Category Archives: ELCA

Ash Wednesday & Lent 2011

Ash Wednesday – March 9, 2011

Our Shepherd Lutheran Church – Severna Park, MD

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.  You didn’t expect me to say that did you?  Let me say it again.  For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.

You received a reminder of your mortality on your forehead just minutes ago.  You heard the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  As I see it, you have a couple of choices.  Live your life as if your mortality is a far off into the future slight possibility.  Or, live your life as if your life matters, precisely because you are mortal.

What people want me to do today is to be a cheerleader.  You are giving up chocolate for Lent?  Great!  You can do it for 40 days.  It will be hard.  Hang in there.  You can do it.  It is only 40 days.  Think of the reward at the end!  It will be worth it.

I can’t do that.  I’d rather turn in my pastor card.

Let me tell you something else you might not expect me to say.  What we do during Lent is never meant to be temporary.  That’s right.  If you are living this season as it is intended and you are giving up, oh let’s say chocolate for Lent, then when Easter arrives, there will be no chocolate Easter bunnies for you.  Why play like Lent means nothing?  Why decide to ignore the call Jesus issues to obedience?

Live your life as if your life matters.  Lent is a time for renewal.  Lent is a time to take on some spiritual disciplines that make sense 24/7/52/lifetime.  Lent is a time for making sure the “whenevers” of Matthew’s Gospel are part of who we are.

Whenever you give alms.  Whenever you pray.  Whenever you fast.

Jesus doesn’t say, if you give alms, if you pray, if you fast.  He doesn’t say when you take the time to give alms, pray, or fast.  The expectation is that these three are all done, all the time, unnoticed by others, because this is what people of faith do when they are living their lives as if their life matters.

Whenever you care for the needs of others … just do it without fanfare or recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you pray to align yourself with God … just do it without any need for recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you deny the temptations that draw you away from God … just do it without needing to draw attention to yourself.  It’s what people of God do.

If you give alms, pray, and fast only during Lent, isn’t that really drawing attention to these practices and that you are something special during Lent?

Sorry if what I’m saying is messing up your plans for Lent.  I simply want you to live your life as if your life matters.  Why trivialize it?  Why make this 40 day time mean so little?

The church I served in Johnstown invites people to use self-denial envelopes during Lent.  I think they are asking either 25 cents or $1 per day as a means of self-denial.  Horse feathers!  You want to give alms, or to use this as self-denial … what about giving a full tithe during Lent if you’ve never done this before?  More than a tithe if you already tithe.  Maybe an even amount … say $80-100 a week.  A quarter a week?  Nonsense.  Live as if your life matters.

Pull out a 1 minute devotion and pray daily during Lent?  Ok, I suppose that’s a start.  Phfff.  Write a devotion daily, pray each hour on the hour for 5 minutes, memorize scripture … maybe a couple of chapters, read 20 pages of scripture a day, read a Gospel book a week and cycle through them twice during Lent.  All of this is prayer.  All of this addresses a whenever.  Live as if your life matters.

Don’t eat meat on Fridays, but instead go to some fish fry or seafood place?  When did that ever get to be equated with fasting?  Stop pretending!  Do you really need more than 1500-2000 calories a day, ever?  Have you ever considered eating a restricted calorie diet because it is the right thing to do, because over-consumption of everything is an American anti-Christian attitude?  Does our gluttony say something about how we see ourselves as entitled?  Is entitlement a Christian virtue?  Live your life as if it matters.

There are a lot more examples.  You can use Lent as a trivial venture into pretending that we are mortal.  Or you can use Lent as if you really get your mortality and live as if your life matters.  What you do has an impact on the world, on the people around you, on you, and on your relationship with God.

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters … and then …



Dialogue in Disagreement

It seems to me that one of the most difficult things for Christians to do is to engage in dialogue over matters where there is disagreement, especially in matters related to faith.  I’m going to use a recent comment on this blog to illustrate this and to attempt to engage in some dialogue, knowing in advance that I’ll make some mistakes, and it won’t be perfect.  The article I wrote that the commenter responded to is here.

