A Question of Conscience:
by Tim Fisher
Seventeen Lutheran theologians have issued a stern rejection of the ELCA Sexuality Task Force’s recommendations. Their protest makes no attempt to marshal evidence in support of a scriptural position condemning homosexual relationships. Instead, the scholars ground their argument in the privilege of an unsubstantiated view: that those who would allow for the blessing of committed, same-sex relationships and those who would ordain partnered gay or lesbian pastors suffer from “weak consciences,” are in thrall to “alien ideologies,” and have “separated from Scripture.”
Let’s examine their accusation of “weak conscience.” The scholars write:
The Task Force imposes a subjective understanding of “conscience,” one bound only by private judgment, upon Scripture and Luther, thus misrepresenting both. Whenever conscience severs itself from faith in Christ and fidelity to the Word it is no longer conscience in the true sense. . . . For Luther, the holy and righteous conscience of the Christian must agree with God's Word; an erring conscience, separated from Scripture, can react only in accordance with selfish desires resulting from weakness in faith.
There’s no word here from the seventeen theologians as to how their opponents have “severed” themselves from faith in Christ or how they disagree with God’s Word. Perhaps we can overlook this lack, for the sake of discussing what these scholars actually do say in their statement, since some of them have rendered an opinion on this question elsewhere. Nevertheless, they remain responsible for supporting their assertion that the Task Force’s conception of conscience is “bound only by private judgment.” This they fail to do.
The Task Force report speaks of “consciences bound to particular interpretations of Scripture and tradition” (11). Anyone who has been paying attention at all to the church’s current debate will have noticed that a variety of interpretations have been asserted about the scriptural passages presumed to address homosexuality. Although the scholars are correct, in a shallow sense, that “the voices of the church universal over the past two millennia” have condemned homosexual behavior as sinful, it is not without significance to note that only in the last three decades or so has the question been given serious scholarly consideration. It is only recently that exegetes have turned their sights significantly on the question—and as they have, they’ve compared notes and have found themselves reaching wildly different conclusions. Scholars across the spectrum of Christian thought don’t agree on what fidelity to the Word means in this instance—or even what the words themselves mean—and this disagreement is only as old as their closely considered attention.
When read in this context, it’s unlikely the Task Force recommendations intend “conscience” to refer merely to private judgment. As Martha Stortz points out in a recent essay, the hallmarks of a Reformation understanding of conscience are that it is captive, instructed, and informed. By and large, those who welcome the ordained ministry of partnered gay and lesbian people do not do so in isolation from Scripture or other believers. They speak within, and seek counsel from, communities of discernment and instruction, communities which include individuals, congregations, pastors, bishops, teachers, theologians, gay and straight, partnered and single. In the case of the Task Force—not all of whom can be said to welcome partnered GLBT people into the ordained ministry—the recommendation is to allow for the church to “choose to refrain from disciplining” those policy offenders whose “conscience” is bound to a concern for “outreach, ministry, and the commitment to continuing dialogue” (7). It’s clear from this statement, which forms the very heart of what the seventeen scholars refer to as the “primary” recommendation, is not based on mere private sentiment. Stortz writes about Luther’s conception of conscience, and it applies equally to the Task Force:
Behind [Luther’s] statement “my conscience is captive to the Word of God” lay hours of worship and prayer, argument and disputation, letters written and received. These practices all demanded community. There is here no declaration of independence for individual conscience, but rather an observation of its dependence on the mutual conversation and consolation of the brothers and sisters. Luther’s captive conscience displays but the interdependence of Christians. We need each other for the task of judgment: to weigh possible options, to test potential courses of action, to discern, and to seek counsel from people who may be wiser than we. (7)
It seems particularly odd that James Nestingen and Gerhard Forde, two signatories to the “Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern,” have chosen to censure the Task Force’s appeal to conscience. Both have made an identical appeal elsewhere. As Nestingen has written in “Authority and Resistance in the ELCA,” “The church’s earliest creed, Jesus Christ is Lord, asserts an ultimate claim regarding the risen Christ that at the same time renders every other form of authority secondary.” Because of its “incarnate form,” the Gospel, which Nestingen here explicitly contrasts with the law, “retains the power of its ultimate speaker,” who is Christ. Nestingen continues:
Thus the authority of the word consists not in establishing either doctrines or offices . . . but in actually forgiving sinners, raising the dead, establishing for creature and creation the marvelous liberty of the children of God. . . . When the word is made dependent on an external guarantor, that force—be it doctrinal or official, a person or a gathering of people—inevitably becomes a subject displacing Christ Jesus as the Subject of Scripture, imposing itself as the one legitimate interpreter to establish the desired orthodoxy.
