Category Archives: Scripture

Funeral for Suicide Victim

Two popular posts on this site have been for comments about funerals and scripture texts for funerals where there has been a suicide.  Not long ago, I conducted a memorial service for a popular man in town who died as a result of his illness of depression.  This is the sermon from that memorial service.  Many who attended the service found it helpful.  It is by far the one sermon I’ve preached that received the most positive comments.  Most who commented lingered long enough to talk more about what they heard.  It is slightly edited to protect the identity of the families.

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A week ago, no one could have predicted that you would be here this morning.  That means this has been an especially hard week.  Know this: life is so very fragile.  When you stop and pay attention, it can seem as though everything around us makes life dangerous.  Sometimes the things that endanger us the most are sneaky and unimaginable.

Think about it.  A sudden heart attack from lingering heart disease catches us off guard.  A moment of inattention while driving can cause disaster.  For Jim, it was the sometimes fatal illness of depression.  This illness caused ups and downs and unpredictability for Jim.  It also caused those same ups and downs and unpredictability for those who knew and loved him best.

I’m not going to dwell on this entirely this morning, but there are some important things that need to be said, and it is my responsibility to say them.

It is impossible to know the kind of darkness Jim lived with.  He hid much of it from the people who were closest to him.  Because we look for explanations and for his death to make sense, we grab at any reasonable logic to figure it all out.  There is a big problem with that.  This sometimes fatal illness of depression changes how we think and turns rational logical problem solving upside down.  That means that there are going to be no real answers to our biggest questions about Jim’s death.  We either have to live with that or we have to make things up.

Yes, you heard me right.  Our choice in coming to grips with Jim’s sudden death is to either live with the reality that we will never have some real answers or make things up.  Without realizing it, each of us here have been making some things up.

Some of that gets to be pretty blatant.  Maybe you’ve heard some of the rumors that are circulating these days.  When we don’t know details, we tend to make assumptions and fill in the blanks.  When you hear this kind of speculation, remind yourself that sometimes we have to accept that we don’t have the answers.  When you find yourself filling in the blanks, remind yourself that we don’t have the answers.

If you’ve been feeling guilty or questioning what you could have done to help Jim more, that’s quite normal.  The problem is that you either have to accept that you will never have any real answers or you will make things up and have the guilt.  You did the best you could.  Jim didn’t die because you failed.  Jim died because of this sometimes fatal illness of depression.  Please hear me.  You did the best you could.  Jim didn’t die because you didn’t do enough.  Any guilt you have is the result of you making things up and changing the truth.  Please don’t do that.

Some anger at Jim is appropriate.  This isn’t fair or easy or convenient.  Jim’s death changes so much and makes so many things that much harder.  Some of the anger however comes from trying to fill in the blanks and deciding that you know what Jim was thinking and what he wasn’t thinking about.  Remind yourself that you don’t have the answers.

Look, I don’t want to dwell on this all morning.  There are other, even more important things that need to be said.  This sometimes fatal illness leaves more questions than answers.  It is good for us to accept that many of our questions will never be answered.

But there are plenty of things we do know.

We know that Jim loved (his wife and children are named).

We know that Jim loved and cared about his larger family.

We know that Jim had this unique ability to touch the lives of people in significant ways.  You’ve no doubt been telling and hearing some of these stories over the past several days.  He used his love of baseball to encourage people in ways that literally changed their lives.  Someone yesterday said that even meeting Jim only one time set them on a different course in their life, and that it was good and productive and they were grateful for that important gift Jim gave them.

As much as anything, that is why so many people came to the funeral home yesterday, and so many people are here today.  Jim had this ability to let you know that you mattered.  Jim had this ability to let you know that there was opportunity ahead in your life.  Jim had the unwavering ability to encourage others and help them see their value.

Over and over again this week I’ve heard this story repeated.  There is far too little encouragement in this world.  Jim was one of those rare people with that gift of encouragement.

