“Conscience-bound Beliefs” Rule and the “Conscience-bound-belief” Rule

[1] What is striking about the ELCA’s August 2009 decisions about sexuality is that they changed policy without giving a scriptural account for the change. The policy change allows persons in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to be ordained, yet the change is not supported in any official church document on the basis of what “this church” (as the ELCA likes to call itself) holds to be the authoritative source and norm for its life and teaching.1

[2] Instead, the ELCA appealed to its members to respect the “conscience-bound beliefs” of persons who have different understandings regarding same-gender sexual behavior and relationships. This appeal to respect beliefs bound by conscience, it was assumed, gave “this church” the authority to accommodate different practices on ordination and blessings. On this question, then, “conscience-bound beliefs” rule in the ELCA, replacing any claim that Scripture authorizes or does not authorize same-gender sexual behavior. If “this church” is going to be consistent with what it stated about “conscience-bound beliefs,” it will also apply its new “conscience-bound-belief” rule to other issues. I hope to develop these themes in what follows.2

[3] Because the ELCA has elevated the concept of “conscience-bound beliefs” to such prominence for its life and teaching, the concept deserves careful scrutiny. The social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust made it the “pivotal” concept in how the ELCA “resolved” the most controversial, exhausting and expensive issue in its history, and therefore I look carefully at what is said there.3

Without a Biblical Teaching
[4] The social statement describes four positions on same-gender behavior and relationships with the preface: “This church recognizes that, with conviction and integrity:” (each individual description beginning) “On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that….”4 The four positions described may be simplified into two basic ones, each with two variations: one position does not approve same-gender sexual behavior and the other approves it within lifelong, loving, and monogamous commitments. The descriptions are brief, and no argument is presented for their biblical truth. References to, interpretation and discussion of biblical texts are absent from the descriptions.

[5] The social statement announces that “this church…will include these different understandings….” in its mission and ministry.5 Why are they included? The reason given is that they represent the “conscience-bound belief” of some.

[6] Does this mean that the ELCA affirms as its own biblical teaching four distinct teachings on same-gender sexual behavior and relationships? So I thought at one point, but I have changed my mind. If what is said here are descriptions — and nothing more — of what members are said to believe, as is claimed, then the ELCA is not saying that this is what “this church” teaches. None of the four positions is identified as the preferred or the true one. Nor does the social statement say that all four positions are equally valid or equally invalid for members to hold. No, the social statement is only descriptive; it does not make any judgment whatsoever about these positions it includes in its life. Most importantly, how could “this church” or any church body in its official teaching hold as true and faithful to Scripture contradictory positions on a matter of God’s law? What this all means, I finally realized, is that the ELCA has no biblical teaching on same-gender sexual behavior.6

[7] Before August 2009 the ELCA did have a teaching on same-sex sexual behavior as expressed in social statements from the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America.[7] This teaching was in accord with the Christian church’s universal tradition of biblical interpretation and with what most churches in the world teach today, as found, for example, in the statements from the Lutheran churches in Ethiopia and Tanzania: that same-sex sexual behavior is not in accord with the biblical witness.8 The ELCA declined to affirm this teaching as its own, and it did not give a scriptural argument on why it abandoned this teaching. It also declined to develop and affirm the teaching that same-gender sexual behavior in a committed relationship was, like marriage, pleasing to God. The ELCA abdicated in its authority to state its understanding of biblical truth on the issue.

[8] The absence of a teaching on same-gender sexual behavior seems to create major obstacles for anyone who in their teaching office represents the ELCA. When pastors, bishops or other teachers in the church are asked, “Does the ELCA believe and teach that same-sex sexual behavior is acceptable to God or not?,” the honest answer has to be: “We don’t know. We as a church don’t have a teaching on the matter.” It would be dishonest for a representative to claim one of the four positions as the ELCA’s teaching. If the follow-up question is, “What then should I believe the Bible says?” the answer would seem to be something like: “Study the Bible, pray, understand the issue, decide what you think is the biblical witness, and respect the beliefs of others. It’s an individual decision made, of course, in dialogue with others.”

[9] Without a scripturally based teaching to guide members’ beliefs that the ELCA claims as its own, the obligation to answer the question is foisted on each congregation, finally on each individual member. Any answer (one should probably add, within the parameters of the four positions described in the social statement, although, it seems, a “conscience-bound belief” could be outside them) is as good as any other in the ELCA since “this church” has no normative teaching by which to evaluate them. The decisive authority is the belief attested to by the individual’s conscience. “Conscience-bound beliefs” are in the driver’s seat. “All the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). If every congregation and individual is left to decide for themselves what authoritative, biblical teaching is, it is plausible to expect further fragmentation in an already divided church body.

[10] In ecumenical settings, when a representative of another church asks, “Why are persons in a committed same-gender relationship ordained in the ELCA?,” what does the ELCA representative reply? She or he may say that some in “this church” believe in their bound conscience that it should be done, that the highest authority in the ELCA approved it, that the ELCA is trying to find its way where no consensus exists, but the person will not be able to represent any interpretation as “this church’s” scriptural and confessional teaching on the matter. None exists. “Conscience-bound beliefs” rule. The representative may want to direct the discussion to topics such as living with differences, unity and reconciliation, or to assert that it really isn’t a serious matter of God’s law but one, like fasting, of indifference (see below).

