It doesn’t take much thought and effort to discover the places in our encounter with scripture where we have very different interpretation than others. In most of those cases, we honor the right of the other to hold those interpretive differences even while disagreeing with them. Simply put, that is what is called respecting the bound consciences of others.
Our interpretation of scripture might be at odds with the vast majority of Christianity. Most of the Christian Church around the world does not ordain women. Central to this understanding is “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12) and other similar passages. Some Christian bodies (including the ELCA) have pointed to other passages of scripture as including the teaching and proclamation role of women and have found them to be of more importance than those passages like 1 Timothy.
Our interpretation of scripture might be at odds with a minority of Christianity. We, with the vast majority of Christianity believe that Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. When Jesus says, “this is my body … this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26-27) we acknowledge that it is more than a symbolic representation. Some Christians (including members of this congregation) do not understand scripture in this way and might even refer to this holy meal as a “memorial”, a reenactment, or a symbolic representation.
Our interpretation of scripture might be at odds with those within the ELCA. When the Social Statement on the Death Penalty was approved, there was disagreement noted and acknowledged within the document itself. The statement opposes the death penalty but notes that there are many within this church that read scripture as supporting the death penalty. Their view was given voice in the document.
Our interpretation of scripture might be at odds with close friends and partners in ministry. Without pointing to specific examples or characterizations, it is simply true that Pastor Kathy and I approach scripture from very different perspectives and draw very different conclusions about what portions of scripture mean and how they are to be understood. In dialogue with one another we discover and explore those differences, respecting them, and learning from one another. I am convinced that will be true for you in your significant relationships also.
Much of our respecting bound conscience gets lived out in our relationships with one another and in our traditions and connection to scripture is not necessarily obvious. Lutherans baptize infants, many Christians do not. This is based on what each group sees as priorities in scripture, for both can be supported by scripture. The age of first communion is a practice that varies greatly, and it is dependent upon interpretation of scripture.
Perhaps the most telling in all this is that faith-filled people committed to the authority of scripture must make some decisions about what difficult sections of scripture have to say to us and how those passages are to be understood today. For instance, to name a few;
- Leviticus 20:10 If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
- Matthew 5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
- Leviticus 20:9 All who curse father or mother shall be put to death; having cursed father or mother, their blood is upon them.
- Galatians 5:2-4 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
- 1 Timothy 2:12-15 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
- Deuteronomy 23:2 Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.
- And so many more … including broader conclusions, such as historicity of Biblical accounts, whether or not creation is 6000 years old and what is parable and what is factual.
These passages are much more dramatic than those which we will routinely encounter. John 14:6 quotes Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Some will hold that Matthew 25 and Romans 2 both point to the understanding that some who are not Christians will be saved. Readers have to determine how to assimilate all scripture, placing more emphasis on certain understandings than others.
The simple reality is that despite our insistence that we hold to the authority of scripture, we each understand scripture differently in some important ways. We hold certain passages and concepts to be more important than others and make that determination in any number of ways. We honor how someone’s conscience is held captive to the word of God, even while we might disagree. Sometimes the call to respect bound conscience goes beyond our ability.
The Augsburg Confession is one of our foundational documents as Lutherans. In it, Article 7 in part reads, “And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.” The heart of the Gospel? Article 4 reads, “Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.”
I maintain that our foundational Lutheran documents do not demand unity of understanding of scripture.
Challenges from those opposing Bound Conscience
Bound Conscience and the current controversy
On a Personal Note