I’ve been wrestling with questions about the very nature of the Church, and trying to see how the various, extremely diverse and fragmented, expressions of the Body of Christ line up with Scripture. And, frankly, ever since I was a kid, none of the contradictory answers I’ve received to the following questions have ever satisfied me. I’d appreciate input from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19 NASB) Does this refer to Peter only? all Christians? church leaders? the Church as a whole? What are the keys to the kingdom? What does binding and loosing mean?
“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18 NASB) The context of this would seem to indicate that the power of “binding & loosing” is given to the Church, and that excommunication is not just an earthly matter of breaking fellowship, but has eternal significance. Does every local church have this power? What about the Calvary Chapel pastor who excommunicated a family for hosting a Bible Study? What about a house fellowship?
And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:22-23 NASB) What on earth does this mean? Doesn’t God alone have the power to forgive sins? Was this power given to the disciples and, if so, why? Or is that power given to all who receive the Holy Spirit? If so, does that mean that my forgiveness of sin depends on being forgiven by someone else?
What makes a church a legitimate church? Can any group of believers declare themselves a church? Does this even matter and, if so, why?
No, not every group can declare themselves a Church, and yes, it does matter. Here’s the scriptural basis you need:
Wherever two or three are gathered…
An Explanation of “Church” in light of Matthew 18:19-20
Non-denominational Christians often reject the concept of a structured, hierarchical Church led by bishops, priests and deacons. One of their common objections is that the “church” exists wherever two or three believers are gathered in His name. Is this really how the Bible defines the Church? Let’s take a closer look at the Word of God to see if this is true.
19"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
From this passage, many Christians conclude that the “church” is composed of small groups of believers that come together from time to time. While it is true that Jesus has promised to be with believers who are gathered in His name, it is obvious from another passage that this is not how Jesus Himself defines the Church.
In fact, just a few verses earlier, Jesus had given a fuller picture of the Church when He said:
15"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
If “two or three” believers gathered together really constitutes the “church” (as envisioned by those who reject “organized religion”), then it would not be necessary for us to refer the one who sins against us to “the church”. Doing so would be redundant! To the contrary, it is obvious in this passage that Jesus actually makes a clear distinction between the “two or three others” in verse 16 and “the church” in verse 17.
Clearly, Jesus does not consider that “two or three” constitute the Church that He Himself would build. Neither should we. Beginning with Peter, the rock, and the apostles, Jesus has built the Church just as He promised through their successors—the bishops, priests and deacons of the Catholic Church.
It refers to Peter only, and here is the scriptural basis you need:
Peter – The Royal Steward
In ancient times, a king might choose a second in command (known as the royal steward or prime minister) who literally wore a large key as a symbol of his office and who spoke with the authority of the king. The prophet Isaiah confirms this:
"In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.”
In the passage above, God is speaking, and He confirms the existence of the office, the key, and the continuation of the office despite the change of office holder. In other words, the office of the royal steward continued even when the man who held the office died or was replaced by someone else. God Himself passes the key from one steward to the next.
In the New Testament, we learn that Jesus inherits the throne of his father, David.
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.
We also read the following:
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
The passage quoted above from Matthew tells us that Jesus named Peter as His royal steward and gave him the “keys to the kingdom of heaven" as the symbol of his authority to speak in His name. Since Jesus is an eternal king, the office of royal steward in His kingdom will never end. Peter died as a martyr as Jesus foretold, but the successors of Peter have taken his place in the perpetual office that Jesus established in His royal court.
In addition to the reference to a key or keys, note the following parallels:
"What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” (Is. 22:22)
"Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:19)
Jesus specifically referenced the passage from Isaiah when He appointed Peter. Peter has received authority from Jesus to speak in His name. To do so faithfully, Peter must not teach error; therefore, Peter (and his successors who hold the office) are protected by God through the charism of infallibility.
Confession and Forgiveness of Sin via the Priesthood Proved from Scripture
Some people object to the Sacrament of Reconciliation (commonly called “Confession”) on the basis that they only need to confess their sins directly to God rather than to a priest. Is this perspective correct? Let’s see what the Bible has to say.
5 " 'When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned 6 and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.
