“Neither Jew nor Greek, Male nor Female, Slave nor Free, Strong nor Weak”: A Call to Friendship in Christ

[1] The final scene of Eric Till’s 2003 movie Luther silhouettes Luther and his wife against a green hill as horsemen gather ominously. The tension breaks when one of the riders gallops toward the couple shouting “They accepted our confession!” Melanchthon bears the good news. As the scene fades, words scroll across the screen praising Luther for giving future generations a sense of the “freedom of conscience.” Nice tribute — but not accurate. Luther did not claim his conscience was “free”; he claimed it was “captive.”

[2] Hollywood promulgates a particular mythology about Luther, which heralds him as precursor of an Enlightenment anthropology of the autonomous self. According to this myth, Luther issued conscience’s declaration of independence from the external authorities of pope, councils, and the constraints of tradition when he stood before Emperor Charles V in 1521 and confessed, “I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” Hollywood presents Luther as if he spoke sola viscera, “by guts alone,” and in the movie star mythology, he’s sort of a thinking man’s Braveheart.

[3] This myth completely ignores what immediately preceded, where Luther in effect states that his conscience is not “free” but “bound”: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”1 Luther’s conscience is governed by Christ alone, solus Christus. Again, for Luther, conscience is not free — but captive, or bound.

[4] Most Lutherans who have been through the sexuality wars have been able to distinguish Luther’s solus Christus from the sola viscera of Enlightenment approaches to conscience. Yet, we fall prey to other mythologies, these surrounding the “bound” part of “bound conscience.” I want to examine three further misunderstandings surrounding conscience that have surfaced in the aftermath of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly vote.

First, we fail to agree on what it is that conscience is captive to. Luther may be able to offer some help here.

Second, most Lutherans seem to assume that when we talk about “bound conscience,” we primarily refer to our own. If Luther were following the Hollywood script, this would be most certainly true. But far more often — and far less cited, Luther worries about the “bound conscience” of the neighbor. In the liturgical skirmishes among Reformation churches, he shows particular concern for the care of the neighbor’s conscience. Here he follows the apostle Paul’s script, specifically, the apostle’s counsel to the Corinthians. Called to adjudicate the food fights among the earliest Christians, Paul warns against scrupulosity: “But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience — I mean the conscience of the neighbor, not your own” (1 Corinthians 10:28-29).

The final myth concerns designations of “strong” and “weak,” which Luther takes from Paul, particularly from the letter to the Romans. Reading Luther, who is reading Paul, traditionalists identify with the “strong,” and concern for the weak demands that the former should be “a movement of repentance and renewal” in a “fallen and erring church.”2 Meanwhile, revisionists identify themselves with the “strong,” and their concern for the weak suggests they should hold traditionalists in their embrace, sorrow when they leave, and pray for the unity of the church. It’s interesting to see all sides identifying themselves with those of “strong” conscience, patronizing the “weak” with their concern. Yet, Paul seems to be minimizing distinctions between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free — even strong and weak! — altogether, because “all of you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). The only thing left for Christians to do is: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you….” (Romans 15:7, cf., 14:1, 16:2).

Each of these myths deserves further consideration.

To What Is Conscience Bound — or to Whom?
[5] In an article in the Lutheran Forum, Sarah Wilson reflects on the ELCA decision at the churchwide assembly in August, 2009:

So here we stand. A tiny portion of the ELCA’s membership, somewhat more than 500 people, have decided at a single event to overturn the historic teaching of the Church, without any real attempt to back it up scripturally or theologically or even persuade most members of the church. Alas. But they have thrown us a bone — we are allowed to exercise our bound consciences. So let’s get to work.3

Implicitly, the author suggests that what should bind conscience is clear majority, tradition, and persuasion buttressed by scriptural and theological argument. She could summon Luther’s response at the Diet of Worms in favor of her final point. He clearly asks to be “convinced” by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason. He does, however, seem more suspicious of tradition, sidestepping popes and councils, “since it is well-known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves.” I will not respond to her charge that the churchwide decision, much less the debate preceding it, did not consider the decision scripturally or theologically. The sexuality studies themselves refute the claim.

[6] In other writings, however, Luther elaborates on what binds conscience, and I think these should have at least as much of a hearing as his response to the Emperor. In a sermon on “the three kinds of good life for the instruction of consciences,” Luther outlines three kinds of conscience.4 He structures his sermon along the lines of the Hebrew temple with its forecourt, sanctuary, and tabernacle of the Holy of Holies, noting the resemblance to a cathedral’s churchyard, nave, and chancel. Conscience inhabits each of these spaces, offering instruction appropriate to the place. In the churchyard, the good life consists of following rules concerning food and drink, dress and daily life. Breach of any of these commandments rightly gives one a “bad” conscience. Adherence to these commandments convinces people that they are in right relationship with God. Conscience in this arena creates “churchyard saints” with the limited ability to “strain gnats and swallow camels,” even as they remain far from God’s promises.

