Thursday, 16 October 2014

Of Binding and Loosing

Does Matthew 18:18 contradict the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19? That may be an obscure question, so let me explain. Anyone at all familiar with Catholic belief or interdenominational apologetics knows that Matthew 16:18-19 describes Christ making some specific promises to St. Peter. Of special relevance is Christ's promise that "I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you lose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (16:19 ESV). Catholics see this gift as giving special power to St. Peter for the governance of the Church.

One response from our separated brethren is to point to Matthew 18:18. Here, Christ is talking to a large group of His disciples and says "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." This, it is argued, proves that St. Peter was nothing special, all believers receive the same powers to bind and loose that he received.

To answer the objection, and to understand what exactly these powers of binding and loosing are, we need to look at context. The immediate context of Matthew 18:18 is a discussion, by Christ, of how to deal with unrepentant sinners within the body of believers. The final remedy is that the sins of the unrepentant person be told to the church "And if he refuses to listen to the Church, let him be as a gentile or tax collector."

Two brief asides: first, I've heard a lot of people insist that because Jesus was so loving, He's never support anything like excommunication. Yes He would, and did; right here. Second, given that both of my parents were career employees of the Australian Taxation Office, the New Testament usage of "tax collectors" as a synonym for "worst sinners ever" always makes me smile.

 To return to my main point, however. First, it should be obvious from this context that the power to bind and loose refers to the power to discipline errant members of the church. I've heard protestants cite these verses as evidence that every believer has the power to 'bind' evil spirits. The truth, I'm afraid, is that it refers to a rather more prosaic matter, the power of the church to discipline its members. Second, given that verse 17 is talks about the authority of the church it makes no sense for the 'you' in verse 18 to be interpreted as "you - every individual" rather it should be seen as "you - the collective body of the church."

We are left then with Christ promising to His church collectively what He had previously promised individually to St. Peter. Does this contradict Catholic teaching? Not in the slightest. The Church does not see the Pope as some spiritual lone ranger exercising his powers out of the context of the wider body. Indeed, the fact that the same power should be given corporately to the church and individually to the church's head beautifully underlies what Vatican II called the collegiality of the Church. The fact still remains, that the power which Jesus collectively granted the Church He gave individually to St. Peter. That is the Petrine Primacy.


1 comment:

  1. If you continue to Matt 18:19-20, you'll see that it shoots down your attempt to limit this to church discipline.