The Keys of the Kingdom
“I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (vv. 18b–19).- Matthew 16:13–20
Yesterday, our study of question and answer 82 of the Heidelberg Catechism introduced the topic of church discipline and its protective function. God hates it when people come into His presence and profess to love Him while proving otherwise by their impenitence. This dishonors His covenant and puts professing believers in danger of death (Acts 5:1–11; 1 Cor. 11:17–32). The church’s discipline of professing believers in gross, unrepentant sin bars them from coming to the Lord’s Table, guarding them and the whole church from feeling God’s righteous anger.
Question and answer 83 of the Heidelberg Catechism explore the matter of church discipline even further. Here are defined the keys of the kingdom, the exercise of which open and close access to the Lord’s Table (Q&A 82). More specifically, these keys, which are the preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline, “open the kingdom of heaven to believers and close it to unbelievers.”
This understanding of the keys of the kingdom is grounded in today’s passage, which records Peter’s famous confession of Jesus as the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi. Of course, this text has been grossly misused in church history, especially in Roman Catholicism. We do not have space to get into all the particulars, but we should note Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18–19 does not invest one individual or bishop with supreme authority in the church, nor does it grant infallibility to an individual or even the entire church. The authority of the keys is given to the whole church, for Matthew 18:15–20 tells us that the entire church, as represented by the elders, has the authority to bind people from entering the kingdom and loose them to come before the throne of grace. Furthermore, Peter, to whom the keys are initially given, later falls into error (16:21–23). This reveals that the covenant community can make mistakes and that its pronouncements are subject to a higher authority.
This higher authority, of course, is Scripture. Peter is given the keys only after proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah (vv. 13–20); he receives authority only insofar as he faithfully represents the Word of God. By extension, this applies to all church authority. When church leaders are faithful to Scripture, their decisions are certified by the Lord Himself, and they bear His authority.
There are two extremes when it comes to church authority. One extreme says that the church is always right no matter what it says. The other extreme says the church has no authority over the individual Christian. God’s Word tells us otherwise, granting authority to church leaders insofar as church leaders follow Scripture and apply it faithfully in their decisions. If we ignore the faithful pronouncements of the church, we are ignoring God Himself.
Passages for Further Study
1 Corinthians 5