Binding, Loosing, and the Human Experience

Last week I talked a lot about how we make sin-judgments. Much of that discussion focused on what people provide as theological REASONS for making sin attributions. But, in my last post I spoke about how moral dumbfounding research calls all that into question. Perhaps our moral feelings come first and are primary. Perhaps theological arguments are ad hoc and peripheral. I'd like to comment some more on this interplay of theology and emotion.

If we look at the moral development of the church in America, we see her making moral strides as she becomes more and more sensitized to the human experience. For example, as the experience of slavery began to dawn on the church (via books like Uncle Tom's Cabin) and the church's sympathies were expanded to include the plight of slaves, slavery began to be seen as a heinous crime against humanity. Thus, the sympathies of the church changed and only later did her theology of slavery change. Experience came first. The Abolitionists, prior to the Civil War, had an uphill battle, Biblically speaking. That is, although slave-holding Christians might not have gone so far to say that slave-holding was a "moral ideal," it was definitely not incompatible with being a Christian. And a strict reading of the Bible supported that conclusion. Today we feel differently. And that is the point. We FEEL differently. And because we feel differently, we read the Bible differently.

A similar thing happened with the Jews. Prior to WW II, the Christian church was notoriously anti-Semitic. And this anti-Semitism was justified by Biblical texts (recall the call of the Jews at the trial of Jesus in the gospel of John who welcomed the blood of Jesus on both themselves and their children). Thus it seemed perfectly legitimate, Biblically speaking, for Jews to be marginalized and persecuted by Christians. That is until Auschwitz. Auschwitz (to select just one example, and it's the photo you see) educated the church about the human experience. Only this time it wasn't the slave, but the Jew. And, after the church's sympathies were again expanded, she could not claim that is was possible to be both holy and anti-Semeitic. The smoke of Auschwitz changed how we read the Bible.

We have also seen a similar development regarding the experience of women. Women could not vote in America until 1920. They were considered too immature, unintelligent, and unreliable. But again, as our experiences changed in the country, as we began to learn that women are as intelligent as men and are in many ways more reliable and competent than men, how we read Biblical passages regarding women began to change as well.

In each of these cases, we see the following movement:

1. The Church's heart is exposed to the pain of the human condition.
2. The Church's sympathies expand, she "feels" the pain of the Other and realizes her current reading of Scripture is "unjust."
3. The Church begins to rethink her prior theological commitments in light of human experience (e.g., the Jew in Auschwitz, the woman with no vote, the slave being whipped) and wrestles to find NEW THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES TO ALLOW FOR A MORAL READING OF SCRIPTURE.

My point is that, in each time and place, the goal of the church is to achieve a moral reading of Scripture. We should not simply READ scripture. We must, rather, aim for a CERTAIN KIND OF READING, a MORAL reading in light of the human experience of suffering and pain.

And I believe Jesus justifies this attempt. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives the Keys of the Kingdom to the church, to humanity, to "bind and loose." That is, the church must discern, in unique times and places, what is moral and what is not. In light of human experience, the church must "bind" currently permitted behavior that is now experienced as "unjust." Further, she must "loosen" old restrictions deemed to be unjust. We have seen this "binding and loosing" already. The church now "binds" slavery and has begun to "loose" women. And what is critical is that these bindings and loosings on Earth are bound and loosed "in Heaven."

In short, the traffic of "divine commands" is not a One-Way street: From Heaven to Earth. Jesus clearly states that the traffic is Two-Way. That commands on Earth will be obeyed in Heaven as well.

To conclude, Heaven and Earth are in a most profound conversation about what is just and good.

And sometimes it is Heaven that changes.

Matthew 16:19
"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."

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8 thoughts on “Binding, Loosing, and the Human Experience”

  1. Richard,
    I am finding your blog both helpful and fascinating.

    The SoulForce visit to ACU has caused me to do a lot of thinking about this issue of homosexuality, and I also had some good conversations on this topic last month while visiting with a mutual friend of ours in Montevideo. I may be stating the obvious here, but I think that part of the church's problem in responding to homosexuality is the fact that we confuse ourselves by using the single word "homosexual" to refer to several distinct categories.

    Case 1: Person with same-sex orientation committed to living a celibate life. The Bible says nothing about this situation. The church ought to honor and support these brothers and sisters, but instead we often treat them as "sick and sinful."

