15 “If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. 18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (TNIV)
In the passage of Matthew 18:15-20, v.18 speaks of binding and loosing (forbidding and permitting in NLT). My question is this: Is the binding and loosing dealing with church discipline and the issue of excommunication (v.17), or with the issue of giving and withholding forgiveness of sins to the unrepentant sinner (v.21-22)? These are the two main alternative interpretations, but there is also a third interpretation I recently learned of, which is, a Jewish understanding of the law. Binding signified a declaration for anything that was unlawful to be done; and loosing signified a declaration that anything may be lawfully done.
1) If v.18 is dealing with excommunication, does the act of binding and loosing refer to the authority and power to enforce rules of releasing the unrepentant sinner from their fellowship (excommunication)? And does the object of the binding and loosing refer to the unrepentant sinner? This interpretation does make sense because the two or three witnesses from vv.16-17 are present to witness repentance or unrepentance.
2) If v.18 is dealing with forgiveness, does it concern the offended person’s power to release the offender from the guilt of one’s sin? Jesus commands to always forgive in vv.21-22. Then does this mean that the release of forgiveness depend upon whether or not the sinner repents? And to whom is this authority granted to? Is it in the hands of the offended individual? Or is this power also in the hands of the higher levels of authority in the church, i.e., elders/presbytery, or the bishop? With this interpretation, vv.19-20 also makes sense because Christ is present and will empower the offended party to forgive the offender.
3 If v.18 is related to the Jewish understanding of law, declaring the painful practice of circumcision as unlawful is an example of binding. Declaring the fellowship between Jews and Gentiles as lawful is an example of loosing. With this interpretation, vv.19-20 also makes sense. Christ is present to witness our lawmaking.
The possibilities of three viable interpretations can make things seem more confusing. What do you think?