The Office of the Keys and Pastoral Authority

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71 Responses

  1. Xenia says:

    And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23)

    I found this respone by my teacher on a discussion forum he used to administer. Fr. Irenei wrote:

    “The direct answer to the question, ‘Can an Orthodox priest forgive sins?’ is yes. Without qualification. This is not only a direct attestation of scripture (indeed, the words of Christ himself), but also the undisputed teaching of the Church throughout its history. Whether or not certain conditions of personality, behaviour, qualification, etc. might call this into question (e.g. that a certain priest, by some behaviour, might not be able to fulfil the mystery of the sacrament) has been the subject of all manner of heretical movements throughout history — that which comes most readily to mind is that surrounding the Donatists in northern Africa. But at each turn the Church has responded with the same response: the mysteries of the Church are the mysteries of Christ, into which the priest is drawn as ‘celebrant’ by the charism of the priesthood. An priest can forgive sins, just as he can celebrate the Eucharist or perform a baptism; for these are the central mysteries (sacraments) of the Christian life, which the priest has the charism to perform amongst the people.”

  2. London says:

    Tricky question.

  3. Xenia says:

    In Ortholandia, we have the idea of “spiritual fathers,” a priest or monk who knows us well and knows what we need and gives us advice. If I were a monastic, I would be bound in obedience to my spiritual father. As a lay person, I feel I have more freedom but I always do try to follow the advice of my own spiritual father, who happens to be my parish priest. He gives simple advice and that’s fine because I am a simple person.

    I only post here on the PhxP because I was given permission to do so by my parish priest who was my spiritual father at that time (10 years ago or so.) He told me to stand up for the faith and not argue!

  4. I don’t understand why people have trouble with these verses in Matthew and John. They sound pretty clear to me.

  5. Michael says:


    Thank you for that…most of which seems foreign to evangelical ears.
    This is, as London said, tricky for us…and mostly unexamined, I think.

  6. Michael says:

    What qualifies someone to have the ability to forgive sins?

  7. London says:

    For me it’s tricky because I do believe pastors have some authority in our lives, but only what we give them.
    Xenia, for example, has given someone the authority to provide permission on whether she should blog here or not. I would never even ask that of someone.
    So, that person has authority in her life, but it’s because she has granted that to him.
    The authority I grant to someone would be over different areas of my life, but it would still be only because I. Granted it to them.

    Long way around to say that I don’t think a person is an authority just because they pastor a church. At least not a personal authority.

    But, I do think if you join someone’s church, you agree to the spoken and unspoken rules and culture of the church. If you find it’s not a good fit, it’s on you to leave, not on them to change.

  8. Jean says:

    This is a fascinating topic. I would love to read an evangelical response, interpreting these texts and any others they believe are relevant.

  9. London says:

    As far as forgiving sins, I participated in a workshop on how to pray for others once, they said that any of us could pronounce sins forgiven. God is the only one that actually forgives the sin, but since we are the priesthood of all believers, then any of us had the authority to say to a person “your sins are forgiven”. It’s just a pronouncement of the truth of what has happened after the person repents.

    I think there’s much wisdom in that.

  10. London says:

    I don’t self identify as evangelical.

  11. Xenia says:

    I know it sounds odd to most of you that I would ask permission of my priest to participate here on the PhxP. And London is correct, that priest has that authority over me because I chose to give it to him. That is, I chose to put myself under his authority.

    But I do this for my own spiritual good. I was not sure that participating here (for example) would be beneficial to me spiritually. Maybe it would cause me to become an angry person, or revert back to evangelicalism, or all kinds of potential catastrophes! 🙂 This priest felt the good would outweigh the potential bad and gave me a conditional go-ahead with the stern “Do not argue Xenia!” caveat. (I do argue though, but I always remember his words and try to dial it down.)

    I believe that this priest, who has walked with Christ many years and received at his ordination a special gift (a charism) would give me advice that would be for my soul’s benefit.

  12. Lutheran says:

    Below is how the LCMS “does” the office of the keys.

