There are a couple times in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells His followers that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and that what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. It may not be immediately obvious what He means by this, but my hope is that we can gain a little insight today.
Binding and Loosing was actually a rabbinic practice. Teachers of the Law would bind and loose, and there are a few reasons that I think we should understand Jesus as referring to this kind of binding and loosing. The first is that Jesus Himself was recognized, in His own time, as a rabbi – as a teacher of the Law. This means that Jesus was someone who taught on the Law, where it was bound and where it was loosed (we’ll get to what that meant shortly). The second reason that I think we should take Him as referring to this broader rabbinic practice is based on how often He engages in it throughout this gospel. But before seeing where Jesus engaged in the ‘binding and loosing’ rabbinic practice, let’s just see what it is we mean by it.
Traditionally, we have understood Jesus as referring to absolution for sins when He refers to binding and loosing (this is due to an appropriation of the application of a similar saying from the Gospel of John, which is made in a different context). For the teachers of the Law, the Torah was always authoritative; always relevant; always supreme. Nevertheless, they recognized that there were certain circumstances in which its regulations were not to be applied. If the Law applied to certain circumstances, they would say it was bound. If it did not, then they would say it was loosed. As you can probably guess, there were times and issues on which different rabbinic schools disagreed with each other. Some felt the Law was bound in a certain situation, while others felt that it was loosed. Or the other way around.
The contexts in which Jesus refers to binding and loosing, in Matthew, lend themselves to the understanding that this was the practice He had in mind. In the earlier case (16:19), Jesus has just been correctly identified by His disciples as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and has promised the conferral of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to them (or to Peter specifically, depending on how you read the passage). The implication is that what they bind or loose will have something to do with the keys to the Kingdom – or with the way to the Kingdom. This suggests that the binding and loosing that they are doing is determining what is appropriate conduct for Christ’s followers – that is, what His “rabbinic school” sees the Law bound to and what it sees the Law loosed from.
The second situation in which Jesus refers to this practice is in 18:18, which is in a larger discourse on forgiveness, and follows right on the heels of His discussion of the appropriate method for restoring and reconciling with one in the community of faith who has fallen into sin. The reconciliation lesson hinges on the disciples’ community having or setting standards which it requires its members to uphold. Again, then, I think that we’re being directed to recognize that the binding and loosing that Jesus refers to is the binding and loosing of rabbinic practice, whereby the appropriate situations for the Law to be bound to, and the appropriate situations of the Law to be loosed from, are set and determined.
Now, with this much said we will do well to reflect on the appropriate means whereby this binding and loosing takes place. There is a paradox present in this instruction: on the one hand, the Church is under the Lordship of Christ Himself; on the other, Jesus says that Heaven is affected when the Church binds and looses (don’t get too hung up on what “the Church” might mean, at this point – we will address this in the coming days). Understand that we’re not specifically talking about forgiveness, when we say ‘binding and loosing,’ but we’re talking about the standards for the community of God’s people, within which we understand what sin is (and thus, what requires forgiveness). Thus, somehow the standards of Heaven are subject to the standards of the Church.
The paradox is that the Church is subject to the Lordship of Christ. At its best, the Church upholds the teaching of Christ and the standards that Christ lays out for it. In such an ideal case, we can then bypass the middle man and say that the standards of Heaven are subject to the Lordship of Christ – a statement that most of us would be fairly comfortable with. The problem with inserting the middle man is that we’re sure that the Church gets it wrong sometimes. What do we make of this? What if the Church gets Jesus wrong, and binds the Law when it should be loosing, or looses the Law when it should be binding? Does Heaven still “go along” with the Church?
Well, in Jesus’ words… yes. So notice what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is in some way dependent upon the standards of the Church. We’re not saying that God’s standards are in any way dependent upon the Church – we’re even recognizing that the Church could quite possibly get God’s standards wrong. What is said here is that if the Church is wrong in its teaching: if it has bound the Law where it should have loosed; if it has loosed the Law where it should have bound, then the individuals who have been led (or in this case, misled) by the Church will not be denied the Kingdom of Heaven, simply for the Church’s corporate/institutional mistake. Heaven will accept the one who bound where they should have loosed, or who loosed where they should have bound, though it be an unacknowledged sin, because the Church was in error. What the Church bound on earth was bound in Heaven; what she loosed on earth was loosed in Heaven.
This is some rather abstract illustrating of the point. Tomorrow we will begin to look at some more concrete examples of binding and loosing, pulled from the pages of Matthew.