Where two or three are gathered in my name

photo of three person sitting and talking

This might mean the exact opposite of how you’ve heard it used:

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

This is not about casual, ad hoc churches that, like vapors, emerge briefly and then disappear. Neither is it about the mere universal church that spans the globe, inclusive of all Christians, expressed in unplanned intersections of believers at a coffee shop.

The context (18:15-20) is more serious. It describes a protocol of increasing escalation of confrontation that eventually arrives, if necessary, at excommunication. Let’s read it:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

It refers to identifiable, regular, governed gatherings that are organized enough to recognize leadership and implement, in a church-wide coordinated way, church discipline.

The verse is about Jesus putting his divine stamp of approval, as though bodily present, on a properly administered act of church discipline.

Paul uses similar language referring to church discipline:

“For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:3-5)

It’s the kind of thing that would be exercised on “anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler.” (1 Corinthians 5:11)

Or someone who, though having called themselves a brother, has (via persistent bad behavior or undue absence) separated themselves from the local church they were once committed to.

So if you’re inclined to think that the passage means you don’t need a well-regulated church, submission to elders, church discipline (i.e. excommunication), or a regular, identifiable gathering, or some semblance of church membership (at least defined as identifiable, mutually affirmed recognition of Christian faith and belonging), then you’re taking the text in the exact opposite direction.

Churches are outpost-embassies of a kingdom that are marked by authority, governance, corporate unity, and regular gatherings. If you find yourself needing restoration from sin, but refuse the gentle (and then increasingly firm) pleadings of your local church, you just might find your name announced at a church members meeting.

And if you have refused to attach yourself to a local church, it’s as though you’ve preemptively excommunicated yourself from God’s people.

Sober up and fear God. That act of discipline (Paul favorably called it “judging” and “purging” in 1 Corinthians 5:13), rightly administered, is given as though Jesus sits bodily on his throne at the local church. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Church and COVID-19

woman reading book

We are commanded to meet.

“… not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25)

A church by definition gathers.

The Christian church is a dignified, governed, regularly gathered assembly.

Zoom is a shadow, not the substance of this.

Churches are singular units.

Churches are singular units and have a responsibility to substantially meet as singular units. Meeting only as small groups of less than 10, for example, does not fulfill the gathering responsibilities of a larger church.

We need to get close enough for the “one anothers”.

Various commands in the New Testament that are impossible to obey without gathering, e.g. practicing the Lord’s Supper and exchanging affectionate greetings of touch.

Every believer has a responsibility to relationally connect such that the “one another” commands of the New Testament are obeyed, including extending forgiveness and forbearance. If you’re not close enough to need to forgive people in your church, you’re not close enough to people in your church.

Earnest, up-front obedience was appropriate.

“The magistrate has genuine authority in times of emergency to command the church to do certain things, or refrain from certain things (as with a quarantine in a time of plague). When the church complies, it is obedience, not happenstance agreement.” (Douglas Wilson)

“As a general law of neutral applicability, a quarantine at times interferes incidentally with the worship of God. This incidental interference in itself does not necessarily exceed the civil sphere’s authority as long as it is understood to be temporary and localized, lasting no longer and extending no farther than the conditions that gave rise to it… It is hoped that [church leadership] exercised submission to the civil authority, modeling it for the sheep, when the crisis was in its early stages and no one knew the degree to which a clear and present danger existed.” (Evangelical Presbytery)

Corrupt government exceeds its God-given authority.

“At the same time, because no human authority is absolute, and because every form of human authority can be corrupted, those under authority, including the church (and especially the church), have the authority to identify when the genuine authority of the magistrate is being abused or mishandled to the point where it is now legitimate to disregard what they are saying.” (Douglas Wilson)

“Yet, through a protracted, extensive, and comprehensive quarantine whose sway over the lives of the people is nearly absolute, the civil sphere does exceed its authority. When a sphere exceeds its authority and acts ultra vires, its acts are void. Even for acts that are void from the beginning or become void over time, familial and ecclesiastical spheres must approach the proper response thereto through prayer, wisdom, humility, and honor, if not exact obedience, to the civil sphere.” (Evangelical Presbytery)

Churches have authority to govern their domain.

