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Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Rob Bell on Binding and Loosing

Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis: A stopover along my journey of faith
Bell's take on binding and loosing
What Bell gets right
Where Bell's model falls short
The Jerusalem council as a case study in binding and loosing

Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis: A stopover along my journey of faith

A decade ago, I thought of myself as a free-thinking, theologically progressive Christian. I was a Christadelphian but, like many of the Christadelphians I was now interacting with, I saw myself as a Christian who happened to be a Christadelphian. Being Christadelphian was no longer central to my Christian identity. I was not committed to the Christadelphian belief system as dogma, and harboured serious doubts about aspects of it. A Christadelphian friend in Durban, South Africa, where I was visiting from Canada, loaned me a book by Rob Bell entitled Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005). I hadn't heard of Bell before encountering this book, but he was already known in progressive Evangelical circles as a wildly popular American megachurch pastor. In the years to follow he would achieve celebrity status, with multiple bestselling books, Oprah appearances, a place among Time Magazine's 100 most influential people, etc. He would also raise the ire of conservative Evangelicals by challenging traditional Christian teaching on hell and expressing his support for same-sex marriage. It was his bestselling books, beginning with Velvet Elvis and followed by Love Wins, that would make Bell famous.

Velvet Elvis created something of a sensation among the progressive Christadelphians who had welcomed me as a volunteer in their outreach efforts in South Africa. The book came with strong recommendations, as a life-changing "must read." It did not disappoint. While I was not quite as enthused about the book as some of my Christadelphian friends, it was engaging, thought-provoking, edgy and creative. Bell seemed to have captured the progressive, outside-the-box approach to Christianity that I was also seeking.

I don't know whether Velvet Elvis had a significant impact on my thinking, but a decade later, two major ideas from the book still stick with me. One was the notion that "All truth is God's truth," and therefore, "Jesus takes us into the truth and not away from it. He frees us to embrace whatever is true and good and beautiful wherever we find it" (p. 82). This concept lends itself to a more appreciative, less adversarial approach to other world religions (albeit without abandoning the uniqueness of the truth revealed in Jesus or forgetting that other world religions might contain profound untruths). One can celebrate this idea.

The other idea from Velvet Elvis that made a lasting impression on me came out of Bell's extended discussion on "binding and loosing," a biblical concept that I discussed in my previous article on Matthew 16:17-19. In this article I would like to take a second look at Bell's teaching on binding and loosing, which I view very differently as a Catholic in 2017 than I did as a Christadelphian in 2007. Perhaps I am late to the party in reviewing material from a twelve-year-old book, but Bell's subsequent celebrity shows that his vision for "repainting the Christian faith" has resonated with many.

Bell's take on binding and loosing

Bell begins his discussion of "binding and loosing" with a question about the Bible: "With God being so massive and awe-inspiring and full of truth, why is his book capable of so much confusion?" (p. 45). As a case in point, he considers the commandment to "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Mark 12:31; Lev. 19:18). This, he says, raises questions about what is and isn't love, and when people disagree about what is and isn't love, who decides who is right and who is wrong? He uses this illustration to show that the Bible requires interpretation before it can be put into action: "It is not possible to simply do what the Bible says. We must first make decisions about what it means at this time, in this place, for these people" (p. 46).

Bell defines "binding and loosing" (following the rabbinic use of these terms) as "forbidding and permitting and making interpretations" (p. 49). Turning to Jesus's sayings about binding and loosing (Matt. 16:19; 18:18) with this definition in hand, he explains:
What he is doing here is significant. He is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible. He is giving them permission to say, ‘Hey, we think we missed it before on that verse, and we’ve recently come to the conclusion that this is what it actually means.’ And not only is he giving them authority, but he is saying that when they do debate and discuss and pray and wrestle and then make decisions about the Bible, somehow God in heaven will be involved. (p. 50)
Bell adds examples of "binding and loosing" decisions from church history, ancient and modern, that move beyond straightforward inferences from the text of Scripture. These include the decision about circumcision in Acts 15, the shift of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, abandonment of the requirement of head coverings for women, and setting the very boundaries of the biblical canon.

Bell proposes that we today take up the task of binding and loosing anew: "Now let's move things into our world. If we take Jesus seriously and actually see it as our responsibility to bind and loose, the implications are endless, serious, and exhilarating" (p. 51).

