To Bind and to Loose

Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18 contain very similar sayings:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:19

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. Matthew 18:18

The “you” of Matthew 16:19 is singular and refers to Peter. Jesus gave Simon the nickname Peter (“rock”) because Peter was, in some respects, like a rock on which Jesus would build his church. Peter would have an important role in the establishment of the church of Jesus Christ, but the nature of that role is not fully defined in Matthew 16.

One of Peter’s leadership roles that is defined, however, has do do with binding and loosing. Jesus is using rabbinic language that refers to making decisions about the daily, practical application of the law. You might translate “bind” and “loose” as “decide what is required” and “decide what is permitted.”

In Matthew 18:18, Jesus repeats his teaching about binding and loosing. This saying also comes in the context of a discussion about the responsibilities of the church. In addition to binding and loosing, the church has a responsibility to settle disputes between disciples and expel those who harm their brother sisters (Matthew 18:17).

In Matthew 18:18, however, the singular “you” of Matthew 16:19 has become plural: “Whatever ya’ll bind . . . . whatever ya’ll loose.” Binding and loosing, then, are not Peter’s prerogatives alone; the entire church shares in this responsibility.

The idea here is very simple. It doesn’t have anything to do with Peter or the church sitting down to decide who will be saved and who won’t, or making infallible decisions about Christian doctrine. And it certainly isn’t a reference to the church’s preaching of the gospel so that people can decide their own eternal destinies by accepting or rejecting Jesus. Jesus is talking about how Christians within the church will apply his teachings to their daily lives.

This makes sense when you consider the Jewish context of both Jesus’ teaching and Matthew’s gospel.

Law always requires interpretation and application. Today we have high courts that interpret what the law means. In early rabbinical Judaism, the learned teachers discussed the law together and made decisions about how the law of Moses would be applied. It was not simply a matter of each person deciding himself or herself. The rabbis’ decisions could “bind” or they could “loose.” That is, they could either require a certain action, or they could permit a certain action. Notice that loose does not mean, “exempt you from the law’s requirements.” The discussion was always around how the law applied, not whether it applied.

Those discussions and decisions were eventually compiled in the Jewish Talmud. Certainly Jesus has some tough things to say about how the scribes of his day went about the task of applying the law, but Matthew didn’t think the rabbinical process itself was all wrong. There are some aspects of the scribal system worth retaining. Matthew remembers that Jesus said,

Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old. Matthew 13:52

Ben Witherington has agued that Matthew sees Jesus’ teachings in the light of Jewish scribal tradition. The student of Jesus has something new to bring to the table, but the church has not thrown out everything that it learned in the synagogues and the religious schools of Judaism. The church and the synagogue are very similar organisms. The word we translate as “church” (ekklēsia) means “assembly” in the same way that “synagogue” (synagogē) means “assembly.” It’s not surprising, then, that the church’s leadership has responsibilities that are very similar to those of the synagogue’s leadership.

Jesus’ instruction, even more than law of Moses, laid down some very broad principles that had to be applied in the specific circumstances of individual situations. Is it simply up to individual Christians to decide what those teachings require? That’s not what Matthew thinks Jesus intended. Jesus has given the church – the assembly – both the freedom and the duty to make decisions about the specific application of his teachings with the promise that God will be an unseen partner in the process.

Certainly, we should remember that Jesus criticized the scribes for being more wedded to their traditional interpretations of God’s law than they were to the law itself. And the Reformation showed us that there are times that the church needs to correct itself and change its interpretations.

Even with those warnings, evangelical Protestantism desperately needs to hear this word of Jesus. We live in a decide-for-yourself, make-it-up-as you go kind of world. At the very least, we need to remember that God gave us our brothers and sisters to help us find our way through life. Maybe, though,  it’s even more than that. Jesus has given the church the authority to bind and loose in his name. Failure to recognize the church’s authority is a failure to recognize the authority of Christ himself.

Those who belong to the church need to submit themselves to the church’s discipline and instruction. It’s a free country, with lots of different assemblies that bear the name of Jesus. If you can’t submit yourself to the assembly to which you now belong, find yourself one to which you can.

For more on binding and loosing in the context of Christian ethics, see An Ethical Lesson from NASCAR.