Yesterday I made a post about “What Jesus Said About Church” and listed the only two passages where Jesus explicitly mentions church (Matthew 16.17–19 and Matthew 18:15-18). What’s interesting is that each of those passages appear to have two different expressions, with the first representing what seems to be a larger, more universal concept of Church, while the latter is more practical and descriptive of a local gathering or collective. Yet both end with the understanding that the ekklesia, in whatever form, has been given authority to “bind and loose”.
A Jewish Context
In segments of Judaism “binding and loosing” was a phrase associated with making authoritative legal decisions regarding the Torah. Specifically, such terminology has to do with making a law “binding” upon a person (they are required and accountable for keeping it) or “loosing” a person from a law (they are free from requirement and accountability to keep it). For example, on the Sabbath the Rabbis taught that acts which saved a life, though they be work, were allowable:
“Any danger to life overrides the prohibitions of the Sabbath” (m. Yoma 8.6)
In this case, people were “loosed” from certain Sabbath laws and customs in cases of preservation of life. Though this was the dominant view of the Rabbis, other Jewish communities of the first century may have had different interpretations. The Damascus Document, found both in Cairo and at Qumran, takes a very strict interpretation of Sabbath laws:
“No one should help an animal give birth on the Sabbath; and if it falls into a well or a pit, he may not lift it out on the Sabbath . . . Any living human who falls into a body of water or a cistern shall not be helped out with ladder, rope, or tool.” (CD 11.13–17 QUMRAN)
Compare this with Jesus’ question in Matthew 12 when asked if it is lawful to heal a man on the Sabbath:
“Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12.11–12 ESV)
Jesus is engaging in this apparently on-going and fine-tuned legal debate regarding the what is allowable on the Sabbath, and in the Markan version of the story (Mark 3), he is shifting the lines a bit when he, rather than the crowd (as in Matthew), asks:
“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”
In Jesus’ halakhah, his interpretation of the law, healing a man’s paralyzed arm is equated with saving a life. Not only that, but not healing the man is potentially equated with doing evil and murder! In all the Gospels, this person-oriented and wholeness-centered “loosing” of the Sabbath law is a consistent aspect of Jesus’ work, and it frequently leads to problems for him with those who held different views of interpreting the Torah.
From this first century perspective, Jesus regularly claimed authority to interpret the Torah, and his listeners recognized this claim to authority (“he speaks as one with authority”). A good portion of the Sermon on the Mount contain examples of Jesus engaging in debate with accepted halakhic decisions (“you have heard it said, but I say to you…”). It would seem that in his comments regarding church, Jesus also gave gatherings of believers authority to make communal decisions about how the Torah was enacted and made binding—at least within individual believing communities themselves. In the example from Matthew 18, this is not an abstract concept, but directly connected to the idea of working things out in relation to one another, especially in the case of someone being wronged by another “brother”.
An Early Example
We can see examples of “binding and loosing” in operation within the lives of believing communities in other parts of the New Testament. The most significant is perhaps Acts 15, where Peter, James, Paul, Barnabas, and others gathered in Jerusalem to decide what to do about Gentile believers in Jesus, whether they should become Jewish or not. The decision made by James, after much discussion by the whole group, was:
“…it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on [the Gentiles no greater burden than these requirements that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” (Acts 15:28-29)
Amazingly, this Jewish group in Jerusalem “loosed” the Gentiles believers from following the Torah commandments so that they could be fully included in the covenantal community of God. That is quite a step of authority, tantamount to saying, “Even though the Scripture says this is required of God’s people, we are deciding that doesn’t apply in your case. The evidence points to God already being at work in you. You are loosed from the burden of these requirements.” In many ways this is the beginning of the New Covenant being practically implemented.
The Jerusalem group gave these instructions in a letter for Paul to deliver to the Gentile churches, and significantly Paul refuses to let them be mere abstract requirements but places them in the context of community and strengthening one another:
“…as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8.4–13 ESV)
What About Today?
How does this type of “binding and loosing” authority get implemented today? How does it work within the community of believers that I interact with? Are there issues facing gatherings of believers locally, and in a larger context, where we need another Acts 15 type moment of Spirit-guided decision? We know that there are.