The Church, not the Bible, determines Sin

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.
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  1. Karl Kroger says

    Throw in a bit of the quadrilateral and the Holy Spirit, and the lens of Jesus and love, and I’d say you’re onto something here. IMHO

    On another note, Jonathan Merritt tweeted and affirmed a recent message from Andy Stanley. I highly recommend it, and I think it would be a great piece to put in conversation with what you’re working on. Stanley demonstrates how Jesus put people and compassion above the law (not ignoring it per say, but putting it in its proper place).

  2. Jason Radmacher says

    J.H. Yoder offers a thought-provoking take on binding and loosing in “Body Politics.” His observations include a passage that’s stayed with me since I read it 20 years ago.
    “Taking seriously this apostolic witness [binding and loosing] would seem to put us at the mercy of a number of ecclesiastical scarecrows. It gives more authority to the church than does Rome, trusts more to the Holy Spirit than does Pentecostalism, has more respect for the individual than does liberal humanism, makes moral standards more binding than did Puritanism, and is more open to the new situation than was what some called ‘the new morality’ a quarter-century ago. If practiced, it would radically restructure the life of churches.” (pp 6-7)
    For me, Yoder’s are powerful words about a NT concept that receives very little attention. Thanks for picking it up in your writing.

  3. says

    Wow–what a powerful piece of exegesis that opens and clarifies what have long been difficult words to understand. It both frees us of rigid textual proofing and deepens us in the need to practice and hone the spiritual gifts of discernment and wisdom. Thanks.

  4. Maurice Haynes says

    What nonsense. The Church from the earliest days could not get it right. This article proves that it still cannot get it right. Paul says he received his messages directly from Christ. Can the learned gentleman claim the same authority?

  5. says

    Jason Radmacher already cited Yoder in Body Politics. I’ve wondered for a long time if the way forward through our varied hermeneutics might be a renewed application of this particular passage.

    My question is, if this is the case, isn’t our process of Conferencing (as imperfect as it is) the method we United Methodists have chosen to manage this? If so, we “bind,” collectively, when we make decisions about what constitutes our teaching at General Conference (and as a corollary, what we will and will not accept as licit behavior within The UMC).

    Perhaps it’s presumptuous to ask, but is the Bad News portion that a robust implementation of this particular principle (if we accept it) spells the end of Biblical Obedience trumping collective decisions (even potentially ones we find quite bad), for both sides of our current debate? I’m pretty sure that’s the sticking point, for those truly convinced on both Traditional and Progressive sides (if I have to submit to the Church as the final arbiter, and it’s not just Me, the Holy Spirit and my Bible, what might they [really we] make me believe and/or do?).

    • says

      *golf clap* for David. I actually found that Powell’s writings were a helpful engagement for Biblical Obedience movement. While they don’t negate it, they do force us to give a helpful theological framework that might otherwise be missing.

      • says

        It is nice to have something here usually missing from both conservative and progressive arguments: ecclesiology. I do think, if this reading is right (and I think John has raised some good questions), this isn’t particularly good news for the progressives.

