Commonly Misused Bible Verses: Matthew 18:19–20

Both Christians and unbelievers are guilty of misusing Bible verses by ripping them from their original context.

This is post #4 in the Commonly Misused Bible Verses series. So far I have commented on 2 Chronicles 7:14 and Jeremiah 29:11. These two verses are often pulled out of their contexts by well-meaning Christians. Matthew 7:1 is a very popular verse for unbelievers to misuse. Click on the links for more information on any of those articles.

For today’s post, I want to take a look at another verse that is frequently misused by well-meaning Christians. Bear in mind that I am not trying to pick on anyone or attack them for misusing these verses. Most of the time they are misused because we have heard someone else misuse them and we’re used to hearing the verse in a particular (but wrong) context, so we repeat the same error. This series is designed to encourage people to take a close look at Scripture before repeating what we’ve heard.

Commonly Misused Bible Verse #4: Matthew 18:19–20

Think about how many times you have heard someone quote or summarize this passage during a prayer or immediately before praying.

“Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:19–20, NKJV)

The idea that is commonly promoted is that if there are two or more people gathered together who agree on something, and they ask God for it in prayer, then Jesus will be present and God will answer their request.

If you’ve read any of the other posts in this series, then you know that we need to look at the context to see what is wrong with the way many people use this verse. However, before we do that, can you see some problems with the idea that God will grant the request of those who come together and are in agreement in prayer? First of all, Jesus said “where two or three are gathered” in His name, so how could this apply to settings of four or more? Also, why would it take two or three believers to be gathered together for Jesus to be in their midst? Isn’t He already present in each and every individual believer? So even if one Christian prays, isn’t Jesus already there?

So there are already a couple of problems with the common use of this passage. Now let’s take a look at the context. This section deals with a subject that most churches completely neglect: church discipline. Jesus said that if you have a brother who sins against you, then you need to go to him and try to work it out. If he refuses to acknowledge his fault, then you bring one or two more witnesses to help work things out. So including you, that would make two or three witnesses—recognize that phrase? Not only is it repeated in these verses, but it comes from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 19:15 and more). Legal cases needed to have two or three witnesses to establish a matter.

Back to Jesus’ story. If the sinning brother did not make things right in the presence of two or three witnesses, then the case was to be brought before the church. If he refused to listen to the church’s decision, then he was to be thrown out of the congregation. I know that sounds harsh in our day because precious few churches practice discipline as Jesus instructed, but that is what we are commanded to do.

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It is with this in mind that Jesus said that the Father would grant the request of two or more who gather together in Christ’s name and are in agreement. Agreement on what? On disciplining the erring brother. That’s what this passage is about and yet so many Christians use it as though Jesus promised to answer their prayers when offered in certain situations.

Before I finish this post let me stress what the Bible actually does say about prayer. The Apostle John wrote, “Now this is the confidence we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him” (1 John 5:14–15). John also wrote, “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22).

So we can have confidence about God answering our prayers when we are obediently following Him and praying according to His will. If you haven’t experienced answered prayer, then perhaps you aren’t living in obedience and/or praying according to His will (or maybe He did answer it and you didn’t recognize the response because He often answers in ways we don’t expect).


Commonly Misused Bible Verses: Matthew 18:19–20 — 151 Comments

  1. Some people would rather debate and prove that they are right, instead of seeking God and the Holy Spirit for guidance. We are never too old to learn, and instead of being curt or flippant, why not pray for one another so we all can gain correct wisdom, understanding and knowledge.

    Learn to not be so defensive, just because someone doesn’t think or believe as you do. We are all human, not one on this board is perfect. Non-believers are always watching for a believer to make the ultimate mistake and that is to not demonstrate love toward our brothers and sisters.

    Sometimes it’s better to refrain from speaking if the words will sting or bruise.

    God may be trying to tell you something and you are not listening, maybe you are interpreting the scriptures incorrectly but you are too busy trying to prove a point, you can’t and will not acknowledge your error.

    May our Heavenly Father bless us all!!

  2. I agree we need to explore the content and context of the Word.I don’t agree with your view or opinion on prayer agreement. My example of unity and answered prayer that too me shows the significance of agreement is the upperroom.They were in one accord.New Testament Church.Not this weak one here in America.