    I admit, the first couple times in an LCMS congregation, well, it was quite new and somewhat shocking to me. But as is true no matter the denom. or church or whatever, if you dig around and stydtm you’ll understand the scriptural basis.

    We don’t believe, by the way, that the pastor in and of himself forgives sins or is any different in essence from other Christians. He’s “standing in” the office of the holy ministry, which is what gives him the authority.


    Keys, Office of the.
    1. The Office of the Keys (Mt 16:19; 18:15–20; Jn 20:22–23; Rv 1:18) is a peculiar, special, unique, spiritual power given by Christ to the ch.
    2. Christ is Master (Mt 23:8–10), Head of the ch. (Eph 1:22; 4:15; 5:23; Cl 1:13, 18); His Word is authoritative (Jn 12:48–50; 1 Ti 6:3–5). The ch. should not go beyond His Word or allow other authority to est. its doctrine and creeds (Gl 1:8–9; Cl 2:8).
    3. The Office of the Keys is spiritual (Mt. 20:25–26; Jn 18:36; 2 Co 10:4; Eph 6:10–17); it includes all spiritual rights, duties, and privileges necessary for the welfare of the ch. on earth, e.g., the conveying of grace to mankind through preaching, administering Baptism and Lord’s Supper, and through mutual conversation and consolation. In particular, the Office of the Keys gives power to forgive and retain sins (loosing and binding), i. e., not merely to announce and to declare to men the remission or retention of sins, but actually to give forgiveness to penitent sinners and to deny forgiveness to impenitent sinners (Jn 20:23; 2 Co 2:10). See also Justification, 6.
    4. The whole Gospel of Christ is an absolution.* Absolution does not exist outside the Gospel, but is a special form of administering the Gospel in which a minister or other Christian forgives the sins of others. It is not a better or more powerful forgiveness, but a special application which conveys reassurance (Lk 7:47–48).
    5. Only God can forgive sins (Is 43:25; Mk 2:7). Christ gave the Office of the Keys to the ch. on earth; the ch. delegates and transfers the pub. exercise of the Office of the Keys to called servants of the Word (Acts 20:28; 1 Co 4:1; 2 Co 2:10; Eph 4:10–12). See also Ministerial Office, 5.
    6. When the Office of the Keys is properly administered, the act is as valid and effective in the sight of God as though Christ Himself had performed it (Jn 20:23). The validity does not depend on faith, repentance, worthiness, good works, satisfaction of the one who pronounces absolution. Unbelief does not annul validity of forgiveness (Ro 3:3), but forgiveness is received through faith (Acts 10:43).
    7. Possession of the Office of the Keys obligates Christians to observe all corresponding duties, e.g., to proclaim the Word publicly (Mt 28:18–20) and privately (Cl 3:16), to maintain purity of the Word (Jn 8:31–47; 1 Ti 6:20), to express faith (Ro 10:9), to forgive sins (Mt 18:21–35; Eph 4:32), to practice discipline (Mt 18:17; 1 Co 5:2–5; 1 Ti 1:20; Tts 3:10–11), to judge doctrine (Mt 7:15; 1 Jn 4:l; Acts 17:10–11).
    8. RC interpretation refers the Office of the Keys to supremacy of spiritual jurisdiction vested in the pope and including unqualified executive power, universal legislative power, supreme judicial power, infallibility,* primacy (see Vatican Councils, 1 b). RCm holds that this supremacy originally belonged to Peter (but see, e.g., Mt 18:1–4; Lk 22:24–26; Acts 15:6–31; Gl 2:7–11; Eph 2:20; 1 Ptr 5:1; 2 Ptr 1:19) and that the popes are Peter’s successors. CCS
    9. Ban, or excommunication, is the process whereby impenitent sinners are excluded from Communion and other fellowship of the ch. In the Middle Ages a distinction was made bet. lesser ban, which excluded from the Sacraments, and greater ban, or interdict, which included civil penalties and excluded from all blessings and graces of the ch. The Luth. Confessions recognize only lesser ban as truly Christian and of concern to ministers (SA-III IX; cf. AC XXVIII 2; Ap VII–VIII 3; XI 4; XXVIII 12; Tractatus 60, 74). The RC Ch. distinguishes bet. tolerati (tolerated) and vitandi (to be avoided) excommunicates. The faithful need not shun the tolerati either in profane or religious matters. The vitandi are to be avoided as much as possible. The vitandi are excommunicated by being named in a pub. decree of the papal see. In 1971 a papal-appointed commission recommended dropping the vitandi category.

