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 The process of deciding may be the most important thing, scholar says

Dr. Mark Allan Powell told an LTSP audience
that Matthew's gospel gives direction to the
church in arriving at weighty decisions

Picture of Mark Allan Powell
Mark Allan Powell

PHILADELPHIA, PA (October 5, 2004) -- The gospel of Matthew teaches believers that the church has the authority to determine when biblical commandments remain applicable to contemporary situations and when they do not.

But what if individuals in the church disagree with such decisions? Or what if the church can't agree? Or what if the church makes the "wrong" decision? Right now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is engaged in a process of critical moral discernment involving a sexuality study and a pending decision about whether it is appropriate to ordain gay and lesbian persons in openly committed relationships.

The challenges involved in such moral discernment were explored in depth by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allan Powell during a convocation at LTSP entitled, "The Church as Community of Moral Discernment: Binding and Loosing in the Gospel of Matthew." Dr. Powell is the Robert and Phyllis Leatherman Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary.

Powell referenced the sexuality study, but he made no indication whatever about any leanings he may have over that matter. Rather, he focused on the process of moral discernment it takes to reach decisions in the church, indicating the process itself is an imperative for the church and its adherents. Beyond being an imperative, he suggested, the process of achieving a decision may even be more important than the decision itself. Highlights?

Photo - described below
Powell with faculty member Professor Timothy Wengert, who introduced the speaker.

Photo - described below
Speaker Powell, left, with LTSP Communications Director Mark Staples, center, and Trinity Seminary alum Pastor Keith Fair. Fair, who studied New Testament with Powell, visited the convocation. Fair is a pastor at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Lansdale, PA.

"Jesus gives the church the authority to bind and to loose the commandments of scripture," Powell said. He noted that in Matthew 16, Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter. Two chapters later in Matthew he says to the disciples, "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

Powell then related examples of how in Matthew Jesus gets examples of "binding" and "loosing" right, and the Pharisees and scribes get it wrong. For example, Jesus "binds" the law in Matthew 5: 21-23 that prohibits murder as applicable to anger and insults. And in Matthew 12:1-9 Jesus is portrayed as "loosing" the prohibition against working on the Sabbath with regard to "plucking grain to satisfy one's hunger" and looses the prohibition against working on the Sabbath with regard to acts of healing, declaring "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath," and he says that those not recognizing such good "condemn the guiltless."

And how does the church decide what it is appropriate to "bind" and to "loose?" Powell advised consideration of scriptural principles within the gospel of Matthew that comprise the "canon within the canon." These principles are central to any possibility of discerning the best decisions.

They are the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12): "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you…" Also the principle of mercy over sacrifice (Matthew 9:13; 12:7) "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Also, Love for God and Neighbor: (Matthew 22: 37-40: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus noted, Powell said, that "on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." Finally, Powell noted the importance of Matthew 23:23, which urges paying attention to the "weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith."

The decision of the community, the community ethic in such a discerning process, takes precedent over what an individual may believe, according to Matthew. And obedience according to Matthew is different than what is discussed, for example, in the gospel of Mark.

So, what if an individual disagrees as a matter of conscience with a decision of the church? What if the church can't agree on a decision? Or what if the church makes a wrong decision?

Powell noted that the guidance defined in Matthew's gospel is not easily transferable to the modern age. For one thing, Powell said, the writer was thinking of "church" as a more localized congregation. Today, believers think of the church in a variety of ways, including a congregation and denomination. Regarding an individual who disagrees with the church as a matter of conscience, though, Powell suggests an individual stance of "obedience under protest." If that approach is not acceptable to an individual, believers must be prepared to accept being regarded as outcasts -"gentiles and tax collectors." For Matthew, Powell notes in his writings, considers the typical role of a prophet to be that of an outcast, but Matthew also warns of false prophets, and he noted that individuals who choose to accept ostracism from the community in exchange for condemning its actions "would be wise to consider carefully whether they are truly as enlightened as they suppose." Still, he says, prophets have played a vital role throughout the life of the church.

What if the church can't agree on a decision? Powell said Matthew seems not to have considered the possibility that the church would be unable to come to an agreement. "Matthew presupposes a unified church," Powell said. "So the challenge is how in the process of moral discernment do we find unity?" Matthew urges the diligent discernment required to achieve the agreement goal. Practice of the church since Matthew's day, however, indicates that split decisions are commonplace, he said. In the end, an "outcast" may decide it is necessary to leave the community for another, Powell said.

And what if the church makes a "wrong" decision? Matthew, Powell said, "seems to assume that by definition the decisions of the church will be in keeping with the will of God." However, the scholar said history has shown that "unperceptive" decisions are made. In such cases, Powell believes Matthew would once again favor adopting a stance of "obedient protest" because Matthew believes that failing to listen to the church is a form of sinful behavior "that excludes one from the eschatological community."

Through Christ, Powell concluded, "the church has the authority to decide what to bind and what to loose, and by doing so it is acting in accordance with scripture," according to Matthew. "Even if the church makes a wrong decision, if it follows the process of moral discernment to decide, it is being scriptural."

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