As Jesus equips His disciples for ministry, He gives them authority to both remit and retain sins, implying God Himself will align with their choices. (Jn 20:23)
Some take this to mean the Twelve Apostles could decide whom God would forgive and whom He wouldn’t, effectively determining who would enter Heaven and who would go to Hell. Some evidently leverage this to teach the Roman Catholic Church controls our eternal destiny, contradicting what God Himself says about salvation: we’re saved by believing on Christ. (Jn 3:16) This relationship is between each individual person and God (18); Church leaders have nothing to do with it.
Others take it to mean the Twelve Apostles were simply messengers of the Gospel, showing people how to be forgiven, declaring forgiveness when people believed on Christ. (1Th 1:4-5) Yet the wording doesn’t permit this: it says the Apostles themselves could either remit or retain the sins of individuals as they saw fit. It’s not the same thing at all.
Neither of the above interpretations does full justice to the context, and it isn’t easy to find any other intelligible take on it. Even so, there must be a better way. (Mt 7:7)
Note carefully that this authority to remit and retain sins is the very first working principle Christ teaches the Twelve after giving them the Holy Spirit. (22) In filling them with the Spirit, Christ is forming them into an assembly of born again, spirit-filled brothers in what we might consider to be the first local church. This authority is evidently central to their ministry in this context, not necessarily given to each of the apostles as individuals, or even merely because they are His apostles. This authority to remit or retain sins may be vested in them simply because they are now spiritual brothers within the same local body of believers.
In such a context, they are in fact now responsible to discern what kinds and levels of sins to patiently bear with (remit, or let go of) (Ga 6:1-3) within the local assembly, and what degrees of sin to call out, judge and discipline (retain, or hold on to). (1Co 5:11-13)
Paul, an Apostle himself, reinforces this concept of brotherly authority in the context of church discipline (Ro 16:17); the brothers are to decide when someone is committed to sin and exclude them from fellowship (1Co 5:6-7), treating them as though they were unbelievers. (Mt 18:17)
Further, those whom the brothers forgive and receive back into fellowship after having disciplined them, Paul also forgives, indicating God’s alignment with them. (2Co 2:10-11)
The brothers have this spiritual authority to facilitate unity and purity within the local body; they’re responsible to manage this in all of the complexities and challenges they face together. And as they seek the truth and align in the Spirit, God Himself works in and through them to glorify Himself (1Co 5:4-5), backing them up as needed. (Mt 18:18)
This kind of spiritual authority is, as we have noted, evidently not such that any sinful mortal may decide whether another soul is ultimately eternally forgiven before God, but God’s way of managing corporate purity and health within a local body of believers. (Ro 15:14)