LAWS AND LIBERTY

Three times in Scripture God warned us not to add to or take from his word.  Twice during Jesus earthly ministry he mentioned things that were bound on earth being bound in heaven and things loosed on earth being loosed in heaven.  The first time he was with the twelve apostles in Caesaria Philippi when he asked them who others thought he was and followed with the question who they thought he was.  Peter answered for the twelve by saying, “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.”  Jesus blessed him for that confession and declared he recieved it from God not from some man.  He made the promise, “Upon this rock I will build my church 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 be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19).  The other time Jesus used the phrase was in Matthew 18:15-20 when discussing the subject of going to a brother who is guilty of sin to try to bring them back.  He told them to go first alone, then take one or two with them and ultimately take it to the church if none of the other worked.  “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

In the first instance Jesus gave to Peter and the other apostles the right to open the doors to the kingdom of God for all people.  They were to preach the message of Jesus and tell people how to be saved and live for Christ.  In so teaching they opened the way for people to come into his kingdom.  They would bind things on earth by delivering the message of the Lord on what we should believe and practice as his people.  This was done in sermons that were preached and recored in the book of Acts and by letters written by different apostles and inspired men to correct mistakes and teach us his will.  They bound the means of entering the kingdom through an obedient faith in Christ.  They bound the character one should have in following Christ.  They gave us the heart we must have to please him and the means by which we should worship and serve him on earth.  They gave his mission for those who become true disciples that they would go out and make more disciples of his.  In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus gave the great commission for his followers.  “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples among all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you and I will be with you always even to the end of the age.”

Notice that in making disciples they not only were to bring them into the kingdom, but teach them to observe all that he had commanded.  The apostles would go out with a message declaring what was bound on one who followed Christ and what was not.  If they bound a thing on earth it is bound in heaven.  If it was left loose on earth it will be left loose in heaven.  From the beginning of the church there have been efforts made to make laws on the people of God that God didn’t make.  It started with force when the first gentiles were converted to Christ.  There were Jewish Christians who believed that Christianity was just an extention of Judaism and that if one was going to be right with God they not only had to become a Christian but a Jew as well.  They demanded that gentile converts be circumcised and observe the sabbath day along with other customs of the law.  It was a constant battle for Paul and Barnabas and those who worked with them to fight off the efforts of these teachers.  In a meeting between Paul and Barnabas and the elders in Jerusalem and the apostles it was determined that God’s will was that they shouldn’t bind such things on the gentiles who came to Christ.  In Galatians two Paul tells of going to Jerusalem along with Titus a gentile convert and pressure being put on him to circumcise Titus.  He said, “I gave in to them, no not for an hour.”

But it wasn’t just over circumcision and the law that efforts were made to make laws for God and bind them on the people.  It’s obvious from Romans 14 that many were trying to bind the things that bothered their conscience on the whole church.  Things like eating meat and observing special days were regarded as important matters others should agree with them about.  He said that in such areas there should be liberty and we shouldn’t judge each other but abide by our own conscience.

In I Timothy 4:1-4 Paul  said, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.  Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.  They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.  For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”  Think of how strong the language is that Paul uses to describe those pushing their own ideas on others.  He calls it abandoning the faith, following deceiving spirits and teachings of demons.  With such powerful words you expect the teaching to be something really bad.  What they were teaching was that it was wrong for one to eat particular foods and forbiding some to marry.

Is there anything wrong with someone not eating particular foods, such as meats?  No, it is perfectly right for one to refuse to eat any particular foods they choose.  Is there anything wrong with one not getting married?  No, the apostle Paul wasn’t married and even encouraged those who could live single to do so in I Corinthians 7.  But it is a whole different matter for one to make a law where God hadn’t made one.  If a thing was left loose or matter of choice or conscience by the inspired teachers then no one on earth has a right to make it into a matter of law.

What about elders in the local church? Do they not have a right to make laws or regulations for the congregation they oversee?  Elders have the right to make decisions in matters of judgment or areas that have general authority from God.  for example, the church is commanded to assemble together in Hebrews 10:25 but it doesn’t specify a time or place to meet.  Elders can decide when the congregation will meet and where it will meet.  We are commanded to go into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature.  An eldership can decide where we will go in our work or support but they have no right to decide not to go or what to preach when they get there.  When Peter wrote fellow elders in I Peter 5:1-5 he told them to lead but not to become lords over God’s heritage.  When we turn the eldership into a legislative body we go far beyond what God has authorized.  Things not bound by God’s word must forevermore remain unbound upon his people.