[11] Because the social statement does not make any prescriptive judgment on the four “conscience-bound beliefs,” does this mean that their presentation as a whole is neutral? At first glance it may seem so, but there are good reasons to be suspicious of this apparent neutrality. On the one hand, the position (in its two variations) that had been “this church’s” teaching is now reduced to one of two options, and, on the other hand, the position (in its two variations) that was contrary to that teaching is now included as a legitimate option. Where a formerly clear teaching of “this church” becomes an option and its opposite receives legitimacy, the result can hardly be considered neutral. Will the adage that where orthodoxy becomes optional, it will soon become proscribed be verified in the practice of the ELCA and its teaching institutions?

[12] The suspicions increase about the social statement’s neutrality when one notes that this legitimacy provides the rationale for changing policy. The call to respect all options of bound conscience means (among other things) including a position — only described as held by some — by changing “this church’s” policy. The logic moves from the “is” of a description (minor premise) to the “ought” of a new policy (conclusion) on the basis of the “ought” to “respect the conscience-bound beliefs of others” (major premise), that is, to accommodate different options in policy. With this logic the social statement did not have to offer a biblical argument or clarify “this church’s” interpretation of Scripture, only to describe what some believe. A “conscience-bound-belief” rule, not a scriptural teaching and interpretation, enables the ELCA’s change in policy.

A Matter of Indifference?
[13] It would seem that if the ELCA had wanted to downplay the biblical significance of the sexuality question being addressed, it would not have used the concept of “conscience” to frame its discussion. Whatever the full meaning of “conscience-bound beliefs” might be, the use of “conscience” certainly connotes an individual’s firm, clear and sincere obligatory stance on a most serious issue. A “conscience-bound belief” does not refer to a mere opinion a person may have. One would not use the phrase in relation to a frivolous or unimportant issue or with matters the Augsburg Confession calls “indifferent” for Christians, such as fasting.9 The phrase voices a person’s sincerity and honesty in holding a profound conviction the person considers right or true. It suggests an individual’s certainty about a belief and his or her absence of perplexity or doubt about it. In its heroic version, a person with a “conscience-bound belief” is so committed and courageous, that she or he is willing to say (with words Martin Luther probably did not say at the Diet of Worms), “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

[14] Paul writes in Romans 2:15 that conscience bears witness to “what the law requires,” a law that “is written on their [Gentiles’] hearts.” An endnote referring to this text gives what comes closest in the social statement to defining “conscience”: “The Apostle Paul testifies to conscience as the unconditional moral responsibility of the individual before God (Romans 2:15–16).”10 The individual’s self-awareness before God of an “unconditional moral responsibility” is a very serious reality indeed. The social statement seems to echo Luther who believed that for Christians “consciences are bound only by a commandment of God” and not by human traditions and laws.11 If all this be the case, then the question about same-gender sexual behavior clearly would seem to be for the ELCA an important matter of God’s law as it has been in the Christian tradition.

[15] Nevertheless, this crucial endnote on “bound conscience” does move to downplay the biblical significance of the question about same-gender sexual behavior. Without explicitly denying that this question is a matter of God’s law, it obscures the status of the question with the categories it uses. Its key distinction is between “adamant” and “less adamant”; when the gospel is at stake, as with Paul in Galatians and Luther at Worms, Christian conscience is “adamant,” and with questions “about morality or church practice,” the Lutheran witness “is less adamant and believes we may be called to respect the bound conscience of the neighbor.” If salvation is not at stake, Christians “will protect the conscience of the neighbor.”12 The same more lenient attitude is appropriate for judging both moral behavior and church rituals.

[16] What is noteworthy is that the endnote does not use the three-fold distinction found in the Lutheran confessions of adiaphora, law and gospel.13 If it had done so, it would have had to be clear on whether the social statement considered the question at hand to be a matter of indifference (or similar to it) or one of the law, since the attitude toward each one is distinct. Instead the endnote lumps together matters of God’s law and “indifferent” matters (adiaphora) under the banner of “less adamant” without explaining why it does so. The social statement’s two attitudinal categories become two theological categories: gospel and adiaphora. Accordingly, for example, one must necessarily place together in the category of “less adamant” the morality of murder and the church practice of deciding which saint days to recognize. Some might think there is substantial difference between the two, one signaled by the difference between law and adiaphora. Merging the two into one allows the social statement, in relation to the decisive question of significance or status (law or adiaphora?), to imply that its issue is adiaphora (or should be treated as if it were adiaphora). The social statement, however, does not refute the classical view that same-gender sexual behavior is a matter of the law or establish that it is one of indifference. Its use of faulty categories in place of classical Lutheran categories bears an antinomian mark.

[17] In elevating its issue to one of “bound conscience” and yet downplaying it by linking it to the “less adamant” attitude, the social statement seems caught in a contradiction. It cannot have it both ways: If the question of same-gender sexual behavior is a matter of indifference, it does not bind the conscience; if it binds the conscience, it is not a matter of indifference.

[18] The endnote appeals for support to Paul’s discussions of the dispute Christians had about eating meat sacrificed to idols (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8:10–14 and 10:23–30).14 This reference implies that the question of same-gender sexual behavior is analogous to the meat controversy, and that, since neither question is a matter of God’s law, Christians should live with and respect their differences. Even when one sets aside the question if the moral seriousness of the two questions is the same, the analogy breaks down in that Paul voices the truth of the matter: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market…for ‘the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s'” (1 Corinthians 10:25–26). In contrast the social statement has no truth statement to make about its issue.