Like fathers over families, elders over churches have final administrative say over the domain and regular life of a church fellowship. While there may be temporary, incidental overlap or interference between the domain of civil government and the domain of church, it is to be treated as short-lived, limited, quickly expiring, and dangerously open to abuse. Elders have a responsibility to decide when such inordinate or prolonged interference has occurred. And they have the authority to decide what is best for the spiritual health of their gathered people.

Elders must practice wisdom.

Elders have a responsibility to take everything into account when deciding when they must practice peaceful civil obedience in meeting as a church:

  • Whether they are being prohibited, even incidentally, from obeying what God commands.
  • Local infection and fatality rate.
  • The point at which the gathering is being sinfully and treacherously neglected.
  • Whether the laws are genuinely held and neutrally applied by leadership.
  • Whether the government is overreaching its God-ordained limits of responsibility.

Is going to church selfish during a pandemic?

An excellent article summarized:

  1. Everyone is morally obligated to worship the living God at church:

“Going to church is not a private, personal habit that some people enjoy, but others don’t. It is a moral duty binding on everyone. Everyone in Britain is morally obligated to worship the living God at church, just as they are obligated not to steal from shops, and to tell the truth… We understand how going to church in a pandemic could look selfish to a secular society, which sees religion as a bunch of private, personal beliefs.”

  1. Churches are essential services:

“The closest equivalent to church is not education, or politics, or the economy, but the supermarkets, and the hospitals, which we were all quite clear were “essential services”. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3).

  1. The risk of not worshipping is greater than COVID:

“The Christian church believes that the risks to our nation of not worshipping the living God through his Son Jesus Christ far outweigh the risks presented by COVID…”

  1. It is especially appropriate to go to church in a time of crisis:

“This is precisely the time to explain that Jesus Christ isn’t just an invisible friend or buddy, or “life-force”. He is God the Son, who has entered history, become man, was crucified, buried, and has risen. He is the Lord of all and he is coming back to hold us all to account. So, in a challenging time, with serious public health risks, getting along to church isn’t a self-indulgent habit that sacrifices my neighbour’s safety. It is an act of love for God, and love for neighbour, of the highest importance.”

The Danger of Whataboutery

“If you see a generality and immediately think of exceptions, you’ve absorbed the spirit of the age.” (Michael Foster)

grey concrete statue under blue sky during daytime

Consider the Book of Proverbs. It packs a punch with pithy one-liners. It doesn’t entertain exceptions. It doesn’t let sophistication get in the way of making a point. It traffics in proverbial truisms.

This is the typical language of Biblical wisdom: Simplified summaries of creational norms. Redemptive patterns are expressed, not in a tome of nuance, but in the terse equivalent of a tweet.

But the heart has its way of rebelling against wisdom:

“What about… ?”

Whataboutery is suffocating. It prevents us from breathing in the proverbial language of wisdom.

Whataboutism dulls our receptivity to straightforward wisdom. Claiming to be wise, we become fools as we stiff-arm proverbial wisdom with:

  • Nitpicking, persnickety, fussy pedantry
  • Love for the praise of man; cringing over what others think
  • Fretting over excess or misuse of truth
  • Missing the “moment” or spirit of the age
  • Inability to appreciate appropriate cultural expressions of creational norms
  • Inability to appreciate courage or boldness; cowardice
  • Using abuse or trauma as an excuse

What modern wisdom teachers on adolescence, parenting, finance, work ethic, fitness, manhood, womanhood, marriage, church, and evangelism are we disregarding because we have no esteemed place for the language of bold proverbial wisdom?

