[This is part of an ongoing series. See my introduction.]
[Before I finish my review of Mr. Armstrong’s chapter on the church, I thought that I would exegete two other commonly used texts in support of high church-ism, Ephesians 3:10 and Matthew 18:17. Though they are not cited in Mr. Armstrong’s The Catholic Verses, I have seen them used by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists in the past, and so, I believe that it would be helpful to include them in this series.]
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED. 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. 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.” –Matthew 18:15-18
Issue Raised: Does the Church Hierarchy Have Binding Infallible Authority?
Roman Catholic apologists will sometimes cite this text to support the belief that the church, being defined as the order of higher clerics (or in the case of Eastern Orthodoxy, the universal church as a whole), has binding infallible authority in its pronouncements. But is this really saying that?
Just before the instructions in vv.15-18 are given, Christ gave the parable of the lost sheep (vv.12-14). In it, He teaches that if one sheep (i.e. in this parable, representing a believer) goes astray (i.e. temporarily falls into sin or separates from the church), that the shepherd (i.e. God) will search for it until He finds it. If the lapsed Christian returns to the flock, then God will rejoice over it for it is the will of God that no believer should perish.
This is a teaching about what to do when a lapsed Christian returns to the church. A repentant Christian should be accepted back into the body of Christ without hesitation or anger but with happiness and praise to God.
Christ then turns to the opposite situation in which an unrepentant member refuses to leave the church, and the Lord gives an outline on how to deal with this situation.
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” –Matthew 18:15
The first step is to approach the sinful member privately and rebuke him gently for his acts (or in the case of heresy, his false beliefs). If he repents, then great! If not, then…
“But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED.” –Matthew 18:16
Here, Christ tells the church to use standard Israelite legal proceedings for dealing with this man. If after a private attempt at correction fails, two or three should gently rebuke the man to get him to repent so that the sinful member may know that it was not just the personal opinion of the first corrector. If this attempt fails, then…
“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.” –Matthew 18:17
If a private attempt fails and an attempt with two or three fails, then the correctors are to go to the church with the matter. Now, back in the life and times of the Lord Jesus, the word, “ecclesia,” simply meant “congregation”, referring to the attendance at the local synagogue. It is a semantic anachronism (see the intro., part a.) to assert that the word, “church,” here refers to the bishops and other clergy (as it later came to mean in Roman Catholicism) comprising the hierarchy of the church to the exclusion of the rest of the Christian congregate. As the commentary to the NAB on the USCCB website explains:
“ The church: the second of the only two instances of this word in the gospels; see the note on Matthew 16:18. Here it refers not to the entire church of Jesus, as in Matthew 16:18, but to the local congregation.”
-Commentary on Matthew 18:17 NAB
If the sinful brother does not repent at even this, then he is to be treated as an unclean heathen; that is, he is to be excommunicated.
“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.” –Matthew 18:18
Now, the NASB is the only translation (that I have seen) which translates the meaning of this verse in the sense indicated by the context. That is, it recognizes (as the side margin informs the reader) that this phrase “shall be loosed” is, in Greek, a future perfect passive. In other words, the sense of the phrase (as is translated literally in the NASB) should be: “shall have been bound.” The IVP New Testament Commentary notes:
“God authorizes the Christian judicial assembly that follows these procedures to act on the authority of heaven. The unrepentant person has already left God's way and cannot be restored without repentance. The verb tenses allow (though do not demand) the meaning the context suggests: the earthly action follows the heavenly decree (compare Mantey 1973). By removing an unrepentant sinner from the Christian community, believers merely ratify the heavenly court's decree (see Keener 1991a:141-43; in Jewish courts, compare t. Rossashana 1:18), removing branches already dead on the vine (compare Jn 15:2, 6).” (bold emphasis mine)
- IVP New Testament Commentary, Commentary on Matthew, Matthew 18:15-20
Thus, whatever the church (again, the local congregation) decides in regards to this unrepentant member, the decision by the church was simply to recognize what God had already seen in the sinner’s heart and decreed in terms of the means of correction (see also 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 1:18-20, Titus 3:10-11, and Hebrews 12:6). Again, the decision is merely a public recognition of what God in heaven has already said should happen to this man or woman.
So, the “binding” given is a real authority given to the local congregation of Christ to excommunicate unrepentant members, not the ability to make infallible doctrinal pronouncements.
[Note: When this procedure is not followed correctly, a sinful member can be left within the congregation causing others to follow into wicked ways, or a faithful member could be unjustly excommunicated. In the first case, the church failed to do what God decreed should happen, and in the latter, the church did what God never commanded.
This has happened on several occasions in many denominations. For instance, according to the Roman Catholic Church, Joan of Arc was excommunicated and burned at the stake only to be made a saint many years later.
The most famous example of this in the Protestant movement was when Luther was unilaterally excommunicated by Pope Leo X when the latter ignored the to-be reformer’s historic right to a council. Tim Enloe documents this here: