Why “Bound Conscience” Is a Lie

In response, this church draws on the foundational Lutheran understanding that the baptized are called to discern God’s love in service to the neighbor. In our Christian freedom, we therefore seek responsible actions that serve others and do so with humility and deep respect for the conscience-bound beliefs of others. 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.

A Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. 2009

On 13 April 2021, the Washington, (D.C.) Office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America published a blog post written by Mr. Thomas Cunniff, ELCA General Counsel. Angry reactions from the LGBTQ+ community soon followed.

ELCA Advocacy is no stranger to prompting angry reactions from Lutherans. Usually it does so by saying “radical” things like, “Hey, let’s not shoot black people because they’re black, okay?” or “No, let’s not let toddlers die of dehydration in the Arizona desert,” or “We should feed starving people,” or “Beating up gay people isn’t okay.”

What was it this time, you ask? “The LGBTQ+ community should have equal rights.”

As might be expected, this made a lot of people angry (there are a lot of people in the church who disagree with that statement). But how could a statement advocating for the passage of the Equality Act (H.R. 5) anger the very community for which it advocated?

Easy: because it also expressed concern that the bill could infringe on religious freedom. It urged Lutherans to ask their legislators to amend the bill to protect that freedom. And it did so in the name of two dread words: “bound conscience.”

The Binding of the Conscience

Back in the summer of 2009, the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA had to make a decision. Eight years prior, the Churchwide Assembly passed a resolution asking the church to produce a social statement (a teaching, not policy, document) on human sexuality. The next Churchwide Assemblies also asked that policy decisions on the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ+ folx to pastoral ministry be made with the social statement. For those eight years, a task force worked on the draft social statement. They conducted interviews, held listening sessions, debated, discussed, prayed, wrote, revised, revised again, revised again, did more listening sessions, held more public forums, and revised again, all to, as best it could, put together a statement outlining the teaching of the church in the area of human sexuality.

It was immediately apparent that there were serious divisions in the church around human sexuality. Nowhere was this more true than in the section on non-heterosexual relationships. ELCA Lutherans were (and remain) deeply divided on the topic. The social statement task force finally admitted there was no consensus. Instead, it presented four different viewpoints on non-heterosexual relationships and lifted them up as equally valid.

This in itself was odd. While previous social statements recognized that there wasn’t always a consensus in the church around social issues, they nevertheless came to a conclusion that would guide the church’s social ministry. The social statement on the Death Penalty, for example, acknowledges that Lutherans hold different views, but still concludes that the church should oppose the death penalty.

Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust did not. It lifted up four incompatible theologies and declared that all members of the ELCA must respect each. And it did so by invoking a concept called “bound conscience”.

What is “bound conscience”?

“Bound conscience” is the idea that human beings believe some things to be right and wrong so strongly that we cannot act against them. For example, most human beings I know, if given the choice between killing a baby or going to jail, would rather go to jail. To kill the baby would be so unimaginably harmful, they would rather accept any consequence instead.

The Lutheran concept of a “bound conscience” goes all the way back to Martin Luther himself. When told to recant his teachings at the Diet of Worms in 1521 or be declared a heretic and arrested, Luther ultimately came to the conclusion that to do so would violate his conscience, which he declared was “captive to the words of God”. He would rather face arrest, and probably execution, than recant what he so strongly believed to be right and true.

The writers of Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust drew on this tradition and on scripture when they explained how “bound conscience” related to human sexuality. They specifically cited Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Romans, in which Paul urges Christians not to eat meat offered as a sacrifice to idols if doing so would cause other Christians, for whom the act of eating sacrificial meat is too much like idolatry, to be troubled. Because they truly believe that eating such meat is worshiping an idol instead of Jesus Christ, enticing them to eat it would cause them harm. So, Paul says, don’t eat meat around them so they won’t worship idols. In other words, respect their “bound conscience.”

The social statement attempted to use this concept to urge Lutherans to 1) acknowledge that people have deeply held beliefs around non-heterosexual relationships, beliefs so deep that to violate them would burden the person’s conscience; and to 2) respect those who hold different positions, and try not to fight over them.

On the surface, this sounds like good advice. So what went wrong? And why does the very mention of “bound conscience” cause the LGBTQ+ community to marshal and fight?

A Failure of Exegesis

Put simply, the social statement task force gravely misinterpreted the texts they cited. And their failure to properly apply these texts in their construction of “bound conscience” has led to over a decade of harm to the LGBTQ+ community that we didn’t expect.

1 Corinthians 8

Paul is writing to a community that is struggling to adapt to their new Christian life. In the ancient Near East, animal sacrifice was a common element of religious life. At the Jerusalem Temple, priests would dedicate an animal to God, ritually slaughter it, and burn part of it as an offering to God. The rest of the animal, now blessed and holy itself, was eaten by the priests and those who brought the animal as an offering.

