Binding and loosing

Jeremy Smith, an always engaging and frequently provocative United Methodist blogger, argues in this post that Matthew 16:9 and 18:18 give the church the authority to determine what is sin and what is not.

Smith bases his argument on New Testament scholar Mark Alan Powell’s assessment of the rabbinical meaning of binding and loosing and what it means in Matthew 16:9.

I would argue that Matthew 18 is the more helpful verse for interpreting this question since it is placed in a fuller context than 16:9. Using the principle that the Bible can help us interpret the Bible, I read Matthew 18 as offering little support for the notion that the language of binding and loosing is a wide grant of authority over the very definition of sin.

Here’s what I wrote on Smith’s blog:

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 [is a serious offense to God].

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.

A woman, her husband, and her boyfriend

So, I don’t know if this is a quirk of my web browser or cookie settings, but as I was scrolling through Salon.com looking for the link to an excerpt from Adam Hamilton’s new book on the Bible, I stumbled on this defense of polyamory two stories before Hamilton’s.

The article, “Polyamory works for us,” tells of a woman with a husband of 17 years and an ongoing boyfriend of 2 years all living together.

My path here was a long one. As far back as I can remember, I felt that loving one person romantically did not preclude the possibility of loving another at the same time. It seemed natural and intuitive to me. But I had no models for that way of living, so I assumed there was something wrong with me.

I married my husband and remained in a monogamous relationship with him for many years. I knew I wanted to be with him for the long haul. But I was never entirely fulfilled. I couldn’t shake the feeling that some part of me was repressed.

The article ends this way:

When my daughter talks about same-sex marriage or polyamorous relationships, she always looks perplexed and says, “I don’t understand why anyone is angry about people being in love and not hurting anyone.” And I long for a world where everyone is able to see it so simply.

What I’d like someone to do for me is explain what basis the church has to disagree with this woman in a world in which we are rushing as fast as we can to declare that the Bible has little to say to us about God’s will for human sexuality that we would not already say if we had never had a Bible in the first place.

(For those who are interested, the excerpt from Hamilton’s book chapter is at this link: Stop twisting the Bible: There is no message against same-sex marriage.)

Chongho Kim: ‘We all cried’

I finally got the time to listen to the sermon given by Rev. Chongho Kim at Marsh Chapel at Boston University School of Theology. You can watch it here.

The sermon, which was a series of personal stories about his theological struggles, including his struggles with the biblical and pastoral issues related to homosexual sex, caused an uproar and provoked condemnation from a committee at the seminary.

Kim has been characterized as being unfeeling and/or overly dogmatic in his talk. I personally do not see this.

His affirmation of the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles regarding human sexuality and a story he told from the late 1980s are at the center of the storm over the sermon. Before telling the story, Kim acknowledged that the details of the story would hurt or offend some of the congregation. He asked the congregation for their forgiveness for his insensitivity or ignorance.

The story he told was this. The District Committee on Ordained Ministry that Kim chaired was split on the vote to approve a woman who had come out as a lesbian and — as I understand through the poor sound on the video — she was rejected in part because he abstained from voting.

He explained his abstention as his deep uncertainty about the right way to balance his biblical interpretation with the people he knows who are are gay and lesbian. He went on at some length earlier in the sermon about how he finds himself accused by progressives and conservatives — and even his own family — of being in the wrong, but that he can’t find any way to interpret the Bible other than the way the United Methodist Church’s official statements have done so.

After the woman was denied ordination, and as a result of being in the center of controversy and the subject of harsh criticism, she took her own life.

And this is the point where people accuse Kim of being insensitive. Some in comments have implied he made some grand pronouncement about holding on to dogma despite her death. But I do not hear that in the sermon. He criticizes those in his annual conference who used the woman’s death as justification for her rejection by the committee on ministry.

He describes how in the aftermath of the woman’s suicide, he was asked to preach at a deeply divided annual conference. He recounts part of the sermon he gave:

I preached saying I did not know how to understand this issue, but I know that we are Christians. Christians are of Christ. If we are of Christ, we should have given her a message of hope, love, and grace instead of hatred and rejection. I asked the conference to ask God for healing and forgiveness … and I started crying. That was all I could do. In fact, we all cried. Everybody cried. Out of guilt, out of anger, we all cried.

Kim called on the church to be one in Christ and lamented the divisions within the denomination. (I hope the quote above is word-for-word accurate. As I say, the sound is poor, and I’m not sure I heard each word properly.)

I have listened to this sermon twice — and parts of it more than that. If the way he spoke about this topic is considered beyond the pale and the creation of an “unsafe” space in worship, then I do not see how anyone could ever address these issues from the pulpit.

Kim said he preached on this topic because the lectionary text from which he preached included Paul’s call to the church to be of Christ and united. He noted in his sermon that he has served in the Chicago area and in North Georgia. His own experiences inform him of the deep divisions in the church. I suspect he preached what he did because he wants the church to get beyond division. The reaction to his sermon certainly demonstrates that we are deeply divided.

Easter requires a response

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:32-33, NIV)

This is one thing I’ve never gotten over, at least not once it got hold of me.

The testimony of the church comes down to these claims. God raised Jesus. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father. Jesus has received the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us.

But the part that was an “aha” thing for me is the “we are all witnesses” part. It was an aha because it underscored something that may not seem remarkable to you. It was an aha because it underscored for me that denying the resurrection is to declare Mary, Peter, Andrew, James, John, and all the rest liars. It is to say they gave false witness. Easter requires a response. Either Peter was telling the truth that Pentecost or he was not. (You could declare that he was delusional, but that functionally the same as calling him a liar. It says the church is founded on fiction.)

Easter requires a response. Do we repent? Are we baptized into the name? Do we receive forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Or do we deny what the church has always declared?

Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.