In the context of conflict within the community we come to these well-known and often misused words:
“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have beenloosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18 v 17-18)
It is identical to the words given to Peter in Matthew 16: 19, “… whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” but here Jesus is speaking to the community of believers not to just one leading disciple. It is also similar to John 20:23, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
These words are disturbing especially to the church in the West where our faith is wrapped in individual autonomous lifestyle and we are stripped from the power of community even though the world is searching for it. The world steps into the church with its desire for connection and relationship and finds a church that is fighting and so leaves. Conflict will ever be before us but the church needs to be able to manage it far better in order to see it flourish.
Unfortunately the church has always battled with its papal leaderships excommunicating members for all kinds of reasons and using these verses to back their actions. Thankfully churches do not practice swift excommunication these days, but is there a place for it?
Remember the Apostle Paul who declared that the man in the church at Corinth having an incestuous affair with his step-mother be removed from the community? He did it for the credibility of the community but also the purpose that the man may realise his sin and repent and be saved. (1 Corinthians 5) So there is a time and place isn’t there? On the subject of sex, all forms of abusiveness should be got rid of, we are in times when shamefully Pastors are being outed for their abuses of the innocents and rightly so!
However you can always find a small group within a community who regularly sharpen their knives to oust the ‘sinner’, demanding their Pastor to be more decisive and purge the evil from among them. After all, Israel didn’t remove their evil tribes and those people led to the nation’s downfall. But how about the ‘sinner’ the ‘little one’ is preserved and forgiven and restored and the knife-sharpening crew are purged?
I don’t think Jesus is giving more power to the elbow of the hierarchy of church leaderships. He seems to be focused throughout on the ‘little ones’, those at the bottom of the pack, the marginalised, those who cannot stand up for themselves against the mighty. We have read how he warns us not to cause them to stumble (v6); to leave the 99 and chase after the 1 little one (v12) and to call them ‘brother or sister’ (v15); and to go to great lengths to restore them and if that is not possible then to treat them as unsaved (v15-17), in order to seek for their salvation and we will read about forgiveness without limit (v21-35). This is the binding (proclaiming the person guilty) and the loosing (proclaiming them forgiven) the church battles for.
So perhaps this text is about the values of the community. Each member going to great lengths to preserve mutuality (v1-5); being careful how we act or speak so as not to cause hurtful stumbling (v6-9); caring for those who are the least (v10-14); restoration of those who fail (v12-17) and total forgiveness (v21-35). Is this the binding and loosing of heaven? Are these the values of Christ’s community that sets itself apart from all other communities and that shares in the culture of heaven?