    • Hi Dave,
      I have nothing against people praying in agreement. Without trying to sound flippant, I think the more people that are praying for something, the better it will be, although there is still no guarantee that hundreds of people praying the same thing will bring about the desired result. Sometimes God answers with a “No.” Just ask parents who have lost children to horrible diseases like cancer.
      I’m glad you agree that we need to explore the content and context of Scripture, and I don’t mind that you disagree with me. These things happen in the church, and we need to show the world that we can disagree on things and still work together to make disciples. My main concern with your comment is that after you mentioned that we should look at the content and context of Scripture, you sought to find an example in a passage that is descriptive rather than prescriptive. What I mean by that is Acts is primarily a book of the history of the early church. It describes what did happen, but doesn’t necessarily prescribe what should always be done or what we should expect from God if we do the same things as the disciples. We can certainly try to follow their examples, but that doesn’t mean we need to start in Jerusalem, move out to Judea, then to Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). It also doesn’t mean that we should expect the Holy Spirit to come with a mighty rushing wind and tongues of flame. Can we pray together? Absolutely. But the book of Acts doesn’t tell us that we should always expect the results we seek if we are praying in agreement. It does show us that God answered the prayer of the disciples in the upper room.
      Thanks for reading.

  3. Very interesting to say the least. I had always read it as Jesus telling everyone that you don’t have to be in a huge crowd or gathering to have Him there with you. Like a small bible study. I figured it went back to him telling us not to praise and pray out in public but to go and anoint our own heads and pray and ask in a closet. I always thought he was saying that no matter how small the group as long as you were gathered in his name for the right reasons he was present.

    • Hi Carol,
      I am right if I have accurately interpreted this passage. If I have not rightly interpreted it, then I am wrong. If you read some of the comments below you’ll see that Mark essentially asked the same question recently. Here is how I responded to him:

      I would agree with the majority of commentators who view verses 18–20 as a continuation of 15–17. Most Bibles that use section headings group all of these verses together too. There are reasons for this. The word translated as “Again” in verse 19 is the Greek word palin, and it indicates that He is repeating something He has just told them. Well, the “two or three” verbiage is also found in verse 16, so these two sets of verses are linked grammatically.
      They are also linked thematically. The word translated as “thing” (pragmatos) or “anything” (pantos pragmatos) in verse 19 is frequently reserved for legal matters, which of course would go right back to verses 15–17.
      I don’t believe I am being arrogant or conceited here. I am not bashing or ridiculing anyone who disagrees with me. I am simply encouraging people to take a closer look at the context of a passage before quoting it and applying it to situations that it probably was not intended for. As I mentioned in the post, I don’t disagree that God is present whenever two or three (or more) are gathered together, but I believe the context of this passage limits this discussion to disciplinary matters. Since most commentators that I’ve checked agree with me and some even talk about how these verses are misused, then I don’t think it is fair to ask what makes me correct and everybody else wrong.

      It isn’t about me being right and others being wrong. The goal of this post and the others in the Commonly Misused Bible Verses series is to encourage Christians to take a close look at the text rather than simply repeating what they have always heard. Is that a bad thing?

      • I agree with you Tim, we must read the entire scripture to receive understanding, we can’t just pick and choose certain scriptures that sounds good or makes us feel better about our sin.

  4. I totally agree with you. We should read the entire chapter to understand what each verse is talking about.

  5. Tim Chaffey, thank you for putting the verses Matthew 18:19-20 in context for me.

    I have a question on the last bit you wrote about prayer (1 John 5:14–15)and how He might have answered us but we don’t recognise it?
    I am really struggling with this because I have been praying about something for a long time now and sometimes I think He has answered and said yes, but then I wonder if it’s just me, wanting to hear a yes.
    How do I know I am praying according to His will? How do I know if there is a sin or disobedience that displeases Him and I have to repent from it before He answers me?
    How do I pray and ask The Lord and have Faith that He will give me what I ask, if I pray but wonder if it’s not His will, He will not answer?
    How do I know if I must keep praying and believing He will answer my prayer, He just needs to know I have the Faith to keep believing and keep praying? Because I have heard of prayers being answered after 6 years, or even 10 years, and we are not supposed to give up, for example Daniel’s prayer was answered on the first day but it took 21 days for the message to come to him.
    What if He has answered and said no, but I have not realised it and continue to pray about, and there really is no point if He has said no or it is not His will.
    Finally, through everything, through all my questions I know with all my being, that no matter what He answers me, I trust in Him, I love Him First, all my hope is in Him and whatever happens, He works all things to the good of those that love Him AND I truly feel deep down in my heart, in my spirit, I know that He will answer my prayer and reconcile and restore what the enemy came to destroy.

