binding-loosingThere are two passages in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus speaks of “binding” and “loosing”:

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

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:18)

I have heard two different types of interpretations of these passages.  The first understands this to give power to the church leadership (whether at the level of the local pastor or the denomination as a whole) to legislate on matters not addressed (or not sufficiently clear) in Scripture.  This often gets applied to morally questionable practices.  For example, some Christians think it is morally wrong to wear jewelry while others think it is morally acceptable.  To settle the dispute, a pastor will either “bind” the issue by prohibiting the use of jewelry among his congregants, or will “loose” the issue by allowing it.  Whatever the pastor binds or looses on earth is also bound or loosed in heaven, so to disobey or contradict the pastor is to disobey God Himself.

The second interpretation understands “whatever” to refer to a wide variety of things: undesirable circumstances, bad attitudes, works of the flesh, evil spirits, financial difficulties, etc.  We are to bind these bad things, and loose good things in their place: desirable circumstances, good attitudes, the fruit of the spirit, angels, and wealth.  Whatever we bind or loose, God honors in heaven.

Let’s take a look at each passage in question to see if either of these interpretations can be substantiated.

Matthew 16:19

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20)

The verse in question is set within the context of Jesus’ identity. Jesus asked the disciples who others thought He was, and then poignantly asked who they thought He was.  Peter boldly declared Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of God.”  It was within the context of this divine revelation and powerful confession that Jesus promised Peter that He would build His church on “this rock,” and give to Peter the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose.

The authority to bind and loose was inextricably joined with the possession of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  What were the keys to the kingdom?  Keys either permit or block entrance through a door.  The keys to the kingdom of heaven, likewise, allow one to permit or block entrance to God’s kingdom.

This still doesn’t answer precisely what is being bound or loosed.  “Bind” and “loose” are from the Greek deo and lyo, which are themselves translations of the Aramaic asar and sera. This was the Jewish formula for excommunication and reinstatement.  Peter was given the authority to bar entrance into, or allow entrance into the kingdom based upon one’s confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter did just that throughout his ministry. He allowed entrance into the kingdom to the 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost who believed his message (Acts 2:38-41) and Cornelius’ household because of their faith (Acts 10). He barred access into the kingdom to the Jewish leaders (Acts 3) and Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8) because of their unbelief and impure hearts.

The phrases “shall be bound in heaven” (estai dedemenon) and “shall be loosed in heaven” (estai lelumenon) are perfect passive participles.  The force of the Greek perfect tense is difficult to translate into English.  It views the action as complete in the past but with effects that continue into the present.  While a bit more awkward, a more accurate translation would be “is having been bound” and “is having been loosed.”  The passive voice indicates that the “whatever” is the recipient of the action, not the generator of the action.  God is the generator of the action (“in heaven”).  Jesus’ point was that Peter would bind or loose in the present something that God had already bound or loosed in the past.  God was the initiator, not Peter.  Heaven isn’t ratifying Peter’s will, but Peter is carrying out the fore settled will of God.

What is the basis on which God admits or prohibits someone entrance to the kingdom of heaven?  Contextually, it appears to be their response to Jesus.  Those who confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God are loosed, while those who do not are bound.  Jesus wasn’t giving Peter the authority to arbitrarily allow some people into the kingdom of heaven and prohibit others, but rather the authority to pronounce as “admitted” those whom God has admitted based on their faith in Jesus, and pronounce as “barred” those whom God barred based on their unbelief.

Matthew 18:18

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matthew 18:15-20)

While the context of Matthew 18:18 is very different than Matthew 16:19, the meaning of “binding” and “loosing” is essentially the same.  In this passage, Jesus is talking about the procedure for dealing with an unrepentant brother.  Such a brother was first to be confronted alone by the offended brother.  If he does not repent, he is to be confronted again by the offended brother and two to three other brothers.  If he still refuses to repent, the matter is to be brought before the church leadership for them to decide.  If they determine the brother had truly sinned, and he still refuses to repent, he is to be excommunicated from the church.

It is at this point in the conversation that Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  The context must define what “binding” and “loosing” refers to, and the context makes it clear that it doesn’t refer to weighing in on morally debatable practices or evil spirits (at least not evil angelic spirits).  The “binding” refers to the church’s collective decision to excommunicate the unrepentant brother from the fellowship of the church, while “loosing” refers to their decision to forgive him so that he will continue to enjoy the fellowship of the church.  Both decisions are based on how the sinning brother responds to their judgment.  If they judge him to be guilty and yet he refused to repent, the church will “bind” him.  If they judge him to be innocent, they will “loose” him.

The same perfect passive participle used in Matthew 16:19 appears in Matthew 18:18 as well, thus indicating that the binding and loosing of the church is only following the leading of Holy Spirit. They are excommunicating those whom the Father has already considered excommunicated, and reinstating those who the Father has already reinstated.  The church is implementing the decision of heaven; heaven is not ratifying the decision of the church.

John 20:23

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23)

John 20:23 is similar in structure to the other passages we’ve explored, differing only in three respects:

  1. It speaks of “forgiving” and “not forgiving” instead of “binding and loosing”
  2. These are verbs rather than participles
  3. The words in question are in the indicative rather than the passive mood.

On the face of it, it seems that Jesus is giving His apostles the power to forgive sins.  The act of forgiving sin, however, is a divine prerogative of which man has no part (Psalm 130:3-4; Mark 2:5-12).  Jesus could not have meant that the apostles (or the church, by extension) can choose to forgive or not forgive based on their own will.  Jesus was simply giving the church the authority to pronounce forgiven those whom God has already forgiven in heaven because of their faith and repentance, or to retain the sins of those whom God has not forgiven because of their unbelief and lack of repentance.  While God is the one who forgives, the human proclamation of that forgiveness is a powerful testimony in the life of a new convert.


The context of these four passages precludes any notion that the church can make up rules or doctrines that are binding on believers, or that we can bind undesirable things and loose desirable things.  Indeed, the initiative for binding and loosing begins with heaven, not earth.  The binding and loosing Jesus had in mind concerns the church’s response to potential converts and unrepentant Christians.

Keep it in context….