The Idolatrous Religion of Conscience — A Lutheran Lesson for Us All

Albert Mohler

The Idolatrous Religion of Conscience — A Lutheran Lesson for Us All "It wasn't primarily about sex." With those words, Lutheran theologian Robert Benne explained that the actions recently taken by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to normalize homosexuality were not primarily about sex at all, but about theological identity. "The ELCA has formally left the great tradition for liberal Protestantism," Benne declared.

Taking its stand with the radical theological revisionism of the Protestant Left, the ELCA "left the Great Tradition of moral teaching to identify with United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church," Benne lamented.

Writing in Christianity Today, Benne argued that his denomination had abandoned the Gospel for a social gospel. "The liberating movements fueled by militant feminism, multiculturalism, anti-racism, anti-heterosexism, anti-imperialism, and now ecologism have been moved to the center while the classic gospel and its missional imperatives have been pushed to the periphery."

Benne, director of the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society, offers a first-hand account of what took place in Minneapolis in August as the ELCA met for its Church Wide Assembly. The actions were sweeping in scope and effect. The ELCA voted to allow churches to call partnered homosexuals as ministers and then adopted a Social Statement on Sexuality (which passed by one vote) which insists that the Bible offers no clear teaching on homosexuality.

As the smoke now begins to clear from the votes in Minneapolis, a larger issue comes clearly into focus -- the authority of the "bound conscience."

As Robert Benne explains, the ELCA's authority-smashing actions were made possible by the denomination's adoption of a "bound conscience" principle that, in effect, means that anyone can believe almost anything and demand a place at the table, if they claim that their belief is rooted in a "bound conscience."

Mark Hanson, the ELCA's Presiding Bishop, explained that the "bound conscience" principle calls upon all Lutherans to respect the "bound consciences" of those with whom they disagree. Documents released or adopted by the ELCA explained in multiple ways that a conflict of interpretations concerning the Bible should not lead to a break in fellowship. For example:

The very fact that several different positions may be bound to Scripture means that we cannot assert one interpretation of Scripture over another but are called to respect consciences in the community of faith on this matter. The emphasis of "conscience-bound" is not on declaring oneself to be conscience-bound; rather it is that we recognize the conscience-bound nature of the convictions of others in the community of Christ.

In the case of the ELCA, the "several different positions" included the entire spectrum of positions on an issue as controversial and important as same-sex unions. The Social Statement on Sexuality affirmed no less than four "conscience-bound" positions within the church. The positions, all claimed as "conscience-bound," ranged from the rejection of same-sex marriage to its outright acceptance. This affirms Robert Benne's judgment that the church now has "no authoritative biblical or theological guidance" on a crucial theological and pastoral issue.

Though the issue of sexuality garnered media attention, the theological issue of "bound-conscience" is more fundamental. In accepting this principle, these Lutherans effectively abandoned any claim of normative instruction from the Bible. On an issue of such crucial pastoral and moral importance, the ELCA offers an entire range of contradictory positions, each of which is now to be "respected" because someone holding it claims to be bound by conscience.

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