Binding and loosing
Binding and loosing is originally a Jewish phrase appearing in the New Testament, as well as in the Targum. In usage, to bind and to loose simply means to forbid by an indisputable authority, and to permit by an indisputable authority. The Targum to a particular Psalm implies that these actions were considered to be as effectual as the spell of an enchanter.
The poseks had, by virtue of their ordination, the power of deciding disputes relating to Jewish law. Hence the difference between the two main schools of thought in early classical Judaism were summed up by the phrase the school of Shammai binds; the school of Hillel looses.
Theoretically, however, the authority of the poseks proceeded from the Sanhedrin, and there is therefore a Talmudic statement that there were three decisions made by the lower house of judgment (the Sanhedrin) to which the upper house of judgment (the heavenly one) gave its supreme sanction. The claim that whatsoever [a disciple] bind[s] or loose[s] on earth shall be bound or loosed in heaven, which the Gospel of Matthew attributes to Jesus, is probably therefore just an adoption of a phrase popular at the time.
This also serves as the scriptural and traditional foundation for the Catholic Church's conception of papal authority, stemming from such an investiture of St. Peter, since, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, the Popes are the Successors of St. Peter.
Phrase in Context
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. – Matthew 16: 13-20
First evidence of Binding & Loosening
Acts chapter 15 expresses the first documented instance of loosening and binding; what has been later termed the Council at Jerusalem. Here the early controversy of circumcision was resolved, and loosened from being a qualification for salvation and acceptance into the community of believers. In the depiction below, we see an appeal to follow what has been revealed by the Holy Spirit, and not what opinions of men would suppose. Four things are bound while one thing is loosened:
1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe [ first Gentile conversion, Acts 10 ]. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16 “‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, 17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— 18 things known from long ago.
19 “It is my judgment [ James speaking ], therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers. 33 After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them.  35 But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.
– Acts 15: 1-35
Controversy still exists Today whether the authority to loosen or bind is still in effect, if it passed at some point during the church's early development, or to what extent gospel and doctrine as been loosened or bound by either the Catholic, Eastern, Coptic, Protestant and other organizations.
- This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "BINDING AND LOOSING", a publication now in the public domain.
- Psalms 58:5 (verse 6 in some English versions)
- Massoth, 23b
- Matthew 18:18
- Matthew 16:19
- "Matthew 16: 13-20 NIV – Peter Declares That Jesus Is the – Bible Gateway". Bible Gateway.
- "Acts 15: 1-35 NIV – The Council at Jerusalem – Certain – Bible Gateway". Bible Gateway.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: Binding and Loosing
- Catholic Encyclopedia: The Pope: "The expressions binding and loosing here employed are derived from the current terminology of the Rabbinic schools. A doctor who declared a thing to be prohibited by the law was said to bind, for thereby he imposed an obligation on the conscience. He who declared it to be lawful was said to loose."