“Binding and Loosing”

“Binding and Loosing”

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.

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About the author

I’m a husband, father, and one of those friends who has a terrible habit of not returning phone calls.  I’m really just trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus, and I enjoy meeting great people along the way and maybe having a chance to spend time talking about things deep and trivial.

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  • My immediate thoughts were same-sex relationships and transgender/transsexual persons. Is the church capable of “loosing” them or is that beyond our scope?

    • Jimmy Doyle

      Jordan, that’s one of the primary things I think of as a modern Acts 15 type issue. I think that particular scripture will have to be the biblical model for addressing the issue.

      thanks for the input.

  • Very nice discussion of what “binding” and “loosing” meant in Jesus’ and Paul’s Life. I’d just add that rabbinic discussions about “binding” and “loosing” were always in terms of “how does the Torah apply to a specific circumstance” and about which law within the Torah is weightier – Law A or Law B? Not about “loosing” in terms of “disregarding the Torah as a whole.”

    In the case of Acts 15, the church was not just saying, “We now have authority to override the Scriptures.” They are dealing with a specific case, which is “what do Gentiles who have become believers in Jesus need to do to join our fellowship?” Formerly, all believers had been Jewish, and now they needed to deal with this new reality. The Scriptures never said that Gentiles need to obey the Mosaic covenant that was given specifically to the Jews, and the church saw that. They actually ruled in line with wider Jewish policy that allowed God-fearers to join synagogues without adopting Mosaic laws either.

    • Jimmy Doyle

      Lois

      You are correct that it was not a disregard (and certainly not a disrespect) of the Torah. As a matter of fact, such decisions regarding binding and loosing were considered an authorized extension of Torah, often known as the “Oral Torah”—which was still considered as “binding” as the Written Torah, even as it sometimes “loosed” from written commandments. It certainly was not trivial. It is good to clarify that. Thanks!

      I agree that such cases are typically specific in nature in terms of the issue, but they were also often generalized in the application. The “loosing” regarding Sabbath rules were not limited in application to the observance of a specific person or an individual Sabbath day. It was general in it’s level of definition of what was allowable: simply to save a life and this applied to any Sabbath.

      Regarding the Gentiles the issue was more complicated that simply “the Torah never says”. Remember that the Torah at this point also had centuries of interpretation and application layered upon it, either as unrecognized customs or recognized Oral Torah traditions. Some Jews in the first century rejected Gentile participation in Israel on any level, while others didn’t and were more open to non-Jewish “God fearers”. Both groups would probably have seen foundation for this in the Torah. There was a spectrum on interpretation; and, somewhere on this spectrum, the Acts 15 conversation and decision was centered. There must of been some level or concept of rejection of Gentiles based on Torah observance within the earliest believing communities or the conversation would not have needed to take place.

      Personally, I think the question may have been one of “how much”: Were Gentile believers in Jesus on the periphery, like God-fearing Gentiles had been in some synagogues, or did they have full inclusion into the community of Israel? How much were they allowed into the center?

      Note statements in Ephesians that must have been echoing some issue of this type:

      “…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2.12)

      “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3.6 NIV)

      I think this move from “exclusion” to being “heirs together” and being “one body” was the issue.

      Thanks for visiting and thanks your input!

      Jimmy

      • Dear Jimmy,

        Thanks for your answer – a very good one. I agree. There were different views on how acceptable Gentiles were within the Jewish community. Even Peter and Paul didn’t always agree. Acts 15 is where the church officially “weighs in” on the decision. — Thanks.

      • Marilyn Nave

        Jimmy, I stumbled upon this article today and even though I am learning Hebrew in your class, I have been a voracious student of scripture specifically for the last 5 years. I wanted to offer another opinion that I believe reconciles with all scriptures. In saying this, I believe the modern evangelical approach (Jew’s covenant versus gentile’s) cannot reconcile with all of scripture. It is through a long search that I come to this freedom…..by that I mean being able to make sense of all of scripture without picking and choosing, including some in my theology and disregarding others.
        In the first place, I see no covenant with a gentile in scripture ever. Second of all, I see no covenant only with “jews” but rather all tribes as well as “others”(gentiles who became Israel) were at the base of Sinai. And Num 15:15 tells us of the grafting in process that Paul retells in the NT. But still, there is only 1 covenant, 1 covenant people, 1 tree, 1 way to salvation…..always has and always will be.
        As to Acts 15, have you pondered what verse 21 means? If we stop at the pronouncement of the 4 things a gentile needs to do, we would misinterpret. Do we think that a gentile needs to not eat blood but can steal the dinner they are getting ready to eat? Does a gentile need to be concerned with murder, lying, dishonoring their parents? Is a gentile required to get rid of their idolatry but following Constantine (or anyone else) is just fine? What about following Paul if Paul changes the unchanging (“I am YHVH, I change not”) eternal Torah? Isn’t that idolatry?
        I won’t type a book here but I believe we missed the whole point of 1st century Christianity and to understand properly, we have to interpret how they interpreted. To not put too much of a burden all at once on the gentiles, they gave 4 immediate laws to be followed (all having to do with the temple – body) but learning the rest of Torah as they go. I believe this is the real interpretation and it is substantiated over and over throughout the scriptures. Makes for an interesting discussion!

      • Jimmy Doyle

        Marilyn, Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m very interested in your thoughts, although I’m not sure we come down to the same conclusions.