And how many wisdom teachers decide to stay silent because the internet smothers them with whataboutery?

Be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Absorb Proverbs, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Epistle of James. Train your mind to be receptive to language of wisdom.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7)

Jesus on strategic spirituality

  • Don’t judge (then you won’t be judged)
  • Settle accounts early (then you’ll have inside help)
  • Give to the poor (then you will be rich in heaven)
  • Take the back seat (then others will honor you)
  • Clean the inside of your cup (then the outside will be taken care of)
  • Don’t waste time with swine (then you won’t be trampled)
  • Be a eunuch (then you won’t have marriage woes)
  • Be faithful with the small (then you’ll be over the large)
  • Lose your life (then you’ll gain it)
  • Leave everything for Jesus (then you’ll have ten times more)

“No one ever spoke the way this man does.” (John 7:46)

A bright room still visible

quilted white comforter

The relative inaccuracies of Bible transmission and translation are like:

  • dust mites in the air
  • angled blinds
  • smudges on glass

… that a bright beam of daylight encounters when bursting through a window.

The room is still visible. The objects in the room are discernible. You can still walk around. You can still see.

You would never say: I’m blind, I’m blind! Oh, the dust mites!

God-centered eternal progression

Will we become “like” God in heaven and the resurrection? Will we progress? Will we be bored?

Let me contrast two views that I disagree with, and then describe the view (#3) that I take:

View #1

woman standing at escalator

The view of Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff. In this view all the gods always progress in all of their attributes. And by the time we get to know what God knows now, we will have since then learned more. This is like an escalator. We travel upward, and by the time we arrive where God is now, he will have moved forward. Bruce McConkie condemned this view as a deadly, damnable heresy.

View #2

brown and white mountain under blue sky during daytime

The view of Orson Pratt, which was later championed by Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce McConkie. These said that all the exalted gods are equal in knowledge and power, cease to progress in their attributes. This view is like joining all the gods on top of a plateau. Brigham condemned this view and insisted that God is still learning.

These gods only progress in their “eternal increase”, that is, in their children or dominions. Sort of like a cosmic MLM.

View #3

silhouette photo of man on cliff during sunset

God-centered eternal-progression. Christians have an infinite God that has always known everything. God isn’t progressing in knowledge or power. He has never learned. His people grow forever in the enjoyment and capacity to enjoy his kindness. They never “max out” in the knowledge of God, since God is infinite.

Paul says in Ephesians 2:7 that Christ has raised us, “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.“ Paul prays in Ephesians 1:18 that believers would have “the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.”

So I will never get to the last page of the last book in the library of God’s knowledge and grace and say, “That’s it. That’s all there is to know.” His kindness and knowledge and power are “immeasurable” and “unsearchable” (Romans 11:33).

I like the way John Piper put it:

“In Christ the best is always yet to come. Always. No exceptions. Forever.”

Eternal progression of finite creatures who forever progress in the enjoyment of the kindness of an infinite God. All in the context of a new heaven, new earth, new physical resurrection body, new humanity, new community. With songs and culture and food and ethnic people groups and personality and relationships and land and property and dominion and responsibilities and work and governance.

“His plan is for us to develop, as apprentices to Jesus, to the point where we can take our place in the ongoing creativity of the universe.” (Randy Alcorn, “Heaven“)

And unimaginable things that we can’t even dream of.

Kwaku/Aaron 2020 Debate Review (Part 1)

On March 6, 2020 Kwaku El and I debated on the topic of “Is Jesus Enough?” at Utah Valley University. Our subtopics were:

  1. Is salvation by faith alone?
  2. Was there a Great Apostasy?
  3. Are families forever?

Part 1 will of this review be a high-level overview of the debate and a response to Kwaku’s latest video wherein he depicts me as Hitler.

Part 2 will dive more into the content of the debate, with a focus on the topics we had agreed to cover.

Continue reading “Kwaku/Aaron 2020 Debate Review (Part 1)”