In the previous article I introduced the biblical principle of congregational government or “elder-led congregationalism.” In this article I want to expand on the biblical justification for the practice of the congregation deciding who is “in” and who is “out.” In other words, we will examine what the Scriptures teach concerning the congregation’s job of admitting and releasing members from the church. Jesus referred to this as “binding” and “loosing.” What did he mean, and how are we to do this?
Matthew 16:13–20 and 18:15–20 are foundational passages concerning the responsibility and the authority of the congregation. These texts reveal that church members represent Jesus’ authority in the church concerning who is and who is not a Christian. It is on this basis that the congregation, quite literally, is called upon to make a judgement concerning whether one is “in” or “out” of a church’s membership. That is a sobering thought, for it points to a serious responsibility.
In Matthew 16:13–20, Peter, enabled by God’s grace, confessed with conviction that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” By divine enablement, he recognised Jesus as God’s appointed Saviour (cf. Matthew 1:21). Peter was a Christian.
Immediately, Jesus made it clear that, from this point forward, Peter was a holder of “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” What was the purpose of the keys? To open or close; to let someone inor to shut someone out. Jesus was telling Peter that, by his confession—“Jesus is Lord”—he would both admit to and restrict admittance from the kingdom of God. He clarified that he was referencing the church: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Jesus was not installing Peter as the Pope. Rather, he was telling him that he would be the human foundation of the church—the one through whom Jesus would commence his new covenant church.
Practically, this would occur by Peter proclaiming the good news that Jesus Christ is God’s Saviour. Those who, like Peter, would “confess with [their] mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in [their] heart that God has raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9) would “be saved.” They would become Christians. The door to the kingdom would be unlocked and they would be bound to the body of Christ—the church. Those who rejected this good news would remain outside the kingdom of God. They are not Christians and hence are not members of the body of Christ. It is in this way that Peter’s “keys” either open or shut the door to membership of the church (v. 18). That is what Jesus meant by the words “bind” and “loose.”
These were well known Rabbinical terms, which meant to either forbid by an indisputable authority (“bind”) or to permit by an indisputable authority (“loose”). The reference to “earth” and “heaven” indicate that God in heaven respects the decisions we make on earth—when they align with his standard, that is, with his word. So, we can conclude that God will recognise decisions concerning church membership if we use his standard—the gospel. We see this demonstrated in Acts 2.
There, we read the account of Peter doing this in practice. He preached the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God crucified for repentant sinners, buried for repentant sinners, and risen for repentant sinners (Acts 2:14–36). Many were “cut to the heart” and Peter presented the keys: “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This “gift” was the gift of church membership. That is, by the indwelling Holy Spirit, the repentant believer would become a member of the body of Christ, otherwise known as the church (see 1 Corinthians 12:13). We then read that “those who received his word [the gospel] were baptised, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” What were they “added” to? To the kingdom of God expressed locally as the church.
But was this the unique responsibility of Peter, or of the apostles? Not according to Matthew 18:15–20.
In that text, we find similar binding and loosing language (v. 18). The context there is church discipline. Those who repent are affirmed as Christians (“you have gained your brother”), while those who do not repent are no longer affirmed as Christians (“let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”). Immediately we read, “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” (v. 18). Jesus then affirmed that he recognised such authority in the local church (vv. 19–20). In other words, the authority that seemed to be restricted to Peter (16:18–19) is here expanded to the entire local church. The church has the authority to bind or loose on earth in recognition of what has been bound and loosed in heaven.
Therefore, when someone gives a credible profession of faith, the congregation, based on God’s word, affirms that he or she is a Christian. We are simply recognising on earth what God has determined in heaven.
Jesus was not saying that what we decide on earth determines God’s judgement in heaven. Rather, he was teaching that, when we follow God’s word, what we do on earth (in the church) will reflect what God has decided in heaven. This is essential because it means that the church is not allowed to indiscriminately make judgement calls. No, as the church applies the word, it reflects God’s will.
Perhaps at this point it will wise to make clear that the church is never called upon to read someone’s heart. However, what Jesus said of false teachers applies equally to false professions of faith: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15–20). Therefore, the church is tasked with the responsibility to discern the credibility of persons professions of faith. This will include examining their understanding of the gospel and the responsibilities of the disciple of Jesus Christ. It is on this basis that the church is able, with a large degree of confidence, to use its God-given keys to either admit or deny admittance to church membership. Again, this is a most weighty responsibility of the congregation, one which its elders will seek to equip the congregation to fulfil.
In conclusion, the congregation has Christ’s authority to admit, to discipline, and to dismiss members of the church. The congregation is responsible to take seriously this responsibility. The “keys of the kingdom” have been entrusted to us. Let us use them wisely.