Conscience-Bound or Conscience-Liberated: What’s best for the ELCA?

[1] Since the release of the ELCA Task Force recommendations in January 2005, the focus of the conversation has shifted in part toward the concept of conscience. In its recommendations, the Task Force refers on numerous occasions to “conscience-bound positions” as the focal point of differences concerning the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of persons in those unions, and it makes the integrity of the conscience one of its primary rationales for the recommendations.1 In turn, scholars and church leaders have responded from various corners on the question of conscience, offering their interpretations of conscience and what it means for this dialogue.2

[2] But what is the conscience? And what does it have to do with this process of deciding whether or not gay and lesbian persons in long-term, monogamous, faithful relationships should have their relationships blessed and/or be ordained in the ELCA? If the conscience is bound, as the Task Force continually remind us, to what or whom is it bound: To the private self and its personal desires? To the culture? To sin? To nature? To God’s will in Scripture? To Christ? Can the conscience ever be free, and if so, what might this liberated conscience mean for the current discussion in the ELCA?

[3] While these questions are fascinating to consider, I do not propose to answer all of them with any depth in this short article. Instead, I will center my discussion on the final question, asking whether or not we might do better to speak of a “liberated conscience” as opposed to a “bound” one. What might a focus on the “liberated conscience” mean for the current discussion?

[4] Generally speaking, conscience is often described as the place or source in the human person that steers her or him toward right actions and away from wrong ones. There seem to be two general approaches when it comes to how this conscience guides us. On the one hand, the conscience is considered “bound” to an authority external to the person; the moral guide is something other than the person herself. The conscience is not free to follow its own will, but rather is expected to follow the will of God, the natural law implanted by God, the tradition, society, Scripture, or some other authority external to the individual.

[5] On the other hand, since the Enlightenment, the conscience has been considered autonomous or “free,” bound only to each individual’s personal authenticity and integrity. The individual, rational will searches itself, knows itself and then follows its own guidance as a moral agent, and the imposition of any external authority on the individual conscience is viewed as tyrannical.

[6] Paul’s approach to the conscience is somewhat different than either of these approaches for he considers the conscience to be less a moral guide and more a seat of judgment on the human. In Romans 2:15, Paul points to the conscience as that which “bears witness” to the law written on the hearts of Gentiles rather than that power which guides them to follow the law. The conscience “confirms” Paul’s honesty “by the power of the Holy Spirit” in Romans 9:11, and judges his conscience clear. And in the discussion of whether it is right for a follower of Christ to eat meat sacrificed to idols, Paul calls on the Christian to avoid eating such meat if it offends the conscience of another…for the sake of the other’s conscience, not her own. (1 Cor. 8, 10)3

[7] Luther follows Paul’s lead by centering the conscience in a similar anthropology. The conscience is a not moral guide to acting rightly in the world; it is the “site of a struggle between the hopeless ethical and religious justification through the law and the faith in the justifying word of God.”4 The conscience bound by sin is unable to follow the law and is terrified of God’s wrathful judgment as it attempts to find right-relationship with God through its own works. The free conscience, liberated by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, lives in the right-relationship with God through faith which trusts in the loving God and acts to produce good works of love. In a word, the conscience, like the rest of the human person, is simul – simultaneously guilty and liberated from its guilt in Christ.

[8] Wolfhart Pannenberg also offers an understanding of conscience that is rooted in a socio-relational anthropology.5 While his discussion of conscience is too complex to dive into for this short article, three central ideas emerge from his argument that contribute to our understanding of conscience.

[9] First, Pannenberg views the conscience as social. “Conscience has a social matrix; it develops in the context of social relations,” he states.6 In Pannenberg’s thought, humans are ultimately relational, and come to be persons with personality and conscience only in relationship with one another, the world around them, and God who is at the foundation of everything. This means that conscience can never be a “private” matter, centered only in one’s own truth. Because conscience is formed socially, it will only discover its “truth” in relationship to that which exists outside the self, including God.

