The Confusing Binding and Loosing Passages

March 6, 2015

We are blessed to have English translations of the Bible, but on a few occasions our English translation may make it impossible to arrive at the correct sense out of a passage. One such case is the binding and loosing of Matthew 16:19 and 18:18. The ESV, unfortunately, gives the typical translation.

… and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19, ESV)

You find a similar reading in the KJV, ASV, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, and NLT, although the NKJV, NIV, and ESV give the correct reading in their footnotes.

The name of grammatical feature in the passage is given in the footnote of the NASB. It is a future perfect passive form. William Douglas Chamberlain comments on this in his grammar.

This is wrongly translated “shall be bound” and “shall be loosed,” seeming to make Jesus teach that the apostles’ acts will determine the policies of heaven. They should be translated “shall have been bound” and “shall have been loosed.” This makes the apostles’ acts a matter of inspiration or heavenly guidance. Cf. Matthew 18:18. This incorrect translation has given expositors and theologians a great deal of trouble.1

The NASB translates it correctly.

…and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on

earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19, NASB)

If reading several future perfect passives in a row makes your head spin, the HCSB provides the clear sense of the passage, although not a literal translation of it.

…and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19, HCSB)

The sense of these passages, whether we are talking about Peter in Matthew 16:19 or the disciplining church in 18:18, is that the action and decision first occurs in heaven and then is followed on earth. Peter and the church are following heaven’s authority not dictating heaven’s policy. I simply make a note in the margin of my Bible so that I have the correction translation. The correct translation makes a world of difference and takes the confusion away.

1William Douglas Chamberlain, An Exegetical Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 80.