The Eldership of Matthew 18:17 and 1 Corinthians 5:4
The Ministerial Assembly Holds the Power to Bind and Loose.
By Dr. Richard Bacon
Copyright 1998 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

In the following, I have attempted to bring out the Scottish arguments surrounding Matthew 18:17 being the session acting as the ministerial church with the keys. I follow closely Samuel Rutherfurd's A Peaceable Plea for Paul's Presbytery in Scotland (1642)

Do 1 Corinthians 5:4 and Matthew 18:15-20, separately or together, refer to the church consisting of all professors of Christ or only to a ministerial assembly consisting of the church guides or governors (i.e. "elders")? We Presbyterians answer the latter, for the church of all professors is nowhere in Scripture given the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose. We answer the latter, for the church of professors is nowhere in Scripture said to "synagogue with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ" to settle authoritatively disputes between brothers or to cast out and "deliver to Satan" for the destruction of the flesh. But the assembly spoken of in Matthew 18:15-20 and in 1 Corinthians 5:4 has the power to bind on earth and to deliver authoritatively a sinning and convicted church member to Satan. Therefore the assembly spoken of in these two places must be the ministerial assembly of those who do have the keys to bind and loose and those who do have the "power of our Lord Jesus Christ" to deliver church members to Satan, viz. the church guides or governors (i.e. "elders").

Let us examine Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:4 to see what we shall:

1. The language of Matthew 18 alludes to the synedry and consistory of the Jews of which Christ's hearers were well acquainted.

1.1 The terms, "brother, witnesses, synedry, assembly, congregation, heathen, and publican" are all terms which were peculiar to the Sanhedrin of the Jews.

1.2 Thus Beza commenting on this place, "who would understand Christ here to speak of a Christian presbytery, that has power to excommunicate, except we [first] consider that Christ has a respect in this form of speech to the Jews' church polity."

1.3 Excommunication is expressed in Jewish terms familiar with the usage of that day -- "let him be to thee as a Gentile," i.e. a stranger to the commonwealth of Israel . . . not one of the visible church of that day.

1.4 The multitude of that day did not judge judicial causes and therefore it would be a foreign imposition upon the words to see the church as the entire congregation.

2. The church in a particular place gathers for prayer, preaching, and sacraments; but not for rebuking or judging.

2.1 None but pastors, and certainly none of the women, were to speak in the assembly of all professors.

2.2 But rebuking and judicial censuring where there is binding and loosing requires that many others speak in turn, in addition to the pastors.

2.2.1 Surely the accused, even though it may be a woman, must be able to speak in his or her own defense. This is a basic right which none but the tyrannical would deny.

2.2.2 No binding and loosing is possible apart from the testimony of witnesses, so witnesses must be permitted to speak in this assembly.

2.2.3 The offended party (plaintiff) must be allowed to present his or her case and so speaking must be allowed to the accuser as well.

2.2.4 If the scandal should be between woman and woman, and if all the witnesses were women, then the predominant portion of speaking in this assembly may be by women.

2.3 Therefore the assembly of Matthew 18:17 and the synagogue of 1 Corinthians 5:4 cannot be the same as the assembly for worship because different rules apply to each and if there are different rules then there must be different assemblies.

3. The church spoken of here is a judicial seat and ought to be obeyed in the Lord.

3.1 This assembly has power to excommunicate.

3.2 One man cannot excommunicate another except he be a judge (1 Samuel 2:25).

3.3 The people are required to hear (obey) the judges (Deuteronomy 17:8-13).

3.4 The elders are in the place of Christ with respect to judging (Luke 10:16 cp. 1 Corinthians 5:4).

3.5 Even in the matter of private and personal discernment the apostle John distinguished between "you" (members) and "we" (elders or church guides).

3.6 But just as one private person cannot excommunicate another, he does not increase or create a power of excommunication by convincing a multitude of private persons of the rightness of his cause.

