Who says what the Bible says?
The keys to the kingdom, binding and 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
The Background of Binding and Loosing
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
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
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 their hard
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
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
1. What known sins have you committed since our last
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
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 a 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."
Binding and Loosing Today
While this is all well and good in theory, the questions in response
are more immediate and practical. So to whom do YOU grant authority
to bind and loose, Drury? Who is YOUR small group? How much authority do
YOU grant your local church, your denomination, church tradition? What
is YOUR answer to the questions of who should bind and loose? How do YOU
give authority for binding and loosing?
Fair questions. I suppose I see authority as a series of envelopes in
envelopes as in the Wesley article and thus practice it pretty much the
way Wesley did.
1. Inner envelope—small group. In the inner orbit is my
small group—not me, I don’t trust me. My small group includes those who
know me best and I trust most with binding/loosing. For me that includes
four fellow professors I "live with" daily: Ken Schenck, Chris Bounds,
Russ Gunsalus, and Steve Horst. These four have the small group
authority for me to do street-level binding and loosing. Fortunately
they are also experts in the Bible, theology, and philosophy so they are
more then just "experts in me." These men have power over me spiritually
and I trust to help me know if a thing is sin or not. But in a way I
think I do have an authority even inside this small group—my wife
Sharon. She is probably on the "spiritual director" level in my life and
she knows me best. I have no secrets I keep from her. When Sharon speaks
spiritually into my life I grant her almost-supreme authority even over
the small group (though I’d still check with them afterward).
2. Next envelope—local . It isn’t as simple as just saying
"local church—there are three levels in my church who are "envelopes"
correcting and informing what my small group and wife might say to guide
is a group of six of us from my
Sunday school class who eat Sunday dinner every week together—this
is my "church small group." They would have the most authority in my
local church for me.
My whole Sunday school class of 20 people meets after worship
for an hour and a half to discuss and apply the sermon every week.
This is the next envelope of authority for me, though the group is
pretty large to ask anything too personal.
My pastor, Steve DeNeff. I grant to DeNeff considerable
authority to bind and loose mostly because he is a prophet-preacher
and refuses to be an "activities director for a cruise ship." He
really takes "speaking for God" seriously so when he does so I hear
it as such. Sure he sometimes speaks for himself or lets his own
opinions get into sermons—who doesn’t? But I give him extraordinary
authority to speak for God unless the inner envelopes veto it.
My whole local church. I suppose all three of the above are
wrapped up in an envelope of all 1,500 people who attend my church.
For instance if my small group, my wife, my Sunday school class, and
my pastor all told me abortion was not really wrong I’d check the
outer envelopes of what all the people who attend my church thought
about this and if they disagreed vehemently I’d open some of the
envelopes still left.
3. All this is wrapped up in the next envelop—my denomination.
My denomination, The Wesleyan Church, is there to monitor me, my group,
and my local church—we could all be wrong about something. So I let my
denomination supervise the binding and loosing of my local church and
small groups. If everybody in my group and church thinks it is just fine
to drink alcohol moderately I let my denomination superintend this.
However when I say "denomination" I do mean (in this stage) just the
written rules of my denomination (that comes later) but I mean the
collective positions and opinions of all the people in my
denomination—pastors, laity, leaders. If the vast majority of my
denomination’s people reject the use of any alcohol at all then I would
be wary of using it even if my small group, wife, pastor and my whole
local church were unanimously for it. I don’t trust myself to make these
decisions alone, and I don’t completely trust my local church—that’s why
I need my whole denomination to be a "check" for me here. I am willing
to let all the members of my denomination "bind or loose" things for me
personally and for my local church collectively. If most all Wesleyans
everywhere believe a thing is sin I am very wary of doing it—even if I
am personally sure it is not wrong. I recognize their power to "bind" on
me things that may not technically be sin at all. (I am not talking
about opinions on matters that are not "sin" – I do not recognize my
denomination’s authority to determine musical styles or which candidate
to vote for in elections—I am speaking of binding and loosing sin here)
4. My big outer envelope is church tradition—Christians through
history. What have all Christians through history said about
drinking alcohol or abortion or whatever? This is my final outer
envelope that provides a "check" on everything else. By "check" I do not
mean it has an automatic veto over us, for sometimes we must reject the
majority view of history, but I never want to do that lightly and would
do it with fear and apprehension. Here is where I put my denomination’s
"membership standards" –they are statements of past believers binding
and loosing future generations of Christians, thus I consider them
"church tradition." So I suppose church tradition has several orbits of
authority for me just like the local church:
My own denomination’s rules written by past generations.
The collective history of "pious people" through history
I especially submit to great teachers of the faith—Wesley,
Luther, Calvin, Augustine and others.
I recognize the special authority to the church fathers—though
not as much as Wesley or Bounds.
All of these combine to guard me, my church and my denomination in
straying too far from what the Holy Spirit has been telling the church
through the ages.
So, there you have my envelopes within envelopes. It is a complicated
process and once I’ve written it I see why it is so popular to choose
one of the simpler solutions (e.g. "I decide for myself what the
Bible now means" or "I just believe whatever my denomination says." This
series of envelopes is a far more complicated system of determining how
the Bible applies to today and requires too much work to be practical
for most people. But I am convinced that it is the best method and I try
to do it as best I can—though I do admit that it leaves things in ‘flux"
often and thus is not an attractive option for people who like simple
and rigid answers to everything
Questions for further thought.
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
3. Is there any church anywhere on earth with small groups asking
"the four questions" every week? And what is the result?
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. Steve 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. 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 INTERPRETATIONS 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.