[7] But no one comes to church to stand in the churchyard. Entering the nave, one gains a deeper understanding of conscience. Here conscience offers counsel in the virtues constitutive of “the good life.” The believer cultivates dispositions like “humility, meekness, gentleness, peace, fidelity, love, propriety, and purity,” which inform and transform the external acts of piety paraded by the “churchyard saints.” Virtuous behavior gives one a “good conscience,” while a “bad conscience” indulges the vices. There’s just one problem, and Luther nails it: no one wants to be virtuous. Ultimately, believers can no longer even deceive themselves with their self-generated good deeds or righteous dispositions. Would be “churchyard” and “nave saints” alike fall on their knees, begging for grace.

[8] At this point, Luther leads into the chancel, that Holy of Holies, where Christ and his promises reside. At Christ’s bidding, the Holy Spirit enters the believer, creating virtues that seek no reward, fear no punishment, and prompt the believer to be holy for the sake of holiness alone. Luther marvels: “Here is really sound doctrine! This shows what a conscience is and what good works are.”

[9] Here conscience seems not merely captive to the Word of God, but co-opted by the Spirit. Indeed Luther’s conscience fulfills itself only when it denies itself entirely and follows the lead of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Ironically, conscience is “free” only when it is captive to the Spirit. I miss any allusion to the Spirit in the contemporary discussion of “bound conscience.”

[10] Certainly, there are a lot of “spirits” out there, particularly in an age where many are “spiritual, but not religious.” Scripture points us to the Spirit of God in Christ Jesus. Without the Spirit’s presence, the Word of God too quickly becomes “words of scripture,” producing a brittle biblical literalism. Those of us who have been long in the trenches in the sexuality wars have seen plenty of biblical fundamentalism from both the left and the right. Maybe we really need to re-encounter the “Word of God” in its biblical, incarnational, sacramental, and pneumatological breadth. As my late colleague Robert Smith used to remind us, what we find in the manger is not a book — but a baby.

Concern for the Neighbor’s Conscience — Not My Own!
[11] In her proposal to the Lutheran Forum, Sarah Wilson exhibits a second myth about “bound conscience,” the misunderstanding that what’s really at stake is my conscience — not the conscience of the neighbor. Writing in a piece entitled, “Time to Exercise Your Bound Conscience,” she continues:

But they have thrown us a bone — we are allowed to exercise our bound conscience. So let’s get to work. Here are three by-laws proposed by various persons in the ELCA and sent to LF — we are going to let them remain nameless, lest their bound consciences come under attack by other bound consciences — for congregations to consider adopting as part of their constitutions.5

[12] I’m less interested in the three by-laws than in the assumptions about “bound conscience,” assumptions which are unhappily not limited to this article or this position alone. Here “bound conscience” is a bludgeon, appropriately wielded against others whose consciences are otherwise “bound.” Military metaphors dominate these arguments, understandable when people feel under siege, but they do not make for civil discussion. Most disturbing, the primary concern is with my conscience or our conscience, not the conscience of the neighbor. This is not the primary concern for either Luther or the apostle Paul whom Luther cites.

[13] It’s true that before the emperor, Luther references his own conscience. It’s not so evident that he always felt the militant confidence that marks both traditionalist and revisionist positions today. Referring to Luther’s oft-quoted speech, Tim Wengert observes:

This position was for Luther not an easy one to hold. It was not, as later historians often portrayed it, the first instance of a free, enlightened conscience shedding the shackles of medieval religion. Luther’s conscience was not free but bound to God’s Word, which assured him of God’s free and unconditional forgiveness in Christ. However, because of the vulnerable nature of such a position, Luther was often assaulted with Anfechtung, attacks of the devil, which tried to undermine his confidence by asking “Are you alone right?” (“Bist Du allein richtig?”) Those who make claims that their conscience is bound to a particular interpretation of Scripture, must likewise demonstrate such humility and must anticipate such doubts and struggles.6

As Wengert suggests, Luther’s statement appears bold on the surface, but a deep sense of humility marked the reformer’s references to conscience. Luther’s question ought to haunt all sides of this debate a little more: “Are you alone right?”