The quoted comments will be italicized and indented.

My comments will be in normal typeface.

Are you really a pastor or just pretending, because you make no sense at all.

I’m sorry that you didn’t understand.  I was attempting some very short answers to complicated questions, and my shortcuts were likely too brief.  Please, because we disagree or you don’t understand, don’t call into question my role in this church.  Too often, we belittle those with whom we disagree or don’t understand.  I’ll attempt to not belittle you.

The commenter then quotes my statement, and adds a comment.

“You see, the matter is that the ELCA is what the congregations determine it to be. It is not some monolithic entity” The ELCA is what happens to a denomination when they are of the world and not in the world. Our congregation could easily vote to reject the ELCA statements
and go with the flow and not make waves. What would the point be in belonging to the ELCA Club and paying dues to support someone elses agendas.

Once again, I apologize that I wasn’t clear.  I’ll try to expand and be more clear.  The ELCA is indeed a denomination, but since its inception, it has been described as being composed of three expressions; the congregation, the synod, and the churchwide.  Most who are unhappy with the “ELCA” are focused only on part of the church, usually churchwide.  What each congregation teaches and how it lives the Gospel helps shape what is the ELCA.  As congregations decide to leave, they change the dynamic of what is the ELCA, which I think is a great loss to this church. Therefore, there is no such thing as “the ELCA Club”.  The ELCA does not exist apart from the congregations of which it is made.  The ELCA is not some independent “other”.  Mission support is not paying “dues” but gathering together resources for shared ministry.  Congregations have a responsibility to be engaged with one another because we are the ELCA.

I note that we wrestle with our role as parts of a body in many other ways too.  I may disagree with the priorities of the local congregation (especially related to where we spend our resources), but still am engaged in sharing ministry with others.  I will work to influence the priorities of congregational spending wherever I can, but ultimately, it is about something larger than me and what I hold to be important.  Likewise, I share ministry with people who throw a few dollars into the offering plate every once in a while, even though I contribute enough that it makes a difference in how I have to budget other things in my household.  I disagree strongly with their priorities, and yet, will work side by side with them to advance the ministry and mission of the congregation.

Because I have this perspective, I’m not as troubled by decisions of the ELCA which run counter to my specific priorities or my specific understanding of the center of scripture.  Likewise, I’m not threatened by those congregations that in their context, make different choices than I make in my context.  That does not mean for me that the ELCA is a denomination “of the world”.  Your comment suggests to me that you believe that those who voted to approve controversial positions were not grounded in scripture.  I listened carefully to the debate, and am convinced that there was appropriate attention to scripture from all sides, even the sides of the debate with which I disagree.  What takes priority and what is the central message of the Gospel is different for different people.  In some ways, it is similar to the differences between denominations.  But from my perspective, these differences are not sufficient to cause a split. Clearly, you see that differently.

“Regarding abortion, the issue is not about knowing someone who has had an abortion but supporting a denomination that offers to pay for the murder of a child.

I agree that the question about abortion is not about knowing someone who has had an abortion.  I apologize for being curt in my reply. Abortion is a passionate debate, one where there is little hope for dialogue.  Passions run much too high.  The commenter is opposed to the ELCA health plan paying for abortions.  I probably agree, not having thought about it much.  I’d simply ask that there be some discussion about what constitutes abortion for the commenter.  Is the commenter against termination of any pregnancy, viable or not?  How is that determined?  I don’t know enough about all this. Then, as in guidance offered in many parts of scripture, one must weigh the “greater good”.  That is not easy even from scripture.  Remember, this is the scripture that advocates stoning of adulterers and disobedient children.  It both commands divorce and calls divorce adultery.

As far as sexuality in colleges of the ELCA, again I say, it is not about knowing that there is sexual activity but the fact that the colleges are providing avenues of acceptance of for such activity.
I went to college in the 70′s and had a good old time, but when I grew up I knew my children would go to a Christian college because my husband and I wanted the best faith based professors to mentor them and serve as Godly examples. Well that was a waste, so why would someone choose to send their child to an ELCA school who’s attitude has nothing to do with Biblical teachings.

