Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Office of the Keys


Do other Christians have a doctrine of the Office of the Keys or is it just a Lutheran thing?

Luther's explanation of the doctrine appears in some editions of his Small Catechism. The 1979 edition published by Augsburg and Fortress (they were separate concerns back then) translated it this way:

What is the "Office of the Keys"?

It is that authority which Christ gave to his church to forgive the sins of those who repent and to declare to those who do not repent that their sins are not forgiven.

Luther cited John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18 as supporting texts for the Office of the Keys. In Luther's day, this doctrine had a polemical function. It denied that the Pope alone held the keys to the kingdom.

As I understand it, the authority to forgive or retain sins belongs to the Church, but is entrusted by the Church to its pastors. The Office of the Keys is exercised in the declaration of forgiveness in private and corporate acts of Confession.

In my last post I began to address some of the concerns raised by Dr. James Arne Nestingen's article in the latest issue of the WordAlone Network News. Elsewhere in that article, Dr. Nestingen claims that the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly decisions undermine the Office of the Keys. Nestingen writes:

Married people can and do sin against one another sexually, even while remaining in the bonds of fidelity. For this reason, in the pastoral care of those caught in marital difficulties, pastors must be free to use the power of the keys to bind and loose—to challenge inappropriate behaviors and forgive the penitent.

In other words, the Office of the Keys may be exercised in a case where a pastor is counseling a married couple when one spouse has hurt another. If the offender is penitent, they are to be forgiven. If they are not penitent, their sins can be retained. Nestingen continues:

The churchwide assembly action and the policies following, protecting the class of behaviors, does not make any similar realistic assessment. Instead, by prohibiting judgment, it places homosexual behavior beyond assessment, undercutting the office of the keys. Where there is no sin, there is no need for forgiveness; similarly, where there is no sin, there is no need for repentance.

Nestingen's assertion here seems to flow out of his assumption that non-procreative sex acts are intrinsically sinful. He would like to apply the Office of the Keys moralistically by wagging a finger at anyone who engages in gay sex. I have already argued that gay sex is no more intrinsically sinful than straight sex.

The ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions regarding sexuality do not undermine the Office of the Keys. They have not placed "homosexual behavior beyond assessment." They simply require a more discerning assessment than the naive formula "boy/girl = good. Boy/boy or girl/girl = bad." Pastors are free to bind and loose the sins by which same-sex partners damage their relationships to one another or to God, just as they are in cases involving heterosexual couples.

Christianity, especially in its Lutheran expression, is not a religion of Law. The Office of the Keys is not about a moralistic application of "shalts" and "shalt nots" concerning sexual acts. It is about the care of souls in their relationship to God and one another.

Obie Holmen has a good post about Nestingen's article at Concerning the Scriptural basis for the Office of the Keys, I like the way Eugene Peterson deals with John 20:23 in his paraphrastic Bible translation The Message: "If you forgive someone's sins, they're gone for good. If you don't forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?"

The detail from Perugino's painting of Christ handing the keys of the kingdom to Peter came from this website.


  1. I highly recommend reading the following link for a historical perspective of where the beloved ELCA is headed--ELCA Journeys: Personal Reflections on the Last Forty Years Bishop Michael McDaniel. The concerns are well thought out and make excellent reading.

    A fellow Lutheran in Christ.

  2. Thank you, Anonymous fellow Lutheran for coming by my little corner of the internet and posting your comment. I hope that you took the time to read some of my blogposts.

    I read Bishop McDaniel's article and found little new in it. Considering that it is nearly 9 years old, that is not really surprising. Like many of his generation, Bishop McDaniel's remarks seem to be underpinned with a mourning for the demise of the white male heterosexist hegemon.

    He demonizes, uncharitably, those with whom he disagrees as "the people our parents warned us not to play with when we were little" and "hijackers."

    He espouses a facile biblicism and a one-dimensional understanding of "word" that Luther himself would not agree to. He promotes an unreal and otherworldly faith. He would build a fence around the Scriptures to guard them from rigorous intellectual study, as if he fears they would not stand against serious study.

    He shows a snobbish denigration for the real talents of lay people. In his black and white thinking homosexuals are immoral and hedonistic.