        My first thought when reading your comment was in regard to your statement: “I see no covenant with a gentile in scripture ever.” What about Noah and Abraham? The rabbis understood and taught that God had made previous covenants with non-Israelites. From their perspective “God-fearing” Gentiles (the “Fearers of the Name” in Hebrew יראי השם and “those who fear god” οἱ φοβούμενοι τὸν θεόν mentioned in Acts 13:16) were Gentiles who were drawn and faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but who did not take upon themselves circumcision and the yoke of the Torah. Instead they followed the Covenant of Noah (Noahide laws) which existed in various forms, but essentially had 7 commands that were considered binding upon all people:

        —Do not deny God.
        —Do not blaspheme God.
        —Do not murder.
        —Do not engage in incest, adultery, pederasty or bestiality.
        —Do not steal.
        —Do not eat of a live animal.
        —Establish courts/legal system to ensure law and obedience.

        It was recognized that faithful Gentiles are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible who did not have (nor were bound to) the Covenant at Sinai, including Job, Noah, and all of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) prior to Sinai.

        From this cultural background, I don’t think it was an issue for Paul or the other apostles to think in terms of multiple covenants, with only one being binding upon the people of Israel. The issue in Acts 15 was one of boundaries and definition in terms of the people of God. Some advocated for full (not temporary or provisional) membership in Israel. Others advocated that they must be circumcised. The conclusion was that the revelatory work of the Spirit in the Gentiles who believed in Jesus was a declaration that God had also fully chosen Gentiles. Thus in Ephesians, Paul says to his Gentile audience “though you were far off you have been brought near…and into the commonwealth of Israel”. But it is clear, that though Paul maintained Torah practice, he did not expect the Gentiles believers to do the same (especially so in his letter to the Galatians where he has very strong speech regarding circumcision).

        I agree with you that there is one people: Israel. But I think in the work of Christ, the boundaries of the people of God has been broadened beyond the boundary of Torah. Christ centered faith(fulness) defines the boundary. Not a doing away with previous covenants, but a fulfillment of them and a New Covenant upon the heart.

        Verse 21 in Acts 15 is pointing out that the issue has not been a lack of knowledge (or potential knowledge) of the Torah. It had been proclaimed and taught in the Gentile contexts of Diaspora for centuries at this point, and many Gentiles were drawn to it (thus the pre-made and ready “God-fearing” Gentile audience of the first missionaries). Christ and the life-changing work of the Spirit was declaring something new. I don’t think the goal for Gentiles from Paul’s perspective, for example, was Torah. I think it was Jesus.

        We absolutely do agree, however, that the New Testament should be understood from a first century Jewish perspective. 😉

      • Marilyn Nave

        Yes, I could have argued your side of this for the previous 50 years of my life. However, when the foundation is the left side of the book, YHVH says that anyone coming into covenant with YHVH has the EXACT same Torah. Read Numbers 15:15.
        I cannot argue with the term “gentile” for Abraham and Noah. But I can say that after both of those gentlemen lived, the new term for a child of the King is “Israel” and definitely no longer a gentile (heathen). We are “former gentiles”.
        If you really want to have your eyes opened to scripture, set aside the book of Galations just for awhile. And I’m not advocating to throw it out, I just know it does not stand alone as a doctrinal change to the rest of scripture. So deal with Galations after you’ve settled the WEIGHT of the rest of scripture.
        Yeshua spoke exactly the same as YHVH…..follow Torah, every jot and tittle
        James spoke exactly the same….faith without following Torah is not saving faith
        Jude spoke exactly the same…..grace does not replace the expectation to follow Torah
        Peter spoke exactly the same….Obey Torah so we do not walk in the same disobedience that led Israel into captivity
        John spoke exactly the same…If you say you love Him but continue to transgress Torah, you are a liar…..no one who is in Him, continues to transgress Torah…..live as Yeshua, Torah in the flesh, lived
        And lastly, Paul spoke exactly the same…..should we transgress Torah because of grace? God forbid…..Does faith nullify Torah? No faith upholds Torah…..I teach Torah….I live Torah….I will prove I obey Torah….there is no evidence in the charges that say otherwise.

        I can give you the scriptures for all of these if you need me to but what is absolutely irrefutable is that YHVH said in Deut 13 that if anyone comes along and preaches another Torah, he is to be stoned to death and NOT to be followed. But what is probably the most important part of this passage is that YHVH says its a test for us…..to see where our allegiance/loyalty resides and Who we worship; man or YHVH? Yeshua reiterates. Then Paul comes along and makes some interesting and confusing statements in only a handful of places but all the other passages confirm his true and accurate teaching of Torah. The Berea’s confirm Paul’s true and accurate teaching of Torah. So what do we do with the confusing passages? Well first we understand that Peter tells us Paul is confusing but the ones that are being confused are those without Torah “error of Torahless”. The second thing we need to do is put the lens of 1st century judaism on before we can understand. Torah IS NOT nailed to the cross or done away with or a curse or anything else derogatory. Torah is eternal and perfect and living. Again, do we listen to YHVH who says these words or Paul (if you believe Paul is speaking about Torah) Each passage of Paul’s that seems to contradict is being taken out of context of a 1st century view. Here is an example, the law that is nailed to the cross, is the the doctrines of men (context of Colossians). The law that stands against us is “another gospel” (context of Galations). The law that the woman is dead to is “the law of marriage” (Rom 7) or better said, her marriage is no longer if her husband is dead. But she is not now free to murder and steal and lie.
        We can talk about specifics online face to face if you want because they take some conversation….which is limited in this format.
        Take some time to read Gen – Deut. Read it again and again and again. No one has the power or the position to change it. If Yeshua changed it, He would not be Messiah. Paul certainly does not have that right either.