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.

What is the biblical argument for schism?

The church is a strange organization. We declare by creed that it is one, holy, apostolic, and catholic. We look in vain for a church that clearly displays these marks.

From early in the life of the church the church has been embroiled in debates about how to cope with members within the church who other members believed to be apostate. We see this in the New Testament. We see it in the teaching of Jesus who instructed his disciples about the mingling of weeds and wheat. We see this in the Donatist controversy that so engaged Augustine.

These debates are beyond my ability to summarize, but one outcome over time of this conversation was the formulation of a distinction between the visible church and the mystical or invisible church.

This distinction is preserved in our Articles of Religion, where we read these words:

The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

The visible church is composed of many people who bear only the faintest resemblance to Jesus Christ. It always has been. The visible church is the assembly of those who profess the name of Jesus Christ, hear the Word of God justly preached, and partake of the sacraments properly administered. Doctrine and sacrament are the marks of the visible church.

In the United Methodist Church, we’ve never been very good about enforcing discipline around the meaning of preaching the pure Word of God. We have a long history of not paying too much attention to whether our preachers affirm the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. So we are left with a situation in which it is hard to spot this mark of the church or for it to provide much unity.

Similarly, we are pretty lax when it comes to proper administration of the sacraments. Infant baptism is actively opposed in many places. Our practice and teaching of Holy Communion bares the same undisciplined marks.

In short — and this is hardly news to anyone — the United Methodist Church is a mess. Even the marks of the visible church are often hard to discern among us.

But I don’t understand the claim that the UMC is somehow mired in a unique level of mess today. We don’t strike me as massively more compromised by American culture than we have been for the last 40 years. I also don’t understand the claim that God somehow wills that the church divide.

For me that is the final question here: Is it God’s will that we split?

The question, for me, is not whether life would be easier or whether conflict would cease. The question is whether it is God’s desire for the church that we split. I have not seen that argument made.

I have seen the argument that we should exercise greater discipline and holiness. But I don’t see where the proper response to our inability to do so is division.

In the Old Testament God sent prophets to Israel and preserved a faithful remnant within Israel while everyone else bent a knee to Baal. I do not recall God calling one tribe to divide itself from the chosen people and start over.

I can think of Paul calling for individuals to be separated from the church. Did he call for the church to divide itself along party lines?

In other words, what is the biblical argument on behalf of separation?

Why 8 in 10 do not attend church

Eighty percent of families with children who have disabilities do not attend church.

This blog post talks to families about the reasons for that number.

  • My child is not welcomed in any of the children’s activities, they said he is too disruptive.
  • I took my child to Sunday School class, but they wheeled him to the corner and he sat there until I came to pick him up.
  • They said I had to keep my child with me because they had nobody that could help care for her during Children’s church.  I tried, but she can be noisy, so an usher asked us to please leave the sanctuary because she was disrupting the service.
  • I asked the pastor if we could possibly have someone help my child during Sunday School, they told me they were not responsible to find me babysitters.
  • It’s not worth it, my child cannot handle the sensory overload.
  • When my child is loud, people stare at us and shake their heads. I even had people tell me that my child needs discipline, my child has autism and they know it! I’m not going back.
  • My child is welcomed, but almost very Sunday they call me and I have to go get her from her class. Why bother.
  • I tried starting a special needs class for kids, the church leadership did not support me, they said there was no need.
  • For 20 years my wife and I took turns going to church. One Sunday she would go and I stayed home with our son, the next one we switched.

Setting up the defense

I heard former college basketball coach Bob Knight last night talking about what he did when he took teams to the NCAA Final Four. He said he always wanted a hotel for his team that had a room in it that was big enough for him to set up the other team’s offense, so his team could talk about and practice defense.

He always wanted to figure out how to play defense first.

I wonder how well we as a church do that. How good a job do we do scouting out the opposing team’s offense think about ways to play defense against it?

I’d argue that John Wesley instituted the whole practice of having people watch over each other — otherwise known as small groups — for just that purpose. It was to defend them from the attacks of the enemy.

How wise are we about the ways of our enemy? How should we get wiser?