I have some real challenges with broad sweeping statements about what constitutes Christianity (based on morals).  The American Lutheran Church college I attended shaped my understanding and appreciation of paradox, vocation, and scripture (that was not literal or fundamental).  Students and professors sometimes lived out the Christian faith in obvious ways, and at other times were engaged in sinful activity … including competitiveness for grades.  In some ways, I’m not sure what a “Christian College” might be.  Is it a college that lives radical grace and forgiveness as its foundational values?  Is it one that offers radical hospitality?  Is it one where the poor, disenfranchised, alienated, and those whom society has deemed valueless are lifted up and given value?  Is it one where only scripture is used for teaching?  Is it one where all share all possessions in common?  Is it one in which vocation is understood as a calling of God and equipping of the Holy Spirit?  Is it one in which one is allowed and encouraged to wrestle with questions of faith in a safe learning environment, far from fear of condemnation?  Some of us might define Christianity in these ways from a faithful reading of Scripture.  “Christian” is a term I use to describe Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  I’d be interested in conversation about how the commenter describes “Christian”.  In the places where I have conversations about the Christian faith, Christian does not mean only one thing, and it is not universally understandable.

And yes I dare say that we all have seen illicit sexual activity in our congregation as well as many other sins, if we didnt all sin there would be no need to go to church. We are to observe, address and repent of our sins. If all our sins are okay, I’m okay, you’re okay, he’s okay ,it’s okay, we’re all okay.,lets just all get along. Then why did Christ have to die on the cross. It is our job to love our brothers enough to steer them away from sin and each of us help each other to recognize and repent .

Often, when there is conversation about these kinds of disagreements, the conversation devolves to the “if there are no standards then everything is ok and Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension mean nothing” position.  Please, step back and take a breath.  It is not “everything goes”, although I can see where it can look like that’s where it is leading.  Obedience to scripture is important.  But here we’ll probably disagree about what is most important in scripture.  Grace is important.  I often wonder if one is more important than the other, because when I put one ahead of the other, things get messed up.  It is my experience that sometimes grace happens before obedience.  Sometimes obedience is first.  Sometimes forgiveness comes before repentance.  Sometimes repentance is first.  Sometimes obedience draws me closer to God and sometimes God draws me closer to obedience.  I don’t want to be like the Pharisees who could see everyone’s failings and not consider their own.

I ask, because I’m interested to know, is there a point where forgiveness is not offered if there is no real change in a person’s behavior (if repentance is related to behavior)?  Does anyone ever repent about Thanksgiving Day feasting (gluttony), a sin when so much of the world goes hungry or do we in the church bless this sin?  Does anyone ever repent of the coveting that is the basis for our North American economy or does the church simply go along?  Jesus says all remarriage (in one of the Gospels) is sinful, and yet we don’t demand those marriages end.  My point is not to justify “sin”, but to invite us into a larger question where we seek out the answers together and listen carefully to one another in a way that honors how scripture speaks to another.  I want to have this kind of conversation … not because I know the answers, but because it has implications on what we mean by repentance, obedience, sinfulness, and forgiveness.  Why is it that some sins are considered acceptable and others are not?  How do we decide?  Is there a difference between sin as a condition and sinful acts?  Dialogue will reveal a good deal in these matters.

There is more from the commenter, some of it quite personal.  I hope I did not call her names, or insinuate that she is homophobic or un-Christian, or is out of touch with the world.  If I did, I am sorry for that, for that was not my intent.  There is too much of that in the world as it is.  I have a lot of questions, and believe that Christians can ask questions of one another without having to fight about preconceived truths.  I learn a great deal from these kinds of dialogues and invite people into them all the time.

There is more I can say, and I’ve said too much, so enough for now. 

World AIDS Day – 2010

Today is World AIDS Day.  In the ELCA, we’ve been called upon by our Presiding Bishop to pray, remember, lead by example, and sign a religious leaders’ commitment to action in response to HIV and AIDS.

