Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Binding of Conscience is Bad

I often have loudly complained that people end up unduly binding consciences by what they say -- often of groans and shakes of the head. On a post below I was asked:

Maybe I've been brainwashed by my RC law professor, but you treat things almost as though any Law must be binding to salvation to be binding. Why can't the law be binding on conscience without being binding to salvation? Even the injunction to love is not necessary to salvation, yet it is no less binding on our consciences for that. Why must the law be so limited in what it can bind to conscience?

My response is as follows:

Because anything that our conscience is bound to will end up impacting how we view salvation. This is something that hearkens back to the Diet of Worms - for to go against Conscience is neither right nor safe.

While something - let's call it X - may not be sinful in an absolute sense, if for some reason in my mind X is understood to be sinful, this has a drastic impact upon me. First, it can become a gateway to gross sin if I stumble and do X and it isn't really all that bad - maybe some of those other things aren't so bad (for once you break your conscience in one place, breaking it in other places becomes that much easier).

Second, it burdens where there needn't be burdens. If I bind your conscience to avoid something that you could freely use otherwise, I have placed an undue burden upon you. If I convince you that you cannot do X - what if you reach a point where X would be a fine thing to do in Christian freedom? It burdens you, it brings angst and guilt. As an example - one of my members was raised 7th Adventist, and he to this day can't eat pork - he knows he can, but it weirds him out a bit. Now, generally that doesn't have that large of an impact, for its easy enough to avoid pork (although he does dig bacon - behold the mercy of God), but this impacts him, pains him a bit, even now when he knows he should be free here but because his conscience was unduly bound he isn't. If this happens for something that is easily avoided - what happens when the conscience is bound on something that is emotionally charged and important?

Finally - why should I seek to modify your conscience if it is not in error? If X weirds me out - I should avoid it, but if it is not forbidden, why should I forbid it to you? For example, if drinking were to go against ones conscience, by all means, abstain! But would it be proper to then try to teach that no one should drink, that it is vile and leads to all sort of bad things because it can be abused so let's prohibit anyone from using it? I would hope you don't find that to be a good idea.

That sort of activity is dangerous for the one seeking to enact the prohibition. Several things happen? First, their thoughts concerning their neighbor have shifted - for rather than loving and serving, they really are seeking to control. Oh, sure, they want to control because they "love" them - but if you are not given authority over another (or authority in a specific matter) it is dangerous to assume it unto yourself. That's sin.

But even more dangerous than that is this - that person has supplanted the Word of God with their own thoughts and desires. If I command what God has not commanded, if I forbid what God has not forbidden, even if I say that it isn't about salvation, I am still ignoring the Word of God and rather giving heed to my own thoughts and desires.

That is the root of every great and vile heresy. Heresies don't start (generally) because some guy sits in a room cackling about how he wants to be evil. It starts by people wanting to help guide others but on their own private terms rather than the Word of God.

For freedom you have been made free in Christ - let no one put you under a yoke of slavery again.

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Now, I would note that this isn't some sort of we can never go beyond what it written in Scripture, but that must be an act of freedom. We can (and I think should) bind ourselves to a common agenda for the sake of order - but people must be free to level our human organization (a Synod) and use other agendas if they see fit. Jure Humano is fine, as long as it is an option that is held to freely.

The problem is we have too many folks who ignore the man-made rules we have agreed to and yet still remain in the Synod, which leads to all sorts of confusion, focus on trying to force people in line via political manuevering... when in reality it probably should be an Abraham-Lot situation. You go your way, we'll go ours -- and we depart as family. If in the generations to come we become enemies because you and your ilk love the music of Sodom, well, that is for then, but not for now.

The desire to fix people apart from God's Law and God's Gospel, rather by human command, is sinful and harms the would be fixer.


Phillip said...

Fr. Brown,

But to use one of my professor's examples, an alcoholic goes to a party and the law limits him to two drinks and he leaves not drunk. He only had two drinks because of Jure Humano, not the virtue of temperance. Because he lacked the virtue of temperance, the law prevented him from coming to harm through a vice that he was particularly susceptible to. Jure Humano prevented him from having the opportunity to drunkenly break the 5th Commandment and bring harm upon himself or others. What is wrong with the law functioning in this purpose?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Well, you bring up two things with this example.

First, you have the civil use of law. The "Law" you are referring to is a civil Statue, and it is by all means appropriate for the State to make laws concerning protection (however, techinically, your example isn't accurate - there is no law that limits him to two drinks. Rather, if he drinks more than roughly that, he cannot legally drive. He's not prevented from drinking and engaging in that vice, he's prevented from endangering others as a result of his vice -- but the idea still holds). This is the purpose of the government - this is why God gave them the Sword.

Now, for me as a Pastor - I don't have a sword. I don't get to say, "You shall not or else". I have no ability to punish sin (other than excommunication, and that is always about unbelief and defiance, not frailty).

Now, as Pastor at some party, if I see Chuck there, and I know Chuck is an alcoholic, I can say, "Chuck, how 'bout we just get some of this simple punch here" - but I cannot command him to avoid having a drink. If he gets sloppy, I can talk him out of driving home and give him a ride myself. But I cannot "force" him to - and the weight of Law is punishment and fear.

Because I am a steward in the kingdom of the right, I have to use the Law theologically. Other than that, I can counsel, I can advise - but that counsel and advice is not binding the way civil Law is.


Spiritually speaking, my counsel to someone who is an alcoholic would be different from the "civil" limit given. I'd advise him not to drink at all because he has demonstrated a weakness there. That counsel I'd give him would be tied and personal to him - and the advice I'd give him I might not give to anyone else at the party.

To all I can say, "Don't get ferschnickered." To him I might say, "You going to be able to stop after two? Then don't even have one, lest you get fersnickered."

When we deal with people as individuals on questions of behavior and morality, things end up being different and specific. There is no variance in the Civil Law - the legal limit is the legal limit no matter who you are. However, in terms of behavior, what should be the personal limits for people are different.

Too often we try to make people fit the same pattern (which often happens to be my pattern of how happen to live, so you should be like me - you know - "Good"). This neglects their own personal needs, strengths, and weaknesses (as well as your own).

So, the advice I would give to a person how how they can abide within the Law differs, even though the Law remains the same. Too often that is forgotten, and we make cart blanche rules to try to keep everyone safe and simply deny them things that they could rightfully enjoy.

Individuals are different, and that's not a bad thing, necessarily. Can that be abused - sure -- but just because freedom can be abused is no reason to try to curtail it.

Phillip said...

Fr. Brown,

It is merely a theoretical example not intended to reference a real law.

Why can't you bind someones conscience with a command directed at them instead of a law for everyone that commands the individual to avoid putting themselves in a position where they will sin. Would this not be the proper fulfillment of the 1st use of the Law. Why would it not be a proper exercise of your alien work of preaching the law to put them under a "law" (technically a command as it does not have Thomas' second requirement for law, since it only applies to one person) that compels them to avoid specific circumstances where they will sin? It seems it would be good to bind an alcoholic to abstain from drink, an adulterer from pornography, or a gambler from Vegas, etc.. Why would you have these be guidance instead of a binding command?

Mike Baker said...

Romans 7:4-6

"Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code."

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


Mike makes a good point about why I don't want to bind. I would point that person to Christ, and encourage and exhort them to act in a good way (go read Philemon - Paul doesn't command Philemon concerning Onesimus - he urges).

But in a simple practical way - let us say I command the drunk not to drink, the gambler not to go to Vegas.

... or what?

If the drunk defies me, if the porn addict defies me, if the gambler defies me - what is the consequence? Shall I drive him from the Church? Give him a tongue lashing? Say, "neener neener neener - I told you so"?

They cannot be binding for me as a Pastor because the only, the ONLY authority I have is the Office of the Keys - Forgiving or Binding sins.

More over is - is the point that they should obey me and my commands, or struggle against their weakness? Am I trying to assert my authority, or guide them in their own struggle.

Come my friend, you know that alcohol is a foe to big for you. Avoid it. Come my friend, porn is harmful. You need, for your own sake, to avoid it lest it harm you. Come my friend, there are other places to see shows rather than Vegas - might I suggest Branson? This would be better for you.

If I command, I put the focus upon me, on my usruped or assumed authority. If I urge and exhort, I attempt to train a person to keep themselves safe, all out of love for them.

Or in other words - let my Law be like a trellis, helping to shape them, to show them how they themselves can bear much fruit.

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You mentioned that you had a Romanist professor on this. Remember, they don't make a distinction between civil authority and Churchly authority that much. Lutherans do - therefore we have to look at how authority is exercised within the Church and where it can be exercised differently.

Anonymous said...

