Power of the Keys

The power Christ has invested in His church for its government and discipline. It is a ministerial, not magisterial, power. It is the application of the authoritative commands and teachings of Christ and His apostles to the life and fellowship of the church and its members. Speaking of church officers, the Westminster Confession of Faith states, "To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut the kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require" (chap. 30, sec. 2).

According to the Roman Catholic church, the power of the keys is the primacy Christ conferred on Peter with the power to bind and to loose, a power that was transmitted to his successors as bishop of Rome. The Biblical authority for this power is said to be Matt. 16:18, 19. The power of binding and loosing was also conferred on all the disciples (Matt. 18:18), but the primacy was given to Peter alone. From this Rome argues that the pope and the bishops and priests in fellowship with him have the power to grant or deny absolution and that the only way in which a Christian may gain absolution is by confession to a Roman priest.

Even if the Lord Jesus Christ did confer on Peter primacy among the apostles and did give them the power of life and death over souls, there is not the slightest hint in Scripture that these prerogatives were transferable to anyone else, or that they were ever in any way associated with the bishop of Rome. There is no historical evidence that Peter was ever bishop of Rome. Indeed, there is every scriptural reason to dismiss the idea because the NT knows absolutely nothing of diocesan bishops or popes.

The power of the keys in the NT has no relationship whatever to the pretensions of papal or priestly power. The keys of which Christ spoke clearly signify the opening of the doors of the knowledge of the gospel (see Matt. 23:13; Luke 11:52), and/or the administration of the house of God. Peter had the privilege of opening the doors of the kingdom to the Jews (Acts 2), to the Samaritans (Acts 8), and to the Gentiles (Acts 10). This is the only primacy we find for Peter in the NT.

Peter's power to open the kingdom to men was a declarative power. In other words, he opened the kingdom, not by the exercise of any inherent power in him or in his alleged primacy, but by the declaration of the terms of the gospel. On that ground he and the apostles could declare men forgiven or not forgiven, i.e., could declare that they were admitted to or excluded from the kingdom. According to the NT, this is the only manner in which Peter and the apostles ever used their power.

The administrative power of binding and loosing of which Christ spoke referred to things, not people. Among the Rabbis, binding and loosing were terms for forbidding and permitting. The apostles exercised this kind of power in the council of Jerusalem when they determined the relationship of believers to the Mosaic ceremonies (Acts 15). Paul's epistle to the Galatians (see also Col. 2:16–23; Rom. 14) gives us another example of this power, while his statements in 1 Cor. 10:18–33 show him setting the limits of what is permissible to Christians interacting with a heathen culture.

The enactments of the apostles of Christ are final and authoritative for the universal church. No pope, church, or council can now bind the consciences of believers by their decrees, unless it is by their promulgation of the enactments of Scripture, or unless, in matters of doubt or dispute among Christians, it is by their exercise of agreed principles among people who freely enter their fellowship in professed acceptance of those principles.

Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (pp. 248–249). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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