However, Bell emphasizes that binding and loosing is not an individual activity to be undertaken through private, personal Bible study:
The Bible is a communal book... For most of church history, people heard the Bible read aloud in a room full of people. You heard it, discussed it, studied it, argued about it, and made decisions about it as a group... You saw yourself and those around you as taking part in a huge discussion that has gone on for thousands of years. (pp. 51-52)
Thus he insists that binding and loosing "must be done in community" (p. 52). It is a messy process involving "wrestling and searching and engaging the Bible as a group of people hungry to know God in order to follow God" (p. 53). Binding and loosing makes us participants in the story told by the Bible, a story that is still being told since God is still at work (p. 66). What "we" should be doing with the Bible is "binding and loosing and wrestling and limping. Because God has spoken." (p. 69).
Bell offers some important insights in this chapter. First, he acknowledges that before the Bible can be put into action, it requires interpretation, which is far more complex than "what the Bible says about x." This is partly, as Bell points out, because there are direct statements like "Do x" and "Don't do y" in the Bible, including the New Testament, that most Christians today feel free to ignore.

It is also because there are many ideas and ethical issues that arose only after the Bible was written and/or that the Bible therefore does not directly address. To list but a few: the possibility of a Christian temporal government, just war theory, freedom of speech, democracy, separation of church and state, labour unions, contraception, masturbation, transgenderism, the relationship between natural science and religion, human-induced climate change, plagiarism, computer hacking, playing the lottery, becoming a Freemason, capital punishment, medical use of marijuana, physician-assisted suicide, treatment of patients in a persistent vegetative state, and cremation. To describe or prescribe God's will on any one of these topics clearly involves more than a "Thus says the Lord."

In light of these realities, Bell is correct that the task of "binding and loosing," a mandate given by Jesus to the church, continues today; otherwise the church is impotent to respond to new issues and challenges. The "binding and loosing" authorizations in Matt. 16:19 and 18:18 cannot be confined to the apostolic period; they are as enduring as the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). Bell's interpretation of what binding and loosing is ("forbidding and permitting and making interpretations," p. 49) roughly coincides with the view of contemporary biblical scholarship, with certain caveats to be discussed below.

Bell is also correct that "binding and loosing" is not an individualistic exercise. It cannot be that I decide "my truth" and you decide "your truth" through personal, private Bible study. There is one truth that must be debated and wrestled with communally.

So Bell gets important three points right in his discussion of binding and loosing. (1) Working out God's will for us today from ancient revelations requires a difficult, complicated interpretative work; it is not reducible to a facile "what the Bible says." (2) Jesus gave the church a mandate to engage in this interpretative work and promised to support it, and this mandate and support remain in place. (3) the mandate to interpret ("bind and loose") is not given to the private individual but to the church, the community.

Where Bell's model falls short

Despite the three positives listed above, there are three major shortcomings with Bell's vision for "binding and loosing" today. One concerns what binding and loosing actually is, a second concerns who is authorized to bind and loose, and a third concerns whether the church's binding and loosing decisions are provisional and possibly misguided or definitive and necessarily correct.

Bell believes that the "binding and loosing" authorizations gave Jesus's followers "the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible," particularly to decide on the dos and do nots of Christian living. He sees this as a communal process involving much conversation, argument, engagement and group decision-making. However, he seems to miss that "binding and loosing" refers to halakhic rulings (rulings about religious and moral conduct) that are legally, well, binding.1 It would be better to say that the binding and loosing authorizations gave Jesus's followers the authority to legislate religious and moral conduct based on their interpretations of the Bible, and to enforce these rulings judicially by means of ecclesiastical discipline, which is clearly the context of the authorization in Matt. 18:18. There is a formal, legal connotation to "binding and loosing" that makes it very different from interpretative opinions expressed in a Bible study group or a sermon, which is the image Bell's language conjures up.

