Question and Answer
How do Presbyterians understand "binding and loosing"?
How does the Presbyterian faith understand the verses that speak of "binding and loosing" as found in Matthew 16:18-19; 18:18 and John 20:23? Does the Presbyterian denomination believe the Church has any power to bind or loose men of their sins? If so, in what sense? Is this the same sense as that of the Church Fathers? What did John Calvin say about these verses? Thank you.
From these and other verses, Presbyterians have developed our doctrine of "Church discipline." Defined rather broadly, "Church discipline" refers to the processes by which people are brought into the Church, kept in the Church, and (because of unrepentant sin) removed from the Church, all by the Holy Spirit working through the elders whom the Spirit has already raised up to govern the Church. These doctrines are discussed in the Westminster Confession of Faith chapters 25 and 30 (which you can find, with Scripture proofs, here. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church's "Book of Discipline," which lays out the ways in which we believe these Biblical commands and doctrines should best be applied in the life of the Church, is on pages 91-120 of our Book of Church Order, and can be found online here.
Perhaps the best Biblical summary of the process of Church discipline is Matthew 18:15-20:
15 "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 have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been 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."
In Matthew 18:15-17, our Lord commands a process for dealing with sin. The end point of that process is "telling it to the Church," which (in the context of the rest of Scripture) we understand to mean bringing the matter to the elders of the Church, who, when gathered together as a council to judge a matter upon good and sufficient evidence, have the power to excommunicate unrepentant sinners ("...let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.").
In Matthew 18:18-20, Jesus gives the disciples, and their successors the elders of the Church, an extraordinary promise. When they determine together to admit a person into Church membership, that decision shall reflect what God has already determined, which is also the case should they determine to excommunicate a Church member (Matthew 18:18-19). How can this be? Because Jesus Christ, by his Holy Spirit, will be present among the elders of the Church whenever they are gathered, under his authority, to govern Christ's Church in his name and according to his Word in the Bible (Matthew 18:20).
The rules and procedures by which Presbyterians exercise Church discipline have evolved over the centuries as we have grown in our understanding of Scripture and had more experience in applying the principles of God's Word in the government and life of the Church. As for what the Church Fathers thought about these verses, you should know that term covers a great number of men and centuries; I am not qualified to say what their consensus opinion was, if such a judgment is even possible. As for John Calvin, in his commentaries on these passages, he argues that they refer to the work of the Holy Spirit in either bringing men to salvation, or condemning them for their hardness of heart, when the Word of God is preached. This view agrees with the Presbyterian understanding because we believe Church discipline begins (and often ends) with preaching. In preaching, sin is exposed, the Gospel is proclaimed, and God's people repent and turn from their sins because of the grace of God in the Cross of Jesus Christ. Thus, while the current Presbyterian understanding of these passages is more developed and nuanced than Calvin's, it is substantially in agreement.
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