MISUSING MATTHEW 18:18-20

By David Christensen
 

Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.

According to many, God promises a mysterious authority to bind and loose spiritual powers when gathered in harmonious prayer with other believers. “This is the charter for the prayer meeting. One Christian praying alone is of great effect, but what about where two or more gather together? It is here evident that there is an amazing arithmetic about prayer,” one Bible teacher wrote.[1] Another called it the “prayer of agreement” that forms an unbreakable covenant with God to do what we ask. The writer applied it to COVID-19 and exhorted Christians to gather in prayer to claim victory over Coronavirus on the basis of this prayer of agreement. “We have victory over Coronavirus in the name of Jesus. Satan, we bind you and your forces and render you helpless. We loose our angels to go forth and minister on our behalf.”[2] A well-known commentator says that there is greater assurance that God will answer our prayers when we agree in prayer about a request with two or three other like-minded believers.[3]

Is Matthew 18:18-20 a promise from Christ to unleash His power when we gather in corporate prayer?

No. We take the verses out of context when we make them into a promise of power in prayer despite the popularity of this view. There is nothing in the context about prayer. Furthermore, if we take the promise literally, it becomes a magical formula for getting God to do what we want. This problem is tacitly admitted by all who claim the verses as a promise of prayer. The usual solution is to argue that the verses are proverbial statements not bound by context and to qualify the promise away. In essence, it becomes a meaningless promise when all the qualifications are tacked on as conditions.[4]

CONTEXT OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE

The context of Matthew 18:18-20 is church discipline, not prayer. While it is true that the Greek verb translated “ask” is often used in the context of prayer requests in the New Testament, Jesus is not talking about prayer in this context. He is talking about invoking God’s authority in the execution of church discipline. We have, in this passage, a continuation of the teaching on assembly discipline in 18:15-17. In verses 18-20, Christ pledges that the decisions of believers arrived at through a process of arbitration are the decisions of God. Christians reach an accord or settlement through the mutual agreement of the offended parties, or the church exercises its power of excommunication based on two or three witnesses. In so doing, the church is carrying out the will of God and acting under God’s authority.

Jesus instructs us on the steps for assembly correction or discipline (Mt. 18:15-17). First comes private confrontation (18:15). The purpose of private confrontation is repentance, rectification, or reconciliation. The second step in the process is witnessed confrontation (18:16). The purpose of witnessed confrontation is to establish the truth of the matter through proof that can be verified by two or three witnesses. Third comes assembly discipline (18:17). There are two parts to this third step. If no repentance has taken place, then the matter is told to the whole assembly. If there is still no repentance, then the church takes action to treat the person as an outsider, no longer a part of the assembly. The logical progression of judicial assembly procedures should lead to reconciliation, but discipline becomes necessary if no satisfactory result is gained.

What right does the church have to impose discipline on an erring member?

Verse 18 answers that question. The authority of the church in discipline is the authority conferred by heaven on the convened assembly. What the church binds on earth “shall have been bound in heaven” (see also Mt. 16:19). The periphrastic construction combines a future tense with a perfect tense indicating that the act of binding (or loosing) on earth is a continuation of an action that has already been completed in heaven. God is not ratifying the decisions of the church. The church is carrying out the decisions of heaven.[5] Following the process of these verses aligns the church with God’s will and keeps the church in tune with God’s decisions about church discipline. God’s authority stands behind the church’s discipline.

BINDING AND LOOSING

Jesus uses terms borrowed from the Jewish legal system regarding the power of the synagogue to exercise discipline. Alfred Edersheim writes, “no other terms were in more constant use in Rabbinic canon law than those of binding and loosing.”[6] The Greek words translate Aramaic words, which cover two acts of discipline in the synagogue. To bind someone meant to forbid or prohibit the person, while to loose someone meant to permit or forgive them. Binding also referred to the imposition of a ban on someone, or, in other words, to excommunicate the person from fellowship in the community. Loosing, in the same context, meant to restore the person to the community. The synagogue had the power to admit or expel members according to Rabbinic law.[7] Jesus is saying that the church has the God-given authority to admit or expel members if they follow the disciplinary procedures that He outlines in these verses.

