The keys to the kingdom, binding & loosing
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. --Matthew 16:19; 18:18
Believing the Bible is easy. It is applying it that’s tricky.
Applying the Bible to today is harder than stating we “believe the Bible and that settles it. “ Take for instance the Bible’s teaching, “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s obvious this applies to outright premeditated murder, but does it also apply to War? Does it apply to killing in self defense? How about abortion—does the commandment apply to that? Does it extend to capital punishment? Who says what the Bible says on these things? Or, take another example: what does the Bible mean when it says “Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?” It obviously explicitly applies to visiting temple prostitutes but does it extend to anything else? Alcohol? Tobacco? Obesity? Sugar? Who can say how far the Bible applies in such situations? You? Me? My denomination? One more example: the Old Testament teaches us to keep the Sabbath day holy. Is Sunday the Sabbath? Is going to the beach on Sunday wrong? Cutting my grass? Making unnecessary purchases? Is there no such thing as a Sabbath at all anymore? How can I know how the Bible applies in these situations? Who can decide what the Bible means—obviously I can’t just decide for myself—neither you nor I can be trusted to let the Bible mean whatever we decide it means ourselves. So who can we trust? Here are my answers to that question for your consideration.
1. In Jesus’ day the rabbis led this process.
The Jews of Jesus day had the same problem. Thinking Jews immediately saw that the Ten Commandments weren’t actually commandments at all in some cases but actually “principles” that needed application. The commandment on the Sabbath didn’t say specifically what it meant to work—just don’t do it. Was building a fire to eat “work?” A fire for warmth? For fun? Is collecting sticks for the fire working on the Sabbath? Feeding animals? Taking in the harvest before tomorrow’s rain? God commanded Sabbath-keeping but left the details up to us to figure out. It is the same with “Honor your mother and father.” What does that mean? Does it mean a Jew had to obey their parents even after they were an adult? Take them into their own house and care for them when they are old? Merely give parent them respect and admiration? How was a devout Jew to know how this commandment applied? Who gets to decide?
That is where the rabbis came in. Along with others, the Rabbis took up the task of applying the Scriptures to daily life—answering the question “How far should I go?” and, “How far is too far?” Each rabbi offered a “yoke” –a collection of his applications of the Bible’s teachings—a church Discipline or Manual of sorts. To determine the application of Scripture the Rabbis used a question and answer approach. The two schools of Rabbis of the first century (Hillel and Shammai) are the most famous. The rabbis examined the law and applied it. Someone might ask, “If I find a fledgling dove and keep it have I stolen?” The rabbi’s teaching then established the application of the commandment “Do not steal” to the real situation of a person’s finding a baby bird that had obviously escaped from someone’s cage. In this case the teaching was that if you found the bird within fifty cubits of the cage you had to return it, otherwise “finder’s keepers” prevailed. All this of course sounds really ridiculously legalistic to us until one examines our own church rules (and personal ones) which attempt to make similar applications of the Bible to today’s issues. Well, what is your answer? Ever found a wad of cash in a parking lot? A quarter? A penny? What did you do? Do you reimburse for personal photocopying at work? Telephone calls? Time sending personal emails? Use of the ink in an office pen for personal purposes? See? We all have to make ethical judgments every day that either bind us or loose us from “the law.” <1>
The rabbis used a particular phrase for this process—Bind and loose. It was not a matter of treating the Scripture lightly “loosing” it by tossing overboard, but rather the process treated Scripture with gravity, carefully attempting to discern how it applied to actual daily living. Any pastor who knows real people knows the need for this sort of thing. First, there are some folk who are simply too hard on themselves—their consciences are so tender that they’ll turn in a penny they’ve found to the Wal-Mart counter and if they keep it they feel like they are a thief. These people need loosed from the their hard taskmaster. But there are also others who are so liberal on themselves they will “loose” just about every command in Scripture—including explicit ones—as they “consider the circumstances” in their own life. They’ll be sinning boldly and pronouncing it good. These sorts of folk could use a bit of “binding.” The bottom line: individuals can’t be trusted to do their own binding and loosing—they needed a rabbi to help them and this was the situation in the first century when Jesus spoke these words.
2. Jesus Himself practiced “binding and loosing.”
In some ways the entire Sermon on the Mount is an example of Jesus’ binding and loosing. (“You have heard it said…I say unto you.”) He binds murder to include anger. He binds adultery to include divorce/remarriage. He binds/extends the commandment on loving neighbor to loving enemies. But he looses Sabbath-keeping so that one might harvest grain by hand and even heal people. He also looses the restrictions against idolatry by allowing tax payments to Caesar who considered himself a god. Rabbi Jesus did what rabbis did—they took the law and applied it to daily practical issues of morality—loosening the grip of some rules and tightening and extending others. He never disposed of the law, but applied it to real-life through the process of binding and loosing.
