Jesus told his disciples that he would build his church, and it would prevail against the very gates of Hades itself, yet today we have reason to wonder how exactly Christ planned for his church to stand against this onslaught. Did he ordain some external ministry of discernment which would tell the church when it was in danger of losing its way? Or did he establish some outside authority structure which would guide the church and provide a standard of true doctrine and practice? Or is it possible that the church has become so corrupted that it can no longer be expected to prevail, and faithful believers must leave behind the organized church and pursue their own orthodoxy?
Consider the same passage in which Jesus promised to build his church, Matthew 16:13-20. After Peter’s confession and Jesus’ promise we read, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.” These words are most certainly spoken to Peter. Jesus had already been addressing him as the spokesman for the apostles as a whole and the one who had made the good confession that Jesus was the Christ the Son of God. But what does Jesus mean by “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” and what is this binding and loosing power that he apparently grants to Peter?
Of course, interpretations of this passage vary. Roman Catholics point to this verse as proof of Peter’s exalted position among the apostles and as the leader of the church, an authority that would be passed down through the succession of popes. Among Protestants, the most common interpretation – at least that I’ve come across – is that the keys have to do with the power to grant access to the kingdom, as one study Bible explains:
This metaphor specifies how the apostles are foundational to the church; they have been given binding and loosing powers, or “keys,” which lock and unlock doors. The apostles open the kingdom to those who share Peter’s confession and exclude those who will not receive their testimony to Christ (10:14,15).1
In this view, Peter exercised the power of the keys when he preached the gospel to the Jews in Acts 2, laid hands on the Samaritans in Acts 8, and preached to the Gentiles in Acts 10 in the home of Cornelius. The church continues the exercise of the keys by applying their binding and loosing power in the practice of church discipline as outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18.
But is this really what Jesus is saying in Matthew 16:19? It is certainly clear that he is speaking to his disciples about the church in v.18, its founding and perseverance, but are the keys of the kingdom of heaven keys to the door of the church? To say that they are is to go beyond the clear meaning of Jesus’ words in this passage. This verse does not say that the church will exercise the power of the keys in this age to bind and loose men on the basis of their reception of Jesus as the Christ. What Jesus promises here is that his disciples, represented by Peter, will exercise judicial authority in his future messianic kingdom. So this verse is not really helpful in answering our question about how Jesus expects his church to endure, although it reinforces his promise that it will endure, not only to withstand the powers of hell but to one day exercise authority in the kingdom.
One passage that is helpful in this regard is one we have already mentioned, Matthew 18:15-20. Here Jesus returned to the subject of the church with his disciples when he explained how to deal with sin between Christian brothers. First of all, he said, confrontation should be personal and direct. The one who was sinned against is to go to the sinning brother and tell him his fault in the hope that he will hear him, confess his sin and be reconciled. If that does not work, he is to take one or two more and confront him again with the same goal in mind. Note that this does not necessarily involve any of the church’s appointed officers or leaders. It is only when these steps have failed that the church itself is involved in the process of confrontation, and if the sinning brother refuses to hear the collective voice of the church, then he is to be put out of the body and treated as though he were an unbeliever. Here in v.18 and following we find language that is similar to that of Matt. 16:19 with the important difference being that the verbs “bind” and “loose” are plural in chapter 18 rather than singular as in chapter 16.
So here in Matthew 18, in a context that is completely different from chapter 16, we find Jesus offering the first clue as to how the church will be protected throughout this age. The power of judgment is given to the church itself, to the local congregation, to confront sinners in its midst with the hope of turning them back to obedience and fellowship with the whole. When those efforts fail, the church has the power under the headship of Christ himself and with the promise of his presence among them to treat unrepentant sinners like unrepentant sinners and remove them from fellowship. In other words, the local congregation of professing believers has the power to protect itself from those who would practice sin without repentance by the use of church discipline.
This is not the only mechanism that Christ has established to protect his church. We will consider what else the NT has to say on this subject in the next installment.
1The Reformation Study Bible. R. C. Sproul et al, eds. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995.