    Case 2 (Perhaps a sub-category of Cases 1): Person with same-sex orientation who wants to live as a celibate but yields to temptation. Many churches have welcomed people struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, but a person with this particular struggle is still treated as a leper.

    Case 3: Person who engages in promiscuous homosexual activity. We rightfully point out that this behavior is condemned in scripture. But why do we stigmatize these persons more than promiscuous heterosexuals, even though it could be argued that the two sins are on a similar level?

    Case 4: Same-sex couples in committed, faithful relationships. My gut reaction to your "putting it all together" post was that you were urging us to be "soft" on homosexuality. If fact, your more accepting stance was directed primarily at this situation. And I would agree with you that it is categorically different than the preceding case--even though we call both cases "homosexuality."

    Over the past week I have been trying to clarify my thinking on this last case, and I have found two "lenses" from my experience that give me a framework for understanding.

    1. I have a friend whose father had affairs that led to the breakups of his first two marriages, so that he is now on his third wife. The father is highly intelligent, knows scripture well and has been involved in church all his life, even being a preacher for a while. My friend feels torn between the biblical principles: "Honor your father" and "with such a one do not even eat." I believe that this man has a sincere desire to love and serve God, even though he has failed to live up to God's standards in some major ways.

    2. For 15 years I lived and worked in rural Africa, and I have several Christian brothers with more than one wife.

    Both the polygamists and the divorced man are living in situations that are less than God's ideal. In both cases, the behaviors cause discomfort or awkwardness for me as I try to have relationship with them. But in both cases I have decided to accept them where they are and believe that God can work with them.

    Can I apply this same principle to the faithful same-sex couple? The analogy is somewhat problematic, due to the fact that scripture acknowledges the possibility of divorce (albeit grudgingly) and holds some polygamists up as models of faith--while never giving approval to homosexual practices. But whatever reservations we may have about accepting same-sex couples, it is long since time to quit putting them in the same box (and tarring them with the same brush) as promiscuous homosexuals.

  2. Wimon,
    I'm glad you've found some of this interesting. It has helped me work out my own thinking and feelings.

    A couple of things.

    Why do we treat homosexual sinners different from other sorts of sinners? I actually think I have an answer to that. This spring a paper of mine called "Spiritual Pollution: The dilemma of sociomoral disgust and ethic of love" is coming out in the Journal of Psychology and Theology. We did a forum on the paper during Lectureship. Later this week Greg Kendall-Ball has asked if we exchange blog posts discussing the paper. But if you'd like to read the actual paper I'd be happy to e-mail you a copy. I'd like to get you cross-cultural perspective on it.

    Reflecting on the rest of your post, I found all your cases very helpful. I think all Christians agree the promiscuity is sinful. Here the Bible and Theology line up very strongly: The Bible condemns it, it causes harm, it's hedonistic, and it's very selfish. Thus, it would be very hard for someone to ever argue for a Christian version of "free love."

    So in the end, what I think is critical and absolutely central to sexuality is having it bound to a covenant relationship. That seems critical, both Biblically and theologically. So what about homosexual covenants? That is the big question.

    My feeling is that we need a period of discernment. To allow for this, I'm willing to let gay-Christian covenant relationships exist in some Christian communities for the larger church to witness the fruits of those relationships and the churches that support them. Are those relationships stable over time? Do they bear fruits of the Spirit? Are they more immune to divorce or infidelity? How do they affect children? Are those churches missional and engaging in spiritual formation across the spectrum of life?

    I don't know the answers to those questions. But I'm willing to love those people as the theological experiment goes on. Thus my appeal to Gamaliel.

    The other thing I think about is Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds. When asked if they should pull up the weeds, the farmer told his workers, "No, because you'll pull up the wheat as well. Let them grow together. It'll get sorted out at harvest time."

    That's kind of how I feel about all this. I'm not going to go weed-pulling. It'll poison me and my church, even if I'm correct! Churches need to hear that message: Even if if you are "correct," weed-pulling will poison your life.

    I'm willing to let wheat and weeds grow together and let God sort it out.

  3. [Not responding to the issue of homosexuality, but to the original post.]

    This is again a really interesting post, I am not convinced though that you can make the passage from Matthew bear the weight that you do... It can be dangerous to base too much on one (somewhat mysterious) passage. But, Scripture does talk a lot about God educating us...