[14] More often, Luther uses “bound conscience” to refer to the conscience of the neighbor. A year after his audience with the emperor, Luther turned again to “bound conscience,” this time in a pastoral setting. With the backing of the city council, pastors in Wittenberg promoted radical changes in worship. They pushed for distribution of communion in both kinds, bread and wine; they promoted reception of the host in the hand — not the mouth; they ordered images and statues in the churches removed and destroyed; they lifted fasting laws. The changes left congregants reeling. Wengert elaborates: “…he [Luther] objected to them because they were not done out of love and patience for those who were weak and who would follow such changes not because they believed they were true but because of the authority of the leaders of these changes.”7 Though in agreement with the changes, Luther worried about their impact on his people, both in terms of what they were being forced to do — and how.8

[15] Luther again references “bound conscience” after his 1527-1528 visits to the congregations around Saxony. The lack of theological literacy he found in them stunned Luther and prompted the composition of the Large and Small Catechisms. With Melanchthon, he also published an official “Visitation Articles,”9 which counsels pastors strongly against coercive liturgical practice. He worries about the “troubled” conscience of those who are still reticent to receive communion in both kinds:

…in view of the fact that the people are confused and uncertain, it has been and still is impossible to establish a rule concerning persons to whom both kinds are to be offered or from whom they are to be withheld according to the teaching of Christ…. But as this article arises daily and troubles the conscience, we have not wanted to leave the pastors without any guidance at all.10

[16] In his audience before the emperor, Luther demurred on grounds of his own conscience, “captive to the Word of God.” However, the bulk of his writing handles pastoral strategies directed toward the conscience of the neighbor. Even when he disagrees on theological grounds with prevailing liturgical practice, he urges flexibility on pastoral grounds out of respect for the consciences of “the weak.”

[17] In a thoughtful article, David Yeago observes the distance between Luther’s approach and the reaction to the 2009 churchwide assembly vote:

Luther does not trivialize the difference between true and false teaching, right and sinful actions. False doctrine and sin are to be resisted and admonished. But the wrong of another is not seen as a reason to separate but a reason to draw near.11

[18] From Yeago’s perspective, Luther offers a “spirituality of conflict,” which counsels reconciliation, bearing one another’s burdens in love, and staying in the conversation. He points out that from Luther’s perspective, the reforming churches “did not leave; they were kicked out.”12 Yet Yeago fails to notice the symmetry between the reformers and the various congregations throughout the ELCA (St. Francis and First United in San Francisco, St. Paul’s in Oakland, et al.) that were de facto “kicked out” or their pastors de-rostered because they elected to call openly gay or lesbian pastors. Indeed, these congregations and their pastors have long followed the counsel Yeago now recommends to “traditionalists”:

Instead of thinking of ourselves primarily as dissenters and opposition, let us ask God to make of us a movement of repentance and renewal, so that the continuing presence of traditionalists in the ELCA will be a blessing and an adornment for the whole church. Let us traditionalists be the ones who live most deeply in the Scriptures, who bring forth the bread of life most richly from the Scriptures, who let themselves be most drastically challenged and remade by the word of God, who live most intensely in prayer, who are able to teach prayer to others. Let us traditionalists be in the forefront of ministry among the poor, the apparently hopeless, the despised; let us be the ones who volunteer to go to the hard places. Let our revisionist brothers and sisters, let homosexual persons in the church, be conscious when they meet us mostly of how much we care for them, how far we are willing to go for them, of the respect and honor with which we treat them, despite our clear disagreement with aspects of their teaching and/or life.13

[19] This is a compelling vision of how the church can be “church.” It also accurately describes the ongoing ministries of those congregations that were “kicked out” of the ELCA for calling homosexual pastors. Far from becoming “gay-identified” communities, a fear I publicly voiced, these congregations took up exactly the kinds of ministries Yeago calls for: working with the homeless, survivors of AIDS, addicts and alcoholics. Now Yeago lifts these ministries up for more “traditionalist” congregations. Let’s be certain the “revisionist” congregations do not abandon their work: this could be God’s way of continuing the work of incarnation in the world.

[20] There’s something deeply biblical about the last being first, the outcast welcomed to the table. But let’s be clear about why these reversals happen: not for shaming, but for the sake of God’s work in the world. That leads to my final point.

Strong or Weak — and Why it Doesn’t Matter: Letting Luther Listen to Paul
[21] Luther’s most extensive use of “bound conscience” is not in the context of his audience with the emperor, but in the context of questions regarding the pastoral practice among the Reformation congregations. Most were about the Lord’s Supper, and they constitute the food fights of the sixteenth century. Like Paul, he distinguishes between “strong” and “weak,” in this case, those who readily receive communion in both kinds — and those who are more reticent to break with centuries of practice. Again, like Paul, Luther appears to be writing to the “strong,” urging them to refrain from coercing the “weak” to follow their practice. Luther warns them against making their “liberty a law,” but rather letting the “Word do its work.” Unlike Paul, however, Luther never sees beyond these two groups, “strong” and “weak,” where Paul points beyond such distinctions toward friendship in Christ.

