured, and not those who might appeal to other qualifications (like being one of the 12 disciples!) to be considered great.
The need to be careful in our actions toward the “little ones” is described in the starkest terms. Possibly because these persons are most likely to be affected by the sinful actions of others (due to age or spiritual immaturity) Jesus said it would be better to be “drowned in the depth of the sea” than to become a stumbling block to such as these whom Jesus has welcomed into the kingdom.
The spiritual value of these persons is further highlighted in the parable of the lost sheep (18:10-14), where Jesus said that any shepherd would leave 99 sheep in the relative safety of the group to search for one sheep that has wandered off. Reclaiming lost sheep into the flock of faith is of great importance to God and should be a primary focus of congregational life.
A difficult passage
Perhaps you have noticed that this discussion skipped the unpleasant words of 18:8-9, where Jesus said we are to “cut off” parts of our body that cause us to stumble. In my experience, discussions of these verses typically focus on actions like theft or lust or adultery—sins that we can imagine committing with our hand, foot, or eye. We likely interpret these verses in this way because Jesus did so himself in the very similar passage of Matthew 5:27-30. Certainly, a careful examination of specific temptations that we each face is an important spiritual practice.
But what if Jesus was making a different point here? Notice that the emphasis of Matthew 18 so far has been on how our attitudes and choices affect other people:
- Who is the greatest? A little child (vv. 1-5).
- What puts us in great spiritual peril? Causing a little one to stumble (vv. 6-7).
- What sheep is most important? The one that wandered off (vv. 10-14).
With this emphasis on “the other” in mind, perhaps it is more consistent to recognize that the urgency of “cutting off” the part of our body that causes us to stumble has to do with the spiritual impact our own choices have on other people. Even as we note Jesus’ use of hyperbole here—we don’t literally tear out our eye; even a blind person can lust— perhaps we can see that it is important to confess our own sin because we do not follow Jesus as individuals. We are part of a church family and our relationships matter. Our sin affects more than ourselves; it can cause great spiritual harm to others, especially to “little ones.”
The significance of confession and reconciliation being a congregational process is embodied in 18:15-20. In times of broken relationships, we are to speak to the one who has offended us, not about them. If need be, witnesses are invited to be part of the process, potentially including the entire congregation. And if the relationships remain broken, the church must treat such a one as a “Gentile and a tax collector.”
While some may be troubled by the thought of excommunication, even here the focus remains on the “little ones.” In this situation of extreme brokenness, the church is saying to the other, “Because of your refusal to reconcile the spiritual harm you’ve been part of, we’re no longer certain if you’re one of us. But we still want you back, and we won’t give up on you.” Matthew 18:17 is the parable of the lost sheep put into practice.
Where two or three are gathered
It is at this point that Jesus promised to be with “two or three gathered in my name.” When the fabric of our congregational relationships has been stretched to the breaking point, Jesus promised to be with us. The power of human sin to separate us from one another is never stronger than the power of God to bring reconciliation.
Think back to a time when you were aware of broken relationships in your life. Perhaps it was within your congregation. Maybe it was at Annual Conference. Wherever it was, did you believe that Jesus was with you as you worked to reconcile the brokenness? Did you even try?
Unfortunately, people often give up on reconciliation and leave the church long before we’ve come to the end of Jesus’ power to reconcile. What are we admitting about our faith in Jesus if leaving the church seems better than reconciling broken relationships?
For further reading
Caring Like Jesus: The Matthew 18 Project, Daniel Ulrich and Janice Fairchild (Brethren Press). A careful biblical and theological analysis of Matthew 18, including illustrations provided by Church of the Brethren members.
Matthew (Believers Church Bible Commentary Series), by Richard B. Gardner (Herald Press). A commentary on the Gospel of Matthew from a Church of the Brethren perspective.
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.