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.

The duty we reject

I never heard or read of any considerable revival of religion which was not attended with a spirit of reproving. I believe it cannot be otherwise; for what is faith, unless it worketh by love? Thus it was in every part of England when the present revival of religion began about fifty years ago: All the subjects of that revival, — all the Methodists, so called, in every place, were reprovers of outward sin.

– John Wesley “The Duty of Reproving Our Neighbor

In the list of sermons of John Wesley that would not go over well today, this one has to be near the top. It is a sermon about the necessity and method of pointing out each other’s sins. Wesley takes as his text Leviticus 19:17, which if you are not aware comes right before a little verse that Jesus Christ holds up as the second great commandment.

As is typical for Wesley, this sermon displays a keen grasp of the nuances of pastoral work. Wesley is never a one-size-fits-all teacher. He is always aware that different people and different audiences require different messages. In our day, we often misinterpret Wesley because we fail to take his awareness of audience and situation into account. We treat him like a systematic theologian rather than a pastor in the trenches.

In this sermon, he starts right off with a key observation about picking our battles wisely.

But if we desire not to lose our labour, we should rarely reprove anyone for anything that is of a disputable nature, that will bear much to be said on both sides. A thing may possibly appear evil to me; therefore I scruple the doing of it; and if I were to do it while that scruple remains, I should be a sinner before God. But another is not to be judged by my conscience: To his own master he standeth or falleth. Therefore I would not reprove him, but for what is clearly and undeniably evil.

In another place, while offering similar counsel, Wesley holds up the example of going to the theater. He writes that he could not set foot in such a place, but he knows others who can without threatening their salvation.

So the question, of course, is what are those class of things that are of a disputable nature? Wesley offers some examples of things that fall into the category of undeniable evil.

Such, for instance, is profane cursing and swearing; which even those who practise it most will not often venture to defend, if one mildly expostulates with them. Such is drunkenness, which even a habitual drunkard will condemn when he is sober. And such, in the account of the generality of people, is the profaning of the Lord’s day. And if any which are guilty of these sins for a while attempt to defend them, very few will persist to do it, if you look them steadily in the face, and appeal to their own conscience in the sight of God.

The list here: profane cursing and swearing, drunkenness, and profaning the Lord’s day. I almost hesitated to produce the quotation above as examples of undeniable evil because for each one we do deny them as evil.

Although Stanley Hauerwas no longer claims to be United Methodist – I believe — he has taught many a seminary student that cursing is nothing to be ashamed of. As for drunkenness, many will call this a sickness rather than an evil act. There are even those who say it is mere frivolity and of no moral concern at all. And as for profaning the Lord’s day, to even raise it as a concern is viewed by most Christians today as a sure sign of fanatic or a hopeless fool.

Are we reproved by Rev. Wesley’s list or does it lead us to dismiss his entire sermon?

If we retain the sermon at all, we will notice that Wesley does not advise us to engage in street-corner reprovings. He is no advocate of hectoring passersby. Indeed, he directs our attention first to our close relations then in widening circles. Of special attention are those who were joined together in Methodist societies, as those groups were formed for the express purpose of watching over each other in love.

As baptized Christians we make similar promises to nurture and love each other. Is there room for more of a spirit of reproof among us?

Luther: Our captivity

From Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will:

[T]he Scripture sets before us a man who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick and dead, but who, through the operation of Satan his lord, adds to his other miseries that of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, possessed of liberty and ability, whole and alive. Satan knows that if men knew their own misery he could keep no man in his kingdom.

Deserving a butt kicking

Consider for a moment the opening moves of John Wesley first standard sermon “Salvation by Faith.”

Wesley opens the sermon with an assertion that few today would grant:

All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty, or favour; his free, undeserved favour; favour altogether undeserved; man having no claim to the least of his mercies.

We deserve nothing from God. We have already received more than we could ever claim. Everything we are and have is a gift out of God’s abundant generosity. God did not have to give us life or pleasure or people who love us. This is what free grace means. God was free not to give it but did anyway.