Notice that the Word of God says, “the priest shall make atonement.” Clearly in the Old Testament, the priesthood existed to offer sacrifices and make atonement for the sins committed by the people. Does this idea continue in the New Testament?
1 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves.
Here the author of Hebrews instructs us that the Old Testament prefigures and foreshadows New Testament truths; the Old is revealed more fully in the New. This seems to suggest that the role of the priest (ie, making atonement) as described in Leviticus should reveal something to us about the New Testament priesthood. So, what does the New Testament teach us about confession of sin?
1 John 1:9
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
We should confess our sins, and God will forgive us, but do we confess our sins to God alone? No!
13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
Here the word of God tells us to call the elders (the Greek word is presbuteroi, or “presbyter”, from which the English word “priest” is derived). So, in this context, James is telling us to send for the priests who will pray over someone who is sick, and if he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Recalling the passage from Leviticus above, we see there is a strong parallel between the priests of the Old Testament who made atonement for sin and the presbyters or priests of the New Testament to whom we confess sins for forgiveness. But this sounds like blasphemy! Can men really forgive sins? This same question is asked in the New Testament.
5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7"Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming!** Who can forgive sins but God alone?**"
Who can forgive sins but God alone? This question is often asked by those who seek to deny the sacrament of confession. However, note that this question is asked by the scribes who did not accept Jesus. Those who quote this passage find themselves on the side of those who rejected the Messiah. There’s more to the story, however; let’s consider the same incident from the book of Matthew.
1 Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. 2Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” 4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” 7And the man got up and went home. 8When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.
The Bible teaches that God had given the authority to forgive sins “to men”. Note that this is not “to a man” but “to men” – plural. So, it is not only Jesus who has authority to forgive sins – “men” have this authority, also. This sounds like a “hard teaching”…is there confirmation of this in the Bible?
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
How did God send Jesus into the world? With the authority to forgive sins as we saw in Matthew 9:6. How does Jesus send the Apostles? In the same way that the Father had sent Him…with the authority to forgive sins as we have just seen in John 20:23. How could the Apostles obey the commandment of Jesus to forgive sins unless they heard these sins confessed? Thus, scripture records that people did confess their sins aloud.
Acts 19:18 (New International Version)
18Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds.
Finally, we find that the Apostle Paul himself forgave the sins of others acting in persona Christi or “in the person of Christ” – just as the Catholic Church teaches concerning the sacrament of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 2:10
10To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; (KJV)
And to whom you have pardoned any thing, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned any thing, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ. (Douay Rheims)
Can we go directly to God for the forgiveness of our sins? Of course, but the scriptures just presented suggest that the normative means of forgiveness is by confession to a priest, and while it is true that only God can forgive sins, the Bible teaches that He has chosen to do so through the ordained priesthood and the Sacrament of Reconciliation that He Himself instituted.
Well Randy seems to have covered everything…but of course that won’t stop me from putting in my 2 cents worth…
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19 NASB) Does this refer to Peter only? all Christians? church leaders? the Church as a whole?
Obviously there are layers of meaning here. Yes it refers to Peter only in that Peter (Petros = Kepha = Rock) is gien the keys to the Kingdom.
But it also refers to “the Church as a whole” since we are to be a single body - the body of Christ.
It can also refer to “all Christians” but only in the sense that individual Christians act within the one body. This is what was lost at the reformation…individuals, and individual interpretation of scripture, began trumping the body of Christ (Ekklesia in Greek) - the Church.
Now you have the problem which is troubling you…too many views and no way to resolve them.
What are the keys to the kingdom?
I’m sure that Randy has covered this more than adequately.
What does binding and loosing mean?
Most often this seems to be applied to binding and loosing of sin…which of course is fine, but I don’t think it stops there.
What I find interesting is that “binding and loosing” is so often pulled out of it’s context of “Whatever”. “Whatever you bind…Whatever you loose…”
Here is the authority to teach. It is reenforced in the passage you quote below.
“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18 NASB) The context of this would seem to indicate that the power of “binding & loosing” is given to the Church, and that excommunication is not just an earthly matter of breaking fellowship, but has eternal significance.
Consider this…Jesus used the word “Church” (Ekklesia) only twice in the Gospels. Both times in Mt and both times in the context of granting the authority to bind and loose and - in this case - to discipline.
