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SS Peter and Paul "Binding and Loosing"

by steeh ~ June 23rd, 2008

There is an interesting (and, ultimately, quite disturbing) piece entitled “Binding and Loosing: a pardigm for ethical discernment from the Gospel of Matthew” by Mark Allan Powell of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in the Dec 2003 issue of Currents in Theology and Mission.  You can access the entire article at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0MDO/is_6_30/

Here are some excerpts, beginning with his introduction:

“Twice in Matthew’s Gospel the words “bind” [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and “loose” [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] occur in what is apparently a formula that the readers are expected to recognize:

* (Jesus says to Peter), “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:19).

* (Jesus says to the twelve), “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18).

“Notably, the immediate literary contexts for these two passages include the only two texts in Matthew (or anywhere in the New Testament) where Jesus explicitly refers to “the church”(16:18; 18:17). Thus, we may observe that Matthew closely connects the business of binding and loosing with the mission of the church that is built by Jesus (16:18) and sustained by his continuing presence (18:20). It would not be an overstatement to say that Matthew considers binding and loosing to be a constitutive aspect of the church’s mission on earth.”

Following this introduction he seeks to define “binding” and “loosing” and makes a case that St. Matthew is using these terms according to the prevailing rabbinical  sense of the time. He says, “Jewish rabbis “bound” the law when they determined that a commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they “loosed” the law when they determined that a word of scripture (while eternally valid) was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.” 

This was not, he asserts, a matter of dismissing scripture or countering its authority, but discerning the law’s intent and the sphere of its application.  For example: “Is one guilty of stealing if one finds something and keeps it without searching for its rightful owner?”

In terms of the Mt 16 and Mt 18 texts cited in his introduction, Powell says:

“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. Two points especially stand out:

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.

“The two key texts

“In Matthew 16:13-20, the primary concern is not with how the church will exercise its authority to bind and to loose but with the establishment of this authority and its effects. Justas Jesus’ authority to bind and loose is attributed in Matthew to his christological identity, so the church’s authority is grounded here in its acclamation of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We notice too that the authority to bind and loose is described metaphorically as utilizing the keys to the kingdom of heaven. By interpreting God’s will rightly, the church opens the door for God’s will to be done and, hence, for God’s rule to become a lived reality. Likewise, this authoritative discernment of God’s will facilitates the overcoming of the gates of Hades, such that the power of death and the devil may be undone.

“Matt 18:15-20 presents the church’s ministry of binding and loosing as necessary for the determination of who is to be subject to church discipline. As such, we are given a glimpse of how the process might actually work within the post-Easter community. Notably, it is no longer to be exercised by one gifted leader (e.g., Peter) but is now to be exercised by the community as a whole. Again, the authority to bind and loose is grounded in Matthew’s christological claims–the church possesses such authority not because Christians have shown themselves to be wiser or more faithful than Pharisees but because Christ dwells in their midst (18:20; cf. 28:20). We notice also that the church does not attempt to bind and loose laws for the world at large but only for its own community: the ministry is exercised with regard to a “sibling” (i.e., a member of the church) who is believed to be sinning. Thus, Matthew expects the church to exhibit a peculiarly Christian ethic that may or may not concur with the expectations of its social environment.

Specifically, 18:15-20 offers a perspective on how binding and loosing might function in a conflict situation, where there is disagreement. The sinful sibling in this passage is not to be understood as one who stubbornly persists in what he or she acknowledges to be sinful behavior (Matthew’s definition of “brother” and “sister” in 12:50 makes that unlikely). Rather, the text envisions a situation in which a number of church members confront a member of the community concerning behavior that they believe to be sinful but which he or she apparently does not believe to be sinful. Ultimately, the church as a whole is called upon to make a determination. Basically, they must either bind the law by deciding (with the accusers) that some scriptural injunction does apply to the person’s behavior or loose the law by deciding (with the accused) that cited scripture does not apply to this person’s behavior.”

All very interesting, but guess where Powell, an ELCA theologian, ends up going with this?  Read on …

“The church today may consider whether the Matthean understanding of binding and loosing can continue to inform its ethical deliberation with regard to current issues. To take an obvious example, contemporary questions regarding acceptance of homosexual behavior may be considered in this light. Should the biblical prohibitions of same-sex sexual relations be bound or loosed with regard to specific contemporary situations? What if, for example, the couple can be determined to be exclusively and irreparably homosexual in orientation, and what if they are willing to commit themselves to living in a monogamous relationship that is accountable to the church? Could the prohibitions be deemed inapplicable to that situation? Matthew’s paradigm for ethical discernment would seem to suggest at least three points for our deliberation.

“First, application of this paradigm assumes that the question is whether there might be exceptions to a normative policy. A church following the Matthean paradigm might maintain that while it is normally an abomination for a man to engage in sexual relations with another man, there could be circumstances under which such behavior could be accepted or affirmed. The obligation on those who would argue for such exceptions would be to show why the biblical prohibitions did not apply in the specified instances. This would be a different matter than arguing that the biblical perspective on human sexuality is so limited that it needs to be amended on the basis of modern knowledge.

“Second, 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.

“Finally, the authority to bind and to loose is granted by Christ to the church as a whole. Whatever that might mean in our modern context (local congregation? national church assembly?), such authority is not granted to the individual. The point of Matt 18:15-18 seems to be that the church as a community can and should sometimes offer individual Christians guidance on questions of what behavior is pleasing to God. The expectation, furthermore, seems to be that when the church does this, the individual Christian will heed that teaching and strive to live in a way that the church as a whole believes to be in keeping with God’s will.”

St. Matthew surely turneth over …

Rev. Edward Steeh  St. John, LCMS, Ray, MI

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