“Bound conscience” is a complex term used in multiple ways in the ELCA. However, it can be explained in a straightforward way when we begin from a place that acknowledges and unpacks that complexity. A promising place to begin is a well-known statement by Martin Luther from The Freedom of a Christian (Luther’s Works, 31:344):
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
In this life where there is both freedom and bondage (in more than one sense), “bound conscience” is used to talk about several things.
- First, “bound conscience” can refer to the conscience that has freedom precisely because it is bound to God’s Word of promise, united to Christ in baptism by faith. This is what Martin Luther meant when he said at the Diet of Worms, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God” (LW 32:112). In being bound or captive to God’s Word of promise and forgiveness, a Christian is free from any other demand, judgment or condemnation of the law and from any other obligation that someone might claim is necessary for justification, a right relationship with God.
- At the same time, the Christian whose conscience is liberated because it is bound to God’s Word is also “bound” in love and service to the neighbor. A “conscience bound” Christian respects, honors and serves the neighbor as a beloved creature of God (and fellow member of the body of Christ, if a believer). Freedom in Christ is lived as service to others, service that is as binding as Christ’s own promise. That is, united to Christ and freed in him, we are also united in Christ to others, bound to them in relationships of loving service, including treating and speaking of them respectfully, graciously.
- Finally, one specific implication of a respectful and gracious rather than condemnatory relationship with the neighbor, a relationship bound to the neighbor in love, is recognizing and respecting the neighbor’s conscience-bound convictions. Although a Christian is not obligated to agree with those convictions or accept them as true, a Christian does show loving respect in speech and conduct to the neighbor who holds those convictions (especially if the neighbor’s convictions are bound by God’s Word).