But, as important as this is, it is only a piece of who Jim has been to you.  You heard the words of  (his brother) earlier as he attempted to summarize who Jim has been to him.  Multiply that by hundreds and you will just be scratching the surface.  It is easy to say that knowing and loving Jim has helped to shape who you are.  That is by far the more lasting impact of Jim’s life.  I’m not going to even attempt to summarize who Jim has been to you.  That is your job.  In the coming days and weeks and months, share those stories.  Those are the stories that begin with, “Remember when …” and lead to big grins, amazement, sadness, nostalgia, and sometimes raucous laughter.  I dare say, you will discover something about yourself and something about Jim as you tell these stories.  When you tell these stories, it is natural to be grateful, especially grateful to God for placing Jim in your life.

This is a good day to give thanks to God for placing Jim in your life.

We know that because Jim has played an important part in shaping who we are, his death last week leaves a hole that is huge.  It hurts.  It leaves us reeling.  It leaves some of us feeling overwhelmed.

This is a good day to acknowledge that hurt and pain.

We know that just like God gave Jim the gift of encouragement, God gives gifts to people so that the work of God might be accomplished.  When we care for one another we are doing God’s work.

This is a good day to allow people to comfort us.

We know that God has made some irrevocable promises to Jim.  Long ago Jim was baptized and became a child of God.  That was a relationship that God promised never to abandon.  On a day like this it is so important to let those words in the second reading take hold of us.  I paraphrase.  “What can separate us from God’s love?  Nothing, nada, zip, zilch, not the stupid things we do, not the little mistakes we make, not the big blunders that hurt others, not anything at all.”  God’s love in Christ Jesus is for all time, and it is for Jim.

We know that God made the promise to Jim to love him, to be with him in thick and thin, and to forgive him.  God promised to forgive Jim.  That brings me peace today.

We know that God promised Jim everlasting life.  Jesus goes ahead to prepare a place for Jim. That brings me hope.

It is a jumbled up day with all this mixed together.  Bittersweet describes it best.  It is as should be.  Ultimately, we know that God is the source of healing; bringing promise, forgiveness, and most importantly … hope.

May you experience that healing.

Amen

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. 

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

Doesn’t Scripture argue against Bound Conscience?

Doesn’t Scripture also argue against Bound Conscience?

I think it is fair to make that claim.  It is important to consider passages said to argue against Bound Conscience.

In Acts 15, as we have noted, Paul and others are sent out with a letter indicating that circumcision is not to be required of the Gentile converts to Christianity.  Apparently, the past behavior of John Mark was too much for Paul, and he did not want John Mark to accompany him.  They parted company. (Acts 15:36-41)  I suggest that this is not so much about respecting the Bound Conscience of another as it is a decision about someone’s work ethic or commitment to the task.  It was not a matter related to scripture, a condition we’ve established when referring to bound conscience.

1st Corinthians 5 is often cited as an example against bound conscience.  Paul not only urges the congregation to dismiss from the assembly those who are engaged in sexual immorality (or an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber) but also gives permission to judge those who are “inside” the assembly.  Left to God are those who are not part of the congregation.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife.  2 And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you?  3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present I have already pronounced judgment  4 in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present with the power of our Lord Jesus,  5 you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.  6 Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?  7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.  8 Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons–  10 not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world.  11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.  12 For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  13 God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:1-13)

There is nothing in this passage that even hints of respecting the bound conscience of another. Respecting the bound conscience of another does not mean excusing all behaviors as being valid, but rather as we have said, respecting that Scripture is understood differently by different readers.  In the example of meat sacrificed to idols and circumcision, there are different readings of scripture at stake.  Here, there is immoral or prohibited behavior with no claim of scriptural support.  Respecting the bound conscience does not mean tolerance.

What we do encounter in this passage is another difference that I think is related.  In Romans Paul has argued that we are not to judge a brother or sister, and here, that we are to judge those inside the assembly.  In Romans the argument was related to scriptural interpretation.  In 1 Corinthians, it is related to immorality.  We have said that our references to bound conscience apply to understanding of scripture.

