Bound Conscience is hurting the church

With the current political tone of our world and the proliferation of the anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in the United States it is time for the church to acknowledge its part in contributing to society’s positions of bigotry and hatred. It is time to see how the church as a whole and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has played a part in all of this.

First and foremost, we need to understand that homosexuality is not the issue. The issue is heterosexism, which is the understanding that heterosexuality is the normative for sexuality and anything else is deviant and not to be accepted. Mary E. Hunt defined it this way: “Heterosexism is the attitude and ability to enforce the notion that heterosexuality is normative to the exclusion of the full flowering of same-sex possibilities. It is not to be confused with homophobia, which is a psychological approach to the same phenomena, nor with homohatred, which is the explicit articulation of disdain that often leads to violence. Rather, heterosexism is a structural and personal matter that takes many forms.”[1] Hunt goes on to write, “There are seven sacraments for heterosexual Catholics and six for homosexuals.”[2] This alone should be enough to get us to revisit the understanding of inclusion, but it does not. So where did this understanding come from?

Heterosexuality is the normative understand of our human sexuality because the church catholic adopted Augustine’s understanding of human sexuality. Augustine went through many relationships and dealings with sexuality and finally in his readings of Romans 5:12 he came to his understanding of original sin. The issue with this understanding is that it was based on the Latin translation of the text and not the original Greek. The original said “Through one man [or “because of one man”] sin entered the world, and through sin, death; and thus death came upon all men, in that all sinned.”[3] Elaine Pagels wrote, “Augustine insisted that it meant that ‘death came upon all men, in whom all sinned’ – that the sin of that ‘one man,’ Adam, brought upon humanity not only universal death, but also universal, and inevitable, sin.”[4] Augustine saw human sexual relationships that were not intended to produce offspring as inherently evil and sinful. So, to Augustine the only sexual encounter that is holy is one that will produce offspring and not an act for the joy of experiencing a loving relationship. So even if a married heterosexual couple wants to have sexual relations, if it is not with the intent of procreation, it is sinful and should be avoided. This would most definitely mean that any homosexual relationships would not be holy and sinful according to Augustine’s understanding. The church adopted this understanding, and this scope of belief has been the normative understanding for society since its adoption. Even if you are not Christian this is still the “moral societal” belief. These beliefs only strengthen heterosexism. So why has the Church not changed its understanding of this?

In 2009 the ELCA tried to broaden our understanding of who is included and what is sinful with a social statement called Human Sexuality Gift and Trust. In 2001 the Church Wide Assembly of the ELCA passed a resolution asking the ELCA to produce a social statement of human sexuality, along with this teaching document, the assembly also asked the ELCA to update policy decision on Non-celibate LGBTQ+ people for ordination as rostered leaders in the church (Previously they were ordained but were required to be celibate). A task force worked on this for eight years, interviewing, listening, and diligently doing the work. What the task force discovered was that the people of the ELCA were in many various places on these issues. Finally the task force admitted that there was not a consensus in the ELCA and so offered 4 opposing views in the social statement. They did this by claiming bound conscience of the people. However, there were previous social statements of the church that had come together with little or no consensus and the church still put forth one unified statementthat would guide the church’s mission. For example, the social statement on abortion claims that we all do not agree but we should work towards an understanding of the sanctity of all life and help to focus public policy in that way. With regards to the death penalty, the social statement acknowledges we have different views, but the death penalty is something the church should oppose. Yet in the understanding of human sexuality, the church allows for four completely different views and say that they all are equally upholdable because of bound conscience.

The use of the term bound conscience comes from Martin Luther saying at the Diet of Worms, “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 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. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”[5] Here Luther was defending his works and being asked to recant and he could not because he knew his position was correct. This is not the kind of bound conscience that is exegeted from the passages used by Human Sexuality Gift and Trust.

The task force used 1 Corinthians 8 concerning food sacrificed to idols and Romans 14 concerning people who believe different things and eat/drink different things. In 1 Corinthians some are struggling with leaving idol worship behind, so Paul tells those who know that it is not a sin to eat meat sacrificed to an idol not to eat it for the sake of those who are struggling with idol worship. It isn’t wrong to ask those who eat to abstain because that doesn’t violate their conscience, but to ask those who abstain from eating to eat would make them violate their conscience. Romans 14 touches upon the same thing, Paul knows that one viewpoint is correct and the other needs some growth, a deeper understanding, however Paul urges the community to understand that some eat meat and some do not, and some drink wine and some do not and all need to honor the others’ different view point.