The same thing happened in Corinth, except the animals were offered not to the LORD God, but to false gods–idols. The question was whether Christians could eat the meat that had been sacrificed to another god. Was it “blessed” by a false god? Was it cursed?

Paul answers that in itself, there’s nothing wrong with eating meat offered to other gods. The other gods aren’t real. The meat was “offered” to nothing. It’s neither holy nor cursed. Christians were therefore free to eat that meat. It was just meat.

Except if the person eating the meat still struggled to detach themselves from their old life of worshiping false gods. That person, having lived long worshiping idols, could see eating that meat as returning to that worship.

For Paul, putting someone in this situation is unacceptable. He worries that those who know better, if they eat meat offered to other gods in front of those who still struggle with it, might accidentally pressure the person weak in faith to also eat, causing them to violate their conscience.

Since the eating of the meat isn’t important to the one who knows better, but abstaining from eating is important to the one still struggling, Paul urges the Christians in Corinth not to eat the meat offered to idols. It’s not wrong to ask those who eat to abstain, because it doesn’t violate their conscience. It is wrong to ask those who abstain to eat, because it does violate their conscience.

Romans 14

Here, Paul writes to the church in Rome about the danger of judging others. He uses the same example as in his letter to the Corinthians: eating meat (we assume meat offered to idols, but he’s not explicit on that point).

Paul identifies those who eat “anything” as those strong in the faith, while those who abstain from certain foods as weak in faith, presumably because their abstention is rooted in worry about worshiping another god (he speaks of the eating as causing someone to lose their faith in Christ).

Even though Paul knows that those who are comfortable eating the meat are stronger, and that those who won’t are weaker, he doesn’t dwell on that. Instead, he urges everyone in the community–whether they eat meat or not, observe special days and customs or not, drink wine or not–to respect that others do things differently. Eat your meat, but don’t get mad at those who don’t. Don’t drink wine, but don’t get mad at those who do. Everyone is responsible for their own consciences, and if someone acts differently because their conscience is bound in a different way, let them be. Their actions don’t affect you.

The only exception to this is if your actions are causing harm to another. This can be the same scenario as in 1 Corinthians, where eating meat in front of someone who struggles with it might cause them to violate their conscience; or it could be something else (like, don’t bring a recovering alcoholic to a bar; or don’t blow cigarette smoke in the face of someone trying to quit). In any case, Paul’s advice is the same: make sure that whatever you’re doing doesn’t cause someone else to lose their faith. It’s not about offending them. It’s about causing them to act in a way that violates their own conscience.

These are the two Biblical examples used in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. So what did the writers get wrong?

  1. They wrote that all four positions on non-heterosexual relationships are equally valid, and therefore, should be respected. But Paul knows that those who have no problem eating meat offered to idols are right, and those who still struggle with the idea are wrong. That’s not necessarily bad–everyone grows and learns at their own pace. But for Paul, the two positions are not equal. One is right. The other isn’t. And Paul expects that those who are wrong will continue to grow in their faith so that one day, they too will no longer be bound to a false idea.
  2. The social statement encourages everyone to “respect the ‘bound conscience’ of the neighbor”, by which it means giving up one’s opinion on human sexuality so as not to cause another offense. But this is not an unimportant issue, of the kind that Paul writes about. One’s expression of sexual identity and intimacy is integral to one’s life experience.
  3. The concept of “bound conscience” in the church has come to mean “you can’t do what violates my conscience.” But Paul is arguing that people shouldn’t do what violates their OWN consciences. Paul doesn’t want those who struggle with eating meat offered to idols to be pressured or enticed into eating it because it violates his conscience, but because it violates their own. He doesn’t want anyone to do anything for or to themselves that violates their conscience. The reason he wants other Christians to refrain from eating meat offered to idols is not because it offends the others, but because he’s worried that it will lead the others to harm themselves.

When Paul talks about what we’d call “bound conscience”, he’s talking about a scenario in which both parties shouldn’t judge each other for the their own choices in their own lives. But for the sake of those who haven’t learned any better yet, those who do know better should temporarily give up something insignificant to them so that they don’t accidentally cause someone else, for whom it is important, whose consciences is bound, to do something that would violate their own bound conscience, until they have matured enough in their faith that it no longer causes them stress.

The focus is entirely on making sure people don’t take actions that violate their own consciences. This is consistent with our understanding of Luther’s struggle at the Diet of Worms. He could not recant his teachings because it would violate his own conscience. That his teachings offended the Emperor and the Pope was not grounds for him to recant. Luther’s teachings weren’t forcing them to take an action that violated their consciences; they, however, were trying to force him to do just that.

And that’s what claimants of “bound conscience” in the ELCA have also done. When Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust passed at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, it marked a watershed moment, a milestone, for LGBTQ+ Lutherans. It broke down barriers that predated the formation of the ELCA. It opened doors that had been stubbornly locked to us.