Nestingen is writing of the ecumenical agreement Called to Common Mission. He is describing how, in his view, the ELCA has imposed a particular interpretation of the confessions onto the church. This imposition must be resisted, says Nestingen, because for “many pastors” a different understanding of the confessions is “a matter of conscience.” Yet how does a particular interpretation of a scriptural law involve conscience any less than an interpretation of the confessions, which themselves speak to that which is most authoritative in Scripture?
A similar inconsistency can be discerned in the following passage, a segment of a protest against another ecumenical proposal, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by both Nestingen and another of the seventeen, Gerhard Forde:
The unity of the true Church that is given in our one and only Savior Jesus Christ is still hidden beneath our painful disagreements because the churches do not hear and understand the Gospel of salvation in the Son in one single, identical way. Therefore we are forbidden to sacrifice the recognized truth which binds us in our conscience, even in the face of humanly understandable urging in favor of a visible and institutional church union and reasoning with a view towards evangelism, for which this kind of sacrifice is said to be necessary. (http://www.concordtx.org/wrldnews/rc_lwf2.htm)
Now, if Nestingen and Forde can appeal to conscience when interpreting scripture so fundamental as “the Gospel of salvation in the Son," how then can they—dare we say, “in good conscience”—chastise the Task Force for appealing to conscience when interpreting scripture relating to sexuality, a topic not nearly so fundamental? When is an appeal based on mere “private judgment,” and when is it bound to the Word of God? Who is to judge when even the most accomplished theologians and historians of the day do not agree among themselves?
It seems especially incongruous that the seventeen can assert the following statement:
The holy and righteous conscience of the Christian must agree with God’s Word; an erring conscience, separated from Scripture, can react only in accordance with selfish desires resulting from weakness in faith.
While these scholars are great minds who have contributed enormously to the good of the church, here they seem to conflate “God’s Word” with “Scripture,” a flaw which surely they avoid in their other work. God’s Word and Scripture are not the same thing. Luther found himself deeply bound to God’s Word, which is Jesus Christ, yet even the great reformer found cause to dispense with certain passages of Scripture when he discerned they did not apply to him. Furthermore, in contexts other than sexuality, these seventeen theologians would never insist that a different, even an erroneous, interpretation of a particular issue of law—or of the formulation of a particular doctrine (e.g. Forde’s notion of an essential, normative, and biological “unity in difference” between man and woman)—are what separate a person from faith in Christ. Hear now a passage from the book Lutheranism: the Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings:
An ancient misinterpretation of “the church is … where the gospel is purely preached” . . . is [made] to mean “the church is that ecclesiastical body, or sum of these ecclesiastical bodies, with a right doctrinal position.” . . . . [The church] is about what happens or does not happen in some gatherings of people. If we are looking for the church, [we do not] survey the doctrinal stock of denominations or territorial churches; [we] visit gatherings and to ask whether it is in fact the gospel that gathers them, or something else. (pp. 132–133)
It’s safe to say all seventeen scholars would acknowledge that this excellent little book, Lutheranism, serves as a standard teaching text in ELCA seminaries. This would be especially true in the case of Robert Jenson, one of the seventeen signers, who co-authored the book.
The scholars’ warning goes further: if the Task Force recommendations were to be implemented, the ELCA “would abdicate its theological and moral constitutional responsibility by relating the decisions for which it alone is responsible to regional and local components.” The recommendations would so water down “matters of doctrinal and ethical substance” that the ELCA would no longer be able to take part in ecumenical dialogue and partnership with other churches. In other words, if the ELCA does not now take a unified stance on one particular matter of ethics, it thereby abdicates credibility and authority in all other matters. It seems odd, then, that the scholars have lodged no protest against the ELCA’s tolerance for a diversity of interpretation regarding such complex social issues as abortion, capital punishment, and war-making—issues which divide communities at least as deeply as do sexual ethics. Why is homosexuality treated so differently?
The theologians’ argument here boils down to this: the ELCA cannot effectively be a church unless it officially condemns loving, committed, homosexual relationships. Remember, these seventeen write that the ELCA would abandon its theological, as well as moral, responsibility by allowing for a diversity interpretation about homosexuality. This view flies in the face of our confession which speaks to the center of our faith, unity, and mission: that where two or more are gathered in Christ's name, Christ is in our midst, and there is the church. The Task Force, to their credit, have in their recommendations merely acknowledged what we already know: that understandings of Scripture can and do vary greatly among committed, faithful Christians. Our differences in interpretation of particular passages of scriptural law cannot be the true dividing line between Christians, since we recognize that all parties, on each side of the supposed line, are indeed gathered in His name.