  13. Xenia says:

    Lutheran’s Number 8 about the Keys being handed over to the Peter and the Popes:

    We don’t agree with that either, obviously. The Keys are the Pope’s personal symbol and his insignia but no one outside Roman Catholicism believes he is the one that’s got the keys to the Kingdom.

  14. Xenia says:

    Not “the” Peter but Peter.

  15. London says:

    There are people who I admire as pastors, who I think do a wonderful job, who I like to hear teach and be around, whose church I could not join in good conscience because I can not, for various reasons, place myself under their “authority”.
    I’m honestly not even 100% sure what that means.

  16. ” I’m honestly not even 100% sure what that means.”

    it means you are an American

  17. Lutheran says:

    I don’t think the fundagelical subculture helps here very much…especially with all the spiritual abuse that goes on in these circles. In fact, I posit that a wrongheaded view of “being under the authority of…” contributes to the problem.

    In the Lutheran schema, it’s really not the pastor’s (personal) authority. It’s God in Christ’s, mediated through the pastor. That may just sound like nit-picking, but it’s really not.

    And as I posted, the Office of the Keys has to do with absolution of sins. There are other means to obtain that, in addition to pastoral absolution (I don’t like that term because it makes it sound like it’s the pastor’s. But again, he’s really the conduit.)

  18. London says:

    Lutheran was that directed at me?

  19. London says:

    What authority does the clergy possess and what is the responsibility of the laity to them?”

    Is the question I’m addressing. I said nothing about keys to any kingdom.

  20. London, – and i am only asking you because you are here – but to all.
    Do you object to the passage Michael posted about authority?

    “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17 ESV

  21. I want to hear from some of the pastors about this. We have had a couple here over time who have said they don’t want the authority over people’s lives – which seems to go against this passage “as those who will have to give an account.”

    If you object, why? Otherwise don’t you need to tell people you are in authority – so you can carry out your calling?

  22. Ryan Ashton says:

    There are people I’m accountable to — friends, a few older people — but there is no “leadership” in my life that I would *ever* cede the ability to forgive my sins, considering there is one mediator between God and man, and that’s Jesus, not a pastor — or church for that matter.

    The reason I take this stance is because if I give someone the ability to forgive my sins, then I give them the ability to NOT forgive my sins, and as I am experiencing in Redlands right now, the power of a group to hold a grudge and label you divisive can literally rip your world apart.

    Never, never again. I will not stand for it.

  23. London says:

    He can post whatever he wants, so no I do not object.

  24. London says:

    Did you read what I said about the statement of declaring ones sins forgiven vs actually forgiving them?
    What do you think of that concept?

  25. Jean says:

    Here are a few thoughts on Matt 16:19

    This appears to pick up the imagery from Isaiah 22:15-22. Peter will be made the steward (i.e., the chief administrative officer) of the kingdom of heaven [on Earth?], who will hold the authority to manage the household of faith and responsibility to Christ to administer the household properly.

    According to R.T. France, the use of the plural “keys” imagines storehouses, from which Peter will make appropriate provision for the household, rather than a singular “key” to the outer gate to control admission.

    Binding and loosing, according to France, refer to administrative authority to declare what is and is not permitted. It is things or issues that are being bound or loosed, not people as such.

    One area where the ESV translation is at odds with my NET translation and the NASB translation is the following:

    ESV: “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

    NET: “Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.”

    NASB: “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

    The NET and NASB indicate that Peter’s decision to bind or loose has already been made in heaven, whereas the ESV indicates that when Peter makes a decision to bind or loose, heaven will follow. Since Peter is just the steward, I am more persuaded by the NET and NASB translations.