This leads directly to the "who" question. Legislative and judicial decisions are made by formally constituted assemblies, authorities, tribunals, etc. The "binding and loosing" authorization in Matt. 16:19 is bestowed on an individual, Simon Peter, who was installed in an office akin to chief steward of the kingdom of heaven, as I discussed in great detail in my previous article. The decision to excommunicate an unrepentant sinner is said in Matt. 18:17 is taken by "the church," and while the procedure is not spelled out it is obviously formal. Perhaps the case is brought to an ecclesiastical court modeled after the Jewish Sanhedrin.2 Thus the passages where the "binding and loosing" authorizations are found imply that this prerogative of the church is specially vested in an official with unique authority, and also that "binding and loosing" decisions are undertaken in a formal, ecclesiastical setting. Binding and loosing is not simply "our responsibility" as Christians, to be undertaken in whatever setting by whatever group, without distinctions as to roles and structures, as Bell appears to assume.

Finally, Bell thinks that binding and loosing decisions are always provisional and might be wrong. They are part of an unending Christian "discussion" that never reaches unimpeachable verdicts. However, Bell misses the significance of the promise, "whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). Bell takes this to mean that when Christians "debate and discuss and pray and wrestle and then make decisions about the Bible, somehow God in heaven will be involved" (p. 50). However, the promise is far stronger than "somehow God in heaven will be involved." The promise asserts that the binding and loosing decisions taken by the church will be those taken by God in heaven—in other words, the church's decisions correspond to God's will! It may be instructive here to reflect on the church's decision on which books to include in the biblical canon. Bell rightly gives this decision as an example of binding and loosing. However, if we merely think that "somehow God in heaven was involved" in the church's reflections on the biblical canon, and that the church might nevertheless have gotten it wrong, then the biblical canon itself—never mind interpretations of the Bible—can never be more than a provisional, fluid notion that remains perpetually under discussion.

Thus, in several important respects, Bell's binding and loosing model falls short. (1) He sees binding and loosing as referring to relatively informal, provisional interpretative decisions, whereas it properly refers to formal legislative and judicial rulings. (2) He sees binding and loosing as the prerogative of "us"—apparently everyone equally in every group of Christians (however the group is defined), whereas binding and loosing rulings were delegated by Jesus to a particular office in the church (that held by Simon Peter) and to the church as formally assembled for legislative or judicial purposes. (3) Bell thinks God is "somehow involved" with binding and loosing but that the decisions might nonetheless get it wrong, whereas Jesus promises that binding and loosing decisions will have the backing of heaven and are therefore definitive.

The Jerusalem council as a case study in binding and loosing

Bell looks to the Jerusalem council, as recorded in Acts 15, as a case study in binding and loosing. Here, "these first Christians find themselves having to make a huge decision about what it means to be a Christian," and "After hearing all sides of the issue, they decide to forbid (or shall we say bind?) several things" (pp. 50-51). We might add that they also "loosed" something by not requiring circumcision of male converts. Bell goes on to comment on the phrase "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" in Acts 15:28:
They are making a monumental decision in the history of Christianity, and the best they can say is that it seems like it is the best decision? It seems good to them and the Holy Spirit? They don’t claim to have an absolute word from God on the matter; they at best claim guidance from the Spirit of God, but they even hold that loosely... With their ‘seems’, they leave room to admit they may not have nailed it perfectly the first time. (pp. 57-58)
He proposes this tentative approach, which holds in tension our action and God's action, as a template for us today: "What if we were to say about what we do, ‘It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us’?" (Bell 57-58)

Bell's commentary here exemplifies the shortcomings in his understanding of binding and loosing. First, the Jerusalem council was not just some "we" saying "about what 'we' do." It was not merely a conversation open to any Christian who had an opinion. It was a formal assembly of the church's leadership: "The apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter" (Acts 15:6). Second, Bell misinterprets the phrase, "It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us" in Acts 15:28. This is obvious even from a superficial reading: they are asserting that their decision has the backing of the Holy Spirit. Do decisions merely "seem good" to the Holy Spirit that might actually be bad?

The correct meaning of the phrase is explained by Ferguson, who analyzed dokeō ("seems") formulas in 32 ancient Greek inscriptions:
It is used with the technical meaning in referring to official acts… intended to denote an act of authority which for governmental purposes has the force of law. It expresses an opinion which is public and official and not private or personal. Such authoritative declarations are made by some body, or individual, having the right, by virtue of his office, to issue such decrees.3
With respect to the use of this formula for the church's decision in Acts 15, Ferguson adds:
That an expression of so technical and legal a character should be used in the Acts passage is of interest in indicating the attitude of authority which the leaders of the church at Jerusalem assumed, or which the author of the Acts supposed them to take.4
Ferguson's scholarship is over a century old, but is backed up by recent commentators on Acts.5 An idiomatic translation of the dokeō formula in Acts 15:28 might be, "It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us" (NABRE).