But it also became a weapon used against us.

The Weaponization of the “Bound Conscience”

One of the features of Paul’s understanding of “bound conscience” is that it involves mutual respect for the choices that others make. Regarding human sexuality, this looks like people making choices about with whom they will have sex and whom they will marry, and respecting the choices of others who choose differently.

Instead, the church has decided that “bound conscience” only works in one direction, and that is against the LGBTQ+ community (and also against BIPOC and women). Only one position may invoke “bound conscience”. A congregation will deny marriage to a same-sex couple in the name of “bound conscience”, even against the will of a pastor; but a pastor whose bound conscience believes in same-sex marriage cannot invoke it to conduct the marriage against the will of the congregation. “Bound conscience” can only be invoked to discriminate, never to include.

Paul’s understanding of “bound conscience”, specifically his understanding of how to navigate it in his examples, relies on one group having a better understanding of the issue. In time, he expects those who don’t know any better to learn and change their position. Regarding human sexuality, this looks like acknowledging that non-heterosexual relationships are as God-given and blessed as heterosexual ones, and devoting to the hard work of dismantling homophobia and transphobia.

Instead, the church has erroneously decided, despite its claims to the contrary, that LGBTQ+ discrimination is an equally valid and acceptable philosophy as LGBTQ+ inclusion, and denies that anti-LGBTQ+ actions and sentiments are contrary to God’s will.

Another feature of Paul’s examples is that they ask Christians to give up something unimportant for the sake of others. This is simply not the case for human sexuality. Human sexuality is not an unimportant matter. Asking non-heterosexual people to give up their sexual identity and expression is as unjust as asking heterosexual people to do the same. But by comparing non-heterosexual expressions of human sexuality to the eating of meat in Paul’s letters, the church has taught that these sexual identities and experiences are inconsequential. This is contrary to the document’s own written intent.

Which brings me to the last feature of Paul’s examples: that they address people being forced to act in ways that violate their OWN consciences. Instead, the church has used “bound conscience” to mean that one can bind another with one’s own conscience: two gay men cannot marry because I don’t want to marry a gay man; a transgender woman cannot be ordained because I don’t want to be an ordained transgender woman. The church demands the very thing Paul detests: forcing someone else to violate their own conscience.

Because the church’s concept of “bound conscience” does not respect the choices of both parties, because it treats sexual identities and experiences as inconsequential, and because it forces people to violate their own consciences, the church’s understanding of “bound conscience” is flawed.

That flawed understanding, instead of protecting the vulnerable, is instead weaponized against the LGBTQ+ community. We see it every day. We see it when we are run out of congregations because of our sexuality. We see it when our marriages are not treated as valid, or are refused entirely. We see it when we are denied entrance to Candidacy, or cannot find calls, because the “bound conscience” of the church mandates and condones discrimination as “good and right”.

So when the Washington Office of the ELCA published an Action Alert urging Lutherans to petition their Congressional legislators to amend the Equality Act in order to protect the “bound conscience” of some members of the church, well…

It did not go well.

Because we know what those words mean. We know what policies and ideologies that phrase protects. And we know it’s not us.

“Bound conscience” is a lie.

Where do we go from here?

After receiving dozens of messages taking them to task for suggesting that protections for the LGBTQ+ community should be balanced against the freedom to discriminate against it, the ELCA Washington advocacy office took down their action alert and promised to review the language they had used. Hours later, they apologized their poor choice of words and revised the Action Alert. It now advocates for H. R. 5 to be passed whether or not it’s amended. This was a major win for the LGBTQ+ community. ELCA advocacy usually gets it right. But this time, they messed up. And when we responded, they received our criticism and tried to do better.

But… and there’s always a but…

The harmful theology baked into Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust is still there. While individuals aren’t bound by the social statements, the way the church enacts policy is. The deeply problematic idea of “bound conscience” still informs the church’s decisions. The new Action Alert for the Equality Act, because it is bound by the social statement, still slipped in a reference to religious freedom and “bound conscience”.

The sad fact is that it’s going to take a lot more work to rid the church of anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice. The ELCA has, until very recently, been reluctant to advocate too strongly for our liberation. That may be changing. I hope it is. But as long as “bound conscience” remains–as long as Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust sits as an official teaching document of the church–the church condones and approves of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. We may have to repeal the very document that motivated the church to move toward full inclusion if we hope to move forward. We can do better. We must do better.


Please consider giving to one of the following groups that work hard to change the culture of the church and advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in the life of the church:

ReconcilingWorks

Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries

Featured Image: “Solidarity with LGBT Orlando – Fight all hate – Activists with placards at London’s vigil in memory of the victims of the Orlando gay nightclub terror attack.” by alisdare1 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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