Since the release of the ELCA Task Force recommendations in
January 2005, the focus of the conversation has shifted in part
toward the concept of conscience. In its recommendations, the Task
Force refers on numerous occasions to "conscience-bound positions"
as the focal point of differences concerning the blessing of
same-sex unions and the ordination of persons in those unions, and
it makes the integrity of the conscience one of its primary
rationales for the recommendations.1 In turn, scholars and
church leaders have responded from various corners on the question
of conscience, offering their interpretations of conscience and
what it means for this dialogue.2
 But what is the conscience? And what does it have to do with
this process of deciding whether or not gay and lesbian persons in
long-term, monogamous, faithful relationships should have their
relationships blessed and/or be ordained in the ELCA? If the
conscience is bound, as the Task Force continually remind us, to
what or whom is it bound: To the private self and its personal
desires? To the culture? To sin? To nature? To God's will in
Scripture? To Christ? Can the conscience ever be free, and if so,
what might this liberated conscience mean for the current
discussion in the ELCA?
 While these questions are fascinating to consider, I do not
propose to answer all of them with any depth in this short article.
Instead, I will center my discussion on the final question, asking
whether or not we might do better to speak of a "liberated
conscience" as opposed to a "bound" one. What might a focus on the
"liberated conscience" mean for the current discussion?
 Generally speaking, conscience is often described as the place
or source in the human person that steers her or him toward right
actions and away from wrong ones. There seem to be two
general approaches when it comes to how this conscience guides us.
On the one hand, the conscience is considered "bound" to an
authority external to the person; the moral guide is something
other than the person herself. The conscience is not free to follow
its own will, but rather is expected to follow the will of God, the
natural law implanted by God, the tradition, society, Scripture, or
some other authority external to the individual.
 On the other hand, since the Enlightenment, the conscience
has been considered autonomous or "free," bound only to each
individual's personal authenticity and integrity. The individual,
rational will searches itself, knows itself and then follows its
own guidance as a moral agent, and the imposition of any external
authority on the individual conscience is viewed as
 Paul's approach to the conscience is somewhat different than
either of these approaches for he considers the conscience to be
less a moral guide and more a seat of judgment on the human. In
Romans 2:15, Paul points to the conscience as that which "bears
witness" to the law written on the hearts of Gentiles rather than
that power which guides them to follow the law. The conscience
"confirms" Paul's honesty "by the power of the Holy Spirit" in
Romans 9:11, and judges his conscience clear. And in the discussion
of whether it is right for a follower of Christ to eat meat
sacrificed to idols, Paul calls on the Christian to avoid eating
such meat if it offends the conscience of another…for the
sake of the other's conscience, not her own. (1 Cor. 8,
 Luther follows Paul's lead by centering the conscience in a
similar anthropology. The conscience is a not moral guide to acting
rightly in the world; it is the "site of a struggle between the
hopeless ethical and religious justification through the law and
the faith in the justifying word of God."4 The conscience bound by
sin is unable to follow the law and is terrified of God's wrathful
judgment as it attempts to find right-relationship with God through
its own works. The free conscience, liberated by Christ and
empowered by the Holy Spirit, lives in the right-relationship with
God through faith which trusts in the loving God and acts to
produce good works of love. In a word, the conscience, like the
rest of the human person, is simul - simultaneously guilty
and liberated from its guilt in Christ.
 Wolfhart Pannenberg also offers an understanding of
conscience that is rooted in a socio-relational
anthropology.5 While his discussion of
conscience is too complex to dive into for this short article,
three central ideas emerge from his argument that contribute to our
understanding of conscience.
 First, Pannenberg views the conscience as social.
"Conscience has a social matrix; it develops in the context of
social relations," he states.6 In Pannenberg's
thought, humans are ultimately relational, and come to be persons
with personality and conscience only in relationship with one
another, the world around them, and God who is at the foundation of
everything. This means that conscience can never be a "private"
matter, centered only in one's own truth. Because conscience is
formed socially, it will only discover its "truth" in relationship
to that which exists outside the self, including God.
