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.


5 thoughts on “Binding and loosing

  1. In fact, as one reads on into Matthew 19, Jesus cites Genesis authoritatively (and definitively) on marriage (“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said…”) It seems a fantastic distortion to claim warrants from 16:19 and 18:18 for overthrowing the very thing Jesus insists upon a few verses later. The epistles also warn about teachers who will twist scripture to suit their own ends.

  2. Jeremy is in error.
    The key is…. the apostles were given the authority to uphold existing law and to determine the appropriate punishment or reward. The apostles were NOT given the authority to write “new law” The RMC has the Pope. He interprets “existing law, “existing scripture” and historical position. The UMC having no single authority but many Bishops finds itself in disagreement because there are too many kings ruling a divided kingdom.

  3. I can understand why Jeremy is confused when he reads:

    Bishop Mary Ann Swenson writes dissent on Council Birmingham statement, in which Bishop Swenson writes: “It is written in the Scriptures that our risen savior Christ Jesus broke the Sabbath commandments and healed those who needed healing. Jesus broke these commandments not for the sake of disregarding the law but to follow the spirit of the law found in the greatest commandments to love God and to love neighbor.” 

    Jesus Never “broke the law”. Had Jesus broke the law he would have been guilty of sin.
    Jesus was sinless. The accusations against Christ were false. The trial was a mockery and every law governing fair trial where broken.. It was never a sin to heal/ save life or attempt to save life on the Sabbath Old Testament or New. Prayer for healing, restoration and life is and was always incorporated in Sabbath prayer. Are we to believe no healing or answered prayers are to be made on the Sabbath?
    The basis for the good bishop’s argument is false

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