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The ELCA Sexuality Task Force's 'Concern for Conscience'

by Pastor Steve Thorson (Taylors Falls, MN)

January 28, 2005

(Editor's note: The Task Force's Report and Recommendations are at this URL. Additional responses to the task force report are also available. Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt, a WordAlone Board member and Theological Advisory Board member, has an essay, Sex and ‘Church,’ posted on the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.

In the Report and Recommendations from the ELCA task force on sexuality (p. 10 of 32) “the task force members came to recognize that the biblical-theological case for wholesale change in this church’s current standards has not been made to the satisfaction of the majority of participants in the study.” At the same time, the report authorizes a “concern for conscience” that would allow synods and the churchwide organization to “refrain from disciplining” partnered gay and lesbian ministers and “those who call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates” even though this contradicts the “Vision and Expectations” standards for ministers in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

What kind of a church will we become if “conscience” becomes our guide instead of Scripture? A “conscience” that is not informed or guided by God’s Word can be worse than no conscience at all. It can be, and is regularly, deceived. I’m preaching a sermon series on the importance of knowing God’s Word because it is so easy for us to be fooled. The Word of God must be our constant companion, the light and lamp without which we should not take a step to the left or to the right.

The following is from The New Bible Dictionary: “…It is possible for man’s conscience— the faculty by which he apprehends the moral demands of God, and which causes him pain when he falls short of those demands—to be inadequately disciplined (1 Cor. 8:7), to become weakened (v. 12) and even defiled (v. 7; cf. Tit. 1:15), and to grow seared and ultimately insensible (cf. 1 Tim. 4:2). Thus it is essential for the conscience to be properly educated, and indeed informed, by the Holy Spirit. That is why ‘conscience’ and ‘faith’ cannot be separated. By repentance and faith man is delivered from conscience as ‘pain’; but faith is also the means whereby his conscience is quickened and instructed. To walk in ‘newness of life’ (Rom. 6:4) implies a living, growing faith, through which the Christian is open to the influence of the Spirit (Rom. 8:14); and this in turn is the guarantee of a ‘good’, ‘or, clear, conscience (1 Pet. 3:16; cf. Acts 23:1)…’"

How can we tell if our consciences are guided by the Holy Spirit? By each examining it and comparing it to the Word of God as recorded in the Bible. The Holy Spirit will not contradict the Scriptures because it is the Holy Spirit who inspired them in the first place (cf. ELCA constitution 2.02.c. and 2.03., John 16:13, 2 Cor. 4:13, 2 Pet. 1:21).

So then, if our consciences tell us one thing and the Scriptures tell us another, we must then surrender our consciences to the Lord as he is revealed in the Scriptures. It seems to me that the ELCA task force is wanting to do just the opposite in its Report and Recommendations, surrendering the biblical-theological case to conscience.

If the churchwide assembly approves the Report and Recommendations, the ELCA will put at risk the biblically informed conscience that caused Martin Luther to stand firm at the Diet of Worms! The rationale in Part Two of the Report and Recommendations (p. 11 of 32) quotes Luther, “it is neither right nor safe to go against conscience.” But Luther adds something more, something very important, something the report doesn’t choose to remember. Luther would surrender conscience (that is, recant) only if he were convinced by Scripture and plain reason.

Luther’s conscience was informed, guided and held captive to the Word of God. The “conscience” of which the report speaks is not so informed, in my opinion.

As I mentioned above, the report admits that most of the study participants weren’t convinced by the biblical-theological case that the current policies should be changed. But the report isn’t satisfied with that verdict. It continues to try to make the case that there are significant doubts as to what the Bible says about marriage, family and sexuality.

On page p. 12 of 32 it refers back to the Background Essay on Biblical Texts. I studied the background essay and other parts of the “Journey Together” material with other pastors from our conference. I came to the conclusion that the essay, a central part of the “Journey Together” study material recommended by the ELCA, obscured what the Bible says clearly about the blessing of heterosexual marriage and family and the sin of sexual fulfillment outside of this boundary. Even so, among those who used the “Journey Together” material as their study guide, only 23.2% were convinced, either by the biblical-theological case or for some other reason, that the historic position of the church should be changed to allow the blessing of homosexual unions and the rostering of ministers involved in homosexual relations (p. 28 of 32).

Can we live together in one church while holding different positions on these issues? Absolutely. But when it comes to the official teachings and policies of our church body, these must be guided by the biblical-theological case. To do otherwise is neither right nor safe.