This passage has to do with how to handle trespasses. The trespasses here are usually doctrinal problems that would begin to affect others in the church if they were allowed to go on or they are sin problems that have to be dealt with in order to protect the rest of the church. This is not so much about a personal problem as it is between you and another person.
Theses verses show you the right way to handle the trespass. You try to handle it one-on-one. If that doesn’t work, you take a witness or two who can attest to the problem because they have first-hand experience with it. If that doesn’t fix it, then the church has to get involved.
In verse 15, it’s between thee and him alone – like Jesus did with Peter in Jn 21:15-17. It’s similar to the way Paul went straight to Peter in Gal 2:11-14, although Paul dealt with him openly here according to 1 Tim 5:20. Most people are afraid to go directly to the party because they don’t like confrontation. However, you have to face them with the problem or they won’t stop or recognize that what they are doing is even wrong. Lk 17:3 says rebuke him and then adds “if he repent forgive him.” So, these verses are conditioned upon YOU going to him and him reconciling with you. You’re not to be going around building a case against him behind his back.
In verse 16, if you can’t get it worked out with him, then take one or two witnesses with you. That is based upon Deut 19:15. Therefore, Paul said when the trespass is committed by an elder make sure there are at least two or three witnesses that can testify to the trespass, 1 Tim 5:19. Now these are not folks that you go get to side up with you; these are people who can personally testify that they have been affected by the same trespass. These can establish that the trespass against you wasn’t an isolated case. The guy indeed has a problem.
Problems like this could be caused by someone who bums money off folks on the pretense of paying them back, but who doesn’t honor his word. He may be a fellow who is introducing doctrinal heresy in the church, working on just one or two here and there. He may be subtly going around buttering up folks to get his own work started out of another man’s ministry. He may be bad mouthing the pastor or someone in the church to sow seeds of discord. He may be in bad sin like the guy in 1 Cor 5.
If he shall neglect to hear the witnesses, then verse 17 says tell it unto the church. The obvious reason is two-fold. First, you hope that by exposing it the fellow will finally face his trespass and get right with you and God. Second, you alert others in the church not to get “taken” by this guy.
Note: the church actually starts with the “calling out” of the twelve disciples, since Jesus mentions it here. Although the new birth doesn’t come until after the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, the “called out assembly” is there during Jesus’ ministry. Compare what Stephen said about the Jews in the Exodus. He called them the “church in the wilderness.” They were the assembly called out of Egypt Acts 7:38.
Jesus said, “If he neglect to hear the church,” then the church is going to have to agree about what to do with him and they are going have to stand with the offended party against the one who trespassed. Then offender is to be treated as a heathen man and a publican.
There are many cases in the New Testament where we see this process carried out – Rom 16:17, 1 Cor 5:1-9; 2 Thes 3:6, 14; 1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17-18 are some of the examples. As you can see, we are not dealing with petty disagreements between God’s children (although the practice of going to them individually is still the right way to handle those petty problems). It is about stuff that is going to adversely affect the church – that’s why you go to the church
As a result, verse 18 says that the church can “bind” and “loose” these things. What the church decides about these matters, the Lord will back. For example, the church in Corinth was instructed by Paul to turn a man over to Satan (1 Cor 5:5) for a sin he was committing. Paul told Timothy about two men he had turned over to Satan for blasphemy, 1 Tim 1:20 [you’d have to be walking awfully close to God to pray that prayer and not have the devil come back after you]. Peter watched Ananias and Sapphira die on the spot in Acts 5 for lying to God. Paul and Barnabas split over their contention concerning John Mark in Acts 15:39.
Likewise, the church “loosed” some things. They forgave the fornicator in 1 Cor 5 when he repented and asked for forgiveness (2 Cor 2 and 7). The affect on the Corinthian church was tremendous (2 Cor 7:11-13). Even in the case of John Mark, the contention was “loosed” as you can see in 2 Tim 4:11.
Therefore, verse 19 is not so much a blank prayer check just because two of you agree about something you’re praying for. Can’t you just see 2 guys going up to Billy’s Cadillac and laying hands on it, praying, “Lord, give this to Johnny because he and I agree that he needs it worse than Billy?” We already have sufficient prayer promises to get a prayer answered. Verse 19 has more to do with 2 agreeing concerning binding or loosing a trespass and the doctrinal and spiritual implications of that decision. It’s like pronouncing an OT sentence after the two witnesses have spoken.
In verse 20 we find that the reason verse19 is true is that Jesus is there as if he were making the decision himself. Compare this with what Paul said about his presence at a meeting of the church in Corinth, 1 Cor 5:3. See the similarity? The decision of the church has authority because Christ is there.