[19] Nor does the social statement identify which “conscience-bound belief” represents the “strong conscience” and which one represents the “weak conscience.” In refusing to name the “strong” and the “weak,” perhaps from fear of offending or demeaning some (a concern Paul apparently did not share), the social statement shows an indifference to truth. Paul recognized that the “strong conscience” was right, and the “weak” one in error, but called upon the former to consider in love the conscience of the latter. His call for compassionate practice did not arise from relativism (the two are equal) or agnosticism (I don’t know which one is true) but from clarity about the theological truth of the controversy. Luther too could be flexible and compassionate in his pastoral responses to specific situations but that did not mean compromising what he considered the truth of God’s revelation. Neither Paul nor Luther believed that in the church error had the same “rights” as truth. In his commentary on Romans 14 Luther builds on Paul’s commitment to truth in insisting that the strong are also obligated to instruct the weak: “Those who are strong should instruct the weak; those who are weak should let themselves be instructed. Then peace and love will prevail among both.”15 Truth in the church does matter; it may even be the condition for peace and love.

[20] The social statement does not give “this church” much help in threshing out the meaning of “respect” as the proper attitude toward “bound conscience.” What is said about “adamant” and “less adamant” attitudes gives a clue: Since the call to respect the conscience of persons only enters the picture when the “less adamant” attitude applies, respect seems to mean acceptance of differences, tolerance and forbearance within “this church” of contrary positions, an attitude of “Let’s agree to disagree.” Such an attitude is proper for indifferent matters in church practice, but it is not, for example, the attitude one finds in Luther’s explanation of the Ten Commandments in his catechisms, where he is clear and firm about what Christians should and should not do. There God’s law is bound to the authority of Scripture, and love does not cancel out the Ten Commandments but the two depend on and interpret each other.

[21] The social statement’s implication that the attitudes of being “adamant” and “respecting bound conscience” are mutually exclusive is unfounded. There is no contradiction about being adamant about the gospel and respecting the conscience of the neighbor. Persons who do not believe the gospel or who promote heresies are often holding “conscience-bound beliefs,” and Christians should respect such persons while insisting that their views are mistaken. To respect their “bound conscience” and to respect their “conscience-bound beliefs” are two different things. Even when salvation is at stake Christians should protect the conscience of the neighbor, that is, they should never compel the neighbor to believe.

[22] To respect conscience, properly understood, is to honor the neighbor’s dignity as a creature of God and to be civil with her and him. It is to recognize that the person holding the belief is sincere; it does not require accepting what the person believes or affirming it as right or true. A respectful attitude toward the conscience of the neighbor may well involve criticizing and denouncing in strong terms the beliefs (and actions) coming from an erroneous bound conscience. Respecting conscience is an important attitude in the church, but respecting “conscience-bound beliefs” has not been the authority on which the church has relied in defining its creeds, confessions and teachings. Nor should the church so rely.

“Bound Conscience” or “Conscience-bound Beliefs”?
[23] The phrase “bound conscience” recalls Luther at the Diet of Worms: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the words of God.” His words are quoted in an endnote of the social statement, but to what end?16 There they are used only to illustrate an “adamant” attitude and not as a model for “the less adamant” attitude where the call becomes “respect the bound conscience of the neighbor.” The clear meaning of the phrase “conscience-bound beliefs” is “beliefs bound by conscience”; its plain meaning is not “conscience bound by Scripture.” Nowhere does the social statement explicitly state that these “conscience-bound beliefs” are “bound” by Scripture, nor does it show or attempt to show how these beliefs are “captive to the words of God.” While these few pages that deal with same-gender sexual behavior mention various times the obligation to respect or honor conscience or its beliefs, not once do they admonish readers to honor Scripture as the church’s authority. At the very least the social statement is unclear about the meaning of “conscience-bound beliefs,” their relation to Scripture, and the authority it gives to conscience in the church.

[24] Nevertheless, I have to assume that in an official Lutheran document the social statement intends to claim that the persons whose beliefs they describe are, like Luther, “bound by Scripture.” While no one can know and judge the conscience of another and determine to what it is bound, the message is that members in “this church” should simply accept that these consciences are captive to Scripture.17 Since Luther’s powerful example apparently stands behind this reliance on “conscience-bound beliefs,” it is worth asking if the social statement’s concept differs from Luther’s “bound conscience.”

[25] In these famous words, Luther states at least three additional things: 1) “Unless [he] is persuaded by the testimony of Scripture and by clear reason,” he will not recant; 2) He does “not trust either in the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves”; 3) He “cannot and [he] will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”

[26] Luther’s words at Worms have been subjected to many interpretations over the centuries, so let three scholars clarify what he was saying there about conscience.
Michael G. Baylor writes:

Repeatedly at Worms Luther asserted that his conscience was captive to the Word of God. But he did not say, and he should not be interpreted as having intended to say, that Scripture was captive to his conscience. In that Luther’s defiance at the Diet of Worms was based upon both evident reason and, especially, the literal sense of Scripture as two objective and legitimate authorities with the power to bind and instruct his conscience, he was not a subjectivist in religion. The subjective sense of certainty with which he held his theological convictions did not function, either materially or formally, as a criterion for the truth of these convictions. It acted, rather, as the basis from which he resisted the claims of what he refused to accept as a legitimate authority — any human authority, specifically popes and councils. Luther did not raise the conscience itself to the status of such an authority, parallel to that of reason or Scripture, with its own power even to share in or partly determine the content of faith.18

