In John 20, after rising from the dead, Christ gives his disciples authority to forgive and retain sins. Now, you can read this however you want, but you cannot argue with the fact that those present were Christ’s called servants. You simply cannot argue with this. Nor can you argue with the fact that in Matthew 28, when Jesus gives the command to make disciples through baptism and teaching, those present were…you guessed it…Christ’s called servants. And yet, whenever the subject of the Office of the Keys is brought up, and the question of “who holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven” is raised, many voices can be heard trumpeting the idea that every Christian has the keys to the kingdom of heaven. There is usually a lone voice that says, “Well, Christ did give the keys to Peter and the other apostles, which by extension would mean all ministers of the Word,” but that is quickly shouted down. Apparently, pastors are the only people in the Church who do not have the keys.
I recently conducted an experiment on Facebook. I posted a status that said, “I wonder how many people in the pews realize that their pastors hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” I didn’t say that other Christians don’t, or that the Church did not possess the keys, I only said that I wonder how many realize their pastors hold the keys. And sure enough, it was not long before someone said, “The keys are not exclusive to pastors…every Christian has the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” Is it wrong or sinful now to say that pastors hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Surely if every Christian holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven, then Pastors do too? Why is it so offensive to the ears of Christians to hear someone say what our Catechism says: “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, it is just as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself.”
What are people worried about? Are they worried that if they actually admit that pastors hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that means that they might have to seek God’s Word from them, that they might have to actually look to their pastors for absolution? What a terrible thing indeed! I find it amusing that Lutherans are quick to say that every believer or the Church holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven, but slow to say that this authority belongs to their pastors. I see very little evidence in the Scriptures that suggests that every Christian, regardless of calling, has authority to forgive and retain sins in the name of the whole Church. I see Christ’s called servants (the Apostles) being told to preach, baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper, etc. I see these same servants being told to forgive sins and withold forgiveness. I see this authority being handed on to other pastors like Timothy. That is what I see in the Scriptures.
I think one of the reasons Lutheran pastors have struggled to get people to seek them out for absolution, or for God’s Word, is this very thing–we are afraid to see them as holders of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And I think pastors themselves are afraid of this too. Just my opinion.