Binding and Loosing


I came across the quote today as I was doing the research necessary to write the sermon for this Sunday. It’s from an article by Mark Allan Powell of Trinity Lutheran Seminary entitled “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew”. (You’ll need a subscription to ATLA to access the article.)

Powell writes regarding the authority given to the Church represented by the Apostle Peter in Matt 16:13-20;

“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. The words are used in this regard by Josephus and in targumic materials. Jewish rabbis “bound” the law when they determined that a commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and the “loosed” the law when they determined that a word of scripture (while eternally valid) was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.”

In my working with this particular bible passage, I’ve noticed the way that the conversation between Jesus (who calls himself the Son of Man) and Peter (who confesses that Jesus is the Son of God) develops. It seems to me that at the core, the story is telling us that when the Church truly expresses a faith that sees Jesus as the pivot point between the sacred and the secular realms, we are, in fact, the True Church. And when the Church is abiding in that faith, we will act in accordance with God’s will. (The greek tense of what Jesus says to Peter implies that rather than the Church binding God, the Church is acting on earth the same way that God is acting in heaven. The two are become One.)

The interesting thing is that, if Powell’s point is taken seriously, it does allow the Church to speak to situations that were not specifically spoken to in the writing of the historical witness of Scripture. The important caveat is that we must be standing in the place where we see Jesus as the hinge between heaven and earth to do it. Otherwise the Church is not binding and loosing in the way that God has empowered us to do.

In other words, in Jesus our humanity is reconciled to God and our will becomes God’s will.

What this looks like in practice is the part of all this that is out of grasp at the moment. I guess it means that we need to answer the question, “What would Jesus do” rather than “What do we want to do”. But it’s not always clear to me that we can say we know what Jesus would do.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. One way to think about this perhaps, might be see that previous commandments are superceded by new teaching that is fully revealed by Jesus.
    This is what Jesus himself does when he discusses the issue of divorce and remarriage. The commandment that divorce was easily gained was given because of human being’s hardness of heart. Jesus strengthens the commandment.
    Slavery was allowed in much of the biblical witness. But the Church has decided that loving your neighbor as yourself is a more fundamental principle which therefore allows us to loose the acceptance of slavery and bind the consciences of all to say that slavery is forbidden of Christians today.
    You might argue similarly that Paul’s prohibitions against woman taking leadership roles in the community is superseded by his claim that in Christ we are in a new creation and that there is no longer male and female – at least in the eyes of God.

  2. I meant to tell you afterwards, but the sermon on Sunday was great – one of my favorites of yours!
    Father. 😉

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