THE CASE IN QUESTION

There is an important term in Matthew 18:19 that often goes unnoticed. Jesus talks about agreement regarding “anything that they may ask.” The word translated “anything” can have a specific meaning. It can mean a lawsuit, dispute, or legal matter. The word is often used in the papyri of the day to refer to a court case.[8] In fact, Paul uses the same word to refer to a legal case that one Christian might bring against another Christian (1 Cor. 6:1). Furthermore, the verb translated “ask” can mean to make a demand or pursue a legal claim.[9] While it is commonly used in the context of prayer, the word sometimes refers to legal claims. This is the way it is used in Acts 25:15 (see also Acts 25:3), where the Jewish elders brought charges against Paul, “asking for a sentence of condemnation.” It seems best in the context of Matthew 18 to understand the asking in the sense of pursuing a legal claim. The case in question requires that two out of three judges render a decision.

TWO OR THREE

Jesus, citing Deuteronomy 19:15, teaches us that there should be two or three witnesses to prove that a person has sinned in Matthew 18:16. The Mishnah established that there must be two independent witnesses who agree on the facts in court, especially regarding any accusations of adultery.[10] However, in Matthew 18:19-20, Jesus is not talking about witnesses. Here he is referring to the Rabbinic rules about judges. According to the Mishnah, certain legal cases were to be decided by a panel of three judges. Property cases, theft, personal injury, claims for damages or restitution, and slander of a virgin were all cases that required a panel of three judges to rule. It was an ancient process of legal arbitration. Each litigant chose one judge, and they agreed together to choose a third judge.[11] The law required that two of the three judges agree together on the merits of the legal matter. Therefore, this text is not talking about where two or three agree together in prayer. It is talking about where two or three agree together in judgment. Christ is in their midst as they render a verdict.

GATHERING IN AGREEMENT

There are two important words to define. The first word is “agree” in verse 19. The word is used in commercial contracts for agreements about financial matters or price. It is commonly used in the papyri meaning to bargain or come to terms on a business transaction.[12] For example, Matthew uses it to describe a financial transaction in the parable of the landowner and laborers (Mt. 20:2,13). This usage coincides with Jewish law concerning arbitration for financial disputes. The second word is “gathered together” in verse 20. It generally means “to call together” and is the word from which we get synagogue – the calling together of the Jewish assembly with a minimum of ten members. The word can mean convene a gathering for the purpose of litigation, implying a legal or judicial setting.[13] The gathering in this context was a formal calling people together for the purpose of deliberation regarding a dispute.

For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.

Jesus promises the power of His presence when we gather as a church to deliberate about disciplinary decisions. The expression was a familiar Semitic idiom for the presence of Yahweh (the Shekinah) among His people in the Old Testament (Ps. 46:5; Isaiah 12:6; Jer. 14:9; Hosea 11:9; Zeph. 3:15,17). Paul uses the same word for “gather together” or “assemble” in the name of Jesus for the purpose of church discipline (1 Cor. 5:4). He implies the presence of Christ in such disciplinary gatherings of the church by saying that they gather “with the power of our Lord Jesus.” The linguistic and contextual parallels indicate that Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 formed the basis for church discipline in the apostolic church.

Jesus is not giving us a promise of extraordinary power in prayers of agreement. We misuse the verse when we apply it to prayer. The verse is talking about resolving disputes, correcting sin, and exercising discipline in the church.

 

[1] Ray Stedman, “Praying Together,” https://www.raystedman.org/thematic-studies/prayer/praying-together

[2] https://www.agapembassy.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Prayer-of-Agreement-Victory-over-Coronavirus-AEM2020.pdf

[3] John Walvoord, Matthew, 138.

[4] William Hendriksen, Matthew, 702; Walvoord, Matthew, 138.

[5] Julius Mantey, “Evidence that the Perfect Tense in John 20:23 and Matthew 16:19 is Mistranslated,” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 16, Summer, 1973, 129; Mantey, “Distorted Translations of John 20:23; Matthew 16:18-19 and 18:18,” Review and Expositor, 78, Summer 1981, 414; Rienecker and Rogers, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, 49.

[6] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, 2:85.

[7] C.H. Dodd, “Some Johannine ‘Herrnworte’ with Parallels in the Synoptic Gospels,” New Testament Studies, 2, Nov. 1955, 85.

[8] Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament, 532.

[9] J.D.M. Derrett, “Where Two or Three are convened in my name … A Sad Misunderstanding,” ET, 81, Dec. 1979, 86.

[10] M. Sanh. 3.6; M. Sot. 1.1; 6.3

[11] M. Sanh. 1.1-1.3; 3.1; Solomon Ganzfried, Code of Jewish Law, 67-68.

[12] Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary, 599; Derrett, Two or Three, 246.

[13] Liddell, Scott and Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 1691.