So, far from watering down the authority and finality of their decision, the words in Acts 15:28 express it as a formal, legally binding decree that is being issued not only by "us" (the apostles and elders) but also by the Holy Spirit. The decision they have reached is God's decision—the idea is the same as Jesus's promise about binding and loosing being backed by heaven. The apostles and elders could hardly have conveyed the authority behind their ruling more definitively. And, historically speaking, the ruling settled the matter for once and for all, with massive implications for the growth and demographics of the church. If any group had refused to accept the council's ruling and had instead continue to require Gentile converts to be circumcised, they would not merely have been having their say in the binding and loosing "conversation"; they would have been defying God.

Working from this precedent in Acts, the church has held numerous other councils down through history, most importantly the ecumenical councils. At these councils, the church's elders, the successors of the apostles, have continued to exercise the "binding and loosing" authority that Jesus bestowed on the church, and so have continued to make decrees that are binding on the Christian faithful and in which the Christian faithful can have confidence.

Rob Bell is absolutely correct that Jesus's "binding and loosing" authorizations remain in force for the church today. Unfortunately, despite his concern to avoid individualism he has left far behind the church's historic model for binding and loosing and invented his own model—a model incapable of delivering clear, unambiguous teaching to the Christian faithful about what the Bible forbids, permits and requires them to do.


  • 1 See the discussion of scholarly interpretations of "binding and loosing" in the previous article.
  • 2 Note Paul's instructions in 1 Cor. 5:4, where he directs the Corinthian church to formally expel a certain member from the community "When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus". In 1 Cor. 6:1-8, Paul implicitly argues in favour of having ecclesiastical tribunals to settle disputes between Christians: "does he dare to go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? ... if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? ... So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? ... Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers...?" Concerning the context of Matthew 18, Donald A. Hagner suggests that the promise in v. 19 ("Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven") pertains to the deliberations of an ecclesiastical court: "That Jesus continues to address this issue [church discipline] is indicated both by the initial πάλιν, ‘again,’ as well as by the use of παντὸς πράγματος, ‘every matter’ (the only occurrence of this word in Matthew; see 1 Cor 6:1; cf. πᾶν ῥῆμα, ‘every matter’ [v 16]). In instances of discipline, the community leaders will ‘ask’ (αἰτήσωνται) for guidance; where two (δύο; cf. v 16) are agreed (συμφωνήσωσιν; the verb occurs again in Matthew only in 20:2, 13), they can be assured of God’s guidance in their decisions. Quite possibly in view is the agreement of two members of a three-member court representing the community (cf. m. Sanh. 1:1; cf. too b. Sanh. 7a; b. Ber. 6a, where the Shekinah abides with the court that judges justly)" (Matthew, 2 vols. [Dallas: Word Books, 1995], 2:533).
  • 3 William Duncan Ferguson, The Legal Terms Common to the Macedonian Inscriptions and the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1913), 52-53.
  • 4 Ferguson, op. cit., 53.
  • 5 "V. 28 indicates that the decree ultimately comes from God (here the Holy Spirit) as well as the Jerusalem authorities. The language here is that of a formal decree—‘it seemed good to us…’—and should not be taken as the expression of a mere opinion. Indeed, the invoking of the Holy Spirit means that the words have divine sanction and so should be readily obeyed." (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 469); "Lit., ‘For it seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us’… or ‘for it was decided by the Holy Spirit and us.’ Boring, Berger, and Colpe (323-24) adduce an inscription (IG 12.3, 178) from Astypalaia (end of third-second c. BCE) in which a decision by a council is described as being agreed upon by both humans and deities: ‘The following [decision] appears right to the priest Ophelion from Enation and the [local] president Syros from Viettos, along with the goddess Atargatis and the Council of the Association of the Ancestral Gods’" (Carl R. Holladay, Acts: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016], 305).

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