What does this verse mean: Matthew 18:18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven?
I was recently challenged to rethink my understanding of this passage, and your question motivated me to do the research I needed to do. There are several questions associated with this verse.
- what do “bind” and “loose” refer to?
- does binding/loosing here on earth cause binding/loosing in heaven?
- how does this verse relate to its context?
- who has this authority?
First, in Jesus’ day, rabbis used the terms “bind” and “loose” to describe their actions when they forbade (bound) or permitted (loosed) something. A rabbi who forbade his disciples to do something had “bound” them. If you replace the words “bind” and “loose” with “forbid” and “permit,” the verse means the same thing.
Second, the answer to the question, “Does binding or loosing here on earth cause binding or loosing in heaven?” depends, in part, on how you translate the verse. The majority of Greek scholars appear to be convinced that Jesus’ statement should read as follows, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven?” If this is the correct translation, as I think it is, then the verse means that the disciples were to permit or forbid on earth what had already been revealed by God as permitted or forbidden.
Third, the verses just before v. 18 (vv.15-17) are dealing with the process of confronting a brother who has sinned against you. In verse 17 Jesus said that if a person will not repent of his sin even after brought before the church, he is to be regarded as a sinner and no longer treated as a brother in Christ (cf. John 20:23). This action would involve forbidding the person to participate in the Lord’s Supper as well as forbidding members of the church from treating the person as though he were a Christian (2 Thess. 3:14-15).
When the church leadership takes this step, it is doing what Jesus called “binding.” Although such an event would be sad, the church is simply enforcing what God has already revealed: no unrepentant person is a part of the body of Christ. Verses 19-20 indicate that such “binding” or excommunication should be accompanied by corporate prayer, and they promise that Christ is present in a special way when church leaders are exercising his authority in disciplining an unrepentant person.
Lastly, “who has this authority?” Jesus made this same statement to Peter in Matt. 16:19, but here he is addressing all his disciples. Since the context envisions the church exercising this authority, I assume that it is the church leadership, in cooperation with the church membership, that has the authority to forbid what God has forbidden and to permit what God has permitted.