    What is the biblical basis for passing the keys on after Peter was gone? In Acts, Peter did not always act with such authority (e.g., in Acts 15 at the council in Jerusalem, James appears to have acted as judge over the requirements for Gentile Christians). Why not?

    Who has authority to pass the keys? In other words, were the keys only for Peter and when he died, no one following Peter would have the same stewardship? Or could/did he hand them off?

    Can the keys be passed to more than one individual at a time?

  26. Lutheran says:

    London — was what directed to you?

  27. Michael says:


    I’m one of those who don’t claim “authority” over anyone.
    My only “authority” comes from the preaching of the Word…the authority belongs to the Word.
    If a case of church discipline arose, then I would be bound by the same Scriptures to follow the process and declare the result.
    I submit to my own pastor…but his function is to tell me how the Scriptures apply to some action or attitude of my heart.
    My job is not be the Holy Spirit, my job is to declare what the Spirit says to the church.
    Submission is to God and His word, not to me.

  28. Jim says:

    I’m in 100% agreement with London’s #9.

  29. Jean says:

    As a follow on to my #25:

    Then in Matt 18:18: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

    In this verse, Jesus appears to be speaking to all the disciples. So, has Jesus expanded the keys to all the disciples or is this something more limited?

  30. Lutheran says:

    If it’s #9 — I agree. You don’t have to be a pastor to absolve another believer of their sins. But at the same time, in our Synod, there is the Office of the Keys. It occurs during the Divine Service, usually at the start.

  31. Michael says:


    My tribe would say that it extends to all through the priesthood of all believers.

  32. Xenia says:

    Pastoral authority and sacramentalism go hand in hand.

    If you believe the bread and wine actually becomes the Body and Blood, someone has to be authorized to preside over the transition. If you don’t believe this, anyone can pass out bread and wine/juice and say “We are doing this to remember Christ.” This is how it was possible for church ladies at our CC women’s retreats to pass out crackers and juice for the communion service.

    Likewise, if baptism does now save us, it matters who does the baptizing. In emergencies, anyone can baptize anyone but as a regular thing, when my priest baptizes someone I know he is doing it with the authority granted to him by God through his bishop and I know the baptism is in accordance with the 2000 year tradition of the Church w/o any heretical doctrines thrown in the mix. I know its a valid baptism as far as Eastern Orthodoxy is concerned.

    The same follows through for all the sacraments.

  33. Jean says:

    Michael #31, I’m on this thread to listen and learn, but, not to be argumentative, the interpretation you just gave kind of vitiates the whole text. What good are keys if everyone has them?

  34. London says:

    I do believe that any Christian can baptize another, and I do believe any Christian can participate in giving sacrament to another.
    Priesthood of all believers.

  35. London says:

    Lute- I was referring to your #17

  36. Xenia beat me to it, but in the listing at the beginning of the article – the RCC, the EO and the Lutherans – the difference is that we have very big differences with other churches as to what is happening during the Divine Service … very different.

  37. Michael says:


    It’s an interesting question.
    I just checked Calvin, who states that the keys are given to ministers only.
    I rarely argue with Calvin…especially in light of the Hebrews passage that says very clearly that there will be leaders in the local assembly and they will be held to account on a higher level.
    However, we do have to deal with the priesthood of all believers as well…

  38. Lutheran says:

    Well, yes. I was focusing on your comment about ‘authority’ and I was attempting to explain how Lutherans look at the issue as well as trying to explain the Office of the Keys vis-a-vis forgiving sins.

  39. London says:

    By calling the rest of us “wrong headed”. Nice

  40. “priesthood of all believers”
    I said earlier that everyone here is misusing the term. It applies to our individual access to God and not needing a priest to have access.

    At the same time, it does not mean that we are all pastors or ministers of the gospel.

  41. Michael says:

    I suspect that MLD is correct at #40.

  42. Jim says:

    2 Cor 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[ The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

  43. Lutheran says:


    Now I remember why I stayed away from here for so long.