So yes - the authority to bind and loose is given to the Church in communion with each other and with Peter’s successor. Doctrinal unity is the key…
Does every local church have this power? What about the Calvary Chapel pastor who excommunicated a family for hosting a Bible Study? What about a house fellowship?
No - not everyone has this authority. It is given to the one body of Christ. Those who go off on their own remain off on their own…Those who do not submit their teaching to the scrutiny of the universal Church are not in accord with Scripture and the Scriptural Church model as established in the NT.
And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:22-23 NASB) What on earth does this mean?
It means just what it says - and it should be noted that at ordination the bishop does this same thing…he breathes and lays hands upon those being ordained.
Doesn’t God alone have the power to forgive sins?
Why are you questioning this? Jesus is God and Jesus is the one who gave the authority to the Apostles (and they to their successors). Think about this…When you call this into question are you not questioning God?
Was this power given to the disciples and, if so, why? Or is that power given to all who receive the Holy Spirit? If so, does that mean that my forgiveness of sin depends on being forgiven by someone else?
The ordained have a special gift from God. This is true. However the “power of forgiveness” is indeed given to all Christians. In point of fact it is less of a “power” than it is a responsibility and an obligation. Look to the Lord’s prayer and the passage, “forgive us…as we forgive…”
That said - the grace and beauty of confession to a priest (acting “in persona Christi”) comes from multiple sources.
The need to prepare for confession - to review can call to mind our sins -
The cathartic benefit that comes from speaking these sins to another - and to Christ himself -
The beauty of being able to “talk over” difficult things with someone trained and who wishes only your highest good.
The peace that comes from hearing the priest say (using the authority granted him by God Himself) I absolve you of your sins - Go in peace.
What makes a church a legitimate church? Can any group of believers declare themselves a church? Does this even matter and, if so, why?
People can declare whatever they want…That don’t make it so…
The legitimacy of the Church lies in many things - Apostolic succession is a biggie. Valid Sacraments and consistent teaching…Most of all, having the True and Living Eucharist. That is why I am Catholic…Plus the Catholic Church fits perfectly with Scripture…She is the most biblical of Churches
From a Protestant perspective, what I’ve been taught about these verses is that God has given Christians the Keys to the Kingdom and if I, as a Christian, does not forgive another person then how will I expect God to forgive my sins? I know that Catholics say the Church was built on St. Peter and I’m not here to “argue” … since you asked for non-catholics I decided to share what I’ve taught.
Does this refer to Peter only? all Christians?
Jesus gave His authority to Peter alone as is very clear from the Sacred Scriptures, and only His Catholic Church has all of these attributes: All four promises to Peter alone:
“You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church.” (Mt 16:18)
“The gates of hell will not prevail against it.”(Mt 16:18)
“I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven." ( Mt 16:19)
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” (Mt 16:19) [Later, also to the Twelve, under Peter]
“Strengthen your brethren.” (Lk 22:32)
“Feed My sheep.”(Jn 21:17).
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:22-23 NASB) What on earth does this mean? Doesn’t God alone have the power to forgive sins? Was this power given to the disciples and, if so, why? Or is that power given to all who receive the Holy Spirit?
By speaking to His Apostles alone, Christ specifically empowered them to forgive sins and this is the Sacrament of Penance (Confession or forgiveness of sins).
Does every local church have this power? What about the Calvary Chapel pastor?
How could it? How could he? Christ empowered no one except His chosen St Peter and the Twelve, followed by St Paul. His Apostles who were bishops ordained other priests and bishops.
What makes a church a legitimate church?
The fullness of Christ’s teaching is found only in His Catholic Church and nowhere else.
Wow…I’m impressed and overwhelmed. It will take some time for me to do justice to the wonderful replies you have all so graciously and speedily given me. I have much to study and consider now!
Someone asked about the Calcary Chapel pastor…that was an unusual situation because he was acting inappropriately and not in accordance with any Calvary Chapel teaching, but it brought up the question for me of limits to authority, as well as legitimate vs. illegitimate authority.
Tiber Swim Team - Class of '79
That made me smile. If anything, you understand how scary a river the Tiber is for many of us.