Posted in: Theology

The Theology of the Keys

I am considering joining a Lutheran church and have read extensively on their theology. I find that it closely corresponds with my own but I have a question about the above passage. The Lutherans say that the “power of the Keys” gives the catholic (little c) church certain rights and responsibilities (such as pronouncing that sins have been forgiving) but I don’t see it.

Although you have correctly identified that interpretation as “Lutheran,” one can be a Lutheran and reserve judgment on that interpretation or reject it. It is not an area of essential doctrine (such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, salvation by grace through faith, etc.).

The passage [Matthew 16:19] is certainly cryptic and assumes some familiarity with first century and Old Testament religious practices that most readers today don’t have. People tend to take inegmatic statements in scripture and build explanations around them that go beyond the bare bones of the text. Evangelicals point to this passage to support the idea that “church” is wherever “two or three” are gathered in Christ’s name. Mormons point to this passage to support the idea that salvation (exaltation) is only available through the Mormon church. Roman Catholics use this to support the teaching that the priest “mediates” between humans and God regarding the forgiveness of sin. Other groups use it, too.

However, I think the plain meaning of the text is more simple than that. First, since this was written before the establishment of what we commonly refer to as “the church” (subsequent to Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2), we can assume that the “church” Jesus referred to was the local synagogue congregation, which usually had one or more rabbis (teachers), a minimum of 12 Jewish adult males, and a maximum of about 200 members. These synagogue “churches” served their local neighborhoods (in a metropolitan setting such as Jerusalem) or local community (in smaller towns, villages, and rural areas). They were places of worship, teaching of the scriptures (the Old Testament at that time), fellowship among believing members, regulation of Jewish religious life, and as courts of arbitration in local civil disputes. As a matter of fact, this basic structure was carried over into the Jewish Christian congregations and Jewish/Gentile Christian congregations in the first and second century. We still see remnants of it in the order of service in liturgical churches such as the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod).

So — the issue Jesus addresses is apparently a civil or personal dispute between two members of the same synagogue “church.” As such, the synagogue church represented the people of God in much the same way Israel did among nations before God. We can take this as good advice for the Christian church as well.

Second, according to the law given by God through Moses, both criminal and civil disputes were settled using the principle that a party can prevail only if there are “two or three witnesses” to the offense (Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Jesus himself commended this practice, noting in John 5:31 that “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true,” not because the Son of God is a liar, but because no one should believe someone who claims he is the Son of God merely based on his claim, but on multiple unequivocal “witnesses” or evidences. He continues, saying, “There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true” (v. 32), further noting that John the Baptist (v. 33), Jesus’ miracles (v. 36), the Father’s voice (v. 37), and the scriptures (v. 39). He returns to this them in John 8:14, paradoxically announcing that “Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true” [since he has proven by other witnesses that he is the Son of God]. Immediately following, he refers to the rules of witnesses (8:16-18).

Later in Christianity, the apostle Paul commended the Bereans for testing his teachings (Acts 17:11), and warned the Galatians not to believe false witnesses, even if the witness is an angel or Paul himself (Gal. 1:6-10).

So — what does this have to do with Matt. 18?

In the context of correcting the sinning brother, the person sinned against has an obligation to go to that person privately to try to resolve it. If he unable, then he is to take “one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established'” (Matt. 18:16). If the brother still refuses to repent, then it is the obligation of the congregation (the “church”) to act as Christ’s representative is holding the sinning brother accountable, and then expelling him from the church if he remains unrepentant (vv. 17-19).

The Lutheran teaching flows from this understanding and places great responsibility on the local congregation for ensuring that its members are treated fairly and that unrepentant sin is inexcusable. When the church (more than merely the “two or three” witnesses required) judges someone guilty or restored, it is acting as Christ instructed it to act, and as God commanded both in the Old Testament synagogue churches and in the New Testament and historical Christians churches after Christ’s coming.

Lutherans are careful to distinguish that the “keys” — the power to “forgive” and “retain” sins is a derivative or reflective power of announcing forgiveness or judgment according to God’s standards.

Now, there are other aspects of the “keys of the kingdom” mentioned here and in Is. 22:22, Matt. 16:19, and Rev. 1:18. (There is additionally analogous passage about the “key of knowledge” in Luke 11:52).

The passage in Is. 22:22 makes a Messianic reference to a general custom in Israel and surrounding nations during the first millennium B.C. The custom was that the king, governor, prince, master, or head of household could give someone the power to act in his place in his absence or for certain duties. This “prime minister” or “right hand man” was given a ceremonial robe, belt, and key to signify his authority under the leader. When the individual with the “key” (and other items) made a judgment over his master’s property and/or people, it communicated and represented the master’s will.

The apostle John’s reference to Christ with the keys in Rev. 1:18 would have been immediately understood by his first century A.D. readers as a reference to Is. 22:22.

Likewise, when Jesus used the term in Matt. 16 and 18, his disciples understood that they were to act in his behalf and communicate his will through their own actions and words. In this sense, all Christians have the responsibility to communicate God’s will and God’s plan of salvation to those who don’t know it. We are God’s representatives, and individual congregations are represented by their pastors.

The passage in Matt. 16 refers specifically to Peter, and by inference to all Christians. We see from the book of Acts that Peter, representing both Christ and the church, “used” the keys of the kingdom in first proclaiming the gospel to the Jews (Acts 2), then confirming that the gospel was meant also for the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-25), and finally confirming the universal nature of the gospel, including the Gentiles (Acts 10). This is the pattern Jesus commanded in Matt. 28:19.

Of course, any misrepresentation that churches or Christians make are invalid since they contradict the will of the Master (Jesus Christ). We are told to represent Jesus, but not that we can act with authority outside his will. We are commissioned to announce God’s forgiveness and judgment, not to determine God’s forgiveness and judgment.

I hope this is helpful to you.


Gretchen Passantino

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