“Jesus gave the Apostles the authority to bind and loose, which they used to “loose” us from the shackles of the Old Law and “bind” us to the Law of Christ.”
This is an objection that is most frequently voiced by Catholics, but it appears in Protestant and Evangelical circles as well. In Catholicism, there is an assumption that the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) has correctly passed down the traditions of the original Apostles and is their legitimate successor. Since the Apostles were given the authority to “bind and loose,” Catholics believe the leaders of their Church have this same authority. Among the Eastern Orthodox (EOC) the belief is the same, though without the emphasis on Petrine Supremacy (the belief that Peter was the chief of the Apostles, and therefore his “heirs,” the popes, are the chief of the bishops).
Interestingly, a similar argument sometimes appears among Protestants when it is pointed out that Yeshua commanded us to keep the whole Torah (Mat. 5:17-19), though without accepting the legitimacy of the RCC’s or EOC’s claims of Apostolic succession.
On the other hand, many Evangelicals and Pentecostals believe that “binding and loosing” is connected to what is usually called spiritual warfare: That is, Yeshua gave the Apostles the power to “bind” demonic forces and “loose” people from their bondage. While answering that view is not the primary purpose of this article, we will nevertheless see why it is flawed. That is not to say that those who are in the Messiah do not have power in his name over the Enemy—which is clearly taught in numerous passages such as Mat. 10:1, 11:29; Mark 6:7; Luke 9:1 & 49, 10:17-19, etc.—but simply that this particular passage does not teach it.
However, all three sides misunderstand just what “binding and loosing” is: It is not the authority to change Scripture, but the authority to interpret Scripture. It is not the authority to annul a command, but the authority to make a ruling on how to apply the command.
To “bind and loose” is actually a technical term among the rabbis, which means to “forbid and permit.” The Jewish Encyclopedia online explains:
The power of binding and loosing was always claimed by the Pharisees. Under Queen Alexandra, the Pharisees, says Josephus (“B J.” i, 5, § 2), [Wars I 5.2] “became the administrators of all public affairs so as to be empowered to banish and readmit whom they pleased, as well as to loose and to bind.” This does not mean that, as the learned men, they merely decided what, according to the Law, was forbidden or allowed, but that they possessed and exercised the power of tying or untying a thing by the spell of their divine authority, just as they could, by the power vested in them, pronounce and revoke an anathema upon a person.
That is to say, the ability to bind and loose was not simply the power to interpret as a pastor or other Bible teacher might interpret, but to make authoritative and binding rulings, the violation of which could be punished by anything up to and including excommunication from the synagogue. The Jewish Encyclopedia continues:
The various schools had the power “to bind and to loose”; that is, to forbid and to permit (Ḥag. 3b); and they could bind any day by declaring it a fast-day (Meg. Ta’an. xxii.; Ta’an. 12a; Yer. Ned. i. 36c, d). This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin ( see Authority), received its ratification and final sanction from the celestial court of justice (Sifra, Emor, ix.; Mak. 23b).
In the New Testament.
In this sense Jesus, when appointing his disciples to be his successors, used the familiar formula (Matt. xvi. 19, xviii. 18). By these words he virtually invested them with the same authority as that which he found belonging to the scribes and Pharisees who “bind heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will not move them with one of their fingers”; that is, “loose them,” as they have the power to do (Matt. xxiii. 2-4).
The authority that the Pharisees (as well as the Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin) claimed to bind and loose was based on Exodus 18, in which Moses appointed seventy elders over the people of Israel to make rulings in his place, and Deuteronomy 17:8-13, which commands the establishment of local and higher courts to adjudicate in disputes and criminal cases: “According to the sentence of the law (lit. the Torah) in which they instruct you (yorukha), according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you” (v. 11). The key words in this passage are shown in Hebrew above: The judges were to pronounce the ruling of the Torah! Moreover, yoruka is just a conjugation of the verb yarah, from which the word Torah also comes. Therefore, all of the judgments of these courts were required to come out of the Torah.
In two other places in Deuteronomy, the Holy One specifically commands that we are not to either add to or take away from his commands (4:2 and 12:32 [13:1 in Jewish Bibles]). The second iteration is specifically linked to the test for a false prophet, who was to be stoned to death “because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to entice you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall put away the evil from your midst” (13:5 ). All of the prophets were inspired by the same Spirit that inhabited the Apostles (2 Pt. 1:21), yet God very carefully limited their authority: They were to prophesy under the authority of the Torah (Deu. 18:15ff), not apart from or in contradiction to it.
Likewise the Apostles could not prophesy against the Word of God by the Spirit of God. They do not have the authority to teach people to apostasize from Moses–indeed, Paul rejected the charge (Acts 21:20ff). What they did have was the authority to “bind and loose,” to rightly interpret the application of the Torah and make traditions and laws within that framework, and that is what they did.
If our congress, fallen and corrupt as it is, must at least pay lip-service to making all laws Constitutional, how much more then would the Apostles, the Emissaries of the Messiah, filled with the Spirit of God, have made all their legislation carefully within the framework of their “Constitution,” the Torah that God had given by His own hand and own lips and of which He said, “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the Torah till all is fulfilled”?
No, what “binding and loosing” grants is the authority to make rulings within the framework of the Torah, either on how to apply the Torah in difficult situations, or to establish local societal norms (traditions) in areas in which the Torah is silent. The rabbis call these rulings halacha (lit. “how to walk”). Therefore, what Yeshua gave his Apostles and their spiritual heirs was the authority to interpret Scripture, including the Torah, and create the Ekklesia’s halacha apart from the growing body of rabbinical laws within the framework of Scripture and the Messiah’s own teachings.