Randall C. Zachman writes:

The conscience does not have the ability to judge the truth or falsehood of the positions themselves; otherwise Luther’s appeal at Worms to be further instructed would be meaningless. Rather, the conscience judges the contradiction between one’s public position and what one acknowledges to be true. However, through the malice of Satan, the conscience can both ignore true teaching and be bound by false teaching; thus the conscience is not a fit criterion by which to judge true versus false laws. In other words, Luther describes the conscience more as a power to receive instruction than as a power of autonomous self-legislation. The conscience is a capacity for judging good and evil but is not of itself an infallible source for knowing what is good and what is evil. One can have a true conscience only if one follows true teaching, not if one follows the feeling of the conscience. For Luther, such true teaching is found only in the Word of God. “God wants our conscience to be certain and sure that it is pleasing to Him. This cannot be done if the conscience is led by its own feelings, but only if it relies on the Word of God.” The Word of God is the sole criterion by which to judge the true teaching of the law.19

Paul Tillich writes:

Luther’s famous words before the emperor in Worms…are based on the traditional Christian doctrine of conscience. But neither in Paul nor in Aquinas nor in Luther is the conscience a religious source. They all keep the authority of conscience within the ethical sphere. Luther’s refusal to recant his doctrine of justification is an expression of his conscientiousness as a doctor of theology. He declares that he would recant if he were refuted by arguments taken from Scripture or reason, the positive source and the negative criterion of theology. But he does not say — as often has been stated by liberal Protestants — that his conscience is the source of his doctrine.20

[27] These three perspectives show that for Luther the authority of conscience is limited and often unreliable. To expand on the point, conscience is only one authority in the moral life, and it is a particular kind of authority: subjective. It is inner judgment, inaccessible to others. Conscience is not the direct voice of God or an infallible divine spark within but part of our creatureliness whose good and bad judgments are formed in our relationships. These judgments may be rational, emotional or simply habitual; they may be reflective or rash.

[28] When the judgments of conscience differ, as they often do (as in the social statement), appealing to them settles nothing about what is true and right. They need to be tested and validated by appeals to an external authority. Conscience is not only a limited but also a fallible authority, and its judgments are often mistaken. The sincerity of conscience should not be confused with truth; “it is quite possible to be extremely sincere and completely wrong.”21 The directives of conscience often appear as self-serving. Great evils have been done in the name of “conscience-bound beliefs.” It is small wonder that “philosophers have generally judged appeals to conscience alone as untrustworthy.”22 Plentiful are the good reasons to distrust beliefs and judgments that are vouched for solely by the authority of conscience.

[29] Luther of course is not doing this when, as he concludes his defense against heresy, he appeals to the well-established belief in the Western Church that a person should not violate his or her conscience, even when that conscience is in error.23 He is not saying that because he sincerely holds his beliefs about the gospel to be true, they are for that reason true. The “unless” of his statement is crucial: it shows both that Luther recognizes that in his bound conscience he could be wrong, and it names the external, public authorities by which the truth of his beliefs should be evaluated. Scripture and reason (and not popes and councils alone) are authoritative in discerning truth in and for the church, not his conscience. Luther expects his opponents to acknowledge his “bound conscience,” but he is not asking them to respect his “conscience-bound beliefs.” He is asking them to test them. “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (I Thess. 5:21).24

[30] There is a subtle but very significant change in the language from the endnotes to the text of the social statement. In the endnote the call is “to respect the bound conscience of the neighbor,” or to “honor the conscience.”25 In the text the language is “deep respect for the conscience-bound beliefs of others” or “profound respect for the conscience-bound belief of the neighbor.”26 The first is a universal obligation, as noted above; the second is an obligation only when the belief is shown to be true. Because the conscience errs, beliefs need to be tested and earn their respect by being true. Luther, for example, respected the conscience of Erasmus (we may assume), but he disdained Erasmus’ conscience-bound beliefs because they did not measure up to Scripture. The social statement uses “bound conscience” and “conscience-bound beliefs” as if they were the same and fails to alert readers to their important differences. Since the social statement makes no truth judgment about the different beliefs, the only reason one should respect them seems to be because they are said to be beliefs bound by conscience. The subjective beliefs of sincere consciences thereby become decisive in “resolving” the issue at hand, displacing Scripture as “this church’s” authority. In this the social statement differs from Luther at Worms.27

The “Unbound” Conscience
[31] In its decision to hinge the coherence of what it states on same-gender sexual behavior on “conscience,” the ELCA tied itself to a thorny and disputed concept. Both the history of the concept and popular usage show a great variety of meanings and uses.28 What the social statement says about the concept itself is, understandably, minimal and incomplete. It seems to operate with a very high regard for the authority of conscience in determining right belief and with the understanding that the function of conscience is to guide an individual’s beliefs and actions. It does not, however, offer critical reflection on the concept of conscience, its authority (see above) and its function.

