Isn’t everyone gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus? If you have ever tried explaining to one of your friends that you are part of a group of believers who do not take any denominational name but gather to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, then you have probably been confronted by this challenge. In their sincerity and simplicity, many take Matthew 18:20 to apply to any and every time that two or three believers meet. It hardly matters whether it is over coffee, pizza, or a Bible. And it certainly applies to when they “go to church” and meet with other Christians.
But what does it mean to be gathered to the Lord’s Name? Is it applicable to any gathering of believers at any time? To any group who meets for whatever purpose?
A reading of Matthew 18 will make it clear that the context for the Lord’s statement in verse 18 is a local church and not an informal gathering of friends or a social outing of believers. “Tell it to the church” (v17) should settle the question that the setting for the chapter is a church setting and not a social or informal gathering. The investing of the group (v18) with the authority to “bind and loose” confirms that this has to do with church government.
But some will object and say that the Lord is “everywhere;” how can we limit His presence to a local church?
It is important to distinguish between the Lord’s omnipresence and His approving presence. For example, although the Lord is omnipresent, yet we read that He came down in the cool of the day to walk with Adam (Gen 3). He came down and dwelt between the cherubim in the tabernacle with Israel in the wilderness (Exo 25:8, 22). He took up His residency in Solomon’s temple (2Chron 7:1), without compromising His omnipresence. Likewise, the “unlearned believer” of 1 Corinthians 14 learned a vital truth as he watched the assembly function: he learned that “God is in you of a truth” (v25). In all of these instances, the presence of God was possible because of conditions which were in conformity to His will. Statements such as “… as the Lord commanded Moses … So Moses finished the work” (Exo 40:32, 33), and “… all the works of the pattern” for the temple (1Chron 28:19), indicate that a divine pattern was given to ensure the presence of God. Yet God never ceased to be omnipresent even when He took up His habitation among His people. He dwells among them in fellowship; but He fills the universe in His deity. While He is present everywhere, He is at home only where conditions are consistent with His character.
So when the Scriptures speak of the presence of the Lord, it is not His omnipresence which is in view, but His habitation. Also, every believer is indwelt by the Spirit of God (Rom 8:9), is a temple for the Holy Spirit (1Cor 6:19), and is the habitation for Father and Son as well (John 14:23). But this is not the same as His being “in the midst” of two or three.
Acts 19 relates the visit of Paul to Ephesus and the resultant uproar and riot that occurred. Luke employs a word three times in his account of the events: in verses 32, 39, 41 he writes of the “assembly.” This is actually the same word that is elsewhere translated “church” or “called out company.” Notice that in verse 39, the town clerk insists that an assembly must be “lawful,” or have a right basis for being called together. The desire of the people to meet together in an assembly was not in itself justification for their existence. There must be a basis for gathering. Likewise, there is only one “lawful” basis for gathering as a local church and that is the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we shall see it is both authority and adequacy for coming together.
But the claim is still there for you to answer: If it refers to only church gatherings, isn’t every Bible-believing “fundamental” church gathered to the Lord’s Name? How can any group be so presumptuous and self-righteous as to claim an exclusive corner on His presence?
First of all, always bear in mind that the Word of God is given to me to judge my own path and not primarily for me to sit in judgment on others. I should not be so concerned about deciding that the Lord’s presence is not in this place or that place, as I should be concerned to be certain that what I am linked with is in accordance with His Word and thus has a moral right to claim His presence. Allow God to do the judging. It is not merely hanging a text of Matthew 18:20 on a wall somewhere which assures His presence in the midst!
With this in mind, I need to examine if what I am associated with is consistent with His presence. It is not perfection for which we are looking, but rather Scriptural consistency with the pattern for a New Testament church which results from being genuinely gathered to His Name. Every local church will fall short of perfection by reason of its being composed of believers, all of whom are prone to failure. It is not the spiritual status of believers to which we gather (many who gather otherwise are very spiritual and consistent in their lives), but it is the Lord Jesus Christ to Whom we gather.
The Centrality of Christ
It may surprise some, but I do not belong to an assembly because its teachings are closer to the Word of God, or because it has a little more truth than a good denominational church. We do not gather to doctrines – not the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, baptism, the multiplicity of elders, diversity of gifts, or the place of sisters. These doctrines are all important. But we do not gather to doctrines. We gather to a person; all the doctrines spring from and reflect something of that person.