 Second, for Pannenberg, conscience is, or at least should
be, autonomous. In fact, it must be autonomous for it to exist as a
functional conscience. Pannenberg challenges an "authoritarian"
understanding of conscience, where norms are imposed from the
outside and the individual person is no longer allowed to
participate in the relational construction of her or his shared
According to Pannenberg, the conscience must be able to judge
autonomously by collaborating in the creation and affirmation of
the norms that govern it. Lest this autonomy be taken as the
freedom to "do whatever one wants," however, Pannenberg centers
this shared world on God as its central foundation and meaning.
 Third, Pannenberg follows Paul and Luther in connecting the
conscience with the Holy Spirit. Conscience is the witness to and
the expression of the power of the Holy Spirit in our individual
and social lives. In sin, which is "non-identity" for Pannenberg,
the conscience indicts and convicts us. In liberation from sin, the
conscience testifies to the new identity that has come from Christ
through the relation with the Holy Spirit. Because each person's
conscience is centered not in law but in the Spirit who is the
energizing force of life, each child of God has a conscience in
inviolable relation to that Spirit and therefore deserves
 "In conscience God, human beings, and world belong together,"
Pannenberg states in agreement with G. Ebeling.9 In our use of
conscience, consequently, we must be careful of three extremes,
extremes where the conscience becomes "bound" to forces beyond a
life-giving relational balance between God, humans and world.
 The first extreme is to identify the conscience as "bound"
by our all-too-human understanding of the Word of God, the will of
God, or Scripture. This often has the implication of an
authoritarian "voice of God" imposing "his" will directly into the
individual, similar to the downloading of a new program into a
computer. Unlike the natural law approach which assumes such
"programming" is already present in the human and simply needs
God's grace to be discovered, this view assumes a direct revelation
by God into the conscience of the individual leading to an
exclusion of the human and world from the relation altogether.
Pannenberg reminds us that God does not relate to the conscience in
such a direct, private, and inherently certain way.10 Rather, God's relation
to the conscience is mediated through the shared world and
individual human experience, and is discovered only when God is
seen to be the foundation of that world and experience.
 The second extreme is to bind the conscience to "the
world." In this form of bondage, both God and the individual are
removed from the relation, and the conscience is expected to follow
the cultural ideologies, laws, and social claims that have been
imposed on the conscience by a "tyrannical" society. Pannenberg
reminds us that through our trust in God, who is the foundation of
the world, our conscience can step outside the world's
authoritarian claims and speak a critique of the world when its
claims become absolute over and against the individual conscience
and over and against God.11
 The third extreme, not mentioned (though I think implied)
by Pannenberg, is the bondage of the self to itself. Luther
described this as the self curved in upon itself. In this bondage,
both the world and God are removed from the relation, and the
individual perceives her own conscience as inviolable and absolute.
Not only does such an understanding of the conscience lead to a
worship of the individual as bound only to her own authenticity,
such a conscience cannot exist. Conscience is by necessity and
nature related to the world into which it is born and to the God
who creates that world.
 When we move to one of these extremes, we place the
conscience in "bondage to sin where it cannot free itself."
However, when God, world and individual are held in properly
balanced relation through the power of the Holy Spirit, the
conscience is liberated. This liberated conscience is: 1) free
from bondage to sin and the overpowering guilt this bondage
causes; 2) free by faith, not by any works of the law but
by a trust in the God of Jesus Christ empowered by the Spirit; 3)
free to live in the Holy Spirit, testifying to the power
of life as the Spirit's energizing force; 4) free for love and
service as the expression of the Spirit's energizing power of
life in our world; and 5) freed into relationship with
God, world as "neighbor," and the truly authentic self in
Christ. In this relation, the Trinitarian God as creator,
sustainer, and reconciler remains at the center as the living power
and source of all that exists.
