The Discipline of Worship

By Ryan Speck | May 5, 2023

In Matthew 18:20, Jesus promises that “where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (cf. 1 Cor. 5:4). Does this mean that two Christians gathering at a restaurant for lunch have achieved a Temple experience? Put another way, when can we be confident that God will fulfill His promise to be especially present?

The context of Matthew 18:20 demonstrates that this promise is given to the official courts of the church. Jesus is speaking about church discipline. If a professing believer will not repent of his sin after being confronted, first privately and then with witnesses, Jesus tells us to bring the matter to the “church.” But who is “the church” here? It is an organization rendering judgment on a member. This is the church as a court. But that raises another question: Who sits on that court? Should we convene all the members together to decide a discipline case? No. Rather, the Biblical practice is for leaders to judge the members of God’s people (e.g., Ex. 18:13ff; Dt. 21:1ff; 1 Ki. 3:5ff; Ezra 10:14ff; Acts 15; Acts 20:17ff; 1 Cor. 6:3-6). God has always committed the judgment of sinning members to the spiritual leaders He has appointed, not to Christians casually meeting for lunch together. On the contrary, whenever two Christians are casually eating lunch together and judging brethren, we rightly call that gossip!

God committed the “keys of the kingdom” to the Apostles and to those who rule (compare Mt. 16:18-19 with Mt. 18:17-18).[1] Consider how Hebrews 13:17 puts it, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” This passage in Hebrews refers to church leaders (plural) whose members should obey them. They have real authority over those members under their care. Who are those leaders? They are the elders of the church (e.g., Mt. 19:28; Acts 20:17ff; 1 Tim. 5:17; Tit. 1:7-11; 1 Pet. 5:1-5). Two believers meeting casually for lunch and fellowship neither hold no exercise the keys of the kingdom. This authority God grants to the leaders of His church – not as individuals, but when they gather in His name officially to conduct church business. For this reason, God mandated that each church should have a plurality of elders to form a true court together (e.g., Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5).[2] God requires the testimony of two or three witnesses to establish a judgment, and so likewise requires that at least two or three elders judge a matter (e.g., Mt. 18:16, 20; cf. Dt. 17:6; Dt. 19:15).

These same church courts, as part of their court authority, establish, organize, and lead worship services. How else would we know when to gather to worship God, unless the leaders declare an official time to gather? How else would we worship, except the leaders establish a liturgy and lead the service? Using their God-given authority, church courts exercise the “discipline” of worship.[3] Since Christ promises to be present with church courts when they assemble in His Name officially to decide disciplinary matters, Christ likewise promises to be present when these same church courts officially assemble God’s people in Christ’s Name to worship Him. In these official, authorized church gatherings in Christ’s Name, we may rightly expect God’s promised presence.

This material appears on pp. 22-24 in the author’s new book, Trembling Joy: A Biblical Defense of Traditional Worship, printed and sold by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and available for sale at and elsewhere. To hear a podcast interview with Ryan (conducted by TE Jonathan L. Master and Dr. James Dolezal, click here). This excerpted material is republished here with written permission of the author.

[1] In Matthew 16:18-19, Christ commits the keys of the kingdom with the authority to bind and loose to Peter (singularly). However, in Matthew 18:17-18, Christ grants the same authority to bind and loose (the same keys) to a plurality of leaders in the church: the “you” is plural in Matthew 18:18. Thus, the apostolic authority Christ granted to Peter to loose and to bind He grants to the courts of the Church also.

[2] See also Thomas Witherow, The Apostolic Church – which is it?, pp. 28-30.

[3] PCA BCO 27.1: “Discipline is the exercise of authority given the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ to instruct and guide its members and to promote its purity and welfare.”

Ryan Speck is a PCA Teaching Elder serving as Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Columbia, MO.