In the comments of several recent articles here on the Café and on our Facebook page, there has been discussion of the Church’s power to bind and loose. Though our tradition has often seen this as referring to the Church’s authority to offer absolution, that is not necessarily its only meaning. Back in 2003, Mark Allen Powell, a professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary and author of many books on the New Testament, authored an article discussing some of the ways in which the authority to bind or to loose might be applicable in the church’s approach to full inclusion of LGBT persons.
A majority of scholars now recognize that the terms “to bind” and “to loose” are best understood with reference to a practice of determining the application of scriptural commandments for contemporary situations.
…For Matthew, the issue is the identification of sin. Final authority rests with the community to identify which behaviors constitute sin and which therefore require repentance. As in John, the person who does not heed the church’s authority may be excluded from God’s eschatological community, but for Matthew the problem is ethical discernment (and lack of respect for the church’s role in this) rather than mere obstinacy. This is consistent with Matthew’s understanding of the Great Commission as being to teach baptized people to obey the commandments of Jesus (28:20). To fulfill such a commission the church must be able to discern what obedience to those commandments entails, and the baptized persons who are to be made disciples must accept the church’s teaching on such matters.
Prof. Powell goes on to show examples from Matthew where Jesus uses this principle to re-interpret then-common understandings of scriptural directives, concluding with;
Emerging from this survey of Matthean texts are the potentially contradictory notions that (a) the scriptures must be properly bound and loosed if God’s will is to be discerned and obeyed, but that (b) the scriptures are often bound when they should be loosed, and loosed when they should be bound, with the result that God’s will is not discerned or obeyed.
We may note that Jesus binds laws more frequently than he looses them. Yet this observation must be balanced by the fact that he claims–almost programmatically–to offer an “easy yoke” and a “light burden” to those who follow him (11:30; cf. 23:4). Further, although the instances in which he looses the law are relatively few, his justifications for doing so (e.g., “it is lawful to do good on the sabbath”; “what goes into the mouth does not defile a person”) set sweeping precedents with potentially radical implications for ways in which laws could be loosed in many other instances (as they obviously were in the developing Christian church).
He then shows how Matthew’s gospel, through example, provides principles for application of this authority
Matthew’s readers are urged to avoid two pitfalls:
* if the church is cavalier about loosing the law when it shouldn’t, it will “make void the word of God for the sake of human tradition” (15:6), but
* if the church neglects to loose the law when it should do so, it will sometimes end up “condemning the guiltless” (12:7).
To help readers final the narrow way that lies between these pitfalls, Matthew’s Gospel not only offers the good and bad examples cited above but also presents Jesus as articulating a number of principles that might guide the church in its deliberation.
He especially highlights two principles of Jesus’ use;
1. Acceptable binding and loosing is founded in a hermeneutic that interprets scripture in light of scripture and, specifically, recognizes the priority of certain scriptural mandates. These include the Golden Rule (7:12), a recognition of the divine preference for mercy over sacrifice (9:13; 12:7), a prioritization of love for God and neighbor (22:3d 40), and identification of the “weightier matters of the law” as justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23). All of these principles derive in some sense from scripture itself, and in every instance in which Jesus binds or looses laws (or criticizes the binding and loosing of laws performed by others) his decision is consistent with this hermeneutic. For example, when Jesus looses the sabbath prohibition for those who pick grain to satisfy their hunger, he does so with an appeal to the scriptural prioritization of mercy over sacrifice (12:7).
2. The authority to bind and loose is securely located in Matthean Christology and in this Gospel’s christological understanding of eschatology and salvation history. Jesus possesses this authority because he is a unique manifestation of God’s presence (1:23; 11:27). Thus, even apart from the appeal to mercy, his loosing of the sabbath law is justified because “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (12:8). The ultimate question for Matthew is not simply “on what basis is the law to be bound or loosed” but “who has the authority to do this.” God has given the authority to Jesus (and not to the scribes and Pharisees, cf. 7:29), and Jesus in turn gives it to the church.
He wraps up with a discussion of how this authority sits behind centuries of church decision making and its implications for today’s issues;
Although this discussion of binding and loosing strikes some as new and potentially controversial, it has in some sense been the practice of the church throughout the centuries. Churches do not usually have assemblies where they vote specifically on whether a particular scripture text is applicable to a certain type of situation, but discussions regarding such applicability have been in the background for many formal and informal decisions.
Concluding with three points of deliberation, the second of which directly addresses the Church’s most recent approval of marriage equality;
Matthew’s Gospel suggests that the church does in fact have the authority to make such determinations. Persons who say that the church would violate scripture by allowing for exceptions to a normative policy against homosexual relations ignore the fact that scripture itself gives the church authority to do precisely that. For the church to loose the biblical prohibitions against same-sex activity under specified circumstances would not constitute a rejection of biblical authority but, rather, an exercise of ecclesiastical authority granted in the Bible by Jesus himself. Recognizing this does not, of course, prejudge what the church ought to do.
The entire article is worth a read an well worth 3 minutes of your time to explore in greater depth.
posted by Jon White