The problem you run into here is that for 1930 years the church saw very clearly from Scripture that using contraception was a sin.

This includes Luther, Chemnitz, Gerhard, all the way down to the mid 20th century, all who saw it as being related to abortion.

Now, the shift takes place in the church, not because they studied Scripture and believed that those who went before them were wrong, but because of influence from culture.

So now Christians have had to find ways to support what was always considered wrong (including new interpretations), and one way is saying it is an issue of Christian freedom.

In other words, our practice changed because of culture and so we sought to justify our position from Scripture and other things.

Luther, who understood a little about the Freedom of a Christian, had no problem speaking clearly on this issue and did not see it to be incompatible with it. In fact he saw it as an issue of faith - will we or won't we trust God regarding these matters.

If a parishioner came to you and said - sure the Bible says all those things about homosexuality, but we know more now about it. Don't bind my conscience on this issue. What would you say?

Chuck Awesome

Anonymous said...

I think this quote is a good summary of what has happened:

"In our time, too, we have within the church people claiming that
their newly attained enlightenment or wisdom sets them free precisely
as Christians to disregard the teachings of Scripture and tradition on moral issues (not just sexual conduct buy other matters as well, such as possessions and the use of violence). They boast in their liberated transgression of what they regard as outmoded norms." (pg 167 in Lockwood's 1 Corinthians commentary).

Chuck Awesome

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


A few things here.

First - as regards homosexuality, we have clear passages of Scripture describing it as evil. Those still stand, over and against what society might want the Word to say. I bind nothing - but the Word does, and if you dislike what I proclaim about homosexuality, your problem isn't with me, it's with God.

Second - give me a clear passage in the Scriptures that one cannot use contraception? Find me one.

You can't.

Now, we can see from the Scriptures that Children are blessings - so if I am talking to someone who is nervous about children, I will point them to this with gladness. I will tell them whatever happens, no children or two dozen children, God is still their God and will be with them. I can say that on the basis of Scripture.

But there is no place that says, "Thou shall not attempt to control the number of children that thy wifest havest!"

But what of Onan - I would note that the only reason he was sleeping with his brother's widow was to provide her an heir - that is it. Thus, he is violating the law and her rights in so doing.

As for those who look at the long history of opposing contraception and give that great weight - so be it. But I am not convinced, on the basis of Scriptures, that this must hold - anymore than I am convinced that having life insurance or health insurance is wrong. While they have have thought contraception was wrong - I deny that they saw this clearly from Scripture.

Then, if one would still press me and complain about how I don't listen to the Fathers, I would then say, so be it - you listen to the Fathers, but follow them in full! Clement of Alexandria says, "Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted. To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature"

You want to follow this idea - fine - but remember it when the wife hits menopause and there will be no more conception, and cease your vain ejaculations.

If Paul can tell the Judiazers to cut it off, I can tell the "You've got to try to have kids" crowd to cut it out when they get old =o)

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


I would also note that the position I am arguing for is basically the Russian Orthodox position (although I would not make consent of a Spiritual Father a requirement, as I am content to let the head of the household be the head of the household).

And again - I'm not saying that contraception isn't over used, used foolishly, used wrongly. What I am saying is that there are times where it can be used rightly and not for merely selfish reasons that defy God.

ladyesther said...

I want to learn more about this "binding of conscience" as I think it has been done to me all my life and left me confused. I first heard this term recently regarding someone deciding to leave a cult. He said the pastor said I won't bind your conscience...tell you what you SHOULD do. Is it not going to God and asking Him the will for our lives and how to live it?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

We are taught what we are to do most clearly by the Word of God. And when the Word of God instructs us, when it speaks - that binds us. But if the Word of God doesn't speak to something, I'm not going to insist that something must be done.

There's freedom, freedom in Christ. A person moving to the area can rightfully attend my church or other Lutheran congregation in the next town over. Both teach good, right, and pure doctrine. I can't say "You must come here"... because God never says that, and I can't presume to speak for God when He has not given me those words to say. Rather - one is free to do either - and going to either place would be good and God pleasing (even though *I* might want the person to come here).

We look to the Word. We don't look to our hearts or what we want - because that is often corrupted by sin. And as for what God wants us to do, 1 Thessalonians 4:1 is spot on. It's the same stuff as you heard before - there isn't any super secret special instructions.

God's will is that you be saved by faith in Christ and that you delight in the freedom He has given you, showing forth love. It's simple as that.