About ten years ago an article by Mark Allan Powell, professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio appeared that can be very helpful as we seek to answer some of our questions about the authority of the Bible. [i]
Here is a brief summary of what Professor Powell wrote.
There are many “prescriptions” (Thou shalt) and “proscriptions” (Thou shalt not) in the Bible. These are not just in Old Testament law. They are also in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. We cannot simply affirm, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” as if every scriptural mandate has “universal and permanent applicability.” At the same time, we can’t set aside Biblical commandments just because they no longer fit with the “shifting values of our age.” What to do?
Some help can be found in the gospel principle of “binding” and “loosing.” In Matthew 18:18 Jesus tells his disciples, “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.” It appears that the “church” is given authority to “bind” and “loose,” but what does this mean?
The ideas of binding and loosing are best understood in terms of the Jewish rabbinical practice of applying scriptural commands. “Jewish Rabbis ‘bound’ the law when they determined that a commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they ‘loosed’ the law when they determined that a word of Scripture (while eternally valid) was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.” The application of the principle of binding and loosing becomes clear in the famous argument between the schools of first century rabbis Hillel and Shammai. “… The question was raised whether one might be guilty of stealing if one finds something and keeps it without searching for the rightful owner. When such a search is required how extensive must it be? The Talmud (traditional Jewish oral law) states, ‘if a fledgling bird is found within 50 cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limits of 50 cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it.’” Thus the commandment “thou shall not steal” is bound when the bird is found near its owner, and it is loosed when the bird is found at a distance. While it is universally true that stealing is wrong, what constitutes stealing in a particular situation is subject to interpretation.
It may well be that Jesus was practicing the rabbinic principle of binding and loosing when he offered his interpretation of the law in the sermon on the Mount, or when he appeared to relax certain Sabbath restrictions. Jesus has the authority to bind and loose the law “because he is a unique manifestation of God’s presence.” But it appears that not only has God given this authority to Jesus but, in turn, Jesus has given it to the church.
The church’s exercise of this authority can be seen in the apostolic witness. Consider the example of eating food offered to idols. While idolatry is permanently and universally sinful in the Bible, what constitutes idolatry is not always clear. It would be up to the community to ask “is the scriptural prohibition against idolatry applicable to eating food that was once dedicated to idols?” However this question is resolved, it is clearly the community that resolves it and does so with divine authority. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
It is the church that is given authority by Jesus to determine the applicability of biblical mandates in an immediate situation. “The Bible itself recognizes a need for the church to consider the continuing relevance of biblical prescriptions and proscriptions and, when there is controversy, to declare whether those directives remain binding or whether they might be loosed. Thus, the Bible does allow for biblical mandates to be declared invalid for specific contemporary situations, but it makes clear that such a loosing of the law is only to be done by a community that is following the example of Jesus and adhering to principles of interpreting Scripture in light of Scripture as he did.”
In another article[ii] Professor Powell writes, “The church today may consider whether the Matthean understanding of binding and loosing can continue to inform its ethical deliberation with regard to current issues. To take an obvious example, contemporary questions regarding acceptance of homosexual behavior may be considered in this light. Should the biblical prohibitions of same-sex sexual relations be bound or loosed with regard to specific contemporary situations? What if, for example, the couple can be determined to be exclusively and irreparably homosexual in orientation, and what if they are willing to commit themselves to living in a monogamous relationship that is accountable to the church? Could the prohibitions be deemed inapplicable to that situation?”
Food for thought.
[i] “Binding and Loosing: Asserting the Moral Authority of Scripture in Light of a Mathean Paradigm.” By Mark Alan Powell, Ex Auditu, 19 (2003): 82.
[ii] “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew.” Mark Alan Powell, Currents in Theology and Mission, 30 (2003): 6.