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Binding and loosing: The church’s sacred task

12.4. 2015 Written By: Diane Zaerr Brenneman 1,846 read

Diane Zaerr Brenneman is a member of West Union Mennonite Church, Parnell, Iowa, and a member of the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA. This article is adapted from a sermon commissioned by a local congregation studying the Central Plains Mennonite Conference discernment study.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.—Matthew 18:18

Ask a Christian when they’ve applied Matthew 18, and most will share a time they went directly to another when in conflict, then took a witness, then to the church. Matthew 18 is about church discipline. Ask again and see if they mention mutually submissive biblical interpretation. Because these words of Jesus (above) are also recorded in Matthew 18. This “binding and loosing” text often gets lumped together with the discipline steps just before it. It’s easy to understand why. As readers are pondering how to treat the stubborn member as a Gentile and tax collector (v. 17), what seems like a summary statement follows in v 18: what the church decides about this member here on earth goes for heaven, too. But that can’t be right. Jesus also said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Maybe we’re befuddled because we’re not Jewish.

Matthew wrote for born-and-raised Jews and used some shorthand. Matthew records a common phrase in Jesus’ day without explaining it to us future Gentile readers. Binding and loosing was something rabbis regularly did, so Jesus didn’t need to elaborate. Much like if we read a bulletin announcement for a Bible study meeting. Most church folk would know generally what that entails: sitting around in a living room with our Bibles open, studying and talking and praying and (if we’ve got a good host) some refreshments before we go home. No one needs to spell it out.

Binding and loosing Scripture is something the rabbis regularly did, and everyone knew it. They would take an ancient law and bind it to a contemporary issue; that is, they’d hold an ancient law alongside a contemporary issue and make a judgment on how it applied. Many rabbis were doing this binding and loosing work, and people followed the teachings of their favorite leaders. Much like we do, except we can follow rabbis we’ve never met instead of gathering around them in the synagogue.

Debates among rabbis were common, much like today, and not all teachers agreed on interpretations. But the “schools of thought” that made most sense to most people over time were kept as the Misnah, a Jewish commentary of sorts that helped people live out the Torah. An example of how the rabbis did binding and loosing (from Mark Allen Powell in “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew,” Currents in Theology and Mission, Dec. 1, 2003): People asked the rabbis about the law of Moses that says, “Do not steal.” What if you find a bird alongside the road and keep it without searching for its owner? Is that stealing? When is a search for the owner required, and how extensive must this be?

People have this same question today, at least in my corner of Iowa. Farmers are known to pull over to investigate a good find abandoned alongside the road—a set of wrenches, a jacket, a come-a-long winch, even a firefighters’ pair of pliers. Is it stealing to keep found objects?

The rabbis said: If a fledgling bird is found within 50 cubits of a birdhouse, you must search for the owner and return the bird. But if it’s found outside the limit of 50 cubits, the person who finds it may keep it. Rabbis “bound” the law (do not steal) by saying when you were close to a birdhouse, it is stealing, and they “loosed” the law by saying it was up for grabs when it was found at a distance. The law was binding when the bird was close to home (and likely owned), and the law was not binding when a bird was nowhere near a birdhouse. Binding and loosing was a kind of moral decision-making for new situations that arose after the law was given. On a humorous note, it is said that Rabbi Jeremiah asked, “If one foot of the bird is within 50 cubits, and one foot is outside the line, then what is the law?” And for this question, Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the house of study.

“Binding” we can understand, but “loosing”? Why would rabbis ever say that Scripture was loosed? Isn’t that dismissing Scripture by saying it doesn’t apply? The Scriptures were inspired by God and have eternal value. The issue is the discernment of the Scripture’s intent and sphere of application. So the rabbis never said it’s OK to steal, but they tried to define just what is stealing and what is not.

Jesus binds the law in his ministry. Matthew 5 records several examples. He takes the law “Do not murder” and binds it by saying if we are angry or insult a brother or sister, we are liable as if it is murder (vv. 21-22). He takes the law “Do not commit adultery” and binds it by saying even lust is adultery, with the same consequences (vv. 27-28). And he takes the law “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” and binds it to mean love your enemies as well (vv. 43-44).

Jesus also looses the law “Remember the Sabbath” by saying disciples could pluck grain on the Sabbath if they were hungry, just as their ancestor David did (Matthew 12:1-8). When he healed the man with the withered hand, Jesus loosed the Sabbath law by doing good on the Sabbath (12:9- 14). He loosed the law about handwashing (15:1-2 and 10-20) by claiming what goes into the mouth doesn’t defile, but what comes out does.

Jesus first talks about binding and loosing more narrowly to his disciples (Matthew 12). Jesus says: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It’s a package deal for Peter; with the responsibility of the church comes the responsibility to interpret the Scriptures and apply them to life. But two chapters later, Jesus expands the binding and loosing obligation from Peter to the whole church. We know this because Matthew uses the plural “you” when referring to the church (18:18). The single to plural is also noted when comparing versions of the lost sheep. Luke 15 records the story to mean rejoicing over one lost soul saved. But in Matthew 18, the same story is told with plural pronouns; and the lost sheep means a (church) member who has strayed and needs to be brought back. So now, “whatever you [plural] bind and loose” is no longer Peter’s sole job; Jesus gives this responsibility to the church.

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