I’ve heard a few varying interpretations about what this phrase means in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18.
The first interpretation I’ve heard somes from our Protestant (Lutheran) theology/understanding. It’s said that binding and loosing have to do with the pronouncing of forgiveness or the lack of forgiveness based on honest repentance and contrition. If an honest repentence is heard (I’m not sure how anyone on the outside of a person’s conscience can know whether a repentant person is honest in their repentance – how can their heart be seen?), then sins are “loosed;” if repentance does not occur, then the sins are “bound.” A staple in this Protestant understanding is from John 20.
A complication with the Protestant interpreation of binding and loosing is found in Christ’s teaching immediately following the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 (Luke 11). Here, Jesus says, “If you forgive others their sins, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their sins, neither will your Father forgive your sins.”
Now, the verses in Matthew 6 have a different slant than chapters 16 and 18. It seems like chapter 6 speaks about personal offenses and it’s not so much about the church as a whole administering some kind of guidance or discipline. Nonetheless, it’s evident that the power of forgiveness is not coming from ourselves, but from Heaven. Whatever is bound on earth will have already been bound in heaven. We simply announce what is or is not. Sin that is repented is always forgiven for Christ’s sake. Sin that is not repented is also not forgiven.
There are two more interpretaions I’ve heard for the Binding and Loosing concept. One is the Catholic understanding, where weight and decision is placed on Peter’s shoulders (instead of the type of faith Peter had). The second, is what I hear comes from Jewish antiquity and interpretation (Rob Bell’s Nooma: Dust, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and The Interpreter’s Bible commentary series) and that is that binding and loosing refer to interpreting a rabbi’s teaching into day-to-day living. The followers or disciples are given an incredible task to take what their rabbi has taught and then they bind and loose, or basically, interpret which methods to live the teachings out by binding some methods to life and loosing others. Binding and loosing then refers to the interpretations for application; the rabbi’s teaching stays solid and unchanged.
My final question: how is the concept of “binding and loosing” best understood? What did Jesus have in mind when he spoke these words?