    It is with due respect for a man of his intellectual achievement and faithful life that I disagree with Bishop McDaniel, but disagree I do and must. My conscience is thus bound by God's Word in all of its expressions.

  3. So your Bible doesn't have the books of Liviticus, Romans, Corinthians, and Timothy to name a few?? How you can ignore whole mountians of evidence that men were meant to have sex w/ women and vice versa and that arrangment alone is amazing to me.

  4. Hi Anonymous.

    Thanks for taking the time to visit my blog and leave a comment. I have many Bibles near at hand as I write this reply. Some of them have 39 books. Some of them have 66 books. A few of them even have 72 books. None of them contains a book named "Liviticus." But, being charitable, I will assume that you made a simple typo and meant Leviticus. All of the Bibles, regardless of book count, do contain Leviticus. In fact, in my latest read-through of the Bible, I just started Leviticus again today.

    As for Romans, it occurs in the 66 and 72 book Bibles, along with two letters to the Corinthians and two to Timothy.

    I suspect that you weren't really asking if there were pages missing from my Bibles, though. Your question was probably more along the lines of "How can you read the five or six 'clobber passages' of the Bible and not condemn homosexuality?" If you are interested in my answer, you'll find it in earlier posts on this blog. Begin with this one:

    Then try these:


    There are probably more, but I think these will suffice to show that the "clobber passages" are in fact, in my Bible, and that I have read them carefully and contextually. I just don't use them as a cudgel to beat down homosexuals.

    And concerning evidence, I'm afraid that you make mountains from molehills. The best current research leads us to understand homosexuality as a normal, though minority, sexual orientation.

    As I've said elsewhere, in light of our best current knowledge, the question facing us is not whether homosexuality is necessarily immoral, but whether there is a moral context in which homosexuals can express their love physically.

    Peace to you, and God bless!

  5. I stumbled upon this as I was looking to see what the world outside of my Book of Concord was saying about the Office of the Keys. Thanks be to God, for filling your words with the Spirit. You have left me pondering this: we do not define the sins, for we are taught that a sin is whatever separates one from loving God; we only offer forgiveness.

  6. Rev. Luke Seamon, STSMarch 24, 2014 at 1:18 PM

    Certainly the keys are broken. Once you've redefined sin to fit our modern Western preferences the application of the keys becomes relative to one's own preference. They are no longer our Lord's keys because you don't let Him decide how and when they are to be applied, but relegate His authority to voting members of the ELCA. To say that a tiny, rich, overly white (though self-loathingly so) church body like the ELCA has the right to reject what the Church Catholic has always held to be the essential and basic standard of sexuality, why should anyone take any standard of anything seriously? Do all the theological and mental gymnastics you wish on your own blog, but you cannot change the fact that you can no longer use the Lord's keys properly.

  7. Welcome to my blog, Luke, and thank you for your comments. From the STS appended to your name and your disparaging remarks about the ELCA, I think you may be one of those disgruntled pastors who left my church body for an even smaller, probably whiter Lutheran body.

    You are right that we are predominantly white and I suppose you are entitled to the opinion that we are self-loathing though I think you fail to put the best construction on the ELCA's actions. The desire to be more inclusive, no matter how badly carried out, hardly constitutes self-hatred.

    I think that you are wrong about the ELCA redefining sin. Sin is still separation from God. It is the condition under which you, I, and every other human being, whether male, female, straight, gay, Greek, or Jew lives.

    What has been redefined is our understanding of human sexuality. In light of our current best knowledge same sex attraction cannot be considered, in and of itself, more sinful than heterosexual attraction. Nor can homosexual intercourse be universally condemned as immoral despite the catholic consensus. The question, as I have raised it repeatedly in this blog, is how can one ethically live out an innate homosexual orientation?

    Lutherans have always, and rightly, been concerned with catholicity. We have not, however, blindly accepted tradition in the face of new knowledge. Else we would still promote a Ptolemaic cosmology. We would have 72 books in our Bibles. We would celebrate 7 Sacraments and recognize the power and primacy of the Pope.

    The Office of the Keys is properly used when it comforts the repentant and goads the conscience of the guilty. The Office of the Keys is misused when it is invoked to create shame or shore up power.