Interpreting the PMW: Limited Public Use of the Keys

The seventh point summarizing my longer explanation of the PMW is the first one in which I would expect some disagreement. There are several ways in which the PMW’s expression is a bit lacking on this topic. For example:

  • A doctrinal statement should express the Bible’s doctrine. If it must describe our merely human arrangements too, this should be explicitly distinguished from the Bible’s doctrine. The word “limited” denotes a human arrangement, because the limitation is not characterized or imposed by God, but rather by human beings. Yet the PMW could give the impression that the “limited public use of the Keys” was handed down by God from heaven. This is neither true nor biblically supported.

  • The use of the Keys is specified by God. The Keys are used to bind and loose the sins of sinners. (Matthew 18:18 — See point 5 of this summary explanation.) If the term “limited public use of the keys” is taken to mean that the use is limited, then the PMW’s doctrine becomes hopelessly muddled. It would mean that by human limitation, a person may bind but not loose, or a person may loose but not bind. Or it could mean that a person could loose and bind certain sins but not others. Or, that a person could loose or bind the sins of certain people but not others.

  • Someone could say that this phrase really means “limited public administration of the means of grace.” If that’s how it should be taken, then why doesn’t it say that? We have to work with the document the way it’s stated, or we have to fix it.

This phrase “limited public use of the keys,” was one of the most problematic ones for me to work through. However, there is a way to understand it which is acceptable within the framework of the PMW. Here’s my seventh point:

When the statement speaks of a “limited public use of the Keys,” the part that is limited is the term “public,” which is meant to show the official, representative nature of the public ministry. When “public” is not limited, a public minister acts fully in the name and stead of Christ and on behalf of the Church by virtue of the specific divine institution of the office of ministry (in the narrow sense). When “public” is limited, a public minister acts directly on behalf of the Church, and indirectly on behalf of Christ, since the minister occupies an office that the Church established with the authority given by our Lord.

Grammatically, I realize that this takes “limited” as an adverb, and it appears to be an adjective. Yet consider what it would look like as an adverb. “Limitedly public use of the Keys” is awkward, and the sort of awkward that English avoids. It sounds and looks much better to let the form “limited” serve as the adverb, describing the adjective “public.” Furthermore, English style would recommend a comma between “limited” and “public,” if both are adjectives describing “use.” No comma has been written in the carefully-worded PMW.

So this phrase describes something relating to the wider sense of “public ministry.” Within that wider sense, there is one office established by God, by His command and promise: the office described by the narrow sense of “public ministry.” Beyond that office, the wider sense of the term also includes this “limited public use of the keys.” In other words, it includes offices created by the Church in her God-given (i.e. “divinely instituted” in a sense) freedom, and furthermore, the public nature of these other offices is limited by their origin in the will of the Church rather than in the express will of God.

To illustrate, Jesus did not send out Sunday School teachers, but He did send out pastors, namely, His apostles. So we can call a pastor’s essential work “fully” public, since it originates in the explicit sending of God. However, a Sunday School teacher’s work originates in the sending/calling of the Church. It was not assigned directly by Jesus, so it’s “limitedly” public.

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