  44. London says:

    Because I asked if you wre saying I was ” wrong headed”?
    Maybe you need thicker skin

  45. London says:

    Maybe it depends in how you define “minister” and “gospel”
    I’ve never baptisted anyone, but I have on multiple occasions served communion to others.
    I think communion is sacred and I believe that it is the ultimate symbol of us all being part of one body. How odd to limit the serving of it to only those with title.

  46. Jean says:

    The post was about Matt 16:19. There has been some application to (1) forgiveness of sins and (2) administering sacraments. Lutheran presented exegesis from LCMS. Can anyone rebut that?

  47. London, and who is watching over those souls to assure that they are not taking communion in an unworthy manner if just anyone can serve?

  48. Ian Elsasser says:


    All who are eating the meal. First, Paul is addressing the assembly concerning how they were eating the meal. Secondly, issue of eating unworthily has nothing to do with whether a person has sin in their life but within context of 1 Corinthians 11 the way in which they were eating the meal when they fathered together to eat. It was a meal. Some had we’re filling their faces without regard to others who were not yet present so that the latter were not being taken care of. This was eating unworthily, not taking account of “the body” (the church in total since they were unconcerned whether the later arriving had anything to eat). It was this manner of eating that was resulting in sickness and even death falling upon some in the assembly.

  49. Ian Elsasser says:

    Sorry about the spelling error and word omission above.

  50. Ian,
    That is not the whole story. Excommunication is put in place to keep the unrepentant sinner away from the communion table. The unbeliever is to be kept away from the table or else he makes a mockery of the body and blood.

    But as I said earlier, because of what we see in the sacraments (actual sacraments and not ordinances) the Divine Service is a completely different animal than those who see symbols and ordinances.

    Also, my question was based more on the Hebrews passage and not so much the 1 Cor passage.

  51. Jim says:

    Matt 18 is also addressed to the Church, not it’s leaders.

  52. Xenia says:

    Hi London,

    Being a priest is more than having a title, it’s a special blessing, a charism, bestowed upon them by God to enable them to carry out their responsibilities.

  53. Xenia says:

    But it looks to me that Jesus only breathed on the Disciples and had them receive the Holy Spirit in a way that was different from the larger group (which included them again) that received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost which says to me that this was a special charism for a special group of men (and their successors.)


    And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22-23

  54. Matt 18 begins with the disciples coming to Jesus – disciples = the 12

  55. Jean says:


    Isn’t the whole idea of someone consecrating the bread and wine an extra-biblical tradition?

    I can’t recall anywhere in Scripture where leading the Lord’s supper is reserved to leaders. Is that also an extra-biblical tradition?

  56. It’s Jesus’ supper – “and then he took the bread and said …” hence the institution.

    Jesus did the first communion with the 12 only – he did not do it with the 120. –

    He taught the leaders how to pass it down – Paul uses the same words of institution.

  57. Jean says:


    This is fascinating. When we read Luke 22, did Luke include this text to instruct the reader (i.e., you and me) what to do, or did Luke include the text to instruct the apostles and their successors what to do? This hermeneutical issue runs through much of Scripture.

    What do you’all think?

  58. Jean says:

    Michael, I don’t know how broad the scope of your question was in terms of the “ministry of the keys,” but it seems to me that on the one hand extra-biblical tradition has interpreted Matthew 16:19 and other related Scriptures and have applied these texts to such things as administering the Lord’s Supper, Baptism and perhaps other sacraments; on the other hand, some evangelical traditions appear to have ignored or severely subordinated these texts in their ecclesiology.

    I don’t have any problem with tradition, especially if authority in the Bible is given to create such tradition, but I think such proponents should be transparent that they are extrapolating doctrine beyond what the actual text supplies. Conversely, I think it’s problematic to ignore texts or subordinate them when they don’t line up with my worldview. I don’t want to impute negative motives to evangelicals, but I haven’t seen any evangelical rebuttal to a traditional reading of the Matthew and John texts (as interpreted by the EO or LCMS. I actually believe such rebuttals are available, but most of the rebuttals I’ve read seem to be based more on personal discomfort rather than Scripture.

