Though many believers have been trained, perhaps unfortunately, to hear or to speak these words of binding and loosing in a spiritual sense, doing so in some sort of reference to the realm of the operation of supernatural powers that are somehow commanded by the name of Jesus, it is not at all clear that the disciples of Jesus would have been so restricted in their hearing. There would most certainly have been a general awareness of cosmic powers at work and evidenced by various forms of sickness, disease, handicaps, and the like, but it was not these powers that were to be bound or loosed.
Rather, it was the people that were subject to such powers that were said to be bound, and it was these same people that were loosed from these powers by the word and touch of Jesus. Concurrently, these powers that kept people physically bound were the same powers that kept them socially bound and perhaps ostracized from the community, so their unbinding would also serve to loose them from their social chains as well.
So does one go too far when insisting that talk of binding and loosing is to be interpreted within the framework of the church, as the church serves out its mission to represent the kingdom of heaven, mimicking the message and ministry of Jesus? It is possible. However, in turning to the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus can once again be heard speaking and saying “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (18:18).
What is it that precedes this statement? Jesus is presented as dealing with the restoration of relationships (part and parcel of binding and loosing, as has been seen). In the course of talking about faults and forgiveness and His followers and fellow kingdom-bringers dealing with kingdom brethren, Jesus says “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector” (18:17). As yet another aside, based upon the Gospel witness of Jesus’ ministerial efforts, this means to redouble efforts towards the wayward believer and to treat him the way Jesus can be observed to treat Gentiles and tax collectors.
Here, Jesus speaks about the church before speaking about binding and loosing, along with talk of heaven and earth, linking the power to bind and loose with the church. One might attempt to argue that this talk of the church did not spring from the lips of Jesus Himself, but that it is an interpolation into the Jesus tradition by the composer of the Gospel of Matthew, as he (or she) attempts to deal with issues in the church community by placing words on Jesus’ mouth. If this were the case, it merely serves to underscore the fact that Jesus’ disciples well understood that His talk of binding and loosing, and its being linked with talk of earth and heaven, as Temple language and therefore applied to them as the living Temple of the body of the Christ.
In closing, Jesus punctuates His statement here in Matthew’s eighteenth chapter with “Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, My Father in heaven will do it for you” (18:19). We this can be understood as yet another overlapping of heaven and earth, which leads to an even greater example of the way that the church is to be the place of the coming together of heaven and earth, when Peter learns that he is to offer essentially unlimited forgiveness to his fellow kingdom denizens. Herein one finds great power to bind or to loose.