[32] Luther has an important role in the history of the concept. What is most characteristic of and most important in his understanding of conscience is its function, its “essentially accusing function,”29 not its directive function. This function is ignored in the social statement. “The proper work of conscience (as Paul says in Romans 2[:15]), is to accuse or excuse, to make guilty or guiltless, uncertain or certain,” writes Luther.30 The most common adjective to describe conscience in Luther and the Lutheran confessions is not “bound” but “terrified” and its equivalents. Luther’s own was a “bruised conscience,” terrified by the experience of “Anfechtung,” of temptation, “that unremitting spiritual conflict which never ends until death, the final “Anfechtung” for which all previous temptation is a preparation.”31

[33] Scholars who have studied Luther’s understanding of conscience underscore its accusing function. Baylor shows that Luther’s innovation from the scholastics was that conscience not only judged actions, but “it also judges about the agent who performs these actions, the individual or person as a whole.”32 Oliver O’Donovan observes, “With Luther interest in the conscience swung back from the prospective exercise of practical reason to the retrospective experience of guilt, which afforded an opportunity for a striking recovery of its theological and soteriological content.”33 Zachman’s summary of Luther’s understanding affirms what Baylor and O’Donovan say:

The conscience is the power of the soul that judges what the person does on the basis of what the person should do, thereby rendering the person either condemned or acquitted — that is, justified — before God. Apart from the grace of Christ, the conscience only finds grounds for condemnation before God, no matter how hard it tries to overcome such condemnation by the performance of good works. The grace of Jesus Christ frees the conscience from its attempt to justify itself before God by trusting in its own works, and places the trust of the conscience in the righteousness and forgiveness of Christ alone.34

[34] George Forell speaks of conscience as a location, an inner space, where bad things happen: “For Luther conscience is the place where the law, death, and the devil encounter the human being and drive him into despair. The guilty conscience is one of the most terrifying human experiences.” The joyful conscience comes as the gift of trust in God.35 Reinhard Huetter distinguishes Luther’s concept from one that guides action and that does not take sin into account: “For Luther the conscience is where we are always already most radically addressed and questioned by God’s word and exposed to God’s judgment. Faith, the very acceptance of God’s judgment in Christ’s cross and resurrection, is the good conscience….Without faith conscience remains anxious, exposed to the pressing onslaught of the law’s continuous unmasking of our radical estrangement from God.”36 Gerhard Forde captures the untrustworthiness of conscience: Conscience “is insatiable, fickle, and arbitrary. It does not represent God’s presence within us, it represents his absence, that we are left to ourselves. Conscience can unpredictably make mockery of any presumed freedom and emancipation….[Its] voice is insatiable, especially in the face of death.” He quotes one of Luther’s favorite examples of the workings of conscience: The ‘”rustling of the leaf makes the world too small and becomes our wrathful God.'”37

[35] If the social statement had spoken of this accusing function of conscience or had integrated it into what it says about conscience, readers might have learned how sin, guilt, judgment, self-justification (the easy conscience that excuses), self-deception and despair play into people’s “conscience-bound beliefs.” They would have been reminded that Lutherans tend to be suspicious of any arrogant and optimistic understanding of conscience. People who are sinners and saints at the same time know their “conscience-bound beliefs” are often “unbound,” that is, self-serving, curved in on themselves, fleeing God’s judgment. Because they know that conscience is an inner place of conflict and struggle, they will not be easily swayed simply by appeals to sincere belief or beliefs bound by conscience. They will take every precaution to ensure that their understanding of conscience cannot be confused with the Enlightenment view that conscience is an autonomous power that determines what is true, right or morally responsible.38 The possibility and the reality of the “unbound conscience” should make Lutherans even more leery of trusting individual consciences to trump or neutralize the church’s teachings about the law.

The Door Is Open
[36] Let us assume that my and other criticisms miss the mark, and the “conscience-bound-belief” approach is rightly interpreted as a brilliant way to address differences in “this church.” Or, more simply, let us remember that the ELCA has committed itself to this approach and that commitment is not likely to be revoked. If its commitment is genuine (as it surely is) and not opportunistic (only for one occasion), the ELCA will apply the same approach to other issues. Indeed the social statement articulates a principle that the ELCA has now adopted for determining its teachings and policies on “morality and church practice.”39 It can be formulated as a rule and called the “conscience-bound-belief” rule.

[37] The social statement voices this principle in two places. Immediately preceding the descriptions of the four “conscience-bound beliefs,” the text reads:

We understand that, in this discernment about ethics and church practice, faithful people can and will come to different conclusions about the meaning of Scripture and about what constitutes responsible action. We further believe that this church, on the basis of “the bound conscience,” will include these different understandings and practices within its life as it seeks to live out its mission and ministry in the world.40

The endnote reads:

This social statement draws upon this rich understanding of the role of conscience and calls upon this church, when in disagreement concerning matters around which salvation is not at stake, including human sexuality, to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), honor the conscience, and seek the well-being of the neighbor.41

[38] Clearly the social statement is expressing a principle, one that includes sexuality but goes beyond it; in fact it applies to any “conscience-bound” disagreement about ethics and church practice. Following the model of the sexuality social statement, one might state the rule in this way: If among ELCA members there are differences of beliefs that bind the conscience on matters of ethics and church practice, the ELCA in its official teaching documents will acknowledge and describe these differences without evaluation and will not claim to have a teaching of its own.

[39] A couple of examples will help to illustrate the possible meaning of this rule that flows from the principle to which the ELCA has committed itself.

