The Theology of the Keys
I am considering joining a Lutheran church and have read
extensivly on their theology. I find that it closely corresponds with
my own but I have a question about the above passage. The Lutherans
say that the "power of the Keys" gives the catholic (little c) church
certain rights and responcibilities (such as pronouncing that sins
have been forgivin) but I don't see it.
Although you have correctly identified that interpretation as
"Lutheran," one can be a Lutheran and reserve judgment on that
interpretation or reject it. It is not an area of essential doctrine
(such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection,
salvation by grace through faith, etc.).
The passage [Matthew 16:19] is certainly cryptic and assumes some
familiarity with first century and Old Testament religious practices
that most readers today don't have. People tend to take inegmatic
statements in scripture and build explanations around them that go
beyond the bare bones of the text. Evangelicals point to this
passage to support the idea that "church" is wherever "two or three"
are gathered in Christ's name. Mormons point to this passage to
support the idea that salvation (exaltation) is only available
through the Mormon church. Roman Catholics use this to support the
teaching that the priest "mediates" between humans and God regarding
the forgiveness of sin. Other groups use it, too.
However, I think the plain meaning of the text is more simple than
that. First, since this was written before the establishment of what
we commonly refer to as "the church" (subsequent to Peter's Pentecost
sermon in Acts 2), we can assume that the "church" Jesus referred to
was the local synagogue congregation, which usually had one or more
rabbis (teachers), a minimum of 12 Jewish adult males, and a maximum
of about 200 members. These synagogue "churches" served their local
neighborhoods (in a metropolitan setting such as Jerusalem) or local
community (in smaller towns, villages, and rural areas). They were
places of worship, teaching of the scriptures (the Old Testament at
that time), fellowship among believing members, regulation of Jewish
religious life, and as courts of arbitration in local civil disputes.
As a matter of fact, this basic structure was carried over into the
Jewish Christian congregations and Jewish/Gentile Christian
congregations in the first and second century. We still see remnants
of it in the order of service in liturgical churches such as the
Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod).
So -- the issue Jesus addresses is apparently a civil or personal
dispute between two members of the same synagogue "church." As such,
the synagogue church represented the people of God in much the same way
Israel did among nations before God. We can take this as good advice
for the Christian church as well.
Second, according to the law given by God through Moses, both criminal
and civil disputes were settled using the principle that a party can
prevail only if there are "two or three witnesses" to the offense
(Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Jesus himself commended this practice, noting
in John 5:31 that "If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not
true," not because the Son of God is a liar, but because no one should
believe someone who claims he is the Son of God merely based on his
claim, but on multiple unequivocal "witnesses" or evidences. He
continues, saying, "There is another who bears witness of Me, and I
know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true" (v. 32),
further noting that John the Baptist (v. 33), Jesus' miracles
(v. 36), the Father's voice (v. 37), and the scriptures (v. 39).
He returns to this them in John 8:14, paradoxically announcing that
"Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true" [since he has
proven by other witnesses that he is the Son of God]. Immediately
following, he refers to the rules of witnesses (8:16-18).
Later in Christianity, the apostle Paul commended the Bereans for
testing his teachings (Acts 17:11), and warned the Galatians not to
believe false witnesses, even if the witness is an angel or Paul
himself (Gal. 1:6-10).
So -- what does this have to do with Matt. 18?
In the context of correcting the sinning brother, the person sinned
against has an obligation to go to that person privately to try to
resolve it. If he unable, then he is to take "one or two more, that 'by
the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established'"
(Matt. 18:16). If the brother still refuses to repent, then it is the
obligation of the congregation (the "church") to act as Christ's
representative is holding the sinning brother accountable, and then
expelling him from the church if he remains unrepentant (vv. 17-19).
The Lutheran teaching flows from this understanding and places great
responsibility on the local congregation for ensuring that its members
are treated fairly and that unrepentant sin is inexcusable. When the
church (more than merely the "two or three" witnesses required) judges
someone guilty or restored, it is acting as Christ instructed it to act,
and as God commanded both in the Old Testament synagogue churches and
in the New Testament and historical Christians churches after Christ's
Lutherans are careful to distinguish that the "keys" -- the power to
"forgive" and "retain" sins is a derivative or reflective power of
announcing forgiveness or judgment according to God's standards.
Now, there are other aspects of the "keys of the kingdom" mentioned
here and in Is. 22:22, Matt. 16:19, and Rev. 1:18. (There is
additionally ananalogous passage about the "key of knowledge" in
The passage in Is. 22:22 makes a Messianic reference to a general
custom in Israel and surrounding nations during the first millennium
B.C. The custom was that the king, governor, prince, master, or head
of household could give someone the power to act in his place in his
absence or for certain duties. This "prime minister" or "right hand
man" was given a ceremonial robe, belt, and key to signify his
authority under the leader. When the individual with the "key" (and
other items) made a judgment over his master's property and/or
people, it communicated and represented the master's will.
The apostle John's reference to Christ with the keys in Rev. 1:18
would have been immediately understood by his first century A.D.
readers as a reference to Is. 22:22.
Likewise, when Jesus used the term in Matt. 16 and 18, his disciples
understood that they were to act in his behalf and communicate his will
through their own actions and words. In this sense, all Christians
have the responsibility to communicate God's will and God's plan of
salvation to those who don't know it. We are God's representatives,
and individual congregations are represented by their pastors.
The passage in Matt. 16 refers specifically to Peter, and by inference
to all Christians. We see from the book of Acts that Peter,
representing both Christ and the church, "used" the keys of the
kingdom in first proclaiming the gospel to the Jews (Acts 2), then
confirming that the gospel was meant also for the Samaritans (Acts
8:14-25), and finally confirming the universal nature of the gospel,
including the Gentiles (Acts 10). This is the pattern Jesus commanded
in Matt. 28:19.
Of course, any _mis_representation that churches or Christians make
are invalid since they contradict the will of the Master (Jesus
Christ). We are told to represent Jesus, but not that we can act
with authority outside his will. We are commissioned to
announce God's forgiveness and judgment, not to
determine God's forgiveness and judgment.
I hope this is helpful to you.