What about the things that are bound by the apostles and inspired writers?  What they bound on earth is bound in heaven.  The challenge we face two thousand years down the line from when the New Testament was penned is to determine what things were intended to be local and temporary and what things were intended to be universal and for all time.  It’s obvious that somethings that were taught and practiced by the early church weren’t intended to become part of the permanent make up of the church.  Tongue speaking was a definite part of the beginning of the church so that each person there was able to hear them speak in their own home language.  But it wasn’t intended for such an ability to become part of the life blood of the church for all time ( I Corinthians 13:8-13).  The first church in Jerusalem met daily from house to house, but that wasn’t a permanent practice. In Acts 20:7 Paul came to Troas on Monday in a hurry to get to Jerusalem but had to wait until the following Sunday evening to meet with the church there.  The first church shared all their goods in common and those who had houses and land sold them to help take care of the needy ones among them.  But there is no evidence that this same thing was practiced anywhere else at any time.  The church in Jerusalem in Acts 6 had such a huge benevolent program that they were feeding the widows every day and had to appoint seven good men to oversee the work.  But we don’t read of any such daily distribution ever again.  Every time we read of anyone taking of the Lord’s Supper and it mentions where they met it is in an upper room.  But that doesn’t mean we should only take of the communion in an upper room.

When you take the whole of Sripture it is obvious there are some things that are universal and for all times and some that were local and for a short time.  In I Corinthians 11 we find an illustration of both.  In the first segment Paul deals with a problem with some women who had been converted to Christ and who were now hurting the church by rejecting customs of their time and place to pray and prophesy with others without wearing a veil.  Such conduct in Corinth in the middle of the first century was common for women in prostitution.  It brought shame on the church and he told them to wear the veil.  But it wasn’t meant to bind the wearing of a veil by women every time they worship in all places and times.  It was a local command and was temporary as long as the custom was true.  In the second half of the same chapter he talked about taking of the Lord’s Supper when they came together as a church.  In so doing they proclaimed the Lord’s death until he comes.  The language of this segment indicates it is not meant just for the church in Corinth and not just for the mid-first century.

What is true in all temporary and local commands is that there is always a principle involved in the teaching that does have unversal and permanent application.  Even in the teaching about the veil he used basic principles of submission and influence that have application always.  But how does a person decide what is universal and permanent and what is local and temporary?  First, one always looks at the context of the teaching.  Does the language in the context indicate local and temporary concerns?  For example in I Corinthians 7 Paul was answering questions about marriage from the church in Corinth.  He gives some recommendations that he says are good for the “present distress”.  Also, he makes the point that if one is married and becomes a disciple they are to remain married and not seek a divorce.  If they are divorced they shouldn’t seek a wife.  “But if you marry you have not sinned and if a virgin marries she has not sinned.”  If a command was universal and permanent one couldn’t say that to not follow the teaching wouldn’t be sinful.  So read the whole section and see if it sounds like something temporary and local or permanent and universal. 

Second, one must compare what is taught in one place with the whole of Scripture.  If I find a thing practiced one way in one place and another in some other place it must not be universal.  If something was done at one time but later there is no evidence that the practice continued then it wasn’t permanent.  For example, daily meetings of the church isn’t mentioned anywhere except Jerusalem in the early days of the church.  But it is bound for the church to meet in all time (Hebrews 10:25).

Third, is an action backed up by a clear teaching from God?  If one tries to find authority for some action based simply on the fact it was done in a church in the Bible they may find themselves binding something that was only incidental to the church that did it.  When the church in Antioch was praying and fasting the Holy Spirit spoke to them and said to separate Barnabas and Saul for the work he had called them to do.  They prayed and fasted and laid their hands on them to send them out on the mission.  Does that mean the church today should only send people out to preach the gospel when the Holy Spirit specifically tell us to do so?  Should every church pray and fast before sending someone out as a missionary?  Should the elders lay their hands on everyone they send out?  It would certainly be all right for the elders to pray and fast about such things and to lay hands on those being sent out, but it would be wrong to say that is the only way it can be done.

Fourth, always read a passage in light of the circumstances being dealt with at that time.  It is so easy to read our situation or problems back into the text and fail to get what a passage really teaches.  The New Testament letters were written to churches and individuals about specific problems and challenges they faced.  The principles apply to all time.  But don’t put our problems back on them.  The question is what did the passage mean when it was written? 

Finally, take care to only bind what a passage says and not our understandings from the Scripture.  At times we aren’t willing to stop with what a verse says, but want to put into it the interpretation and application that we want from the verse.  What God binds is bound.  What I understand and apply that verse to, isn’t bound.  The Scriptures remain the same all through the years, but our interpretations and applications change as we grow and face different circumstances.

What is bound on earth is bound in heaven.  What is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.  If a thing is bound in heaven we had better be sure it is bound on earth.  If a thing is loosed in heaven we had better be sure that it is loosed on earth.

About leoninlittlerock

Preaching minister for Central church of Christ in Little Rock. Author of over 20 books including: When a Loved one Dies, Spiritual Development, Skid Marks on the Family Drive, Challenges in the church, To Know Christ and A Drink of Living Water.
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