The Bible often elevates a group of two or three to significance. Both the Old and New Testaments mention the phrase “two or three.” It is interesting that at least ten times “two or three” is suggested as an ideal size at which to conduct ministry. It is not ever “two” or “three” alone but always “two or three.” The Bible also does not say “two or more” or “two to five,” but “two or three.” Perhaps it is good to have flexibility with not too many options. When looking for witnesses in a criminal trial, we are to have two or three witnesses, not more and not less. This is not to be a mob trial, nor is a single witness—one person’s word against the other’s—enough.
Here are a few reasons I believe two or three is the ideal size for effective fellowship and ministry that will penetrate the rest of the church and ultimately the Kingdom.
First, community is stronger with two or three (Eccles. 4:9–12). Solomon writes, “Two are better than one … and a strand of three cords is not easily broken” (Eccles. 4:9–12). There is a sense in which a group of two or three is indeed stronger for community than any other size. Why? Not only do they share effort (or as Solomon says, “they have a good return for their labor”) but also they can encourage one another well. Solomon writes, “If either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.” It is possible for one to fall in a crowd and not be noticed. But in a group of two or three, everyone is noticed and a single absence cannot be ignored.
It may seem obvious, but it is easier to meet one another’s needs when the group size is only two or three. It is also easier to resist the enemy as two or three. As Solomon wrote: “If two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him” (Eccles. 4:9–12). All of us need this kind of community strength as we take on the devil and his cohorts.
Second, accountability is stronger with two or three (1 Tim. 5:19). According to Levitical law, no one could bring a case to trial without two or three witnesses. Moses explains why this is important in Deuteronomy (19:15): “on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” Paul carries on the idea of strict accountability when dealing with sin in 1 Timothy 5. He is addressing accusations brought against church leaders as he says, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” In other words, our information is held more accountable with two or three people than with only one. This size of a group is better for holding one another more accountable. In a group of five, it is easier for a person to hide and not speak up, but in a group of two or three all are forced to participate.
Third, confidentiality is stronger with two or three (Matt. 18:15–17). Jesus instructs us that if a brother sins we should reprove him in private. If he listens to us, we have won him back, but if not we are to take two or three others with us. This is further application of the idea of accountability in a group of two or three. Jesus goes on to say, “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” It appears that Jesus is showing us the balance between having accountability and maintaining confidentiality. The bridge between these important concepts is made of two or three others. A group of two or three is indeed the best context to blend and balance confidentiality and accountability.
It is far easier to give account of our hidden thoughts and foolish mistakes with two other people than to a larger group. This is especially true if all in the group are sharing equally, and all wrestle with their own honest issues.
Fourth, flexibility is stronger with two or three (Matt. 18:20). Jesus went on to say (in the passage previously examined on discipline for an errant brother) these famous words: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Many believe that these words are the most basic description of church found in the Bible.
Coordinating the calendars for a small group of ten to fifteen busy people is a real challenge. It is far easier to coordinate two or three discrete calendars. The larger the group, the fewer the options for meeting times and places. Finding a place where fifteen people can meet comfortably is certainly easier than for a larger church of a hundred or a thousand people. The options for a group of two or three are vast, almost limitless. A group of two or three can meet at a coffeehouse, in the marketplace, or beside a water cooler in the workplace. I have heard of two or three women meeting at a local park while their small children play together on the jungle gym. I have also heard of two or three men meeting together at the grown-up gym while they lift weights together.
Fifth, communication is stronger with two or three (1 Cor. 14:26–33). It is certainly easier to communicate with fewer people. The more voices you add to the equation, the more confusion results and breakdown occurs. Paul counsels the Corinthian church that they should limit the number of people speaking to two or three at a time, with clear interpretation.
Our attention span is not that great. We have technological gadgets that do much of our thinking for us today. I have to look down at my wrist now to know what day of the week or month it is. With a short attention span, it is hard for us to receive more than two or three messages at one time. In a context that was challenged by lack of order, Paul recommended that we limit our intake to two or three messages at a time.
Sixth, direction is stronger with two or three (2 Cor. 13:1). Paul wrote at least three letters to the Corinthian church because of its problems; we have two of these letters recorded in the New Testament. He used the Old Testament principle of two or three witnesses to verify the direction he was giving to the church and to affirm the authority by which it came.
In trying to find God’s direction, it is useful to wait for two or three witnesses to confirm the direction. This is not a Biblical command, by any means (frankly, God should have to say things only once). But if you are uncertain and torn between a number of paths, the counsel of two or three may help.
Seventh, leadership is stronger with two or three (1 Cor. 14:29). Paul suggests that only two or three prophetic voices should provide leadership to a spiritual community at any one time. The others are to pass judgment on the messages. There is wisdom in a plurality of leaders. But too many leaders can also be a problem. If the children of Israel had been led by a committee, they’d still be in Egypt. A team of leaders, two or three working together, is a powerful enterprise, safer than a solo leader yet more powerful than a committee.
In a group of two or three, leaders are accountable to one another, community is stronger among them, and there are four to six ears listening to God’s voice.
It seems that God has ordained two or three to be a perfect group size for life. Marriage is between two. God Himself exists in a community of three.
If one can reduce the church to its smallest, most irreducible minimum, it would have to be two or three. If we can instill a healthy DNA here in each group of two or three, the entire church body will have health throughout.
Reproduction is also easier at this level. If you have a group of three and want to multiply groups of two or three, to multiply all you need is to find one other person. By reducing multiplication to this simplest level, reproduction can be part of the genetic fabric of the entire body of Christ.
Cole, Neil. 2005. Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens. First Edition. Jossey-Bass Leadership Network Series. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint.