Temporal Christian Authority

Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” (Mt. 16.17-19 WEB)

“If your brother sins against you, go, show him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained back your brother. But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you, that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly. If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Most certainly I tell you, whatever things you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you release on earth will have been released in heaven. Again, assuredly I tell you, that if two of you will agree on earth concerning anything that they will ask, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them. (Mt. 18.15-20 WEB)

And after he said this, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” (Jn. 20. 22-23 NET)

Don’t receive an accusation against an elder, except at the word of two or three witnesses. (1Tim. 5.19 WEB)

But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1Cor. 6.8-10 ESV)

By its very nature, the terms “Protestant” and “Reformed” hold the idea of a prior adherence to something or someone. These terms indicate that now they have broken off from a group or position. The main reason why Protestants desire to connect with Western Roman Catholicism is they believe that a sort of institutional continuity is needed and taught in the text of Matthew 16. 18-19 above. They fail to properly deal with vs. 17 which, I hope to show, is crucial for understanding what Jesus is building. Western Catholicism (but not the Eastern Orthodox), maintain their belief that Christ is building His church on Peter as an authoritative institutional representative of Himself. He is given these “keys” after all and what he binds and looses, is the reflection of heaven’s reality. These verses have been repeated, along with this accompanying idea of the position of “pope” and its authority so many times that it has become fixed in peoples heart and minds as true. However, this interpretation is faulty because vs. 17 indicates that it is not the person of Peter that the church is built. Also, the vague idea of loosing and binding is more fully explicated later in Matthew’s Gospel showing that all Christians, especially those standing together in Christ, possess this authority.

What is Jesus Building?

I should state that in the past, and certainly in the future, I will self-identify both as Protestant and Reformed. This designation, however is qualified. I don’t swallow everything hook, line, and sinker. Neither will I give up reading the great expositors of scripture and thought either from the Protestants or Catholic claimants. We all have aberrant views since we are always learning and growing spiritually in Christ, or should be.

Western Catholicism maintains that in Mt. 16.18 the antecedent for “rock” (Petra) is the petros (Peter) which Jesus previously calls Simon Bar-Jonah. Petra and petros do not have the same meaning and in that case Jesus would be changing Simon’s name twice if Jesus wants to indicate He will build on the person of the formerly named Simon Bar-Jonah. All scholars agree there is a word play going on but what is it? Perhaps Simon Peter’s subsequent writing to churches will be able to shed light on this subject.

Although Peter does not use the same term petros in 1 Pet. 2.5 to the addressed in Asia Minor (perhaps lithos more accurately related the idea to these readers), the concept is the same and valid: You also, as living stones, are built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (WEB). This idea carries over from the previous verse which calls Christ “a living stone” who now builds these Christians (also as living stones) into a spiritual house (or, perhaps, dynasty). Paul also speaks of this metaphorical idea of a spiritual House: And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Eph. 2.22 NIV).

Jesus, prior to the start of His ministry at about age 30 (Lk. 3.23), was a tekton. He was called this in Mk. 6.3 and “son of a tekton” in Mt. 13.55. Though many have translated this term “carpenter,” it may also, or more preferably, be translated “stone mason.” Perhaps he was a contractor or artisan but, according to the types of buildings of 2nd Temple Israel, the typical, if not exclusive type of dwelling was stone houses. Doors and casements would be wood in these houses so there is room for Him to work with this material also. I do not know how much specialization in the build trades existed in Galilee, but, in my estimation, not much. Therefore, when Jesus spoke about “building His church,” an irony presented itself. This probable former stone mason would now be building another type of structure.

The idea in Mt. 16.18 is that Christ is building a spiritual household of living stones of which Peter (petros) is one. For sure Simon Peter is an important stone but he is not the bedrock upon which Jesus is building: built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2.20 NIV). Simon Peter is not even the cornerstone, Christ is. Sure, the disciples whom Jesus chose, to them He will reveal important authoritative truths that sets the foundation for subsequent believers. Peter, nor the rest of the Apostles are the rock (Petra) that Jesus speaks about in Mt. 16.18. The wordplay involving Petra refers back to the previous verse in Matthew (16.17) indicating why Peter was blessed: it was revealed to him (from the Father) that Jesus was the Christ. In other words it was the sovereign work of God choosing stones (now living) with which to build His house. The bedrock (Petra) is divine election of the Father upon which Jesus will now build His church that is indwelt by the Spirit. A plainly spelt out Trinitarian endeavor. What then best describes the concept of what Jesus is building, an organization or a spiritual organism?

To Whom are the Authorized Keys Given?

After this survey of what Christ is building, who are those authorized to possess the keys which Jesus gives? It is clear from the text that Jesus gives these keys to Peter. Those who teach a father (pope) of an institutional church cite the close connection with the keys and that Christ is building on Peter, the supposed, first pope. While Jesus gives the keys to Peter, it is abundantly clear that these keys are not an exclusive gift to him. This truth is seen later in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 18. 15-20) where Jesus references the two or three witnesses who gather in His name. These witnesses receive the same binding authority: Most certainly I tell you, whatever things you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you release on earth will have been released in heaven.

This Kingdom of Heaven authority is given to all Christians, those who are under the New Covenant of the Spirit. Before the Spirit was given formally at Pentecost, Jesus demonstrated to His disciples that it was He who would send the Holy Spirit by giving a foretaste when He breathed on them (Jn. 20. 22-23). This spiration was accompanied with the same authority spoken about previously in Mt.16.18 and 18.18: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.”

Ultimate temporal ecclesiastic authority resides with Christ’s disciples and not hierarchical officials of an institution. While pastors should be free from undue slanderous charges, mechanisms are in place if two or three witnesses detect serious wrong doing on their part or other Christians (1Tim. 5.19). Of course Christian church leaders shouldn’t have frivolous or imagined complaints foisted on them but only those which are serious and substantial such as the list enumerated in 1Cor. 6. 8-10.

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