And as a consequence of the fact that nothing we are or have is really ours, we are without power to atone for even the smallest of our sins. For our sins are the only things that we can rightly say belong only to us and not to God.

Wherewithal then shall a sinful man atone for any the least of his sins? With his own works? No. Were they ever so many or holy, they are not his own, but God’s. But indeed they are all unholy and sinful themselves, so that every one of them needs a fresh atonement. Only corrupt fruit grows on a corrupt tree.

Here we come to the lurking doctrine of Original Sin, which is fundamental to everything in Wesley’s doctrine of salvation and anathema to the spirit of our age. Far from viewing the human condition as fallen, we are all good students of Thoreau. Human nature, to the extent that there is anything wrong with it, has been damaged and restrained by institutions and social pressures.

Be yourself, we say. Trust yourself. Have faith in yourself. Our god is named three times in these three sentences.

So, it would be little surprise if Wesley’s third move is ignored out of hand.

If then sinful men find favour with God, it is “grace upon grace!” If God vouchsafe still to pour fresh blessings upon us, yea, the greatest of all blessings, salvation; what can we say to these things, but, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!” And thus it is. Herein “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died” to save us “By grace” then “are ye saved through faith.” Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.

When your god is yourself, you are not anxious about finding favor with your god. You, therefore, have no need to cry out “grace upon grace!” The entire edifice of Wesleyan salvation is devoid of meaning.

You might talk a good game about grace. You might extol over and over how Wesley is such a great preacher of grace. You might even explain to some benighted fool how Wesley’s grace theology has eliminated the need for that old time religion and all those hymns about the blood of Jesus.

You can say all that, but you do not understand what Wesley means by grace.

Grace is the incomprehensible gift of God to a person who deserves punishment. God loaned you his car keys and you went out and wrecked it on purpose. You should be beaten up or arrested or forced to buy a new car — if you only had money that was worth anything.

Grace is that we deserve a butt kicking but we get a hug.

The command is also a promise

We may yet farther observe, that every command in holy writ is only a covered promise.

So John Wesley wrote in his fifth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, which expounds upon the second half of this week’s lectionary reading from the gospel. (Another sermon of Wesley’s concerns itself with the first half of our lectionary gospel.)

The idea that God will give power to do what he commands us to do is fundamental to a Wesleyan reading of the Sermon on the Mount. It is fundamental, really, to his reading of the entire Bible. When God commands us to do a thing, Wesley taught, the Holy Spirit enables us to do it — if not right away then as we grow in grace.

No command of Scripture should be read as an impossible higher work of holiness that is beyond the grasp of “ordinary” Christians.

Some Christians read the Sermon on the Mount as a hammer meant to shatter the pride of men and women. They read it as setting out such an impossibly high standard that it drives us to our knees in despair, for no one could hope to actually follow such teaching.

This is not the Wesleyan reading.

God not only commands us to be holy but also gives us the means to do so.

Of course, this is also an extremely controversial reading. Even in Wesley’s own ministry it was often not received well. He wrote — in what I only interpret as despair — to his brother over the resistance of Methodists and outsiders to the doctrine of Christian perfection, which is the outgrowth of his confidence in the promises of God.

The experience of many Christians refuted rather than confirmed Wesley’s biblical interpretation on this point. The idea that we could actually live in true freedom from sin was always contested and remains so today.

For myself, I have great sympathy for those who resist Wesley’s reading because I often want to resist it as well. But when I look more closely at my resistance, it is nearly always born of a desire to disobey Christ. My resistance to the idea that I can live a life in which sin does not control me is strongest exactly where there are sins tempting me toward disobedience. It is those moments when I start arguing with God.

“Sure, I know this is wrong, but I have all these really good reasons for doing it. In fact, it will be better for people I love and people who depend on me if I do this. Really, the greater good is being served here, and isn’t that what Jesus wants?”

I don’t think Wesley was a utilitarian. And as far as I can tell, neither was Jesus. But I sure am happy to pretend to be one when it serves my sinful inclinations.