It is often an allegation that progressives have no scriptural authority to determine that women can be ministers, that divorcees can be leaders, and that LGBT persons can be clergy or be partnered.
Unfortunately for those that allege such things, there’s a huge scriptural authority that is given by Jesus himself in the Gospel of Matthew.
One of my Lutheran friends reads this blog and passed on a fascinating premise: the Church, not the Bible, determines sin. The primary writing on this topic comes from Mark Allan Powell, a New Testament professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. I’ll be referencing his article in Ex Auditu (19:2003, 81-96).
Jesus gives the Church the power to define Sin
In Matthew 16:19, Jesus says to Peter “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven.” He gives this same power to the gathered Disciples in 18:18, including “and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Powell states that binding/loosing referred to the Jewish practice of interpretation of the law. The rabbis would “bind” a law when it applied to a situation, and “loose” a law when, even though the commandment was eternal valid, it was not applicable under certain circumstances.
To Matthew’s community, the final authority to identify which behaviors are classified as “sin” (and thus require cessation and repentance) lies not with the letter of the Law but with the community of faith that interprets the Law. Let’s be clear: this isn’t about dismissing Scriptural authority. By no means! Rather, the issue was “discernment of the law’s intent and of the sphere of its application” (Powell, 83).
Powell outlines many examples in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus applies this power.
- Jesus binds the law against swearing false oaths (5:33-37), binds the laws against adultery to include lustful thoughts (5:27-28), and binds the commandment to love your neighbor as applicable to enemies (5:43-48).
- Jesus looses the law against Sabbath work (12:1-14), looses the law against hand-washing (15:1-2,10-20) and looses the law against paying Caesar taxes (22:15-22).
Thus, Jesus exemplifies what it means to bind/loose a law found in the Bible, and by his actions at the end of his human life he confers that ability to the Disciples who would become the Church. Wherever Christ is present in a body of believers (Matthew 18:20), they (we) have this authority to express with plausible fidelity.
How this Helps the LGBT Debate
When you think about it, probably every hue of denomination and sect and tradition comes from disagreements over what in the Bible ought be loosed and what ought be bound. Free Methodists split over too loose of prohibitions against pew taxes in the Methodist Church. Baptists bind the prohibition of women from the ministry whereas Episcopalians loose it. And many denominations bind the prohibition against LGBT clergy and same-gender relationships, whereas an exponentially increasing number has loosed that prohibition in the past 2 decades. The variety of denominations and binding/loosing decisions is mind-boggling.
Given the variety of today’s Christian church, the obvious retort to applying Matthew’s method to the church today is that we have no monolithic entity to turn to. We have no standard body that all our denominations can look to for ethical disputes. While this could be a factor, history shows that Matthew was well aware of divisions in the first century biblical world. Written many decades after Jesus’ death, the Gospel had to have been written with full awareness of the diversity of the early Christian faith.
Thus we are called to apply this method to our churches and denominations. But how?
Time and time again, Jesus’ way of interpreting the Law is in conflict with the Pharisees. Quote:
“The Gospel offers both good and bad examples of with regard to how [binding and loosing] out to be done. Jesus consistently exemplifies the right way to bind and loose the Scriptures while the scribes and Pharisees consistently exemplify the wrong way to do so.” (Powell, 85)
As well, Powell outlines that the Church is not without a guide to making these binding/loosing decisions: In Matthew, Jesus gives many principles for interpretation, including the Golden Rule (7:12), preferring mercy over sacrifice (9:13;12:7), priority of love for God and neighbor (22:34-40), and priority of the law towards justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23).
So the question is not “is it in the Bible or not?” The answer is not “The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” Rather, the answer is more WWJD: How would Jesus interpret a Commandment, a Leviticus quote, and even a New Testament Timothy quote? Each community of faith is called to reflect Jesus’ principles for interpretation. Perhaps ultimately each church and denomination should ask themselves “What Would the Pharisees do?” and likely do the opposite.
Traditionalists who love LGBT persons but feel that the church has no biblical authority to “contradict God’s word” should be heartened by this practice of binding and loosing. This gives them biblical authority to decide, as a body, whether the prohibitions against same-gender behavior in the Scripture are applicable to same-gender relationships today. May we use it with plausible fidelity.
This is part one of this discussion. The Good News is today that we are empowered to live out this ability and that Christian communities can authentically decide that the prohibitions against LGBT inclusion are loosed and do not apply to today’s world. Some Christian communities have loosed the prohibitions against women in the pulpit, and some have loosed the prohibitions against divorce. How they chose to bind and loose those ancient laws is no less the method by which communities can authentically do this today.
There is some Bad News about this method, but it will be a topic of discussion later in the week.
- Do you think denominations have the biblical authority to make those decisions?
- If not, how does that authority clash with Matthew’s authority outlined above?
Thanks for reading and commenting…and sharing!For further reading: A short look at the binding and loosing verses in Matthew is found here, an article about Powell’s speech at Trinity Lutheran Seminary is found here, and most of Powell’s article is found in the Free Library with several annoying ads to scroll past. Also an article by a professor at Pepperdine engages his argument well.