[40] The social statement understands (or seems to understand) marriage “as a covenant between a man and a woman.”42 Certainly there are ELCA members who believe marriage is a covenant between two persons, regardless of gender. Marriage, in the perspective of the social statement, is not a matter in which salvation is at stake. Should not the ELCA then, in light of its “conscience-bound-belief” rule, revise what it says about marriage? If it were to do so, its social statement would read: “This church recognizes that, with conviction and integrity, on the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman….” The next paragraph would repeat the introductory phrases and say, “…some are convinced that marriage is a covenant between two persons, regardless of gender….” There would be no biblical argument or evaluation, both would be included in “this church’s” mission and ministry,” and the ELCA would not have a biblical teaching on marriage.

[41] The “Draft Social Statement on Genetics” states that this church “accepts the use [for scientific research] of surplus frozen embryos that were created for infertility treatment but are no longer needed.”43 If this were to become ELCA teaching with the adoption of a social statement on genetics, it would be the basis for ELCA teaching and for its advocacy in the public and corporate realm. The issue involves human dignity, life, death and possible benefits for others. The stated position expresses the conscience-bound belief of some in the ELCA. Other members hold the conscience-bound belief that no human embryo should be used for scientific research, and others believe the draft statement imposes too many restrictions. The “conscience-bound-belief” rule would seem to require that the genetics social statement follow the sexuality statement model and respect these opposing “conscience-bound beliefs,” since to teach and advocate one belief would burden the conscience of the others. Respecting the “conscience-bound beliefs” of some (rather it be twenty or two million) is more important than having a public position, if the sexuality social statement is the model.

[42] There are also many practical ramifications of the principle articulated around “respecting the conscience-bound beliefs of the neighbor.” If congregations set up “conscience-bound” funds as an alternative to ELCA benevolence, for example, are they not being consistent with this principle? If church officials make it difficult for congregations to leave the ELCA because of their disagreement with the ELCA’s 2009 sexuality decisions, how are they honoring the conscience of their neighbor? Since “this church” is committed to this principle, should not its Board of Pensions be directed to set up a “conscience-bound” fund that excludes payment for abortions for those who object to its current policy? How wide is the door opened by the “conscience-bound-belief” rule?

Concluding Note
[43] I recall two statements from Luther:

Church councils (assemblies) “have often erred.”

“If you can convince me through Scripture, do not doubt that I will submit….”44

John R. Stumme is former Director for Studies of the ELCA’s Church in Society program unit.


1. The ELCA in its constitution states that Scripture is “the authoritative source and norm of [this church’s] proclamation, faith, and life” (ELCA 2.03). The 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted the social statement “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” (ELCA: 2009) and four ministry policy resolutions. For more information on these documents and a link to ELCA Ministry Policies go to the Web site “Frequently Asked Questions about the 2009 Churchwide Assembly actions regarding sexuality” (http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Social-Statements/JTF-Human-Sexuality/cwafaqs.aspx#policy).

2. I thank Victor Thasiah for his invitation to write on “bound conscience” for JLE. My line of thought continues the argument I made in a JLE article in 2005 that the ELCA has an obligation to be clear on its biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality before it changes its policies. “Moral discourse structured by communally accepted ‘objective convictions’ is the controlling factor in moral deliberation, not personal experiences or individual consciences.” Here I argue that because the social statement side-steps the question of biblical truth, the ELCA’s policy changes lack a trustworthy basis in the church’s authoritative teachings. Cf. “The Church as a Community of Moral Deliberation — a Time of Testing,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 5:8 (August 2005).

3. My intent is to give a close reading to the actual text of the social statement in the section “Lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships,” 18–21, and its endnotes, # 24–26. The social statement calls the concept of conscience “pivotal,” #26.

4. “Human Sexuality,” 20.

5. “Human Sexuality,” 19.

6. The social statement notes that “this church is united on many critical issues” regarding same-gender relations and “that it has a pastoral responsibility to all children of God.” “Human Sexuality,” 19. Rev. Dr. William O. Gafkjen, now Bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, in an online response (www.iksynod.org) to Dr. Robert Benne, wrote: “The clear teaching and proclamation emerge around assertions that public accountability and lifelong faithful monogamy are to be the norm for same-gender relations.” “Response to ‘Lutherans in Search of a New Church’.” (July 2010). The bishop has stated the policy, but he has begged the question on how the ELCA arrived at a biblically-based teaching that approves same-gender sexual behavior. In fact, it has not.

7. “Sex, Marriage, and Family,” Lutheran Church in America (1970), 4. “Human Sexuality and Sexual Behavior,” American Lutheran Church (1980), 8–9. Where social statements from the predecessor church bodies were in agreement, they remained the teaching of the ELCA until it adopted its own teaching.

8. See “The Dodoma Statement” of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (www.elct.org) and the Ethiopian Evangelical Church of Mekane Yesus (www.eecmy.org), including its April 2010 news release, “EECMY Reaffirms its Rejection of Same Sex Marriage.”

9. “Concerning the Distinctions of Foods,” Augsburg Confession, XXVI, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 77.7.

10. “Human Sexuality,” #26, 41. Because this key concept has many meanings, it would seem essential to have in the social statement a clear definition of “conscience.” What is given, however, hardly serves as a definition, and what it says is imprecise and could be misleading. The danger is in thinking conscience is itself an “unconditional moral responsibility” (like the voice of God) instead of the self-awareness of an obligation, as I suggest in the text, or better yet, as a judgment by the self of one’s acts in light of this or another norm. Conscience does not contain, possess, establish or give the law but witnesses to the law that judges the act or person, accusing or excusing her or him. Without such distinctions conscience becomes an autonomous source of what is right and true.

