Binding & Loosing


(This post is part of a series. For an introduction to the topic read, “How ought we read the Bible?” To see all posts in this topic, go to “Does the Bible really say that?”)


“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

This verse has long been used as support for a certain interpretation of spiritual warfare. Proponents will say that it gives encouragement that whatever evil spiritual forces we release or make captive in the natural world have parallels in the supernatural. They maintain that this verse contained heavenly battle instructions. The trouble is that this simply doesn't fit the context.


The Big Picture

Here is the passage in context and without divisions:

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. ((Matthew 18:15-20))

The passage this comes from talks about what we ought to do when a fellow believer sins against us. (Actually, this isn't the first time we've looked at Matthew 18.) Why would Jesus interject something about spiritual warfare within a teaching on discipline? That doesn't seem to follow.

Does this compute?

Let’s think this one through. Even if we ignore the context, holding to this view presents us with an odd statement. In essence, they are saying that “whatever evil spiritual forces we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever evil spiritual forces we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Now, why does God need us to handle what happens in heaven? I’d say he has that under control!

Secondly, why would we ever loose an evil spirit – here on earth, or in heaven? That doesn't seem to make sense.

Restoring context

Since the surrounding text is about church discipline, we should first see how this verse fits within that framework. And actually, it fits quite nicely. See what you think of the following paraphrase of the same passage:

This is what you do if one of your brothers or sisters sins against you: go to him, in private, and tell him just what you perceive the wrong to be. If he listens to you, you’ve won a brother. But sometimes he will not listen. And if he does not listen, go back, taking a friend or two friends with you (for, as we have learned in Deuteronomy, every matter of communal import should be testified to by two or three witnesses). Then, if your brother or sister still refuses to heed, you are to share what you know with the entire church; and if your brother or sister still refuses to listen to the entire church, you are to cast out your unrepentant sibling and consider him no different from outsiders and tax collectors.

For sure, I tell you, whatever you do not allow on earth will not have been allowed in heaven. Whatever you allow on earth will have been allowed in heaven. And this: if two or three of you come together as a community and discern clearly about anything, My Father in heaven will bless that discernment. For when two or three gather together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.

This rephrasing without the unusual language does a better job of communicating the intent and the flow of the teaching. We should be interested in truth. We should pursue reconciliation. Occasionally, that is not possible. In any case, if we apply wisdom to the situation in line with Godly principles, our decisions will be blessed by God.

Side note
Some have used this passage to support the rejection of those who refuse to see things our way. While there is occasionally warrant to deal harshly, I don't think that is the everyday application here. How would God have us treat "outsiders and tax collectors"? I think some reflection on the whole of the Bible's teaching, and especially Jesus' instruction, gives us a different understanding than we might initially read here. Discarding people doesn't seem to be in line with Jesus' mission, so it's not likely that he had that in mind. More likely, Jesus was saying, "Don't presume that you and this fellow are on the same page. It's quite likely that he does not have the same understanding of gospel transformation and mutual submission that you do. If he does not live as one of you, he should not be included as one of you. Instead, treat him as any other lost person. That is, love him and extend the gospel message to him, in the hopes that one day he will see and be receptive."