I’ve signed the commitment, which is located here, and invite other clergy to do the same.  This commitment is rather extensive.  The commitment reads, in part:

Conscious of the specific needs of all those affected by HIV, this leadership means…

To people living with HIV, I commit myself to:

  • working tirelessly to end all stigmatizing attitudes and actions until people living with HIV are fully included in our religious communities and societies;
  • supporting concerted efforts and partnerships to provide support including health care and education in ways that respect privacy and dignity;
  • seeking to understand and respond to the specific needs and situations of different communities affected by HIV to enable all people living with HIV to participate fully in society;
  • providing spiritual support and resources to give hope and enable positive living, assuring you that HIV cannot separate you from love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness.

To children, I commit to:

  • Recognizing your rights, including health, education and support, that will help you celebrate childhood and learn values and ethical practices for safer and healthier living.

To young people, I commit to:

  • Listening to your needs and empowering you with the values and support to help protect you from violence and suppression and from behaviours that create risks for yourself and others;
  • Enabling and facilitating your leadership and participation.

To women and girls, I commit to:

  • Recognizing your special vulnerability and roles as caregivers and mothers and working tirelessly to ensure you have the services you require for prevention, treatment, care and support.
  • Exercising respect and challenging any oppressive systems of power within my religious community and society which fuel violence and injustice;
  • Providing space for your voice and leadership in our communities.

To men and boys, I commit to:

  • Encouraging understanding of power that allows people to relate to one another with dignity and love.
  • Supporting leadership and decision making that addresses the root causes of HIV.

To my religious community, I commit to:

  • Doing all I can to break the barriers of silence and exclusion to fully and openly include people living with HIV and their families in our religious communities;
  • Leading by example and encouraging my religious community to deepen its engagement in the response to HIV, including advocating for prevention, treatment, care and support for all.

To networks, organizations and public institutions, I commit to:

  • Fully supporting all efforts to extend services and support that will enable an HIV-free generation by 2015;
  • Challenging and supporting governments to meet their moral duty to implement their promises on HIV in their priorities, practices and financial support.
  • partnering with you to combine our experiences, approaches and expertise to reach our common goal of halting the spread of HIV and reversing the pandemic.

To those I am addressing in this pledge and to other religious leaders who join me in this covenant/pledge, I commit to:

  • reporting through available channels every 18 months how I have worked to fulfill my pledge. (September 2011, March 2013, and September 2014)

My first action is simple.  I’ll encourage our Bishop to sign, and ask him to encourage others to sign.

The importance of a blessing

Many secretly believe that children really don’t belong in worship, especially if they are “disruptive”. We’ve worked hard to nurture the participation of children in worship, including simple things like a simple laminated order of service in every pew rack, children’s Bibles in every pew, and ways for children to participate in worship leadership.  Disruptions occur, but they are not usually very long.  The pastors do a good job ignoring them and parents do a pretty good job at making proper adjustments.

We invite parents to help determine when their children are ready to begin to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion and offer age-appropriate education prior to first communion.  We offer a simple blessing accompanied by a hand on the head for those who do not receive communion. (I say, “May God bless, protect, and keep you all the days of your life.”)

Yesterday in worship, a young girl of about 4 came forward to the altar, and was prepared for the blessing.  For at least 30 seconds, she pulled her bangs up to expose her forehead, and waited patiently for the blessing.  I think only her mother and I noticed, and we were both moved.

Pondering Pastor

Open Letter to Lutheran CORE

Dear members of Lutheran CORE,

As you move into the next few days and organize the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) I would ask that you temper your enthusiasm with humility and your rhetoric with wisdom.  This is undoubtedly an exciting time for you and your hopefulness for that which you create can certainly blind you to the dangerous waters in which you navigate.  I wish you well.  How can I not, with so many friends among you?

Please, don’t offer the extreme examples of what you find offensive in the ELCA as normative.  You know that great variety exists within the ELCA and will exist even within NALC in a relatively short period of time.  Remember Luther’s explanation of the 8th commandment and make that the cornerstone of of your public and private comments.