The following sentence in the endnote states that “in the face of different conclusions about what constitutes responsible action,” the concept of conscience is “pivotal.” The logic of the argument is not readily apparent. The idea seems to be because of differences, “this church” must rely on individuals’ conscience to decide what constitutes biblical truth (since what is “responsible action” in this context is tied up with “belief”). If that is the proper interpretation, it illustrates the social statement’s move to place final authority in the individual’s conscience. It also calls on conscience to perform a task it is not equipped to do, that is, to determine truth.

The key phrase in the endnote’s “definition” recalls Paul Tillich who wrote: “In principle, Christianity has always maintained the unconditional moral responsibility of the individual person in the Pauline doctrine of conscience” (139). Tillich here is not defining conscience nor is he saying conscience should be the ultimate arbiter in determining the church’s teaching; rather he is laying the basis for why Christians have believed one should not violate one’s conscience. What Tillich writes in this essay is helpful in understanding conscience. The concept comes from the Greek and Roman world. The “Greek word syneidenai (‘knowing with,’ namely, with one’s self; ‘being witness of one’s self’)” was used in Greek popular culture to describe “the act of observing one’s self, often as judgment.” Tillich claims that the original phenomenon is the “accusing and judging conscience.” When the self discovers a split in itself between what is and what ought to be, “the basic character of conscience — the consciousness of guilt — is obvious.” Tillich quotes Shakespeare’s King Richard to illustrate: ‘”My conscience hath a thousand several tongues…crying all, Guilty! guilty,'” (136–138). “The Transmoral Conscience,” in The Protestant Era (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948), 136–149.

C.A. Pierce concludes that the New Testament took the concept from Greek popular thought, leaving it intact and placing it in the “richer setting” of the biblical God. “Conscience in the New Testament…is the painful reaction of man’s nature, as morally responsible, against infringements of its created limits….” Conscience in the New Testament (Chicago: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1955), 108. Oliver O’Donovan, in his insightful survey of the concept in Christian history, writes, “At no point in the New Testament, as Pierce pointed out long ago, does conscience have a directive role, instructing us how to act.” The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2005), 303. Wolfhart Pannenberg writes that conscience in Paul “finds expression in the consciousness of sinners as an indictment that convicts them of their sin.” In post-Pauline literature, “the function of conscience continues to be one of judging; conscience does not legislate or give guidance.” Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985), 297, 298.

As will be noted later, the social statement does not speak of the judging function of conscience nor of sin and guilt in its presentation of “conscience-bound beliefs.”

11. The Bondage of the Will, Luther’s Works, III, ed. Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 49. Luther is attacking “the tyranny of papal laws” which burden consciences.

12. “Human Sexuality,” #26, 41.

13. In Apology of the Augsburg Confession Melanchthon uses “adiaphora” when talking about “Human Traditions in the Church.” Since they neither justify nor are necessary for the righteousness of faith, Lutherans teach “liberty in these matters,” one “that should be exercised moderately.” A footnote adds: “Melanchthon uses the Greek term (rendered in Jonas’ German translation as ‘customs that can be kept without sin or burden to the conscience’), which was often used by Stoic philosophers to designate actions that were neither good nor evil.” The Book of Concord, 230.49–52. The Solid Declaration describes “adiaphora or indifferent things” as “ceremonies and ecclesiastical practices that are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word but have been introduced into the church with good intentions for the sake of good order and decorum or to maintain Christian Discipline.” Ibid., 635.1 Early on Luther in lectures and sermons made a three-fold distinction similar to adiaphora, law and gospel using the three elements of the Tabernacle of Moses: court, sanctuary and the holy of holies. In “Sermon of the Threefold Good Life to Instruct the Conscience,” he equated the court with external actions and “rejected the view that such actions were a proper concern for the conscience and warned against the errors of those who ‘…hang conscience on these outward things’.” Michael G. Baylor, Action and Person: Conscience in Late Scholasticism and the Young Luther (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977), 197. Clearly Luther and the confessions deal with adiaphora differently than they do with matters of the law. Since with “indifferent” matters there is no command of God to bind the conscience, they call for flexibility in dealing with them.

14. “Human Sexuality,” #26, 41.

15. Baylor, 146. Here Luther shows his patience in dealing with “unhealthy scrupulousness,” with an erroneous conscience that “believed something to be sinful which was actually not prohibited” in contrast to one that regarded an act as good, or not sinful, when it was in fact forbidden by God’s law. (145) In relation to same-gender sexual behavior, either the conscience that does not approve (overly scrupulous) or the one that does approve (doing the forbidden) is erroneous. Lacking a truth norm, the social statement cannot tell us which of the two is erroneous. Neither can it admonish the faithful about the person with the erroneous conscience as Luther does here: ‘”One must not encourage him to act according to this weakness or faith, but he must be cared for and nourished in order that he may grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.'” (150) See Baylor’s lengthy discussion of Luther’s commentary on Romans 14, 145–151. For other translations of the Luther quote in the text see Luther: Lectures on Romans, ed. Wilhelm Pauck (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 395, and Luther’s Works, 25, Lectures on Romans, ed. Hilton C. Oswald (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 500.