[10] Second, for Pannenberg, conscience is, or at least should be, autonomous. In fact, it must be autonomous for it to exist as a functional conscience. Pannenberg challenges an “authoritarian” understanding of conscience, where norms are imposed from the outside and the individual person is no longer allowed to participate in the relational construction of her or his shared world.7 According to Pannenberg, the conscience must be able to judge autonomously by collaborating in the creation and affirmation of the norms that govern it. Lest this autonomy be taken as the freedom to “do whatever one wants,” however, Pannenberg centers this shared world on God as its central foundation and meaning.

[11] Third, Pannenberg follows Paul and Luther in connecting the conscience with the Holy Spirit. Conscience is the witness to and the expression of the power of the Holy Spirit in our individual and social lives. In sin, which is “non-identity” for Pannenberg, the conscience indicts and convicts us. In liberation from sin, the conscience testifies to the new identity that has come from Christ through the relation with the Holy Spirit. Because each person’s conscience is centered not in law but in the Spirit who is the energizing force of life, each child of God has a conscience in inviolable relation to that Spirit and therefore deserves respect.8

[12] “In conscience God, human beings, and world belong together,” Pannenberg states in agreement with G. Ebeling.9 In our use of conscience, consequently, we must be careful of three extremes, extremes where the conscience becomes “bound” to forces beyond a life-giving relational balance between God, humans and world.

[13] The first extreme is to identify the conscience as “bound” by our all-too-human understanding of the Word of God, the will of God, or Scripture. This often has the implication of an authoritarian “voice of God” imposing “his” will directly into the individual, similar to the downloading of a new program into a computer. Unlike the natural law approach which assumes such “programming” is already present in the human and simply needs God’s grace to be discovered, this view assumes a direct revelation by God into the conscience of the individual leading to an exclusion of the human and world from the relation altogether. Pannenberg reminds us that God does not relate to the conscience in such a direct, private, and inherently certain way.10 Rather, God’s relation to the conscience is mediated through the shared world and individual human experience, and is discovered only when God is seen to be the foundation of that world and experience.

[14] The second extreme is to bind the conscience to “the world.” In this form of bondage, both God and the individual are removed from the relation, and the conscience is expected to follow the cultural ideologies, laws, and social claims that have been imposed on the conscience by a “tyrannical” society. Pannenberg reminds us that through our trust in God, who is the foundation of the world, our conscience can step outside the world’s authoritarian claims and speak a critique of the world when its claims become absolute over and against the individual conscience and over and against God.11

[15] The third extreme, not mentioned (though I think implied) by Pannenberg, is the bondage of the self to itself. Luther described this as the self curved in upon itself. In this bondage, both the world and God are removed from the relation, and the individual perceives her own conscience as inviolable and absolute. Not only does such an understanding of the conscience lead to a worship of the individual as bound only to her own authenticity, such a conscience cannot exist. Conscience is by necessity and nature related to the world into which it is born and to the God who creates that world.

[16] When we move to one of these extremes, we place the conscience in “bondage to sin where it cannot free itself.” However, when God, world and individual are held in properly balanced relation through the power of the Holy Spirit, the conscience is liberated. This liberated conscience is: 1) free from bondage to sin and the overpowering guilt this bondage causes; 2) free by faith, not by any works of the law but by a trust in the God of Jesus Christ empowered by the Spirit; 3) free to live in the Holy Spirit, testifying to the power of life as the Spirit’s energizing force; 4) free for love and service as the expression of the Spirit’s energizing power of life in our world; and 5) freed into relationship with God, world as “neighbor,” and the truly authentic self in Christ. In this relation, the Trinitarian God as creator, sustainer, and reconciler remains at the center as the living power and source of all that exists.

