I was reading a post over at Reclaiming the Mind over the misuse of Matthew 18:20 by a woman who was praying. I have been trying to not be offended by what I consider a misuse of a verse, because it very well might not be a misuse for them. Plus, the number of times that Jewish people have told Christians that we are misusing or misinterpreting the Old Testament to prove Jesus is the Messiah, should humble all of us a bit.
This article stood out a bit to me, since I am charismatic and I hear this verse used a lot. Here is the offending verse:
Mat 18:20 – For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
C. Michael Patton, who wrote the article does a good job at showing how starting in 18:15, Jesus is talking about how to address those who have “sinned” against you. Jesus says we should first speak to them alone and if that does not work, you should take two or three witnesses to address the issue and hopefully you will regain a brother/sister in Christ. Patton points out how this is patterned off Deuteronomy 17:6, which directs the use of two or three witnesses.
To Patton, it is wrong for the person to take 18:20 out of the context of dealing with issues like these and instead use it as some sort of prayer formula to get what you want from God. He even refers to this practice at a form of idolatry. Many of his readers agree with his stance and liken it to a sort of witchcraft. I fully agree with what they are saying, if this is indeed being taken out of context, but I have a question about his allegation.
Mat 18:19-20 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. (20) For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.”
When you include verse 19 into the mix, verse 20 no longer reads as if it is addressing the confrontation of a person who has “sinned” against you, unless you are trying to come together in agreement to ask the Father to do something to this person, which is not very nice.
So, is it really a misuse of the verse or did Patton misread the passage and lump too many verses together?
One thing that is both empowering and frustrating with the Bible is how we can take a verse or two and apply it to what we are going through. Now I have seen many passages taken out of context and used for evil against others, so I truly see why context is so important.
If the Bible is supposed to be the living word of God though, will it always be held to historical context or could the Holy Spirit use a verse or promise in a context that pertains to what you are going through in that moment? Is that not what we are claiming about the Old Testament? That God revealed Jesus through it but we can only see that from the power of the Holy Spirit?
For me, I see 18:19-20 as a promise that if several people come together in agreement in prayer, then God would fulfill that request. I do not see that it means that Jesus is more powerful or more likely to answer us when there is a group, as that would severely restrict the need or practicality of private prayer time. Instead, I see it as a promise that if several of us can agree on something, meaning that we are in agreement with each other and God, then the prayer would be answered.
In the Deuteronomy 17:6, these two or three witnesses were staking their life on the claim that the person being accused was in the wrong. For two or three people to agree in prayer, in theory, these people will be talking to each other and discussing if what they are being asked to agree upon is within the will of God, as they see it. It is highly unlikely, that you will get two or three people to pray for someone to leave their marriage so that you two can start dating. It is likely however, that these people will agree on a job to be provided. I have been asked to “agree” with others in prayer before when I knew what they were asking for was wrong, so maybe additional context is needed.