The problem with this and using these scripture as examples in Human Sexuality Gift and Trust is that, as I stated, Paul knows those who eat are correct and those who do not eat because the meat was sacrificed to an idol need growth, deeper understanding. Growth is expected and should be fostered. Paul is hoping for growth so those bound to a false idea will be able to change and people will grow into a deeper understanding. Second, the social statement asks all of us to respect the bound conscience of our neighbor by expecting LGBTQ+ people to give up their understanding of their sexuality so as to not offend someone else. This is not what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14. The issues in those passages are truly unimportant in the grand scheme of life. Giving up ones understanding of their sexuality is not an unimportant issue! The understanding of one’s sexual identity is integral to one’s life. Thirdly and most importantly, Paul is saying we shouldn’t do what violates our own consciences. Paul and Luther stood and did what they were called to do and to be who God made them to be. Bound conscience in the ELCA has come to mean that you cannot do what violates my conscience. Paul is not wanting those who are struggling eating meat offered to idols to be pressured to eat it because it violates Paul’s conscience, but because it violates their conscience. We should never do anything for or to ourselves that violates our consciences. Paul is asking those who have no issue with eating meat to not eat meat, not because it violates their or others conscience, but so others will not be possibly led to harm themselves. Using these chapters on issues which are unimportant in the grand scheme of life and linking them with the LGBTQ+ community also is a statement by the task force, even if unintended. This says that LGBTQ+ people are unimportant members of the community, and their sexuality is not part of the norm. We would never ask a heterosexual person to give up their sexual identity, but Human Sexuality Gift and Trust has no issue asking non-heterosexual people to do just that because it violates the conscience of some heterosexual people. This statement and bound conscience support heterosexism.

Bound conscience is a lie and can only be used for hate and discrimination in the ELCA. Paul’s and Luther’s understanding of bound conscience is one of mutual respect and understanding of each other’s position and choice for their own lives. Thus, in sexuality it is the understanding that every person can determine who they will have sexual relations with and who they will marry and everyone else needs to respect that decision. Instead, the ELCA has made bound conscience to work in opposition to the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC and women. For example, a congregation will deny marriage to a same sex couple, possibly against the understanding of the pastor, by bound conscience. However, if that pastor tried to go against the congregation to perform a same sex marriage, they could not because of bound conscience. Bound conscience has become a way to discriminate, not include. Paul’s understanding of bound conscience knows one side is correct and the other side needs to grow. So, in the understanding of human sexuality this should lead us to an understanding that non-heterosexual relationships are as blessed as heterosexual ones. We as the church must work towards dismantling homophobia, transphobia, and all the phobias keeping us from loving each other as God loves all of us. However, Human Sexuality Gift and Trust with its four completely different understandings, clearly states that anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments and actions are in line with what God would do and be in the world. This is the opposite of what other parts of the document profess.

The ELCA altered the concept of bound conscience to mean that any person can bind another person because of their own conscience. Two lesbian women cannot marry because I do not want to marry a lesbian. A transgender man can not be a pastor because I do not want to be a transgender man who is a pastor. The ELCA is demanding the very thing Paul did not want to force someone to violate their own conscience.

We need to put an end to bound conscience regardless of the fall out. If we, as the Church truly believe that all means all, and everyone is a child of God created in God’s image then we need to be as Luther and say, “I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”[6] And as the Church understand and embody the words of Laurel Schneider, “I must insist that God is God, not just my God.”[7]

[1] Hunt, Mary E. Eradicating the Sin of Heterosexism. p. 68

[2] Ibid p. 68

[3] Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and The Serpent. p. 109

[4] Ibid p. 109

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 32: Career of the Reformer II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 32 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 112–113.

[6] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 32: Career of the Reformer II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 32 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 112–113.

[7] Schneider, Laurel C., What If It Is A Choice. p.202

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