  6. Preston says

    The major issue that I have with this piece is the treatment of Jesus. The author points out that Jesus is an example of how to apply the biblical principle of binding and loosing. This is wrong for the simple fact that Jesus is not a Christian. He does not have to believe in himself; He is God. When Jesus makes these statements, for example the Sermon on the Mount, it is not a Christian expounding upon the Law. It is God declaring the Law and its full import. The exact problem that Jesus had with the Pharisees and Sadducees over the Law was their importation of personal views into the Law. They had demeaned the Law into something that they could handle, and had appointed labels on things to be sin. Jesus had a real problem with this—claiming that they clean the outside of cups and leave the inside filthy.
    Instead, Jesus is God, who gives us the Law through the Bible. Jesus does undue some specific requirements of the Law like circumcision and dietary restrictions, but He came to fulfill the Law and uphold it. God dictates to his creation what is sin and what is not and he did so through the Word. The Law then stands distinct and apart from the community of faith. It is a norming-norm to use a buzzword, which is to say that our position is beneath the Bible. It provides us with instruction on what is right and wrong.
    In addition, sin is a really big deal to God. He kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden and sentenced them, and their descendants, to die because of it. Why would He leave this in charge of fallen human beings to decide what is right and wrong, and how can they do it? It is like providing inmates the ability to determine what jail means. Now, we are redeemed, but we are still sinners. The flesh still wages war against us. We are not in any position to determine what is an affront to God. That is because sin is not something that I do against some other person, primarily, but an attack on God. By saying that I know what sin is apart from the Bible, I am saying that I know better than God what He disapproves of and what He deems is holy / unholy. That statement in itself is laughable if you take a moment.
    The verse that the author uses about building the church on Peter and him loosing and binding things is very hard to reconcile, under the author’s interpretation, with the next passage. The next passage has Jesus pulling Peter aside and rebuking him harshly because Peter did not want Christ to be crucified and thought it wrong for him to make such a statement. Perhaps there is no clearer picture of why we as the Church don’t get to decide what sin is. If Peter had it his way, Jesus would have been rebuked about the Cross, completely nullifying Jesus as a Savior. Peter would take Jesus off the Cross because it offends what he believes is right and wrong. Thankfully, Jesus cares about us enough to say, “Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Mt 16:23. Put simply, when we decide what is right and put our mind on the things of man, we hinder the Gospel. We must have our minds placed on the things of God by having Scripture pronounce what is right and wrong.
    Finally, if the Church is supposed to be where we determine what sin is, the picture Paul gives for us is a body that is controlled by Christ, who is the head. Col 1: 18. I don’t know of a body that controls itself, orders itself, and decides for itself what it shall do. Instead, Christ is our head and authority. He tells us what is right and wrong. He is God and his Word is our authority. Thus, the Church is controlled by God and directed by his Word. To say anything else is to put the body above the head.

  7. says

    Interesting post, Jeremy. My take, FWIW, is that you are over-reading the matter when you suggest that this is a process for defining what sin is.

    The context is the parable in Matthew 18:10-14 about seeking wandering sheep, which itself is a comment on those who cause someone else to stumble (vv. 6-9).

    In Matthew 18:15-20, the fact of a sin is not under negotiation. If someone sins, go point it out (like the one trying to bring back the wandering sheep.) If a person does not listen, then a process of widening attempts to bring the person back to the fold ensues, but if they will not listen, at last they are to be cut loose. Verse 18 about binding and loosing, after all, comes right after verse 17 about treating the one who will not listen like an outsider. That sounds more like saying that who the church sends away, so will God.

    I think it is significant in reading these verses that the next section of the chapter is about forgiveness. When one who has caused others to stumble or wandered away is brought back, forgiveness is the order of the day. To refuse to forgive one who will not have mercy on a wandering sheep brought back to the fold.

    To my reading, at least, that language about binding and loosing needs to be set in the overall context of the chapter before we can conclude exactly what is being bound and what is being loosed. I can’t see how chapter 18 can be read as saying “the church determines what sin is.” I don’t see where the text supports that conclusion.

    Obviously, your reading is different.

  8. Austin Rivera says

    I think John’s attention to the context is very helpful: what is being talked about is not the definition of sin, but how to deal in mercy with one who has sinned. The parallel text in John 20:23 supports this reading.

    As a historical note, it is interesting to see the power of the keys defined in this way not only by a Protestant, but a Lutheran of all Protestants. During the Reformation it was the Catholic side that gave a particularly institutional location to the power of the keys (in their case the Papacy rather than the more general definition offered here). No Protestant of that area would have ever dreamed of asserting the interpretive competency and prerogatives of a community over against the word of scripture. Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis I suppose.

  9. Jervis Young says

    I have look at this carefully and have given this time alone with prayer. I respectfully disagree with the interpretation, that in Matthew 16:19 “Jesus gives the Church the power to define Sin”. The Church is not given the authority to redefine or re-list what is or is not a sin. Scripture already defines sin. The Church cannot start redefining and teaching based on any current culture. That is, in some ways, what the Sadducees and Pharisees did. They and others have tough the commands of God, then applied Gods command wrongly. Peter, the Church, is given the authority to bind and loosen what has already been bound or loosed in heaven. I cannot find any implications that Jesus was telling Peter and the others disciples to redefine or re-identify sin. Jesus himself said, “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” John 12:50 (NIV)
    If we are not careful we may become modern day Sadducees and Pharisees. We could start teaching scripture based on rival forms of current culture, which has its own list of items. When we do that, we could completely miss the authority, grace and truth in Christ.


  1. […] Indeed, chronological trajectory changes things for the homosexuality discussion because one of the last books of the Bible written was Acts, which includes Peter and the food on the blanket in Acts 10 where God declares “let nothing that I have declared clean you call unclean” which opens the Gospel from the Jews alone to the Gentiles, but also Scripture for reinterpretation. […]

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