Pondering Pastor

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

Bound Conscience: Scriptural Basis

Several significant controversies or conflicts arose early enough in the history of the Christian church that they were reported in the book of Acts, and in the letters of Paul.  These controversies, which today don’t seem very important in contemporary reading, threatened to irreparably divide or destroy the fledgling church.  One of the primary controversies was the eating of meat sacrificed to idols.  Another was the priority of circumcision.  A lesser conflict included observance of holy days.

Behind these questions were more important questions.  What constitutes idolatry?  What part of the Old Testament law remains applicable in our time?  How do we remain in fellowship with one another when we have completely different histories and expectations of one another?  What is the relationship between Scriptural commands of obedience and the radical grace of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ?

The way through these questions, as recorded in Scripture, results in what we are calling “bound conscience”.

Meat Sacrificed to Idols

In their attempt to follow the 1st Commandment (You shall have no other gods), some early Christians refused to eat meat sacrificed to idols.  One could never be certain that the meat they purchased was not used in these sacrifices.  Some Christians were becoming vegetarians in order to be certain that they were not breaking the First Commandment and insisting that this practice be adopted by all Christians.  Apparently, this conflict threatened to divide the church, for vegetarianism was resisted by those who did not see this as idolatrous behavior.  Both groups would have reason from scripture to support their particular perspective.

St. Paul weighed in on this conflict without declaring a winner, but rather addressing some of the underlying issues.  Near the very end of his letter to the Romans, Paul changes the tone of the letter from one of dense theological argument to pastoral.  Romans 12-15 grounds his pastoral response with the theological arguments he made earlier to address how the people of God might live their lives and resolve these conflicts.

Romans 14-15 addresses the question we are considering about meat sacrificed to idols.  In that section of Romans, Paul argues that we are not to pass judgment on one another because each side of the conflict has been called into this relationship with God by God.  We are not to not put a stumbling block to the faith in front of the other by insisting something contrary to what another believes.  In an astonishing statement from a man who was a Pharisee, Paul writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (Romans 14:14)  He also writes that it is the Christian’s obligation to consider the impact of one’s behavior on other believers.  I recommend a careful reading of Romans 14-15 now.

In 1st Corinthians, this subject is also addressed.  In chapter 8, Paul first argues the question itself.  Since there are no other gods, eating meat sacrificed to idols is not idolatry.  However, Paul says, some are so accustomed to thinking about other gods that their conscience is “defiled”.  To somehow lead these brothers or sisters back into idolatry (that is insisting that they eat meat) is a sin against them and to be avoided at all costs, even if one is absolutely right in eating what one wishes.  The argument extends into chapter 10, where the word “conscience” appears a number of times.  Please read 1st Corinthians 8-10, paying particular attention to this specific controversy.

Notice that Paul answers many of the questions I claim lie behind the specific topic of eating meat sacrificed to idols.  Idolatry is being convinced of the presence of other gods and acting on that conviction.  Participation in actions peripherally related to idolatry are not idolatry in and of themselves.  We remain in fellowship with one another by not imposing our standards on another, and respecting the conclusions others draw from their encounter with God.  Christ has made us free.  Paul says here that we are not to judge our brother or sister or their relationship with Christ.

I specifically see Paul’s statement in Romans 14:14 as instructive and helpful in our consideration of Bound Conscience.  Critics of the idea of “bound conscience” point to the term making scripture subjective, rather than objective.  Paul argues that the designation of clean and unclean is subjective, not objective.  This is contrary to the teaching of the Old Testament but certainly reflects the revelation Peter received (as described in Acts 10-11).

Circumcision

When God establishes the covenant with Abram (Abraham), circumcision becomes a commandment.

This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.  Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring.  Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.  Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Genesis 17:10-14)

Notice that this is a commandment established forever for all who are directly connected with God and God’s people (including slaves of the people).