16.”Human Sexuality,” #26, 41.

17. Endnote #25 quotes two biblical scholars who agree that ‘”the disagreements are genuine’.”

18. Baylor, 267–8.

19.The Assurance of Faith. Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 23, 28.

20. Tillich, 139–140.

21.George W. Forell, “Luther and Conscience,” Encounters with Luther, I, ed. Eric W. Gritsch (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Institute for Luther Studies, Lutheran Theological Seminary, 1980), 227.

22. Tom L. Beauchamp. Philosophical Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1892), 266. An exception to what Beauchamp says are Roman Catholic moral theologians and philosophers who tend to understand conscience as a judgment of practical reason set within a rich understanding of the moral life. See, for example, Conscience: Readings in Moral Theology No. 14, ed. Charles E. Curran (New York: Paulist Press, 2004).

23. According to Baylor, one cornerstone of the scholastic view of the authority of conscience is “that to act against conscience is always sinful.” But that is not all: “The second essential element in the foundation was the principle that to act according to conscience is not always good…although it is sinful to act against even an erroneous conscience, when conscience is in error it is not right to follow conscience.” (145) Luther was aware of this dilemma, and “the solution that Luther advocated was like that of the scholastics: the moral dilemma — that evil is done whether conscience is followed or violated — is only apparent; for the erroneous conscience can be set aside through instruction.” Baylor thinks that Luther regarded heretics “acting in accordance with an erroneous conscience as sinful.” (147) The social statement would affirm the first principle, but it ignores the second. Since there is no truth, there is no erroneous conscience to instruct.

24. “Repeatedly in the course of his conflict with Rome, between 1518–1521, Luther cited the advice of Paul (1 Thess. 5:21), ‘Test everything; hold fast what is good’.” Baylor, 262.

25. “Human Sexuality,” #26, 41. In the one reference to “the bound conscience” in the text of the social statement, the words are placed in quotation marks and the reader is referred to endnote #26, 19.

26. “Human Sexuality,”19, 21. In addition, each summary of positions begins “on the basis of conscience-bound belief,” 20, and there is one “conscience-bound understanding,” 19. The phrase is used seven times in the text and not once in the endnote.

27. Luther asserted that his conscience was captive to Scripture but that in itself did not mean that it was. “Luther’s acknowledgement that his conscience was open to correction and his urging that, if possible, it be enlightened indicate, at least, that he saw no necessary connection between the truth of his theological position, and whatever subjective experience of certainty it might engender. It would have been disingenuous of Luther, to say the least, both at Augsburg and at Worms, to maintain that his conscience is open to correction, and at the same time to assert a theological position dependent upon, or in some sense derived from a sense of unshakable certainty in the conscience.” Baylor, 261.

28. Tillich, O’Donovan and Pannenberg (see #10) show some of the variety of meanings and uses of the concept of conscience.

29. Forell, 220.

30. “The Judgment of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows, 1521,” Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society, 44, ed. James Atkinson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 298.

31.Gordon Rupp takes the term “bruised conscience” from John Bunyan to title a chapter on Anfechtung. The chapter includes numerous statements from Luther on the guilty conscience coram deo. The Righteousness of God: Luther Studies (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1953), 105.

32. Baylor, 201.

33. O’Donovan, 307.

34. Zachman, 2.

35. Forell, 223. Characters in Shakespeare’s tragedies give voice to this “most terrifying” inner experience. “Conscience — vast, frightening tracts of it — is all inside. As Brutus, Hamlet, and Macbeth will variously discover.” Tony Tanner, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010), 493.

36. “The Twofold Center of Lutheran Ethics,” The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, eds. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 49.

37. “Christian Life,” Christian Dogmatics, II, eds. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 417–8. Edmund Schlink states what is well known: “This experience of the anxieties of the terrified conscience is again and again mentioned in all the Confessions.” Theology of the Lutheran Confessions (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), 76.

38. Heiko A. Oberman opposes the Enlightenment notion that viewed Luther’s stance at Worms as “the principle of freedom of conscience.” “But that is missing the whole point. Appealing to conscience was common medieval practice; appealing to a ‘free’ conscience that had liberated itself from all bonds would never have occurred to Luther. Nor did he regard ‘conscience’ as identical with the inescapable voice of God in man. Conscience is neither neutral nor autonomous: hotly contested by God and the Devil, it is not the autonomous center of man’s personality, it is always guided and is free only once God has freed and ‘captured’ it. What is new in Luther is the notion of absolute obedience to the Scriptures against any authorities; be they popes or councils.” Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1989), 204.

39. “Human Sexuality,” #26, 41.

40. “Human Sexuality,” 19.

41. “Human Sexuality,” #26, 41.

42. “Human Sexuality,”15. I write “seems to” because the social statement uses descriptive language at this point: “The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman….” Its commitment to this understanding of marriage seems to be timid and ambiguous since it did not choose to state something like, “We affirm, along with the historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions….”

43. “Draft Social Statement on Genetics,” ELCA Task Force on Genetics (Church in Society, ELCA, March 2010), 29.

44. Luther Works, 39:217. Quoted in William H. Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 35.

John R. Stumme

Dr. John R. Stumme is a retired ELCA Pastor. When he wrote this piece, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires and Vice-President of the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida in Argentina. After ten years in Argentina, he worked for almost two decades with the ELCA's Church in Society unit as Associate Director and Director for its Department for Studies.