    • Hi Sumeiya,
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a response. You have asked some great questions, and I’m not sure if there is a “one size fits all” answer to them. I think your final paragraph is really the key to all of this. No matter what the outcome of the situation(s) you are dealing with, trust God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. You may not understand why something is happening or why He allows it to continue, but He sees the end from the beginning, and He will work it out in the long run for your good.
      Jesus told parables of the persistent friend (Luke 11:5–10) and the persistent widow (Luke 18:1–8). While these seem to discuss different situations, there is a similar point: God is not upset with those who diligently call on Him. Unless the thing you are praying for is contrary to something spelled out in Scripture, then I believe God will make it very clear to you if His answer is “No.” Until that time comes, continue steadfastly in prayer, spend time daily in the Bible, and be sure to live according to His principles. If the matter can be shared with others, then ask them to pray along with you.
      Back in my early 20s (too long ago already) I kept praying for God’s guidance: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” I prayed that on a regular basis, and yet it seemed like He wasn’t going to answer it. Then I made the commitment to spend time every morning reading the Bible, praying for His guidance, and getting involved in ministry at my local church working with the youth. In less than three months, I knew exactly what He wanted me to do. Will your answer come that quickly? I can’t know that. But I do encourage people to commit their ways to the Lord, and I believe He will guide their steps (see Psalm 37:4–5).
      I hope this helps.

  6. You are way off base as the church did not exist at that time.It did not exist until Acts 2 Jesus had to purchase our right to have the spirit by his death burial; and resurrection.(John 7:39) It is a right to have church service! Why would he teach people Jews to be specific about church matters. I suspect you may be reformed and they love to rebuke people.

    • Manuel,
      I would agree with you that the church did not officially start until Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost. However, I am not the one who came up with the idea of using church in this passage. It’s there because that’s the term Jesus used according to Matthew’s Holy Spirit inspired text. Even if you want to say that this was originally for His Jewish followers, then why shouldn’t the same principles of reconciliation apply in the church? They seem like great procedures to follow. In Matthew’s Gospel, prior to chapter 16, Jesus seems to direct His teaching to the Jewish people, giving them a legitimate offer of the kingdom. The leaders, by and large, reject His offer, and beginning with chapter 16 (“I will build My church”) the focus shifts to His coming death, burial, and Resurrection and the building of the church.
      According to your logic, you must be Reformed, since you are rebuking me for my blog post that calls attention to what nearly every commentary says about this passage. If you would look at another one of my posts on commonly misused verses, you will clearly see whether or not I fall into the Reformed camp.

  7. I have been to four countries and ten states and have never seen a church willing to love his brother 70 X 7 in a day. Once I manged to get a two person meating which they called a mediation meeting it took some time but my brother rpented – but like Pharoah he soon took it back and began to slander me again. So i asked for another and they told me “YOu just need to change churches” ME? so a kid is bullied at school and the solution is to embolden the bully by changing schools? Doesn’t anyone care about the bully? Its not about me being wronged its about my friends soul is ill!

    I have been to foursquare, Calvary Chapel, Vinyard, Presbeterian, Baptist, Vinyard, Peticostel, Apostolic Penticostel and over and over God people use his tool of influence for evil and manipulation and Not for love. When asked to do it for love they say it is harsh, without grace, even legalistic.

    I once asked a lady if she could help me with a friend and she replied “you just want to be right!” No I want to know my mistake if any having you look at my blind spot in the presence of my friend but if you do not wish to help because you want to avoid judging then why did you JUST judge me unjustly?

    When my son asks his sister for help with their brother she NEVER replies “you just want to be right” she listend to both sides and helps them to reconcile.

    Someone tell me is there any out there???

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