As Paul began to proclaim the Gospel to Gentiles, no small controversy arose about circumcision.  Some (often referred to as the “circumcision party”) insisted that entry into Christianity demanded circumcision.  Paul, a circumcised Jew with an extensive ministry to Gentiles, saw circumcision as no longer necessary, and in fact an impediment to the proclamation to the Gospel.

In Acts 15 we read the account of the consultation in Jerusalem about this very matter.  Paul defends the full inclusion of Gentiles without the requirement of circumcision while the Pharisees insist circumcision must be performed.  At the conclusion of the debate, James declares the decision to not require circumcision.

Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20)

I note that “abstain only from things polluted by idols” refers to eating meat sacrificed to idols.

While Paul was victorious in this decision, the very next Chapter indicates that he doesn’t get legalistic with regard to this decision.  Rather, the circumcision of Timothy becomes a matter of what we might call “respecting the bound conscience” of the Jews “in those places”.  His action reflects what we read in his pastoral responses to congregations in conflict.

Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek.  He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium.  Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.  As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. (Acts 16:1-4)

The controversy did not go away.  Through the rest of Acts, this conflict continually guides the story until Paul is arrested and transported to Rome for trial, specifically because the circumcision party would not accept Paul’s teaching in this matter.

The Epistle to the Galatians is often understood as a lengthy argument against circumcision, where Paul actually argues that Christ is of no benefit to those who allow themselves to be circumcised.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  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. (Galatians 5:1-3)

I find it quite instructive that Paul is adaptable with respect to circumcision.  He has Timothy circumcised while also distributing the letter from Jerusalem with the decision that circumcision is not required while condemning the Galatians for willingly submitting to circumcision.

In both of these examples, eating of meat sacrificed to animals and circumcision, a different reading and understanding of scripture and its authority in particular matters was challenged and a new understanding was affirmed.  We understand that Paul had a new revelation from God, but many of the people of his day did not trust this.  Respecting the bound conscience of others did not mean that all matters were permissible.  You will note that some expectations remained in place, and were often reiterated following the reinterpretation of a portion of Scripture.

Pondering Pastor

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

Bound Conscience: Why do some have a problem with it?

The term “bound conscience” has been permanently linked by some to interpretations of Scripture many find objectionable, counter to the plain reading of Scripture, and contrary to predominant traditional Biblical interpretation.  In a different circumstance, the phrase may have been given greater opportunity for consideration.  In fact, “bound conscience” has been a part of our life together as Christians since the very beginning.  More will be said about that later.

The term “bound conscience” for some has the implication that tolerance of all views (right or wrong) becomes the new norm for Biblical interpretation.  This is often seen as taking Scripture’s role of communicating God’s truth and replacing it with far less valuable human relativism.  If this is true, then Scripture loses its authority, and the result is that there is doubt about everything Scripture says.  The entire role of Scripture ordering our lives, our society, and our future is therefore called into question.  This is a very serious concern.

There is a third consideration which impacts on our understanding of bound conscience.  The term is only to be used when I am attempting to address someone else’s honest engagement with scripture, and we draw very different conclusions.  It is not to be used to insist that someone agree with me or respect my conclusions about scripture.  The reasons for that should become clearer as we explore the scriptural basis for bound conscience.

Pondering Pastor

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

Bound Conscience: A guide to the upcoming posts

Where have I been the past several months?

I’ve been focused on guiding the congregation I serve through the most difficult challenge of the decisions of the ELCA’s 2009 Churchwide Assembly.  Think that’s related somehow to human sexuality or homosexuality?  Not at all.  The most challenging part of the Churchwide Assembly’s decisions has to do with “respecting the bound conscience of others”.

I’m now just about ready to go live with what I’ve been working on and teaching.  It will come here in installments.  Right now, this is what is planned.

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

(I’ll be amending this as I move along, providing links to the appropriate posts.)

Comments are welcome.

Pondering Pastor