Please keep in mind that you are not the only faithful Christians with the name Lutheran.  Ryan Schwarz is quoted in the August edition of “CORE Connections” saying, “Lutheran CORE will seek to help faithful members of the ELCA and ELCIC to continue to uphold the authority of scripture in an increasingly challenging environment …”  Many faithful (to Christ) members of the ELCA uphold the authority of scripture in a way different than you.  I consider myself one of those, and will not need your help.  In fact, your rhetoric is part of my increasingly challenging environment.

I plead with you to seek guidance from a wide variety of sources, not just those with whom you agree.  “Without counsel, plans go wrong, but with many advisers they succeed. ” (Proverbs 15:22)  It is very tempting in these early days to restrict your circle of advisors. As an outsider looking in, that has been the history of CORE from the beginning.  NALC moves you now onto the “big stage.”

Please attend carefully to those you elect to serve the NALC.  The proposed Constitution has heavy expectations and demands upon those persons.  If you elect Paull as Bishop, treat him with consideration and respect.  He will need your prayer and support and encouragement.

Please, not all who are part of the congregations you serve are of one mind with you and this direction you are taking.  I’ve watched these people feel disenfranchised from the congregations they know and love as you’ve taken this path.  I have sought to help them find ways to remain in congregations where they no longer receive appropriate pastoral care.  This is some of the hardest work that lies ahead for you.  Please find respectful ways to care for these members of the body of Christ.  You have said that the ELCA left you, they tell me that their congregation has left them.  In most cases, they’ve been pretty quiet in the face of your enthusiasm.

In Christ,
Earl Janssen
Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, Severna Park, MD

Bound Conscience as we presently live it

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.

What is Bound Conscience?

Where does the term come from?

Why is reference to Bound Conscience considered by some to be a problem?

What is the Scriptural Basis for “Bound Conscience”?

Doesn’t Scripture argue against Bound Conscience?

How does Martin Luther contribute to our understanding of Bound Conscience?

Bound Conscience as we presently live it.

Challenges from those opposing Bound Conscience

Bound Conscience and the current controversy

On a Personal Note

How does Martin Luther contribute to our understanding of Bound Conscience?

The Rev. Dr. Timothy Wengert, (professor at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and one of the editors of the most recent version of “The Book of Concord”) has written a helpful article about “bound conscience” titled “Reflections on the Bound Conscience in Lutheran Theology” which informed the Task Force on Human Sexuality in its writing of the Social Statement.  Dr. Wengert writes,

In 1518, when Martin Luther appeared in Augsburg before the papal legate, Cardinal Cajetan, he had posted and defended the 95 Theses. His theological position had become a case before Rome. In deference to Luther’s prince, the elector Frederick the Wise, Cajetan did not simply haul him [Luther] off to Rome for summary judgment but interviewed him in Augsburg. Of the two points on which Cajetan faulted Luther’s writings, one concerns us here. Cajetan insisted that one could not ever be certain that we are in a state of grace but must always doubt the words of absolution (lest we be overcome with the security of pride). Luther responded this way:

May it please your highness to intercede with our most holy lord, Leo X, in my behalf so that he will not proceed against me with such stern rigor that he cast my soul into darkness, for I seek nothing but the light of truth and I am prepared to give up, change, or revoke everything if I am informed that these passages are to be understood in another sense. For I am neither arrogant nor so eager for vainglory that for this reason I would be ashamed to revoke ill-founded doctrines. Indeed, it will please me most of all if the truth is victorious. However, I do not want to be compelled to affirm something contrary to my conscience, for I believe without the slightest doubt that this is the meaning of Scripture. (LW 35: 275)

I notice that while Luther debates doctrines, he recognizes that they arise from Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture.  He acknowledges that there is possibility for different interpretation.  Indeed, he holds a different interpretation of scripture than the predominant traditional understanding of his day.  That is why he is at odds with the church of his day.

Three years later, Luther appears before the Emperor, Charles V, and makes his most famous speech.

Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. ( LW 36: 112)

It is from this speech that the term “bound conscience” was constructed.  Luther declares he is “bound by scripture” and that his “conscience is captive [bound] to the Word of God.”  Since the term “bound conscience” was constructed from this reference, the term is tied specifically to Scripture and its interpretation and not to behavior, attitudes, opinions or the like.  Respecting the bound conscience of another is respecting the way scripture is engaged and interpreted by the other.

I note also that Luther uses “clear reason” in opposition to “tradition” in determining whether or not testimony is true.  He argues that because something is the predominant traditional Scriptural understanding does not make it convincing evidence of truth.  The predominant traditional Scriptural interpretation is exactly what Luther is contradicting, and it is particularly the heart of the Gospel, rather than some peripheral, esoteric part of Scripture which he challenges.  From the Roman Catholic perspective, what Luther was teaching and professing was contrary to scripture.  In fact, they ruled his teaching as dangerous and heretical.  The gulf was significant.  Rome could not see his argument nor accept his teaching as Biblically-based.  This is important for us to consider.

Dr. Wengert’s essay lists several other places where we see either Luther and/or Melanchthon advocating “respect for the bound conscience of another” or setting aside adherence to the clear teaching of scripture out of pastoral concern.  In many ways, Luther is reflecting Paul’s pastoral advice we discussed earlier.  These include:

  • Luther comforts the wife of a suicide victim with the hope of the man’s salvation [contrary to the clear teaching of the church and the church’s understanding of scripture that those who commit suicide are outside the possibility of salvation as this represents an unpardonable “sin against the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:28-29)].
  • Luther taught [against scripture and the leaders of the Lutheran movement] that it was permissible to “respect the bound conscience” of those who objected to receiving communion in both kinds.
  • Luther suggested that the wife of a man unable to fulfill his conjugal duty should be able to contract a secret marriage to another and thus bear children.
  • Luther counseled soldiers about refusing to serve in an unjust war [contrary to Romans 13].
  • Luther and Melanchthon suggested that Philip of Hesse should commit bigamy rather than divorce his wife.

For those who see Luther and the other reformers as Biblical literalists, this has to come as a significant shock.  In every one of these cases, Luther was more concerned with the pastoral care and the needs of the individual than he was to strictly adhering to either the traditions of the church or to specific rules found in Scripture.  In the grey areas of my ministry, I’m actually encouraged by this.  It reminds me of the words of Jesus when confronted by the Pharisees about his eating with tax collectors and sinners:

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Luther offered these “compromises” often in the face of very strong objection and appeal to either tradition or scripture.  In them, he chose which part of Scripture had authority over another part.  Luther was often famous for suggesting that certain parts of scripture to be more authoritative than other parts of scripture.  This gets at another part of “bound conscience”, that is that when determining what is of most importance in scripture, people often decide differently.  Or, as I stated earlier, “people of faith find different aspects of Scripture to be foundational”.

I find compelling Dr. Wengert’s distinction between tolerance and bound conscience as he explores Luther’s response to a controversy of his day.

Note here, as elsewhere, that concern for the bound conscience is not simply a matter of toleration for different points of view but more profoundly realizing that the neighbor’s conscience is bound to a totally different, perhaps even incorrect, understanding of the matter and that to uproot that understanding would shake the neighbor’s faith and trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness. (page 6)

Dr. Wengert admits that for Luther the conscience might be bound to an incorrect understanding of Scripture and yet holds firm with the need to not shake the neighbor’s faith.  Somehow, in most of our interpretation of “bound conscience”, we’ve assumed that if we accept the conclusions of our neighbor, that somehow we are also affirming those conclusions as being truth.  For me, this openness to caring for the neighbor, even when they are probably wrong, challenges some of my ethical mores and expands my ability to uplift my brother or sister in Christ at the very same time.

What is Bound Conscience?

Where does the term come from?

Why is reference to Bound Conscience considered by some to be a problem?

What is the Scriptural Basis for “Bound Conscience”?

Doesn’t Scripture argue against Bound Conscience?

How does Martin Luther contribute to our understanding of Bound Conscience?

Bound Conscience as we presently live it.

Challenges from those opposing Bound Conscience

Bound Conscience and the current controversy

On a Personal Note