We gather to the Lord Jesus Christ. He is our attraction and our resource. We own no other name than His; we find our attraction in Him, our authority, from Him, focus our attention on Him, and channel our activity to Him.
The Character of the Gathering
What then does it mean to be gathered to His Name and what are the criteria by which I can judge if I am truly gathered in this manner? It is not enough to make the claim. There must be a consistency of that claim expressed in the gathering.
To be gathered to His Name means that I recognize His authority and that we are regulated by His Word. The authority is His, as revealed in His Word, and mediated through leadership raised up of the Spirit of God. We do not pick and choose what we will implement and carry out in the assembly. We bow to the authority of His Word in all matters. At times, there may be honest differences between men as to the guidance the Word of God is giving. When that occurs there needs to be patient waiting on God to make His mind clear to all.
To be gathered to His Name means that we are attracted to Him and represent His interests. His interests, while here, were the Father’s will, Word, and work. This is the responsibility of every local company of believers. It means, without question, that an assembly has spiritual interests and goals, and exists to promote what is to further the honor of the Lord Jesus.
To be gathered to His Name means that He is adequate for all we need and we rely upon His resources. We do not look to a central body, seminary, university, or other source. We do not appeal to the world to meet our needs. He is sufficient for all.
To be gathered to His Name means that we reveal His person. We do this in several ways. We do it as we proclaim the truth of God. We are pillar and ground of truth (1Tim 3:15) and, as such, we uphold the truth concerning His person for all to hear and see. But we witness to His person by our lives. Like the Thessalonian believers, the transformation which the gospel has made should be so obvious that men realize the reality of a living God and a risen Christ (1Thes 1:9, 10).
But we reveal His person in one other very significant manner. We do it by our practices when we gather to His Name. Everything which is done in a local church reflects something about the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. This means that to abandon or to compromise any truth, results in a failure to reflect His person. We do not refuse any sectarian name out of tradition or stubborn insistence on remaining in the 19th century. We do so because He alone is the One to Whom we gather (1Cor 1). Our sisters have covered heads to testify to His headship which will one day be displayed to the entire universe. We remember the Lord, as He requested, as the remembrance of His cross-death will occupy an entire redeemed world. In a similar manner, the practices of baptism, diversity of gifts, priesthood of believers, discipline, love one to another, and the multiplicity of leadership all testify to some aspect of His person, work, and glory. To do away with any would cause me to question if I am truly gathered to His Name.
So to be gathered to His Name will control every aspect of church life and practice. A fundamental church may have an excellent pastor, a vigorous gospel testimony, and may show genuine Christian love; all this is commendable. But if the Word of God does not control all practices, if sisters fail to display the truth of headship, if gift all resides in one person, is this consistent with being “gathered to His Name” and of revealing His person?
Risking repetitiveness, it must be underlined that we do not gather to a group of doctrines known as assembly teaching. We gather to a person and from that gathering to Him and His Name, flows all that we cherish of assembly truth. The order is critical to appreciate.
The result of seeing what it means to gather to His Name means that I am responsible to separate myself from anything which does not conform to the pattern. Individual fellowship with believers everywhere is possible; but to link with a group which does not gather to His Name would be compromise. If I must compromise the truth of God or deny it by gathering with a company, then I must ask myself if this is right. I am not to condemn others who may in their own lives be more spiritual than I. My responsibility is to the truth of God which has been revealed to me.
This responsibility will control choices I make. A job offer in a new area will not be evaluated on the basis of the salary and my career; it will be considered on the basis of the nearness of a local church which gathers to His Name, in light of what I have learned that means.
Being gathered to His Name should not lead me to a proud sense of exclusivity; it should cause deep humility that with all the truth which God has so graciously revealed to me, we come so far short of what we ought to be. Others with less light show more likeness to Christ and love to others.
Owning His presence should instill a sense of reverence and awe in me, as it did to Jacob, when he realized he was in the House of God (Gen 28). If I truly recognize that a local church is His habitation on earth, I will pour my energy and efforts into it, seeking to contribute and build it up for His honor.