A recent discussion after church reawakened a long-time concern regarding the popular interpretation of Jesus’ instructions regarding dealing with conflict, recorded in Matthew 18:15-20.
This is a glaring example of translators’ neglect (whether deliberate or inadvertent is not mine to judge) of very elementary grammar, which has resulted in both the assumption of inordinate and unwarranted power/authority on the part of people who consider themselves to be in positions of “leadership”, and abject fear and submission on the part of those deemed their “underlings” – neither of which, may I remind you, is a category instituted or approved by Jesus himself (see Mt.23:7-12).
In the vast majority of English translations of the passage familiarly labeled “binding and loosing” (v.18), Jesus’ words are interpreted as if those two terms were cast in the future tense, and therefore amounted to a “blank check” enabling “church authorities” to hand down a decision that will be confirmed unquestionably “in heaven”. In our large collection of English translations, I have found only two (Charles B. Williams -1956, and Clarence Jordan – 1970) besides my own, where any effort has been made to convey accurately that those words are NOT future, but perfect passive participles. I find it interesting that both of these, like my own work, were translated by individuals, and not by committees hired by institutional hierarchies!
This grammatical error should have been obvious to even the most elementary language student, since the words are not even irregular verb forms, but plainly display the ‘reduplication” characteristic of the perfect tense, in both instances.
The particle, ean , introducing a clause with subjunctive forms,desete and lusete, describes the condition under which the following result will occur. The aorist form of those subjunctive verbs indicates a single, decisive action. And please note that these are second person plural forms: it is action to be taken by the group, not an individual.
The future form estai in the second clause is integral to this very common structure, which grammatically is known as a “future-more-vivid condition”, and simply emphasizes the certainty of the outcome.
This does not, however, alter the tense of the participles dedemena and lelumena in the second clause (the “apodosis”). These participles in the perfect tense can only refer to something that has already occurred, the effects of which remain in the present and beyond.
Far from endowing anyone with the authority to influence (let alone dictate!) what ‘happens in heaven”, this structure clearly charges the brotherhood (the verb is second person plural, remember) with the task of carefully, prayerfully, and responsibly discerning the decision which has already been made “in heaven”, and simply articulating that information.
Jesus’ following statement, a summary of the instructions just given, therefore obviously refers to the intended result of their / our having followed those instructions. With the above understanding, these latter (also much-abused) “verses” (19-20) are likewise removed from the image of a “blank check” by the qualifying statement with which Jesus concludes.
This statement follows the exact same grammatical pattern: ean + subjunctive as a conditional statement, with a future-more-vivid conclusion. Please note that the condition here is limited to those who have come to agreement while gathered in Jesus’ Name (See Word Study #24), in his presence, and with his participation! It may be reasonable to assume, therefore, that the Lord intends for this to be simply a reassurance of his guidance as his disciples try to sort out the situations he has just been addressing – many of which require wisdom far beyond the reach of our limited human minds!
He is not abdicating his own supreme authority, but enabling his followers to access the information necessary for faithfully following his instructions!
This is not obscure, technical grammar! It is explained in a basic, first-year, elementary Greek text! And similar structures appear in the New Testament more than 200 times!
On an even more basic level, the tenses of verbs are essential to understanding the message of the simplest of sentences! (These are briefly explained in the notes on verb tenses in the Appendix to my Translation Notes).
Why, then, are such very elementary principles so universally ignored by “scholars’ and “translators” (who ought to know better!), when they are (or should be) so readily accessible even to beginning students of the language? I can only conclude that those individuals or groups have “adjusted” (read, “edited”) the text to support their already-highly-defined “doctrines”.
Please refer to my earlier essays, “Plea for Linguistic Honesty” and “The task of a Translator”.
If a person or group has any respect at all for the Biblical writings, “What does the text SAY?” must become, and remain, his primary (if not his only) question. Any other principle, policy, or position MUST be derived from, NOT prescriptive of, that understanding.
Discernment by a carefully and responsibly studying brotherhood MUST take precedence over decisions by individuals who assume their right to dictate, if we are to learn faithfully to follow our Lord’s instructions.