Practices of the Church 1: “Binding and Loosing”

Practices of the Church 1: “Binding and Loosing” November 30, 2011

In John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World (Herald Press, 1992), the first practice he describes he calls “Binding and Loosing”- taken the phrase from Matt 18:18:

Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven”

The particular practice that Yoder has in mind is the practice of “winning”, that is restoring, an offender back into fellowship through a restorative dialogue.

If your brother or sister sins, go and reprove that person when the two of you are alone. If he or she listens you have won your brother or sister (Matt 18:15).

The community’s decision after this conversational process is divinely sanctioned. “The community’s action is God’s action”, says Yoder.

Moral discernment and forgiveness is the task of the church and these are captured in the dual vocation of “binding and loosing”. Yoder summarizes:

  1. Believing men and women are empowered to act in God’s name.
  2. What the believers do, God is doing, in and through human action
  3. God will not normally do this without human action
  4. If we receive forgiveness, we must give it.
  5. This dialogical reconciling process must come first. Only then must we turn to talk of the set of standards that his process enforces. Much Christian debate about moral issues makes the mistake of concentrating on what the standards ought to be rather than on how they are to be discerned and implemented (6).

Of this apostolic approach Yoder says:

It gives more authority to the church than does Rome, trusts more to the Holy Spirit than does Pentecostalism, has more respect for the individual than does liberal humanism, makes moral standards more binding than did Puritanism, and is more  open to the new situation that was what some called “the new morality” a quarter century ago. If practiced, it would radically restructure the life of churches (6-7).

Yoder concludes:

To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended. To be human in the light of the gospel is to face conflict in redemptive dialogue. When we do that, it is God who does it. When we do that, we demonstrate that to process conflict is not merely a palliative strategy for tolerable survival or psychic hygiene, but a mode of truth-finding and community-building. That is true in the gospel; it is also true, mutatis mutandis, in the world (13).

I think Yoder makes two very important points. First is his anthropological observation that to be human is to be in conflict. So, Jesus’ mandate to forgive sins through dialogical reconciliation is the foundation of community life. That this is not simply an individual call to forgive, but a community call, is revolutionary.

Second, Yoder’s suggestion that the church should follow the rabbinic practice of moral discernment (“binding”), by which he means that we are to be more concerned with how we discern and implement moral standards than with what the standards are, is provocative. I don’t take him to mean that the church in anyway lessens the demand of discipleship through such a practice – quite the opposite. Rather it seems that he calling the church to change from a simplistic model of scripture application to a model of scriptural discernment. A model that focuses on the need to discern what the Scripture is saying to us in new and unforeseen situations.



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  • Geoffrey Arnold

    I love this, though practicing it would require incredible discipline and commitment. I wonder to what extent disunity among denominations results from focusing on determining what the standards are/should be. I imagine this is one of the primary issues. Have you read much by Yoder?