Agreement in prayer (Matthew 18:19)

I’ve been thinking about ‘agreeing in prayer’ with one another lately as I have heard that term quite a lot recently.  I don’t think I had heard people ask for prayer requests in this way until fairly recently and since I noticed it a few months ago I have also heard it come up in other places – kind of like when you get a new car and suddenly start seeing it everywhere. I can’t be a new thing since it has its origins in the Bible but it has caused me to look a bit deeper into it.To be clear up front, I don’t believe there is a ‘formula’ for prayer. It is a conversation with God, not a means for requesting special favours by using magic words.
In Matthew 18:19 (http://biblehub.com/matthew/18-19.htm), Jesus clearly states:

Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Let’s look a bit closer at this. As with anytime you want to find out why a passage really says you need to look at it in context. You can’t just take a verse on its own and use it to frame your arguments or perspectives.

Another invaluable tool in looking at the Bible and thinking about God is the past experience and insight of others. That’s why in this blog you’ll usually see numerous ‘useful sources’ listed at the end of each entry along with various links scattered throughout the text. This is especially true of anything related to theology and technology.

One of the reasons I’m so keen on looking at other sources is that the topics I’m considering have been wrestled with for years by the church. Godly men and women have prayerfully considered these things for millennia and I’m rarely going to come up with any new ideas that they have not thought about. Of course, I may disagree with them but it is good to hear what they have to say.

The continued revelation of God [slightly off topic]
I also believe that God continually reveals new insights into his[*] nature and Word to us as we continue in our relationship with Him. I’m only talking here about God giving us new understanding about himself, not about whether he is still revealing new ‘things’ about himself, about the future, etc.
I’m not arguing here against the sola scriptura doctrine that God has already revealed everything we need to know about Him through the Bible – just that he gives us, individually, new understanding of the Word as we prayerfully study it.

The topic of whether the sola scriptura doctrine is correct is something I want to spend a lot more time looking into. Is the Bible the only source of knowledge about God? Who decided what was in the Bible?

I feel quite passionately that Christians should think about and ask questions regarding what they are taught and what they believe. There are a LOT of Christians who are simply afraid to think about things like this. I understand that but to me, as a Christian, we should be asking these questions. I think it is quite clear from 1 Peter 3:15 that we need to have these things worked out in our own minds in order to give an answer if/when people ask us about it:

…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,…

And another thing (I’m on a bit of a roll now!)… Christians shouldn’t be afraid to say they don’t know or they are not sure. We can’t be expected to have thought about EVERYTHING in advance of being asked our opinion or stance on something. It is quite okay to say, “I’m not sure but let me get back to you when I’ve had a chance to think about it”. Don’t just make something up!

Matt 18:19 in context
So let’s look at the wider context. This verse comes just after the parable of the lost sheep (Matt 18:10-14) and is part of a section about what to do when we sin against one another (Matt 18:15-20):

“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.”

So while it is not taken ‘out of context’ really, it is clearly not taken in its entire context. Jesus appears to be suggesting that the decisions made by church members in relation to matters of disagreement and conflict are carried over into heaven and are binding even there.
In this context it seems that if a sinful brother or sister is continually unrepentant the church should treat them like a ‘tax collector’ or Gentile which were pretty bad things in those days. This is essentially a decision to cast them away and this decision will be the same for them both here on Earth and in heaven.

It is clear from the next part that the decision can be reversed (loosed), presumably when the person become repentant. Now, this begs the question whether church members agreeing about the unrepentance of a person can result in that person being excluded from heaven???
I don’t believe it does. The Bible clearly states in numerous places that God is the ultimate judge (Psalms 50:6, Isaiah 33:22, James 4:12, …), and that if you place your trust in Jesus as saviour then you will be saved (John 14:6, Jude 1:25, Luke 19:10, 2 Timothy 1:10, …). So I believe that this is referring to a ‘lesser’ church discipline matter rather than a salvation issue.

But this being said, the passage does make it clear that decisions made in agreement with one another are ‘replicated/carried over’ into heaven. So it would make sense that there is something more powerful about agreeing with one another in prayer.

Prayers of agreement anywhere else in the Bible?
There are few other passages where agreeing in prayer seems to be the catalyst for influencing God to answer. For example,

Acts 4:31-33 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly
Acts 12:5-11 …prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him…

However these could just be examples of God answering prayer where the people happen to be together praying. I’m just not certain. I could spend lots more time looking at these verses but I need to get to bed soon.

Jesus in their midst
One of the commentators I looked at noted that perhaps the most important thing is actually in verse 20:

…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them…

Having Jesus in your midst when a group of Christians come together to pray is arguably the key to this. It will likely sound foolish to any non-Christians reading this (and I hope you haven’t given up after the first couple of lines!) that Jesus is in our midst when we gather to pray. But as Christians we believe that the Holy Spirit is indwelling in us, we believe that when we pray He listens and sometimes the presence of the Spirit is almost tangible in a prayer meeting – something I would not have believed myself before I was a Christian.

My Conclusion
When I opened my Bible (okay, looked on Google!) for more information on ‘agreeing in prayer’ I didn’t expect to still be looking into it 3 hours later. I for it to have resulted in this blog post. Or for it to have led me down half a dozen rabbit holes which I have now earmarked to follow up on later.
And truthfully, I don’t even know if I have scratched the surface with this one. maybe I have misinterpreted the passage, I certainly haven’t looked at the original Greek, and I may have missed other parts of the Bible of relevance. So take this with a pinch of salt and only the thoughts of someone doing their best at getting to grips with a book of infinite depth and a God of incredible wisdom and revelation.

For me, I won’t get hung up on whether or not to agree with other Christians in prayer. I’m not going to throw it into a prayer as if it is a magic word. If I want to pray about something then, I will. If I want to tell God that I am worried about something, I will. If I want to ask God to do something on behalf of others, I will.
I have enough trouble actually getting down to doing enough praying, that I’m not going to worry about the ‘technicalities’ of whether I’m doing it exactly right or using the right words. My friend’s request to ‘agree in prayer’ increases the chances that I will in fact be agreeing with other Christian’s prayers as anyone he asks will likely be praying for the same things.

The bottom line for me in prayer is that if I am doing it at all then that’s great! I don’t pray as much as I used to, or as much as I should. In fact, I’m hoping that the discipline of writing in this blog will inspire me to commit more time to prayer and bible study.
I know someone is going to take that in the wrong context so let me clarify that I don’t mean this in a legalistic, prescriptive way. I mean it from a relational way, and from experience. I mean that when used to pray more I felt ‘better’, I felt closer to God throughout the day. I felt more prepared to handle the unexpected things which happen in the course of a day. I felt like I do when I catch up with an old friend on the phone and we end up talking for ages – that sense of fellowship. I felt accepted for who I AM, not what I do or don’t do.
God cares about what is on my heart. He wants me to come to him and talk, to ask for things, to say what is on my mind, to engage with Him. If those things happen to agree with others then that’s brilliant.

I’ll leave you with this CS Lewis quote on prayer which has always been one of my favourites and will be the starting point for another post on what prayer does:

I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.

Useful sources (among other hardcopy books)
http://www.johnhamelministries.org/SBP_4_Prayer_Agreement.htm
http://www.hannahscupboard.com/power-of-agreement.html
http://christianjourney.com/godsword/prayeragree.html
http://ichthys.com/mail-corporate%20prayer.htm
http://www.bible-knowledge.com/prayer-of-agreement/

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