[22] In his letters, Paul appeals to rich traditions of friendship, which his audience would have known by heart. One of the largest barriers to friendship in the ancient world was inequality. We get a glimpse of this in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which considers the difficulties of friendships between a slave and his master, between a husband and his wife, between old and young. The imbalance of power between the two parties made friendship problematic, because friendship demanded a kind of equality between the two parties that was culturally not available to them. Men had more power than women; citizens, more power than slaves — and the Jews and Greeks had more or less power over the other depending on whose territory you happened to be in when status was reckoned.

[23] Against these hierarchies of social power, Paul’s statement to the Galatians has a revolutionary ring: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28-29). Baptism into the body of Christ conferred the missing social power, making everyone over into “friends” in Christ. Paul telegraphs the same message to the Romans, deep in the throes of their food fights. He tells them to “welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7). Taken from “the moral glossary of friendship,” “welcome” (Gr. proslambanesthe) could literally be translated “accept as a friend.”14

[24] It’s important to note that Paul does not push to resolve the dispute, nor does he argue the greater righteousness of one side or the other, though the tags “strong” and “weak” may have pointed Luther and twenty-first century Christians in that direction. Paul wants the warring parties in his own audience to recognize their equality in Christ — and simply “welcome one another.” In case they still don’t get it, Paul repeats his command three times: 14:1, 15:7, 16:2. He concludes his letter to the Romans by urging them to “welcome” a wild and crazy collection of folks who demonstrate exactly the combination of male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free he described to the Galatians: Phoebe, Prisca, Aquila, Epaenetus, Mary, Adronicus, Junia, Urbanus, Ampliatus, Stachys, Apelles, the family of Aristobulus, Herodion, those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus, Tryphaena, Pryphosa, Persis, Rufus, Rufus’ mother, Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, Philologus, Julia, Nereus, Nereus’ sister, Olympas. And all of these good folks are greeted not as “strong” or “weak,” not as “traditionalist” or “revisionist,” but as friends in Christ.

[25] One of the biggest barriers to friendship in our fractured, post-modern world is inequality; and the designation of “strong” or “weak,” particularly when self-chosen, creates a chasm that mocks our baptism. If Paul were speaking to us today, he might add a few categories to his list in Galatians: “There is neither strong nor weak, traditionalist or revisionist … for you are all one in Christ.” And without exception, he would exhort everyone: “welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you.”

[26] What would welcoming look like now? What if traditionalists were to welcome revisionists? What if the self-designated “strong” were to welcome those with whom they disagree, not as “weaker” but as “friend?” Maybe this is what should bind our consciences: friendship in Christ.

1. Luther’s Works (LW), 35:275.

2. Cf., David Yeago, “In the Aftermath: Reflections Following the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Gathering,” Lutherans Persisting. http://lutheranspersisting.wordpress.com/david-yeago-in-the-aftermath/ Accessed 9/13/2010.

3. Sarah Wilson, “Time to Exercise Your Bound Conscience,” Lutheran Forum, September 2, 2009. http://www.lutheranforum.org/sexuality/time-to-exercise-your-bound-conscience Accessed 9/19/2010.

4. Martin Luther, “A Sermon on the Three Kinds of Good Life for the Instruction of Consciences,” LW 44:235-242. For a fuller discussion of this sermon — and a first-pass on conscience, see my “Solus Christus or Sola Viscera? Scrutinizing Lutheran Appeals to Conscience,” dialog 44:2 (Summer, 2005).

5. Wilson, “Time,” 1.

6. Timothy F. Wengert, “Reflections on the Bound Conscience in Lutheran Theology,” Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality. http://www.elca.org/ELCA/Search.aspx?q=timothy+wengert+Reflections+on+bound+conscience Accessed 9/11/10.

7. Wengert, “Reflections,” 4.

8. LW 51: 67-100.

9. LW 40: 263-320.

10. LW 40: 290.

11. Yeago, “In the Aftermath,” 3. Emphasis mine.

12. Yeago, “In the Aftermath,” 2.

13. Yeago, “In the Aftermath,” 4-5.

14. John R. Donahue, S.J., “Breaking Down the Dividing Wall of Hostility: A Biblical Mandate for the New Millennium,” The Santa Clara Lectures 4:2 (February 8, 1998), 8. http://www.scu.edu/ignatiancenter/events/lectures/archives/upload/w98_donahue.pdf Accessed 9/11/10.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).