Matt.18:18 – What is binding and loosing referring to? excommunication or forgiveness

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?

4 thoughts on “Matt.18:18 – What is binding and loosing referring to? excommunication or forgiveness

  1. L.Wells, the more I think about #3, the more it seems to make sense to me because we never actually hear about this Jewish concept within Christian theology. And actually, I wasn’t’ even thinking about #2 in terms of confession-absolution. That’s a very good point.

    I think this view #2 might somehow be interconnected with #3. If one says: “I absolve you from all your sins” or “The Lord has put away all your sins”, it seems very similar to view #3. View #2 is dependent upon the offender’s repentance; however, #3 is centered on the law itself and is independent of the offender’s repentance. I haven’t analyzed it deeply enough but it’s just my hunch. If one forgives, could that also be like releasing one from the law?


  2. Nathan, thanks for the link to the article at Jerusalem Perspective. I don’t know if I’ll subscribe to it because I already have enough to read. I found my source at godsbibletruth. But what he said about this Jewish view of binding and loosing the law for people seems to make a lot of sense. Right now I’m learning towards 3, 2, 1 (in that order). I would think that to really understand biblical concepts, we cannot ignore the Jewish interpretation because that’s where a lot of our cultural concepts originate from. We have a lot to learn from Judaism that could benefit our understanding of theology.


  3. Kevin, I believe parts 1 and 3 are proven by this passage. Part 2 is one interpretation I’ve wrestled with for years now. It is comparable to John 20.23, where forgiveness of sins is granted to the disciples,although it is not clearly stated that Jesus was speaking only to the eleven, but was possibly speaking to all disciples.Then it must be determined whether this pardoning of sins is an actual authority to forgive as in RC tradition,or if it is intended to be merely a declaration of forgiveness based upon the terms spelled out in the gospel,as in protestant teaching.

    In the Anglican Church room is made for both interpretations, as there is a general confession and absolution during Mass, and there is also a specific sacramental in the BCP for The Reconciliation of a Penitent. Some are contented with the general confession and absolution, while others prefer to go to confession RC style. Personally, I feel the absolution is simply a declaration that the penitent has demonstrated by the confession, whether a general one or a detailed private one, that they truly are repentant, and so forgiveness is declared based upon what the priest (or other confessor) has witnessed in the penitent’s attitude. However, I must also add that when we do the general confession, and I think about my personal struggles with sin, and then I hear those words of absolution, I can actually feel the stain of sin lift from me in an almost palpable way. And so, it seems my head tells me one thing, but my heart another. Perhaps there is something sacramental in absolution, perhaps it is merely psychological. One thing I do know is that it sure is comforting to actually hear the words after the general confession.

    “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
    through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
    goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in
    eternal life. Amen.”

    After a private confession it goes as follows:

    The Priest then pronounces this absolution

    Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to

    absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of

    his great mercy forgive you all your offenses; and by his

    authority committed to me, I absolve you from all your sins:

    In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy

    Spirit. Amen.

    or this

    Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed

    for us to the Father, and who conferred power on his Church

    to forgive sins, absolve you through my ministry by the grace

    of the Holy Spirit, and restore you in the perfect peace of

    the Church. Amen.

    The Priest adds

    The Lord has put away all your sins.

    Penitent Thanks be to God.

    The Priest concludes

    Go (or abide) in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.

    Declaration of Forgiveness

    to be used by a Deacon or Lay Person

    Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed

    for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the

    Holy Spirit. Amen.


  4. There is an interesting article on this over at Jerusalem Perspective. Unfortunately you have to subscribe to read the rest, but you get the basic idea from the beginning of the article. I enjoyed that site so much I did end up subscribing to it, and your post reminded me of this article there.

    So to answer your question, in context, it may be that “binding” and “loosing” were terms used by Rabbis to forbid or permit something to the Jewish people. The same goes for the term “yoke.” A rabbi who would “bind” many things might be said to have a heavy yoke, etc. Hope my comment made sense.


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