The seventeen Lutheran theologians continue their ecclesiastical complaint—and, for some of them, their inconsistency—by attacking the Task Force’s “criterion for the discernment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit” (i.e. choosing whom to ordain). The scholars point out that judging who hears the call to ministry and who doesn’t is “a broadly based, ecclesial determination” rather than an “individual, local preference.” This would seem to contradict what at least two of the seventeen have written elsewhere. In arguing against the ecumenical agreement Called to Common Mission, Nestingen has strongly supported the idea that “all pastors [hold] the right to ordain.” In fact, says Nestingen, for the church to constitute itself in such a way as to preclude this right puts the church in grave “confessional crisis,” because it presumes to subvert the “priority of the word alone” (“Authority and Resistance”). Along with Forde, Nestingen has accused the ELCA’s national leadership of abusing their authority when they have “claimed the necessity of controlling the range of interpretation.” When the topic is Called to Common Mission, these two writers are quick to protest how the church “excludes those who hold other interpretations,” unfairly forcing them to “lose.” They write: “The confessions are being used in a way that restrains and eliminates rather [than] to proclaim and free in Christ” (“Answers to some questions about the confessional crisis”). Nestingen and Forde’s accusation in respect to Called to Common Mission is a serious one, the substance of which they drop when the matter is the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian ministers.
The seventeen’s first-cited reason for rejecting the Task Force’s Recommendation #3 is that it contains a “conspicuous logical inconsistency.” They write:
[I]n the name of a ‘no change in policy’ it advocates a fundamental shift in policy. They ask the church ‘to refrain from disciplining those who . . . call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates” as well as “those rostered people so approved or called.
The theologians are most certainly right on this count. The Task Force proposes a confusing set of circumstances. How can a policy to exclude partnered gay and lesbian ministers actually be a policy if we say it doesn’t always need to be enforced? Isn’t the penalty for the offense part of the policy? If the policy calls for offenders to be punished in ways carefully specified in the church’s official documents, then wouldn’t logic require that we follow through on this discipline?
Yes, indeed, logic would so require—as much as logic would require that the specified punishment for a man “lying with a man as with a woman” (which is to be “put to death”) should also be carried out (Lev. 20:13). Thankfully, however, the theologians themselves do not always follow the dictates of logic, or of Scripture. Instead, they do what theologians have done often enough: they re-categorize things to fit the frequently messy contours of compassion and decency. Gerhard Forde, for instance, writing of Leviticus in his often cited essay, “Law and Sexual Behavior,” asserts that “a change in penalty does not mean change in content.” In the view expressed in that essay, a law has two categories of stuff: content and penalty. Only the content must be recognized eternally. The penalty can change with the times without impinging on the content—except, apparently, when the “law” we’re talking about is a church regulation. That kind of law only has one category of stuff: content. If you change the punishment required by a church law, say these seventeen, you’ve changed the content of the law itself—and such a thing is not to be tolerated. The seventeen theologians neglect to explain why logic works differently when interpreting church policy than when interpreting Scripture.
One senses that the genuine protest of these seventeen theologians lies elsewhere. Why they would hide it behind clearly dubious, and in some cases hypocritical, appeals to logic, ecclesiology, and a presumption of their opponents’ “weak conscience” is anyone’s guess. As accomplished and well respected as these scholars are, conscience suggests we to look elsewhere for counsel when deciding whether or not to support the Task Force’s recommendations.
“A Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern.” Internet WWW page, at URL: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/1354477/posts
“Report and Recommendations of the task force for the ELCA Studies on Sexuality.” Internet WWW page, at URL: http://www.elca.org/faithfuljourney/tfreport.html
Stortz, Martha E. “Solus Christus or Sola Viscera? Scrutinizing Lutheran Appeals to Conscience.” Internet WWW page, at URL: http://www.plts.edu/articles/stortz/stortz022305.html
Nestingen, James. “Authority and Resistance in the ELCA.” Internet WWW page, at URL: http://wordalone.org/archives/articles_by_author/nestingen.htm
“Lutheran teachers from Germany, America, Norway, Denmark dissent from Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” Internet WWW page, at URL: http://www.concordtx.org/wrldnews/rc_lwf2.htm
Gritsch, Eric W. and Robert W. Jenson. Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.
Nestingen, James and Gerhard Forde. “Answers to some questions about the confessional crisis letter.” Internet WWW page, at URL: http://wordalone.org/resources/nestingen-forde.htm.
Forde, “Law and Sexual Behavior,” Lutheran Quarterly, 9:1 (Spring 1995).