Question: what is the minimum number of people required to constitute a church or gathering of God’s people (ekklesia)?
It may be tempting to start answering this question by assuming this group must begin with a pastor/preacher, perhaps a plurality of elders – at least 3 for voting purposes, maybe a couple deacons, then expand to the congregation and say maybe 8-10 families? So 20-30 people minimum? Some people ask this question by placing it in the context of church planting and then ask what is the magic number for a launch team? Or…what’s the maximum number of people a sending church could afford to lose and still provide a minimum number of people to sufficiently form a new church?
These are all questions that have been asked before, wrestled over, and then attempted to be biblically answered by many faithful servants of the Lord. Generally speaking, a heavy dose of human wisdom is usually involved in the decision on how this question is answered. That doesn’t make it wrong, or sinful, but it does make it subjective and situational. Our aim here is to ask if Scripture bears any burden for answering these questions.
In Matthew 18, a passage well known for our Lord’s mention of ekklesia as the final stop of confrontation of a sinning brother, also provides for us the answer to these questions, though for some reason it often gets overlooked, confused, or downplayed, particularly when discussions of “church-planting” are taking place.
15 “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.16 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. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
It’s uncontroversial to assert that the context for this passage is clearly revolving around the concept of “church”, or as we have seen more accurately termed a gathering or assembly of God’s people (ekklesia). The opening for this passage involves a scenario created by our Lord to explain how to regard a sinning brother. Here we have 2 brothers (in Christ), one who sins against the other. Jesus instructs His disciples that the offended brother should go and tell the offending brother his fault. If he doesn’t listen, go to him with one or two others, and if he still doesn’t listen tell the matter to the church. Remember that the use and meaning of church (ekklesia) already had meaning and significance in its everyday use (The Old Testament use of Ekklesia). Jesus wasn’t inventing a brand new word. However, to this point in Matthew we have only seen the promise of Christ building His church, from Matthew 16.
In our passage cited above, there are three important features that we will focus on in this post, a gathering of two or three of God’s people, gathering is in the name of Christ, and that when this gathering takes place, Christ is among them.
First, we see in verse 20 above that our Lord sets the minimum parameters for a gathering of His people as where, two or three are gathered. This is key to answering some of our questions posed above and we already know that the context of this passage has to do with church discipline of a recalcitrant brother. Notice that this small number of believers is mentioned throughout this passage
- take one or two others along with you
- that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
- 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.
This idea of two or three recalls a passage from the Old Testament, where two or three witnesses are necessary for conviction of a crime (see Deuteronomy 19:15; also 2 Cor. 13:1). While this mention of two or three occurs throughout the passage, as we’ll see, this last mention carries with it a distinction.
Next, this assembly of two or three is a gathering in Christ’s name. The word translated as “gather” is verbal form of the Greek word synagogue. In another post, we looked at the semantic overlap between ekklesia and synagogue as well as the relationship between church and synagogue. Here we want to simply point out that this gathering is not a random gathering of believers for a ball game or to discuss the weather. It has intentionality and purpose. It is a gathering in the name of Christ. This distinction is critically important for understanding these minimum requirements for a gathering are not limited to where a small number of believers gather, but where they gather in the name of Christ.
We might at this point ask, how does one gather in the name of Christ? Is it simply a declarative statement, “We come together in the name of Christ”? Is it an internal posture of the heart? How can one be sure that this small group is gathering in the name of Christ?
It is where believer’s gather under the authority of Christ, i.e. His Lordship, for the open proclamation and profession of His Word. Commenting on this passage in his New Testament commentary, Hendriksen clarifies this gathering in Christ’s name as, “in close fellowship with him; hence, with his atoning work as the basis of their approach to God, at his direction, and in harmony with that which he has revealed concerning himself.” (pg. 703)
Third, and finally, we see that this gathering of two or three in the name of Christ has a special promise attached to it, namely the presence of Christ in their midst. This promise of our Lord’s special presence, in the midst of the gathering of His people, is not the same as His omnipresence. It is a special presence of Christ in the midst of those who gather in His name. It is here where Christ dwells in His temple (2 Cor. 6:16).
When this passage is often discussed in the context of defining the minimum gathering of God’s people, many have objected to it and denied that such a small group, two or three, could constitute a gathering of God’s people. But that is precisely what our Lord is communicating. We have no need for dozens to be sent out, nor does the institutional church with her hundreds meeting at once constitute a gathering anymore than two or three who gather in the name of Christ.
Writing in his classic work on the doctrine of the Church, Edmund Clowney offers the following affirmation, “Not only do we come to the assembly where our risen Lord is; he comes by his Spirit to the assembly where we are. Where two or three gather in his name, there he is. Because the Lord’s true assembly is in heaven, it appears in many ways on earth: in house churches, in city churches, in the
church universal. Even two or three gathered in his name may claim his power, for he is there.” pg. 31-32
This discussion brings up one additional question. If this minimum group, of two or three, gathered in Christ’s name constitutes a “church”, when has the “universal church” ever been gathered together in the name of Christ?
Answer: they haven’t…yet.