In 1964, George Eldon Ladd argued that the Church functions as “Custodian of the Kingdom” (Presence of the Future, 276). For many, this designation sounds either (1) too Catholic (salvation is found in the organized Church alone) or (2) too Reformed (the Church IS the Kingdom, effectively displacing ethnic Israel). But while both of these concerns loom in my mind as well, Ladd’s observation has merits that, if lost, can debilitate the very Protestants and dispensationalists who object to Ladd’s principal claim.
The first mention of the keys appears in Matthew 16:19, where Christ grants to Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” and with them authority to “bind and loose” on earth what has been bound and loosed in heaven. That Peter had something of a singular role in “unlocking” new venues for evangelism in the early church suggests that he may have taken the lead in as the first keyholder, but nearly all Protestants argue that the use of the keys did not belong to Peter alone (much less his papal successors). The keys also belonged to the other Apostles, and eventually the whole gathered church.
The basis for this conclusion is the second NT allusion to the keys in Matthew 18:18. On the heels of the classic pericope on church discipline (or better, the capstone of the pericope on church discipline), Christ echoes his earlier comments in chapter 16, intimating that the last step of church discipline (exclusion from the Assembly) is tantamount to “loosing on earth what is loosed in heaven.” That is to say, the Church excommunicates those whom they determine to be outliers of the kingdom based on the standards that God himself provides. The responsibility is extraordinary and deeply sobering: local churches on earth are to follow the lead of the Apostles in policing their membership to align with membership in Christ’s coming Kingdom. While we should not assume from this verse that the Church is always correct in her assessment of the spiritual state of those she excommunicates, the absence of any exception clause makes the assessment extremely important: local churches truly are custodians of the Kingdom.
Lest there be any doubt of this extraordinary responsibility, the Scripture-writers reiterate this ecclesiastical responsibility at least four times in the Epistles:
(1) After completing the most severe NT passage on church discipline, calling on his readers to “judge those who are in the church” and “expel the wicked man” (1 Cor 5), Paul continues in the next chapter to chide the church for not making proper judgments about lesser matters in their membership. Rather than adjudicating disputes within the body by following Christ’s instructions about church discipline, members were suing each other in secular courts like the heathen, cheating and defrauding one other publicly (vv. 1–8). Paul reminds his readers that occasions like these were tailor-made for the use of the “keys” (vv. 9–10):
“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
(2) In Galatians 5, after warning his readers that “a little leaven works through the whole batch of dough” and urging them to make the offenders “pay the penalty” (vv. 9–10), Paul explains the basis for his expectation in verse 21:
“Those who live like this (i.e., gratifying the flesh) will not inherit the kingdom of God.
(3) In Ephesians 5, Paul warns the church not to permit within “God’s holy people,” to be in “partnership with,” or allow “among themselves” any who openly engage in sin, offering as his reason that
“No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (v. 5).
To summarize, the Church must engage in church discipline (“loosing” those who do not belong), striving to maintain a membership of persons who demonstrably have an inheritance in the coming Kingdom.
(4) More positively, James 2 indicates that “binding” people (i.e., bringing them into church membership) operates on the same principle. We don’t base reception in the church on factors such as wealth or social status, because these are not factors that qualify one for the Kingdom—in fact, these are often barriers to participation in the Kingdom (cf. Matt 19:23–24). Instead, the church should extend acceptance (including, I would argue, formal membership) only to those whose “rich faith” is corroborated by good works. James’s reason?
Because “God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him” (v. 5).
For other texts that arguably further the themes of binding/loosing and kingdom inheritance, see also 1Cor 4:20; 1 Thess 1:4–5, 2:12. Note, then, the necessary conclusions that flow from these texts:
- While the Church itself is no kingdom, Paul’s “mystery” (viz., the Church) is not unrelated to Christ’s Kingdom. As Paul notes in Ephesians 1:10, church life is always conducted “with a view to the administration of the fullness of the times.”
- The passages above, collectively, inform the Church what is meant by being “workers for the kingdom of God” (Col 4:11). Our mission is both (1) to recruit a Kingdom constituency for a Kingdom that will be established supernaturally by our Lord Christ in the age to come and (2) to prepare Christ’s mediatorial queen, which will “have neither spot, nor wrinkle, nor any such thing” (Eph 5:27) when the King arrives.
- The Church has an extraordinary role in adjudicating “on earth” what is true “in heaven,” lending extreme import to the Baptist ideal of regenerate church membership and the church’s collective task of “guarding the door” of the assembly.
- In every case, however, the epistles cast the Kingdom as wholly future. These texts anticipate, often in the future tense, an inheritance not yet received. The Scriptures are clear that entry into the kingdom caps a lifetime of sanctification (cf. Acts 14:22; 2 Tim 4:1, 18; 2 Thess 1:5; 2 Pet 1:11). If the Church IS the kingdom already, then the syntax is all wrong in these verses.