 Ultimately, then, I believe that these insights from Paul,
Luther, and Pannenberg lead us to understanding of the conscience
as "liberated" rather than "bound." This liberation of the
conscience is a liberation into relationship, not from
relationship, and includes relationship with God in Christ, with
the world as neighbor, and with the self in its new identity given
through Jesus Christ.
Conscience-liberated in the Body of
 What does this "liberated conscience" mean for the current
discussion in the ELCA concerning the blessing of same-sex
relationships and the ordination of persons in those relationship?
Several things come to mind.
 First, in the "already, not yet" world in which we stand,
the liberated conscience reminds us that we still live in
simul. This understanding of a "conscience-liberated" in
no way implies that sin is no longer a reality in our lives. Yet,
it does point us to a different perspective from which to witness
as we discuss these difficult issues. When we think of the
conscience as seat of judgment or moral guide, we can easily find
ourselves trapped on one side or the other of simul. On
the one hand, we focus only on the sinner (in ourselves or in
others) and end up driving terrified consciences toward total
destruction in the heteronomous hopes that they might turn to our
understanding of God's will. In taking this approach, we ignore the
liberated conscience already given through faith. On the other
hand, we focus only on the saint and end up presuming that the
liberation of the conscience is a freedom to do whatever the
individual perceives to be right. In so doing, we ignore the
reality of sin that continues to plague that authentic self. The
discussion ends up going nowhere as "saint" screams past "sinner"
and vice versa.
 Instead of seeing the conscience as moral guide or seat of
judgment, let us view the conscience as a living witness:
the testimony to and expression of the complex
Spirit-filled creations we are and who God has called us to be. In
this way, as we enter our conversations, we testify that here and
now we are both sinner and saint in the sense that we
continue to exist in bondage to self, world, or the worldly uses of
God's will while at the same time living in the freedom from that
bondage that comes through faith. Yet, even as we acknowledge our
sinfulness, let us strive to speak and listen from within
the Spirit-empowered "liberated conscience," knowing perfection is
not an option, forgiveness is always present, and life abundant is
our calling and goal.
 Second, as many have pointed out, this discussion has at
part of its center the question of the authority and interpretation
of Scripture. We as Lutherans need to take a step back and deal
with this question honestly and apart from the influence of those
in our culture who would abandon Scripture or who would use it as a
literalistic weapon.12 Until we have this
conversation concerning Scripture and interpretation within our own
tradition, we should remember that for Luther and for Lutherans,
the Word of God is not simply a series of words written by humans
(even inspired ones), but a person, Jesus Christ. The Word
of God is the relationship who forms the basis of all our
relationships; it is the person of Jesus Christ to whom we are
"bound" in relationship and in whom we are "freed" to be in
relationship. This Word is God's living and loving conversation
with us, centered in God's heart. Only in those words that are
rooted in faith and love (even those in Scripture) will we find the
true Word of God.13
 Third, while a close reading of the Task Force
recommendations shows that the Task Force does not intend for a
retreat into private consciences and instead calls repeatedly for
continued conversation, a community that is frustrated, anxious,
and exhausted by the seemingly never-ending talking could easily
read them in a way that advocates "digging in one's heels." As
indicated above, the liberated conscience is not private but exists
freely only in a properly balanced relationship with God, world,
and self. It is only in this relation, and not in our private
selves, that we will discover the answers we look for, time-bound
though those answers may be.
 Fourth, I have heard rumors that individuals,
congregations, and even synods have decided, by vote or otherwise,
not to pray or speak about the issues of homosexuality any longer.
While I understand the frustration, worry, and exhaustion in our
communities, the answer does not lie in closing our minds, hearts,
ears, or mouths. To stop praying is to stop talking to or listening
to God while at the same time setting oneself up as God. It is as
if to say, "I am god in this matter and I need no challenging or
comforting conversation with God." And to stop talking with one
another is to close oneself off from the Body of
It is only with open hearts and minds that listen, speak and live
from within liberated consciences empowered by the Holy Spirit that
will we be able to move anywhere in this conversation.
