Who gave the church the right to decide which sins we will “bind” and which we will “loose” from what Jesus and the Bible originally taught?
There is no doubt we have added to the Bible’s list of sins. No denomination can honestly say they simply “use the clear teaching of the Bible to decide what is sin or not.” We all have added sins not explicitly condemned in the Bible—things like abortion, pornography, slave-holding, or using drugs. In a sense you could say we have “bound them” on our people though the Bible does not explicitly mention them. But we also have dismissed some of the Bible’s explicit teaching on sin—for example the codes in Leviticus, or Jesus’ teaching on piling up treasure on earth, or even on divorce—you might say we have “loosed” these requirements of the Bible. The title of this section is my question: Who gave the church the right to decide which sins we will “bind” and which we will “loose” from what Jesus and the Bible originally taught?
The answer is simple: Jesus did. That’s it. Pure and simple. Jesus gave the church the power to decide what to bind and loose on earth. We Protestants hate to hear this. We scream, NO NO NO, go away, I won’t listen …that’s too Catholic to be true—I reject it out of hand. But it is true. Let’s just do a bit of Bible study. (Can you do this on the explicit teaching of the Bible and not read preferred “interpretations” into the clear words Jesus spoke?)
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Peter had just confessed Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus said “I will give you the keys to the kingdom.” So ask yourself—who got the keys? Who is “you” in this passage? Is it Peter personally? (If you say this then you might consider a transfer to the Catholic Church and get in under the line of Peter) OK most Protestants say it wasn’t Peter personally who got the keys—then who was it? Was it the collective group of apostles present? (If you say yes then you might also consider a transfer to the Catholic Church and get under the apostolic umbrella). If not Peter personally, or the apostles, then who got the keys? I say Jesus gave the church the keys—the collective body of Christ on earth through the ages got the keys to the kingdom from Jesus. The body of Christ is the heir to the keys of Jesus.
So what are the keys for? Gee we can go all kinds of esoteric places here if we just use our imagination. But why go anywhere except where Jesus Himself went in the second half of the verse? "..whatever you bind on earth shall be bound on heaven." Bind and loose were rabbinical terms for ruling certain actions as either forbidden or permitted. So the terms were spoken in a context suggest determining what is forbidden and what is permitted. It implies the church has the keys to determine what will be bound on people and what will be loosed. Whoa! Help! We must be interpreting this wrongly, right? How can the church have the power to decide what things are now sin that used to be OK and what things used to be sin that are now OK? We American Protestants are willing to give individuals that power, but not the church! Interestingly Protestant Americans trust individuals more than groups as if depravity of humanity somehow is more serious among groups than in individuals—curious). This passage is pretty clear—Jesus gave keys to somebody and they bind and loose things.
2. Matthew 18:18
Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Whoops… Matthew 16:19 isn’t just an isolated verse. Matthew repeats the phrase several chapters later as Jesus taught how to deal with a brother who has refused to reconcile even after the three-step process. Jesus said such a brother is to be shunned or "treated as a publican." Then he added, "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven." What in the dickens does this mean? Does God somehow recognize in heaven our own shunning or our excommunication of people on earth? Does Jesus actually delegate His power to decide some things then heaven “follows?” Delegate it to the church? NO! Never! It cannot be! Sure, we act like He did this, but we don’t want to confess we actually believe we have this authority do we? OK maybe there is an out here. Perhaps Matthew had some sort of hang-up or spin because he was writing to such a Jewish audience or something—maybe Matthew stands alone here. A couple of verses in Matthew do not a theology make. Lets’ look somewhere else.
3. John 20:22-23
And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.
Oh boy—this doesn’t help! It gets worse in John! It is more explicit not less. John places Jesus' words at the post resurrection appearance in the upper room following their receiving the Holy Spirit (before Acts 2) Jesus told His church gathered there "If you loose the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you bind the sins of any, they are retained." HOLY SMOKE! Help! We must interpret our way out of this mess! It can’t mean what it says can it? We need to make these verses mean something besides what they clearly say! Jesus’ words are obviously about sins here, not just binding or loosing the regulations of the Old Testament (as we Protestants might be able to interpret the Jewish-directed Matthew passages). John has Jesus saying that we have His delegated authority to forgive sins or to retain them. WOAH! How in the dickens do we do this? Remit sins? How do we forgive sins? How (as a church) do we make sins “stick” to people? Does God actually recognize this authority and make it so in heaven because we’ve done it here? Can the church have such power? We can’t take it! We reject these verses as nice Protestants—or make them say something else.
But here’s what these verses say to me:
1. Jesus gave the church “keys to the kingdom.”
2. These keys are about “binding and loosing” on earth.
3. Whatever the church binds on earth gets bound in heaven.
4. Whatever the church looses on earth, gets loosed in heaven
5. When the church remits sins on earth they are remitted in heaven.
6. When the church retains sins on earth they are retained in heaven.
Can God be such a delegator? If so the church must be far more important than we all think. We prefer a powerful individual and a weak church but the church may be far more important than we imagine.