3.7 Therefore neither one private professor, nor a multitude of them, has authority to excommunicate apart from warrant from God to bind and loose.

3.8 The result of the opposite view would be that church governors are under the authority of those whom they govern. But such a thing is ludicrous on the very surface of it.

4. Whatever assembly (a majore ad minore) has the authority to excommunicate also has authority to inflict all lesser censures.

4.1 But all the members together cannot inflict the lesser censures.

4.2 A woman may not publicly rebuke her husband, no matter if all the assembly agree with her.

4.3 A son may not publicly rebuke his father, though all the assembly agree with him (except the son be in some other position than a son to do so).

4.4 A servant may not rebuke his master, etc.

4.5 Therefore those who are under an authority may not rebuke those who are in authority over them (1 Timothy 5:1, 19-20).

4.5.1 But if the assembly of professors has not the right to rebuke, neither has it the right to excommunicate.

5. Those to whom the essence and definition of a ministerial church having power to excommunicate belong (understood by the term "church" in Matthew 18:17) are the [few as] "two or three" in verse 20.

5.1 But an assembly of professors, howsoever large it may be, has not the power of the keys of the kingdom.

5.2 Therefore the church of Matthew 18:17 is not a church consisting of a multitude of professors, but one consisting of as few as two or three though they have the power of binding and loosing in Christ's name.

5.3 From this passage we adduce the definition of a ministerial church, viz. an assembly that has the power of preaching, of binding and loosing, and so of church censures.

5.3.1 Then this assembly has also authority to convene and to summon, to admit and to bar from church privileges.

6. The power of the keys is not given to all professors alike or assembled because such a church is not a ministerial church having the power to preach or to bind and loose.

7. The referent for the term "church" in Matthew 18:17 is the body to which complaint should be made.

7.1 But one cannot complain (eipon, i.e. lego) to a multitude.

7.2 Therefore the multitude is not the referent for the term in v. 17.

8. The practice of the apostolic church was not to complain to the multitude.

8.1 The household of Chloe, when grieved by those at Corinth, complained to Paul (1 Corinthians 1:11).

8.2 Paul did not correct their action, but seems to have regarded it as proper.

8.3 The action of the household of Chloe, then, in telling the church, was correctly understood as telling the governor(s) of the church.

8.4 Rebuke and correction from an authoritative governor(s) was needed.

8.5 This rebuking authoritatively is given to the eldership (Titus 1:13, etc.), but never to all professors.

8.6 Therefore the rebuking church and excommunicating church must be the church of the elders or the ministerial church.

9. The church here in Matthew 18:17 is those to whom the keys of the kingdom are given (see Matthew 16:18-19 for the parallel on binding and loosing with the keys).

9.1 The keys were given to Peter (Matthew 16:19) and then to all the apostles (John 20:21-22).

9.2 But Christ has not sent every professor or believer, but only the apostles and elders (Matthew 28:18ff cp. John 20:21-22).

9.3 Thus not every believer or professor has the keys.

9.4 This is also the teaching of Theophilact, Chrysostom, Cyril, Augustine, Jerome, and Cyprian on John 20:21, Psalm 44, and in their epistles.

10. The objection is weak which maintains that the term "church" is never taken for anything but a body of professors or believers.

10.1 The word, admittedly, is but seldom used for the overseers only, yet it is done so.

10.2 This fact is seen best in the letters to the churches at various places in Revelation chapters 2 and 3.

10.2.1 It is in this sense only that the "angel" of the church may be called "the address" of the church. God speaks to the church through the angel of the church.

10.2.2 Though the entire church at each place is commended or chided, yet each church is addressed by its minister or angel.

10.2.3 Therefore the angel must authoritatively deliver the words of Christ to the congregation of professors at each place, though in many instances the assembly of professors consists of both wicked and righteous together.