 Finally, let us practice patience. Patience is one of those
wonderful virtues and fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) that we do
not practice much anymore, probably due to the influence of our
fast-food, "high-speed internet" culture. While I mourn the
wounding that so many persons in this church, gay and straight,
continue to endure in the call for patience, we should remember
that each conscience represents a unique child of God in its
intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we must
patiently respect all consciences. The liberated conscience is an
expression of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit blows when and where
it may (Jn 3:8). To bind another's conscience by imposing my view,
even in the name of God's Word or will, is to oppress my neighbor,
conform myself into her god, and destroy her relationship
with the living God. It is only in patient respect that we will
protect the relationships between God, ourselves, and our brothers
 This patient respect for conscience is by no means a
tolerant agreement of everything the other says. Instead, it is an
active-listening posture that is willing to hear the other's words
and speak one's own words in the kindest and most positive way
possible. And such respectful active listening takes patience.
Practically, perhaps we could begin each conversation by stretching
across the labels and lines that divide us and confessing to each
person in the room: "You are a human being; I will respect you. You
are my neighbor; I will love you. You are a wonderful part of God's
creation; I will honor you as a child of God and brother/sister in
Christ." In this way, we may be able to begin by approaching
every person in our moral deliberations with an attitude
that reflects an honoring of the expression of the Holy Spirit in
her or his humanity.
 In this regard, then, I wish to express my thanks and
respect for the energy, life, sweat, tears, and work devoted to
this discussion by the Task Force, the Churchwide Council, and all
of the individuals, congregations, and synods who have been willing
to face the questions before us head-on. The Task Force has taken
on a particularly difficult role in calling this church to patience
and community as we move forward. I commend them and continue to
pray for their courage and strength. I truly believe that it is
finally in these conversations, in the midst of patient listening,
speaking, and learning, where the Holy Spirit will make herself
known. Let us strive to speak from our conscience, liberated to
love and serve in relationship, trusting not in our sinfulness but
in the Christ who brings us to living trust in Him.
© July 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 5, Issue 7
1 ELCA Task Force Recommendations, January 18, 2005.
2 Roy Harrisville III, "Critique of the Report and
Recommendations from the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality."
"A Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern" from 17 Lutheran
Theologians, March 1, 2005. "Statement of Lutheran Theologians in
favor of the Report and Reccomendations." "Recommendations from the
ELCA Church Council to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly on Sexuality
Studies," April 11, 2005.
3 In 1 Cor. 10:29, Paul writes: "For why should my liberty
be subject to the judgment of someone
that, unlike his neighbor's conscience which is in bondage to the
law, his conscience is free from the guilt the law imposes. Liberty
implies a conscience free from the law's condemnation of sin, and
not the freedom to do whatever one wants
4 John Webster, "Conscience," in Encyclopedia of Christian
Theology, (New York: Routledge, 2005) 341.
5 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological
(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1985) 293-312.
6 Ibid, 306-7.
8 Ibid, 297.
9 Ibid, 307.
10 Ibid, 307. Cf. also p. 309 where Pannenberg critiques
"excessively extrinsic and supernaturally authoritative" rather
than mediated through the world.
11 Pannenberg, 309.
12 I am convinced that much of our problem in this regard
is that the fundamentalist-based "Christian-Right" has not only
claimed the right to define "Christian," they have claimed the
power to define how all Christians ought to read Scripture.
13 Cf. Luther, Sermons on St. John, LW 22:7ff. as well as
14 Taking a break in the face of deep conflict within a
particular congregation may at times be a necessary reality.
"Taking a break" should not imply an end to conversation, however,
but rather a temporary change in focus, for example, in
relationship and/or community building.