So, what does this all have to do with Church Membership?
As to membership I think all this says the church has Christ’s delegated power to make membership decisions. We as a church have the delegated-from-God right to “bind” on members and label abortion, drugs, pornography or even using alcohol as “sin” if we truly believe the values in the Bible would lead Christ today to do so. And we can likewise “loose” things that we truly believe the “trajectory” of the Bible would loose by now—things like adding to one’s possessions, or permitting divorce for reasons beyond the narrow ones in the Bible, or permitting women to be ordained. We can bind people with things the Bible never mentions and we can loose things the Bible once commanded. Is this a dangerous position? You better believe it is dangerous! The keys should come with a warning label—“use only with great discretion!” This position allows the church to seemingly “trump” the bible—yet curiously, it is the biblical position! So how can a Protestant take such a “Catholic” position in favor of such a strong church?
I remember that it was the church who decided what would be in the Bible
Where did we get the Bible from? The church. The Bible was not a book that came down out of the sky from God complete. The church wrote and decided what would be in the Bible and it took them several hundred years to make that decision.
· Why aren’t DaVinci Code favorites like the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip in our canon?
· How did Revelation, Hebrews and some of the Pastoral epistles get in though some heavy hitters in the early church thought they shouldn’t get in?
· Who decided what would make the cut and become canonized?
· Who decided what would be considered spurious?
The answer (we all know this but try to forget it). The church decided what our Bible would be. So, even when we say “the Bible alone” we are actually trusting the church—since the church over several hundred years the church decided which of the hundred plus “books” would go into the New Testament and which would be denied.
· Talk about binding and loosing!
· How do we know the church made the right decisions?
· Do you think they made any mistakes?
· Should Clement I or the Didache have gotten into the canon and they goofed?
· Did they make a mistake by eliminating the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary?
The answer most of us give is, “No.” How can we say this? Because we believe the Holy Spirit actively guided the collective group of Christians to figure it out. We believe the Holy Spirit guided the church debate long after the books of the New Testament had been written. We believe the Holy Spirit was present at the actual eventual church conference made the decision. We believe the Holy Spirit actively “guarded and guided” so that the church made the right decision.
So why would we think the Holy Spirit stopped working this way after a few hundred years? We don’t. At least not when we think about it. Of course the Holy Spirit still works in His church to “guard and guide” the church. That’s why we pray for His guidance at conferences and conventions where important decisions are made. Indeed all decision making by the church is what we call “seeking God’s will.”
I think all this applies to decisions about membership requirements. Not that these matters are as important as the canonization of Scripture. And not that “Binding and loosing” membership requirements is an important as binding and loosing sin as Jesus taught. Few of us would say that denying church membership to an individual damns the person. Membership standards are small matters next to Canonization and sin-retention. Yet it is our job as a church to decide membership matters. Won’t the Holy Spirit guide us in this process? Certainly he will if we ask for guidance. Once this was a more important decision. When there was only one worldwide church—not meeting “membership requirements” meant you were outside of any and all church of Christ. Today you can go down the road and get into a church even if you don’t meet our particular membership standards. And most evangelicals believe a person might even go to heaven if he or she belonged to no church whatsoever if that personal individually had saving faith. So the decision about church membership is a lower-risk decision. But we must make it. And re-make it in every generation.
You don’t need to adopt this view of course. I don’t expect many Protestants to see it this way. Even though we actually operate on these assumptions, we hate to admit it. But I do not write to persuade people of my strong-church position. I write to persuade people to think. I’ve done my job if upon reading this section you determine to study what “the keys” really were, and to whom they were given, and what it meant when Jesus told his followers that whatever sin they bound or loosed on earth would be loosed or bound in heaven. I’ve succeeded if you go look up Luther’s take on the “keys” and Calvin’s and other writers through history. If you merely reject my approach and write an email arguing “out of your head” that I am wrong I’ll be disappointed. Go learn, find alternative view and check them—are they right or just more desirable? Decide for yourself what you think these Scriptures mean and how strong or weak the church and individuals are. Once you’ve worked that out—write up your own position. If you are afraid to give the church this much authority ask yourself why you trust individuals so much—what does this say bout your fall-of-humans doctrine? Study this matter—if the individual is king and can decide what the Bible means then you as an individual ought to be an informed one if you’re going to decide for yourself what the Bible means. If I am right (that the church has this responsibility) then as a part of the body-of-Christ you ought to be an informed part contributing to an informed decision. Either way you need to study.
So if the church has the power to determine these matters what is the key insight we often miss? It not about the “presenting symptoms” –alcohol, tobacco, gambling, drugs, divorce, homosexual acts in my opinion. The church always has enough “spiritual sense” to make these decisions rightly (though usually in a time lag). But that’s not the big issue when it comes to “Membership requirements.” I think the really big issue is we don’t get our categories clear. I think (at least in my own denomination) we must make clear categories before we talk much about “beliefs and behaviors.” So, this will be the subject of my next writing on membership.
January 11, 2005