Prayer and the "Law of Agreement"? Taking a closer look at Matthew 18.15-201
In a recent article in Charisma magazine (May 2014) a Tennessee pastor cited the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 to support the practice of “agreement” in prayer as a way of increasing the probability of receiving what we ask. Continue reading . . .
In a recent article in Charisma magazine (May 2014) a Tennessee pastor cited the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 to support the practice of “agreement” in prayer as a way of increasing the probability of receiving what we ask. “Before His death and resurrection,” he writes, “Jesus gave a hint about miracle power in Matthew 18:19-20.” He then cites the words of Jesus to the effect that “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.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a text so frequently cited and so dear to the hearts of Christian men and women as this one. Of course, all biblical texts should be precious to us. But they are precious, and powerful, only to the extent to which we interpret them in light of their context and in accordance with what the original author actually intended to teach.
This Tennessee pastor exhorts us to “read this promise and see its potential. If we can agree,” so he suggests, “anything becomes possible!”
I am somewhat hesitant to take issue with this interpretation, if for no other reason than that my theological hero, Jonathan Edwards, embraced it in support of his efforts in the 18th century to mobilize a global concert of prayer among Christians (see his treatise, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, Yale:4, pp. 520-21). There is also the fact that unity of mind and agreement of purpose is of great value in the life of the local church, and nothing I say about how this text in Matthew has been abused should detract from that truth.
But the simple fact remains that Jesus was not talking about the so-called “law of agreement” or in any way suggesting that if we can put aside our differences and come to unity in that for which we pray we will see “miracle power” released where “anything becomes possible.” So, what was Jesus saying?
The only way to answer that question, as I said, is to read this passage in context. So let’s look at where it falls in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel.
“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” (Matt. 18:15-20).
Clearly Jesus is addressing the subject of church discipline (see especially D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 8:403-04; and J. Duncan M. Derrett, “Where two or three are convened in my name . . .’: a sad misunderstanding,” ExpT 91 [1979-80]:83-86). That is to say, he is setting before us the procedural steps for what is to be done when a professing Christian sins. The first step is private rebuke (v. 15). If unsuccessful, this is to be followed by plural rebuke (v. 16; cf. Deut. 19:15). If plural rebuke fails, which is to say that the person remains in denial or unrepentant regarding their misbehavior, there follows public rebuke and eventually separation (v. 17), a decision that the church may be confident has divine approval (v. 18). So, if Matthew 18:19-20 is taken as a reference to prayer, its application must at least be restricted by the immediately preceding context (vv. 15-18).
However, I’m not persuaded that Jesus is saying anything directly about prayer, much less about the so-called “law of agreement”.
The “two” people in v. 19 who come to an agreement are, in all likelihood, the same “two” people mentioned in v. 15, namely, the offender and the person against whom the offense has been committed (Derrett believes that the “two or three” are the judges called by the church to settle the matter, but Carson has a persuasive response in “Matthew,” 404). Furthermore, the verb translated “ask” in v. 19 does not necessarily mean to ask in prayer. It may well refer to the “pursuing of a claim.” Similarly, the word translated “anything” need not be taken in the sense of “any legitimate object of petitionary prayer” but in the sense we see in 1 Corinthians 6:1 where Paul has in mind “any judicial matter” that has come before the church for adjudication.
If this should prove correct, Jesus would have been describing a situation in which two people involved in a dispute come to an agreement on the matter that has divided them. Presumably, this will have occurred on the basis of the church’s judgment, referred to in v. 18. In such cases our heavenly Father will approve and ratify the decision (literally, “it shall come to be from the Father,” or perhaps, “it shall be allowed, granted, sanctioned”). Therefore, the “two or three” mentioned in v. 20 who are “gathered” or who come together in the name of Jesus are probably the two disputants themselves, along with the third party who was called in as an outside witness (v. 19).
Thus, Jesus is most likely not promising that God will answer any prayer that two people agree upon, as if to suggest that the same prayer uttered by only one believer is for that reason less pleasing to God. Rather, Jesus would be saying that when two Christians involved in a personal dispute are able to resolve their differences, God ratifies or sanctions or approves the matter. The verdict of heaven, so to speak, is consonant with that of the church, before whom the matter was adjudicated (see 1 Cor. 5:4).
Although we should avoid being dogmatic in the interpretation of this passage, caution must prevail in any attempt to derive from it a law or eternal principle to the effect that if two believers of one mind pray for the same thing at the same time they may be assured of seeing their request fulfilled.
I am certainly not opposed to corporate prayer (we practice it regularly at Bridgeway Church here in OKC). Far less do I mean to indict as unbiblical the so-called “prayer chain” or the “day of prayer” in which believers converge to bring their petitions en masse to the throne of grace. I am only suggesting that if this sort of joint supplication is undertaken, the participant should not do so on the basis of Matthew 18:19-20.
Even less appropriate is the use of this passage in “The Wedding Song” made popular by Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame) in 1970. Although I would hope that love prevails any time two Christian people come together, that is not what Jesus is promising here. If this song was sung at your wedding, please don’t be angry with me!
Finally, why is it important that we take time to carefully and thoroughly examine a passage in terms of context and authorial intent? The simple answer is that it will protect us from believing something God hasn’t said and from trusting in a promise he never made. My concern is that many will adopt the notion of a “law of agreement” and pray with the expectation (dare I say, presumption?) that if they can only get one or two others to agree with them on some matter that God is obligated to answer their request accordingly. When he doesn’t, confidence in God and his Word is undermined. Of course, he may answer their prayers, but if he does it isn’t because he is honoring a “promise” allegedly stated in Matthew 18.