3. Jesus delegated the authority to “bind and loose” to the church.
Jesus granted these keys to the church. What else can it mean? The questions are: what are the keys and who got them? The keys seem obvious: they are the authority to apply Scripture to daily life binding and loosing it when applied to life. <2> If these are the keys then who got them? Peter and his apostolic successors? Every individual Christian personally? Or, (as almost all Protestants say) the church. I think the church got the keys. It is our job to apply Scripture to today’s world—being strict on some things and more loose on others. It is the church’s job to start with God’s word then look at real-life situations and decide where to bind and extend the meaning of Scripture and where to loosen up its application and turn people free. I think it is the church’s job to tell the person who feels guilty for the penny they stole from the parking lot that they’ve not stolen it at all—they should put it in the offering plate and quit fretting.
4. However our big question then is: “Who is the church?”
So if the church gets to bind and loose, who is the church? Once we decide it is not an individual’s job but the church’s responsibility to apply Scripture to daily life then we Protestants run into a problem—we must ask, “Which church—who is the church?” Catholics say “the church” decides through the Pope who is the direct apostolic successor to Peter who got the keys in the first place. Protestants rejected this idea 500 years ago. When the Pope determines that the command to be fruitful and multiple means abstaining from birth control pills the binding is done for Catholics (though the bind-ees don’t always listen). For Protestants it’s more complicated. If the church does this binding and loosing who is the church? My local church? My denomination? Some sort of average statement from all evangelical denominations? The agreed-upon meaning of Scripture of evangelical bible scholars? If I am wondering if the extra 15 pounds on my bodily temple is wrong what church would I ask? Who will loose me of this command or bind it and command me to shed those pounds? Or, more seriously, who will tell a person considering divorce that they are justified in doing so, or are being selfish? Or when a college student is plagued by sexual dreams and wonders if these are sin—who will tell him the answer? The church will. It is our job—Christ gave us the keys.
5. John Wesley might be a helpful example here.
I know some folk could care less about what someone said or did in the 1700s’ but perhaps he can be a test case of how a Protestant can get “binding and loosing services” from the church. There are two practices in the Methodist movement that provided the binding and loosing service to individual Christians at that time. Perhaps we need to return to them.
A. The “fourth question” in Wesley’s small groups. John Wesley organized the church into small groups of twelve people, called “class meetings.” In those groups four questions were asked each week, going around the circle with each person answering them in turn. The fourth question is of most interest to us here but for context I will list all of them:
1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting
2. What temptations have you met with?
3. How were you delivered?
4. What have you thought, said or done of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
Wesley’s fourth question is a glimpse at how he saw binding and loosing work in the church—in small groups. After confessing sins and then temptations over which they had been victorious, every member of the class was asked to report anything they were unsure about—thoughts, words or deeds that they were unsure if they were sin or not. This would not be hard to do—they had just gone around the circle sharing personal sins and temptations already! Once the member shared their uncertainty the group helped them decide—applying the Bible to their situation. They did not have a short prayer and send the member out into the woods to “sense from the Holy Spirit” if they had sinned or not. They did not even send them off to study the Bible. They had them share and the group bound or loosed the Bible’s teaching to them. This small group “directing” avoided individualized applications the person might make on their own that were either too harsh on themselves or too easy. The individual submitted to the “spiritual direction” of their class meeting under the direction of a class leader. Wesley’s answer to the question, “Which church?” would have included the small group. They had the keys and were to do binding and loosing. But Wesley did not leave ultimate authority in small groups on their own—for even a group of twelve can be mistaken. Wesley wrapped the small groups up in a package of “Christian Conference.”
B. “Christian Conference.” Wesley did not gather the Methodists in their annual conference to discuss mileage rates for District Superintendents or the deteriorating condition of the camp meeting buildings. They discussed theology. Reading the minutes of these old conferences is something like reading the work of the first century rabbis or the early church fathers. They are honest attempts to hammer out theology and behaviors based on Scripture—in short “binding and loosing” the bible for daily life. The “minutes” of these conferences were so helpful and instructive that pastors eagerly waiting for them to be printed so they could use them in local congregations in discipleship. The “conference” was a regional event for the hammering out of theology and the application of Scripture—a grand “binding and loosing convention.” Questions were posed just as to the rabbis in the first century and answers were hammered out and crafted into words that have endured. The minutes of these conferences became guidance to class leaders and small groups for helping individuals making ethical decisions on “how far to go” applying the Bible to life. Christian conference was so important in Wesley’s scheme of binding and loosing that he listed it as one of the five means of grace in his famous sermon on that subject—including conference along with Scripture, prayer, fasting and the Lord’s Supper! (I know of no person recently who considers their district conference to be such a “means of grace.) Wesley’s approach was to create an envelope of authority around the small groups with the conference minutes. It worked.