  59. Jean,
    Luke was not written to instruct the apostles anything. Luke wrote what Jesus did and said … after the fact.

    My thought is that both Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels as catechisms to teach the community in which they lived and taught.

  60. Jean says:

    Yes, I agree. So then, how do we get from teaching the community to reserving to the pastor the singular authority to administer the sacrament? Is it a biblical or tradition privilege?

  61. Babylon's Dread says:

    Authority is the central issue of all religious faith…
    It is also central to politics…
    It is central to culture…
    It is central to sports…
    Authority is life and death…

    I have decreed it so.

    Keyhole Dread

  62. In the scriptures I see no one ‘administering’ the Lord’s Supper except leaders.

    In other words, I never read, “Bob had his friends over for Coke and Pizza and decided to have communion.”

    I am sure if we look at early church history you will see the same thing. The church has always had a high regard for the office of pastor – but that was destroyed in part by the Calvinists who scorned anything that looked Roman and a little later by the real radical reformers who wanted nothing to do with anything done in the church’s past.

  63. Jean says:

    Thanks. That may be as far as we can flesh that issue out.

    On a related note, do you interpret the reference to “breaking of bread” in Acts 2:42 as a reference to the Lord’s supper? One of my reasons for asking is that if it is a reference to the Lord’s Supper, then the verse implies that the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper frequently.

  64. yes to “breaking the bread” as the Lord’s Supper – it sounds like it should be done when you gather together..

    My church does it every weekend.

    When you think about it, it sounds like they preached every time they got together also. I love it when pastors say (and many, many do) that they don’t like to serve communion often as the people will get bored with it or take it for granted.

    I always love to ask, why do you preach everytime, aren’t you afraid people will get bored or take your preaching for granted? Knocks them dead everytime.

    It all goes back to “what you are doing, why are you doing it and what is it you are doing it with.”

  65. Xenia says:

    I believe the Agape Meal and the Eucharist were two separate events in the life of the Church. I tried to sort it all out once using Scripture and early Christian writings. I didn’t come to any definite conclusions. I think I arrived at the tentative conclusion that the Agape Meal was something like a pot luck, not the same as the Eucharist.

  66. Ryan Ashton says:


    Just now saw your reply… Yeah! That makes sense. I agree. 🙂

  67. I have told this before – I was at my one and only men’s retreat and the guy is giving his message and in the middle says “btw, up on the table here we have the lord’s supper – as you feel called get up and partake.” that was it for me

    Then a couple of years later, the pastor is preaching and said something to the effect “my message was too important to cut short, so to save time on this communion day (once a month) taped to the bottom of your seat are the element.”

    Lo and behold, there they were in the little disposable packs. – that was it for me.

  68. I believe the Agape Meal and the Eucharist were two separate events

    I think they were 2 separate parts of the same event.

  69. Jean says:

    MLD, I had the same experience as your first example at a Baptist service, where Communion is served quarterly. I was horrified the church was violating 1 Cor 11 (serving the bread and wine in an unworthy manner). I don’t think I’ve ever felt such unholiness in a church before or since. I hope I’m not offending anyone, but I see the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament.

  70. (serving the bread and wine in an unworthy manner).

    LOL, I will bet in a Baptist service there was no wine to be found. 🙂

  71. SJ says:

    In John 20:20-23 and Matt verses does anyone believe that those were specifically given to the very special 12 at a very special time to begin the church and doctrine of salvation vs. the law. They are in heaven now. Where is the CONTINUED authority presented in scripture dictated to any pastor or priesthood in managing communion or forgiveness? Just through general understanding of the bible, why would you ask for these to be the charge of men, especially foregiveness?

    A murderer gets truly saved before the death penalty is completed, no time for the family or priest to come and forgive. He gonna burn right?

    Extra-biblical and of man, no? Set me straight.

    BTW, on the iPad, why do I have to click elsewhere first prior (I.e. email field) to getting my cursor back in the post box? Thx.

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