[17] Ultimately, then, I believe that these insights from Paul, Luther, and Pannenberg lead us to understanding of the conscience as “liberated” rather than “bound.” This liberation of the conscience is a liberation into relationship, not from relationship, and includes relationship with God in Christ, with the world as neighbor, and with the self in its new identity given through Jesus Christ.

Conscience-liberated in the Body of Christ
[18] What does this “liberated conscience” mean for the current discussion in the ELCA concerning the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of persons in those relationship? Several things come to mind.

[19] First, in the “already, not yet” world in which we stand, the liberated conscience reminds us that we still live in simul. This understanding of a “conscience-liberated” in no way implies that sin is no longer a reality in our lives. Yet, it does point us to a different perspective from which to witness as we discuss these difficult issues. When we think of the conscience as seat of judgment or moral guide, we can easily find ourselves trapped on one side or the other of simul. On the one hand, we focus only on the sinner (in ourselves or in others) and end up driving terrified consciences toward total destruction in the heteronomous hopes that they might turn to our understanding of God’s will. In taking this approach, we ignore the liberated conscience already given through faith. On the other hand, we focus only on the saint and end up presuming that the liberation of the conscience is a freedom to do whatever the individual perceives to be right. In so doing, we ignore the reality of sin that continues to plague that authentic self. The discussion ends up going nowhere as “saint” screams past “sinner” and vice versa.

[20] Instead of seeing the conscience as moral guide or seat of judgment, let us view the conscience as a living witness: the testimony to and expression of the complex Spirit-filled creations we are and who God has called us to be. In this way, as we enter our conversations, we testify that here and now we are both sinner and saint in the sense that we continue to exist in bondage to self, world, or the worldly uses of God’s will while at the same time living in the freedom from that bondage that comes through faith. Yet, even as we acknowledge our sinfulness, let us strive to speak and listen from within the Spirit-empowered “liberated conscience,” knowing perfection is not an option, forgiveness is always present, and life abundant is our calling and goal.

[21] Second, as many have pointed out, this discussion has at part of its center the question of the authority and interpretation of Scripture. We as Lutherans need to take a step back and deal with this question honestly and apart from the influence of those in our culture who would abandon Scripture or who would use it as a literalistic weapon.12 Until we have this conversation concerning Scripture and interpretation within our own tradition, we should remember that for Luther and for Lutherans, the Word of God is not simply a series of words written by humans (even inspired ones), but a person, Jesus Christ. The Word of God is the relationship who forms the basis of all our relationships; it is the person of Jesus Christ to whom we are “bound” in relationship and in whom we are “freed” to be in relationship. This Word is God’s living and loving conversation with us, centered in God’s heart. Only in those words that are rooted in faith and love (even those in Scripture) will we find the true Word of God.13

[22] Third, while a close reading of the Task Force recommendations shows that the Task Force does not intend for a retreat into private consciences and instead calls repeatedly for continued conversation, a community that is frustrated, anxious, and exhausted by the seemingly never-ending talking could easily read them in a way that advocates “digging in one’s heels.” As indicated above, the liberated conscience is not private but exists freely only in a properly balanced relationship with God, world, and self. It is only in this relation, and not in our private selves, that we will discover the answers we look for, time-bound though those answers may be.

[23] Fourth, I have heard rumors that individuals, congregations, and even synods have decided, by vote or otherwise, not to pray or speak about the issues of homosexuality any longer. While I understand the frustration, worry, and exhaustion in our communities, the answer does not lie in closing our minds, hearts, ears, or mouths. To stop praying is to stop talking to or listening to God while at the same time setting oneself up as God. It is as if to say, “I am god in this matter and I need no challenging or comforting conversation with God.” And to stop talking with one another is to close oneself off from the Body of Christ.14 It is only with open hearts and minds that listen, speak and live from within liberated consciences empowered by the Holy Spirit that will we be able to move anywhere in this conversation.

