Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What Exactly is "Bound Conscience"?

Bound conscience is a term coined by the ELCA’s task force on human sexuality. ELCA scholar Timothy Wengert wrote an article attempting to justify the concept of bound conscience. Wengert cited several events during Luther’s priesthood where Luther discussed conscience and also referenced a number of passages in Scripture describing conscience. In Luther’s testimony at the Diet of Worms, he stated, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” Luther was being brought before the Holy Roman authorities after his posting of the 95 theses. Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church after that hearing.

From this testimony by Luther, Wengert extrapolates that what Luther truly believed to be the correct interpretation of Scripture was made by his “bound conscience”. It is with this bound conscience that when an interpretation of Scripture is made, even if the interpretation is in obvious error, that interpretation must be respected. Wengert cites another event that occurred in 1522, while Luther gave 8 sermons in 8 days in Wartburg. While Luther was away, other priests in his home town of Wittenburg made several fundamental changes in church doctrine at their parishes. One change forced congregants to take both the bread and wine during communion. It had been the practice to only offer the host to congregants at that time. Many of the parishioners were upset and confused with the changes. Luther stated that although he agreed that it was appropriate to offer both the host and the wine, that congregants should not be forced to receive the sacraments in both kinds. Wengert writes that even weak consciences, such as those of the Wittenburg parishioners, should be respected.

Wengert also cites 1 Corinthians 8:7-8 as an example of bound conscience. “But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” His explanation is that although this may seem a very trivial matter to people of today, eating food sacrificed to idols was considered by some to be idolatry and a sin against the First Commandment in Paul’s day.

Wengert uses these examples to justify a person adhering to his bound conscience in the matter of human sexuality. His explanation is that, if in one’s heart, someone truly believes that God will accept their behavior, then all should respect that opinion, even if Scripture forbids that behavior. While being more open and welcoming to the LGBT community is a noble and righteous cause, ignoring sin does not help our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. While we love and accept all sinners, we must endeavor to lead them to the Godly path, as God has set before us in Scripture. An unintended consequence of this new way of thinking, is that one’s bound conscience does not need only pertain to matters of human sexuality. Any and all Scripture is at risk to this doctrine. Scripture does not conform to this idea that conscience, bound to the self, should be respected above God’s word. It is a recurring theme that those that are in error or follow a false doctrine should be corrected. Jude verse 22, “Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire:” 1 John 5: 16, “If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life.” James 5: 19-20, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring them back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the way of error will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

It is the responsibility of the ELCA to guide us to the truth in our understanding of Scripture, not encourage us to put our own wants and desires above God’s law for us. Jude verse 4 states, “For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” 2 Peter 2: 2-3, “Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories.” While the leaders of the ELCA continue to distort the word of God, they take with them many of our brothers and sisters in Christ that look to the ELCA for leadership and guidance. 2 Peter 2:20-21, “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end that they were at the beginning.  It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, that to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.”

We are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God. What becomes of us if we say we have no sin? Why then did our Lord take our sins and bear them upon the cross? Why did he defeat death and rise again so that we may live? If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. There is a reason that we confess our sins and look to the cross. We are nothing without our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. When we put ourselves before God, we jeopardize our relationship with Him. 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” Pray for our brothers and sisters in the ELCA, that they may see the errors of their ways and hold fast to the word of God. The Holy Scripture is God’s law for us yesterday, today, and for all time.

1 comment:

  1. One of the key scripture passages which is being invoked in the "bound conscience" argument is Romans 14 (the entire chapter). Here the discussion is about eating meat, which some Christians would not eat, because all meat in a Roman city would have first been sacrificed at a pagan temple. Paul is saying that those who eat meat should respect the bound conscience of those who don't eat meat. It would be similar to not serving wine, when you invite a recovering alcoholic to dinner at your home.

    What Wengert is trying to do is apply this to same-sex partnerships, saying that those who think this can be done without sinning should respect the bound conscience of those who think it is a sin (and vice-versa). This reasoning works for scruples such as "can a Christian man have long hair, or can a Christian woman wear pants?" In Tanzania, our women wore dresses, respecting the bound conscience of our hosts. But can we apply this to sexual practices, or other moral issues? That's the issue.