Thus the Methodist in Wesley’s day knew where to go to find “the church.” If they were wondering how the Bible applied to their own drinking of alcohol, smoking tobacco, playing the lottery, getting an abortion, joining a secret society or practicing homosexuality [anachronisms intentional] they knew whom to ask—they asked their small group. And around this small group was the collection of the serious thinking of the Conference. Yet there was more. In with the small groups and the conference was the prolific writing of the movement’s leader, John Wesley himself, who constantly bound and loosed scripture in application. In a way Wesley’s writings were (at least for a time) a huge container into which the envelope of the conference and small group was stored (though one could easily argue that Wesley himself may have said that the conference minutes took a place of higher authority). These envelopes-within-envelopes all together moderated error of interpretation—the small group correcting the individual, the conference and Wesley’s writings correcting the small groups.
But there were also some important “ghosts” at the table. To Wesley neither the class meeting nor the conference was supposed to be doing all this applying of the Bible in a present-day vacuum. He insisted that all of the Christian thinkers through history get to vote on these matters too—these were the “ghosts” at every class meeting in all the conferences (and with all of Wesley’s writings). This is Wesley’s emphasis on “tradition”—the historic teaching of the church on any matter. Wesley gave special attention to the early church fathers or “primitive church” to which he granted extra voting power. See where this article is heading? Binding and losing Scripture in community—small groups, large ones, all wrapped up in the largest community of all-Christians down through history to the present.
When we “reverse engineer” Wesley’s actual practice we see his own answer to our question, “Who is this church with the keys to bind and loose Scripture?” His practice answers that with, “It is your small group first of all, surrounded by the teachings of Christian Conference which are informed by all of Christian tradition and especially the earliest church fathers. In practice the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” <3> was NOT an tool for an individual to determine how the Bible applied to today but for a group. Seeing the quadrilateral in Wesley’s own writings may give a glimpse into his own thought processes but where the rubber met the road Wesley used community to apply Scripture. And these present-day communities (class meetings, conference) were joined by the great community of all time—“tradition” then they focused their reason and tested it in experience to determine how the bible applied to “this present age.”
So, my questions for this Tuesday morning are these:
1. Do most Christians today believe they have the sovereign right individually to bind and loose Scripture on themselves—no group or church has this right? If so, then if there is no authority above the individual how can the church condemn any sin at all?
2. What does all this say about church rules or membership commitments?
3. Is there any church anywhere on earth with small groups asking “the four questions” every week? And what is the result?
By Keith Drury November 21, 2005
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1. CREDIT. I am greatly indebted to Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Mark Allan Powell for his clear and helpful article Binding and loosing: a paradigm for ethical discernment from the Gospel of Matthew published in the December 2003 Currents in Theology and Mission. His article has gathered into one place the ideas on binding and loosing and presented them in an easy-to-read writing style—so Luther(an)!—Kudos to you Mark! I am also indebted to my colleague Steve Lennox who sniffed this out from our library’s InfoTrack. Stave hearing from Ken Schenck that I was interested in the “Binding and Loosing” matter spied Mark’s article and passed it on to me knowing I had written about it the idea (less cogently) before –see that here. The connection with Wesley is my own and it is untested and not yet “peer-reviewed” by Wesley scholars who will certainly tear it apart. But hey, this is a blog designed for running things up the flagpole—have at it Wesley scholars.
2. OTHER INTREPRETATIONS OF BINDING/LOOSING. In fairness there are other interpretations to binding and loosing. Luther thought the process applied to the power of the church to forgive sin—retaining or loosing a person from their guilt for sin—but that authority is better derived from John 20 than from this context. Others of a more Pentecostal ilk have tried to made this verse talk about the power of Christians to exorcism but as Mark Powell wryly remarks, “but why would the church ever want to loose a demon?” However neither of these approaches is as satisfying to me as taking this teaching in Matthew’s context itself. The larger context (the Rabbi’s practice of binding and loosing application during the first century) and the narrow context of these verses themselves which clearly apply to some authority Jesus is granting the church with the keys.
3. QUADRILATERAL. Wesley himself never suggested he had a four way system for deciding things. It was coined by Albert Outler in 1964 as an explanation for how Wesley determined things—the model has four points (thus a quadrilateral) –starting with Scripture Wesley then went on to also consider Tradition, Reason and Experience in hammering out Biblical application and theology.