[24] Finally, let us practice patience. Patience is one of those wonderful virtues and fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) that we do not practice much anymore, probably due to the influence of our fast-food, “high-speed internet” culture. While I mourn the wounding that so many persons in this church, gay and straight, continue to endure in the call for patience, we should remember that each conscience represents a unique child of God in its intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we must patiently respect all consciences. The liberated conscience is an expression of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit blows when and where it may (Jn 3:8). To bind another’s conscience by imposing my view, even in the name of God’s Word or will, is to oppress my neighbor, conform myself into her god, and destroy her relationship with the living God. It is only in patient respect that we will protect the relationships between God, ourselves, and our brothers and sisters.

[25] This patient respect for conscience is by no means a tolerant agreement of everything the other says. Instead, it is an active-listening posture that is willing to hear the other’s words and speak one’s own words in the kindest and most positive way possible. And such respectful active listening takes patience. Practically, perhaps we could begin each conversation by stretching across the labels and lines that divide us and confessing to each person in the room: “You are a human being; I will respect you. You are my neighbor; I will love you. You are a wonderful part of God’s creation; I will honor you as a child of God and brother/sister in Christ.” In this way, we may be able to begin by approaching every person in our moral deliberations with an attitude that reflects an honoring of the expression of the Holy Spirit in her or his humanity.

[26] In this regard, then, I wish to express my thanks and respect for the energy, life, sweat, tears, and work devoted to this discussion by the Task Force, the Churchwide Council, and all of the individuals, congregations, and synods who have been willing to face the questions before us head-on. The Task Force has taken on a particularly difficult role in calling this church to patience and community as we move forward. I commend them and continue to pray for their courage and strength. I truly believe that it is finally in these conversations, in the midst of patient listening, speaking, and learning, where the Holy Spirit will make herself known. Let us strive to speak from our conscience, liberated to love and serve in relationship, trusting not in our sinfulness but in the Christ who brings us to living trust in Him.

End Notes

1 ELCA Task Force Recommendations, January 18, 2005.

2 Roy Harrisville III, “Critique of the Report and Recommendations from the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality.” “A Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern” from 17 Lutheran Theologians, March 1, 2005. “Statement of Lutheran Theologians in favor of the Report and Reccomendations.” “Recommendations from the ELCA Church Council to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly on Sexuality Studies,” April 11, 2005.

3 In 1 Cor. 10:29, Paul writes: “For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else&=javascript:goNote(39s conscience?” Paul clearly means that, unlike his neighbor’s conscience which is in bondage to the law, his conscience is free from the guilt the law imposes. Liberty implies a conscience free from the law’s condemnation of sin, and not the freedom to do whatever one wants

4 John Webster, “Conscience,” in Encyclopedia of Christian Theology, (New York: Routledge, 2005) 341.

5 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective, trans. by Matthew O&=javascript:goNote(39Connell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1985) 293-312.

6 Ibid, 306-7.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid, 297.

9 Ibid, 307.

10 Ibid, 307. Cf. also p. 309 where Pannenberg critiques Ebeling&=javascript:goNote(39s understanding of the “word” as “excessively extrinsic and supernaturally authoritative” rather than mediated through the world.

11 Pannenberg, 309.

12 I am convinced that much of our problem in this regard is that the fundamentalist-based “Christian-Right” has not only claimed the right to define “Christian,” they have claimed the power to define how all Christians ought to read Scripture.

13 Cf. Luther, Sermons on St. John, LW 22:7ff. as well as Luther&=javascript:goNote(39s Prefaces to the Old Testament, LW 35:240.

14 Taking a break in the face of deep conflict within a particular congregation may at times be a necessary reality. “Taking a break” should not imply an end to conversation, however, but rather a temporary change in focus, for example, in relationship and/or community building.

Laurie A. Jungling

Laurie A. Jungling, Ph.D, was an Associate Professor of Religion and Ethics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and is in the process of returning to parish ministry.