10.3 In the Old Testament the several words as "Qahal, `Edah, or Ecclesia" do sometimes signify princes or rulers, as Ps. 82:1; Nu. 35:24; cp. Josh. 20:4; Deut. 11:12, 16-17 cp. Josh. 9:6, 15; Sam.l 7:7 cp. 1 Chron. 17:6; 10.3.5 Ex. 20:18-19; cp. Deut. 5:23; Ex. 4:29 cp. 30:31; 1 Chron. 28:1-2; cp. 1 Chron. 29:1

10.4 Judges and priests in Israel could pass sentence without consent of the people (Deut. 1:16-17; 17:8-13) and yet Israel was a nation of "Kings and Priests" to God as well as the church today (Ex. 19:5-6; Ps. 149:1-2).

11. The church which the plaintiff must tell must be one which is empowered by the Lord to admonish, rebuke, or excommunicate the offending person.

11.1 But only the elders are so empowered by the Lord.

11.1.1 Those who are over us in the Lord are also the ones who admonish us (1 Thessalonians 5:12ff).

11.1.2 The elders who rule well (1 Timothy 5:17) are also subject to rebuke (1 Timothy 5:20), but only after due process (1 Timothy 5:19).

11.1.3 Those who "hear" the elders are "hearing" Christ (Luke 10:16).

11.2 Therefore it is the church of elders which is to receive public accusations and to rebuke publicly, as Titus 1:13; 1 Timothy 5:1 cp. vv. 19-20; 2 Timothy 4:2.

12. If Christ in Matthew 18:17 intends the church of professors, then a company of professing women and children may censure and even excommunicate their elders.

12.1 But the consequent is altogether unknown in the word of God.

12.1.1 Private believers, much less women and children, cannot judge the watchmen and those who are over them in the Lord.

12.1.2 In the Old Testament prior to the existence of the nation of Israel, only head of families excommunicated. Genesis 21:10-13.

12.1.3 The priest, not the people, judged the leper. Leviticus 13:3-5; Deuteronomy 24:8-9; Numbers 5:1.

12.1.4 In the New Testament only the Apostles and Elders ordained pastors and officers. Acts 6:6; 13:3; 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6; 1 Timothy 5:22; Titus 1:5.

12.2 If the two or three witnesses happen to be an independent church, then the two or three in Matthew 18:16 must be the same as the two or three in Matthew 18:20.

12.2.1 But then the plaintiff would be telling the church (v. 16) before he tells the church (v. 17) and there would be no difference between these things.

12.2.2 Thus if the two or three of v. 20 be the church of professors, then the order of Christ has been violated.

12.2.3 But the matter has never properly come before the church (v. 17) because the two or three witnesses have not the authority to bind and loose (else v. 16 would be the final step of this process).

13. The issue in Matthew 18:17 is not that a church of believers be told so that they may believe, but that a church of judges be told that they may judge.

13.1 It would place too many interpretations on the passage to claim that v. 17 refers both to the church of professors and to the church of elders.

13.2 The same church to which the plaintiff must give in his complaint is the same church, therefore, which must be heard by the accused.

13.3 It is an unfair and tyrannical imposition that a brother be cast out of the visible church for not hearing and obeying a congregation who are not scripturally proistamenoi, over him in the Lord.

14. The church of believers or professors is commanded to synagogue for worship, but the church of 1 Corinthians 5:4 is commanded to synagogue for discipline.

14.1 There was no need for Paul's "spirit" for professors to meet together for worship (1 Corinthians 11, etc.), but such a requirement existed for the church which convened in accord with 1 Corinthians 5:4.

14.1.1 If any two or three professors suffice as the church which receives complaints in Matthew 18:17-20, then Christ has not provided a sure way to remove scandals. The plaintiff and defendant are both left not knowing who their judge(s) may be if it were the case that any two or three may suffice. Even in a single congregation of professors there may be dozens or scores of "two or three" professors.

14.1.2 How many key-bearing churches, then, shall be within the same congregation could only be known by dividing the congregation into groups of two or three.