Question: What is Jesus talking about in John 20:23? (“If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”)
Answer: This is similar to a passage in Matthew 18:18 where Jesus tells the disciples that in the process of determining who is right or wrong in a church conflict, whatever decision they make as the church has Jesus’ authority (verse20) and he states it in these terms, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What I believe is basically going on here is that Jesus is establishing His authority on earth through the church. As the church meets in His name to determine who is faithfully representing Christ and makes a pronouncement regarding a person’s status with the church of Jesus Christ, that pronouncement is backed up by Jesus.
Let’s say a person used the property of another believer and they came to the church to settle a dispute because the borrower destroyed the lender’s property and refused to make restitution for it. Let’s suppose that the whole process resulted in the leadership determining that the borrower needed to reimburse the lender, but he refused to do it. He has thus resisted the authority of his leadership and thus that of Christ. If the leadership determines that he needs to be, in Christ’s words, viewed as a “pagan or tax collector,” both of whom in those days were equivalent to unbelievers, and put under the discipline of the church, then that is Christ’s decision, too. The borrower’s sins have not been loosed, forgiven, until he repents and is restored to fellowship.
Somewhat the same situation might arise from someone saying they are a Christian (“forgiven”) but they do not believe that Jesus is God, reject the atoning nature of His crucifixion, and believe that sex outside of marriage is allowable. If the church determines that they cannot claim to be a Christian and reject such basic truths, then in a sense they have declared that this person’s sins are not forgiven. Jesus is saying that God has also endorsed that determination. The church is required by Christ to make such judgments in order to preserve the purity of His body.
If the church makes a mistake, it is a given that the Lord will correct the church on this matter. God will always show His judgment on such concerns. For example, when the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Martin Luther for his teachings, they made a wrong judgment that they later corrected to some degree. And, of course, God showed His approval of Luther in numerous other ways and of the movement he spawned. This shows that it was probably not Jesus’ intention for this passage to be taken to such universal levels of church leadership, but was something more intended for the local church government.