Homosexuality, Conscience, and the Reformation
by Scott H. Hendrix (July / August 2005 • Volume 21 • Number 4)
A comparison of the idea of “bound consciences” reveals that the meaning is different today from what the sixteenth-century reformers meant by it.
The Task Force on Sexuality appeals to “deeply held and conscience-bound positions” to explain the lack of consensus within the ELCA and argues that Martin Luther’s careful approach to moral issues showed a “genuine concern for the integrity of conscience.” Moreover, the report cites Luther’s appeal to his captive conscience at the Diet of Worms and solicits “respect for one another’s bound consciences as a matter of pastoral concern.”
What is meant by the term conscience in these phrases? Did Luther understand his conscience to be captive to the Word of God in the same way that the report describes the captive consciences of Lutherans today? The questions are worth asking because the bound conscience is the basis of the task force’s decision to frame its recommendations in nonbinding terms.
Meaning of Conscience
For Lutheran theologians at the time of the Reformation, the conscience was not an inborn sense of right and wrong. Instead, they inherited from medieval theology the notion of conscience as the point of saving contact between us and God. For medieval mystics that point of contact was a divine spark that could be fanned into the flames of union with God. For scholastic theologians conscience was the capacity of the human being to earn saving merit, with the help of grace, by knowing and doing the will of God. Luther and his colleagues also regarded the conscience as a point of contact with God, but saving contact was established by faith in Christ that was created by the Holy Spirit through the Word.
When sixteenth-century Lutherans fought for the liberation of consciences, they sought to free believers from what they called human traditions — that is, rules and practices that the late-medieval church said were required for salvation but that the reformers could not find in Scripture. Reformers attempted to comfort the “terrified” or “anxious” consciences of the faithful, who felt they could never perform enough religious works to merit salvation. On the one hand, therefore, Luther and his colleagues advocated the freedom of conscience through faith against additional requirements for salvation that would bind the conscience.
On the other hand, reformers also considered the consciences of Christians to be captive to the Word of God, as indeed Luther said about his own conscience at Worms. His conviction that salvation came through faith in Christ alone was not only a theological opinion but the central message of Scripture as he, a professor of Bible, taught it. He was unable, therefore, to recant his teaching, because it would violate his conscience: not his moral sense of right or wrong but his religious conviction, formed and sustained by the Holy Spirit through Scripture, that Christ alone was the way of salvation. Luther’s conscience was not the only basis of his decision at Worms. A lesser-known part of his reply appeals to the consciences of the faithful that “have been miserably ensnared, vexed, and flayed” by human teachings and papal regulations. Luther felt keenly a responsibility for consciences besides his own that had found freedom through his writings.
The report of the task force appears to equate the bound consciences of Lutherans disagreeing about homosexuality with the captive consciences of Luther at Worms and other sixteenth-century believers. The views of ELCA Lutherans are based, to be sure, on divergent interpretations of Scripture and tradition, but those views would bind consciences in the Reformation sense only if Lutherans today believed that their salvation depended on those views. Luther and his colleagues would remind us that our salvation depends on faith in Christ alone, not on our personal convictions about sexual orientation, even though the Bible could be used to support those convictions.
Sixteenth-century Lutherans regarded homosexuality as a sin, because for them it was condemned by the Bible. Luther’s appeal to a captive conscience does not, therefore, tell the whole story of his use of Scripture. Like many theologians before him, he distinguished ceremonial from moral prescriptions in the Old Testament and held Christians to the commandments. Accepting the condemnation of homosexuality did not, in his opinion, contradict salvation by faith alone. On the basis of 1 Corinthians 14:34 Luther also rejected the ordination of women (LW 41:154-55). Appealing to specific cases of the reformers’ biblical interpretation, therefore, makes it possible to hold different views on issues of polity and conduct.
Different Sense Today
The task force report agrees, but it uses “bound consciences” in a sense different from that of the Reformation. The report implies that ELCA Lutherans are free to be bound by the dictates of their conscience in the modern sense: their personal judgment about the morality of homosexuality. An appeal to the Reformation would argue, however, that Lutherans are free to disagree not because our consciences are bound in the modern sense but because they are free in the Reformation sense — that is, not because our consciences are bound to personal convictions that may invoke Scripture but because they are liberated in Christ from additional requirements for salvation.
Lutherans will continue to disagree about homosexuality, but this disagreement is not a matter of conscience in the Reformation sense and need not prevent the setting of church policy. The Augsburg Confession approves of regulations that do not “burden consciences... as if such things were necessary for salvation” (art. XV, ¶2) but it does not require the church’s policy to be uniformly binding or to include a teaching to which everyone must adhere. In fact the Apology (art. XV, ¶5152) recommends the moderate exercise of liberty in such matters, “so that the inexperienced may not take offense and, on account of an abuse of liberty, become more hostile to the true teaching of the gospel... We judge that the greatest possible public concord which can be maintained without offending consciences ought to be preferred to all other interests.” That advice echoes the stance taken by Luther on the mass, images, and vows after he returned to Wittenberg from the Wartburg Castle in 1522:“Now do not make a must out of what is free” (Luther’s Works 51:74).
On an issue so controversial, no church policy can avoid offending some consciences, and the “moderate exercise of liberty” is not easily determined. Nevertheless, the recommendations of the task force have strong precedents that could be stronger yet by emphasizing the Reformation appeal to consciences liberated by faith.
For Further Reading
- Michael G. Baylor, Action and Person: Conscience in Late Scholasticism and the Young Luther. Leiden: Brill, 1977.
- Scott Hendrix, “Open Community: The Ecclesial Reality of Justification,” in By Faith Alone: Essays on Justification in Honor of Gerhard O. Forde, ed. Joseph A. Burgess and Marc Kolden, 235-47. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004.
- John Witte, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Randall C. Zachman, The Assurance of Faith: Conscience in the Theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.
Scott H. Hendrix, an ELCA pastor, is the James Hastings Nichols Professor of Reformation History and Doctrine at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey.