Missional Monday: Who Has the Keys?

There were a lot of questions we didn’t have time to answer at the Missional and Reformed conference. I don’t know if I am able to answer them all but here’s another:

“Does the individual Christian witness in the world participate in any promise/authority of the keys of the kingdom. E.g. does John 20:23 apply to individual believers?” Let’s start with John 20:23 (“If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.”) This verse, read in isolation, might seem to suggest that any believer can exercise the office of the keys. When read in it’s context, however, such an application of this text becomes virtually impossible. Our Lord spoke this promise to the disciples in a closed room, after having given them an official commission of the highest sort. As the Father sent him, so he sent the disciples! He breathed the Holy Spirit upon them and only then gave them authority to bind and remit sins. The question is a good question and reminds us that the case for every-member ministry (EMM), in my experience, tends to flounder on the shoals of particular texts read carefully in context.

Since most American Christians–because we tend to think a-historically–need to be reminded, let’s remember that none of us are apostles. None of were in the room with Jesus. None of us received the Holy Spirit, at least not this way. None of us has power to raise the dead or put people to death. We live in the post-apostolic epoch. We’re not apostles. Say it with me: “We’re not apostles.”

Second, even the church, which was instituted by Christ himself and has authority from Christ, doesn’t have authority, in itself, to remit and bind sins. The church speaks ministerially. The church announcing a sentence of excommunication or the declaration of pardon (absolution) does not make it so. The church only recognizes the state of affairs. If the church, as institution, does not have this sort of authority, then how much less does any particular unordained person have the authority to bind and remit sins.

So, strictly speaking, no individual Christian, acting as a private person participates in the “authority/promise” of the kingdom. The administration of the kingdom promises and authority belongs to the church. Members, inasmuch as they are members of the church, which represents the kingdom in this world, do participate in the administration of the kingdom of God.

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  1. From our man Calvin:

    On the other hand, it was necessary that their hearers should be most certainly assured that the doctrine of the gospel was not the word of the apostles, but of God himself, not a voice rising from the earth but descending from heaven. For such things as the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, and message of salvation, cannot be in the power of man. Christ therefore testified, that in the preaching of the gospel the apostles only acted ministerially; that it was He who, by their mouths as organs, spoke and promised all, that, therefore, the forgiveness of sins which they announced was the true promise of God; the condemnation which they pronounced, the certain judgment of God. This attestation was given to all ages, and remains firm, rendering all certain and secure, that the word of the gospel, by whomsoever it may be preached, is the very word of God, promulgated at the supreme tribunal, written in the book of life, ratified firm and fixed in heaven. We now understand that the power of the keys is simply the preaching of the gospel in those places, and in so far as men are concerned, it is not so much power as ministry. Properly speaking, Christ did not give this power to men but to his word, of which he made men the ministers.
    (Inst. 4.11.1)

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