    So, rather than us teaching "heaven" a thing or two about the morality of slavery I'd suggest that the weight of the "direction" of the Bible was discovered to be against slavery, as we discovered what had been in God's mind all along. (Slavery like divorce is tollerated rather than welcomed in the Bible!)

  4. Tim,
    I agree I'm overstating the binding and loosing passage. But some theologians make this move. And I also think many theologians recognize how the force of human experience radically reconfigures how we read scripture and, thus, the moral consciousness we will be “bound to” in “Heaven.” I also think that the “obviousness” of Scripture, its "weight" and "direction," is often only clear to us in retrospect. That is, I have only a dim sense of how scripture will be read 1,000 years from now. What will be “obvious” to those people that I cannot see? Or, will there be marginal development on this front? Those are questions I ponder.

  5. Maybe I miss read you, I assumed that "heaven" was (as in Matthew) a euphemism for God. Certainly I totally agree that our interpretations of Scripture change, that's a bit what I meant by "discovered" (which implies that it was NOT obvious before).

    Maybe as a teacher in Theology rather than Psychology I was too aware of theologies that understand God as changing, and took this as risking being an extreme example!

  6. Tim,
    I was unclear in my use of "Heaven."

    And I really appreciate you pushing on this stuff. I've learned tons from my theology friends at ACU and from Chris at Pepperdine. I don’t think I'm theologically illiterate, but I'm very prone to rookie mistakes, mostly in the form of overstatements and overgeneralizations. So I appreciate your comments. I really do.

  7. It blows my mind that even if Jesus was here about 3000 years ago, we don't allow for anything written in code OR the facts that suggest that ORGANIZED religion has been the cause of MORE DEATHS than any other entity known to man..via WAR, conversion, ad infinitum. I lays feel sad for those who embrace ONE thing and blow verthing else way, when the writings in the Torah, Koran, inter alia are SO SIMILAR in the talk of common decent human behaviour, bu I WILL NEER subscrie to the ntoion that w'll end p in some kind o f netherworld hellis, et. for not doing certain things WHICH IS ONY IN ONE BOOK, etc. the KJ BIBLE, etc. OLD TESTAMENT. I wold think anone ith a brain would wish for life changing spirtual endeavours, NOT some abstract sentance being argued about in an ancient ext that to this day scaril idctates the way cerin assclowns behave. GET A CLUE. We've beeen visited by ancient aliens, what do yo think that ARK was..a macine that provided a speaial gogagogaa

  8. Rather interesting blog. I think you do have a point that the more church understands human experience the more it's understanding of scripture evolves. However I think these are murky waters and we should be careful where we step.
    While I don't think it was your intention I would say that your post seems a bit borderline relativistic. It almost
    seems to be saying that morality changes depending on our knowledge of human experience. Which would bring
    us to the problem of (for example) slavery being good or bad depending on how we feel. If we empathize with
    slaves then it is bad. The problem with this is it drives the question: If we DON'T empathize with slaves
    then isn't slavery good? Or at the very least "not bad". I don't think we'll get anywhere if we look at morality in such a way.

    Maybe I'm just "old school" but I don't think stuff like the holocaust was evil because it makes us feel bad.
    Rather we feel bad because we know deep down it is evil. We know it's not right to do that to another person
    nor is it right to let another person do that to another person.You don't have to be Christian to know that.

    The Holocaust was wrong before it even begun.

    Slavery is a bit more complicated. Why? Because as strange at this may sound, slavery as seen in North America was notoriously bad. You can argue that at the very least the bible permits slavery. But I think it unwise to assume that
    Biblical permitted slavery was the same as North America slavery. There is a cruelty found in North America slavery
    that is quite anti-christian and anti-biblical. You don't need to be a genius to see that beating someone into submission
    is anything but "loving your neighbor". Of course the question is "who is my neighbor?" Did we not know? Or did
    we just not want to admit we knew? Did we REALLY have slavery "because the Bible told me so" or was it economical
    and we looked for justification in the Bible? Now I said it is arguable that the Bible permits slavery but from what
    I have gathered...there is a world of difference with Biblical slavery and that of the North America brand.
    I highly recommend reading the Christian Think Tank's take on the topic. It is very informative.

    However just because something is permitted we should not be so eager to assume it is preferred.
    Now this may be being really straightforward and simple but if you cannot have two masters and
    our master is supposed to be is slavery even possible without rejecting Jesus?

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