Sunday, September 17, 2006

Conscience, Dissent, and Unity in the Church

Back in May I was asked to give a talk to the Victorian and Tasmanian District Pastors' Conference, on the above topic. If you are interested in what I had to say, read on...

Conscience, Dissent, and Unity in the Church

Presented to the Victorian District Pastors’ Conference, May 2006, by Fraser Pearce, Pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Bendigo

Speaking in Good Conscience

In the Gospel according to St Matthew, we hear these words of the Lord: ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned’ (Matthew 12:36-37). These words, spoken by the Lord, stand as a warning to us. We can be tempted in life to treat the words that we speak with a levity that does not take into account the judgment of God. When we fall into this temptation we speak words that we know, in our conscience, while being plausible and winsome to the people who hear us, do not have the approval of God. When we fall into this temptation we use our tongues to serve the god of human approval, rather than to bless the true God by speaking what is true.

Confessing the Faith in Good Conscience

Care in the use of words, and the role of conscience in discerning what we may say with the approval of God, is of particular significance when it comes to the confession of faith that we make before God and the world. When we confess our faith we are not speaking words lightly. Instead we are taking on our lips declarations of faith that are made, or at least should be made, soberly and with awareness of our accountability to God. The quotation from the psalms that forms the superscription to the Augsburg Confession sums up this attitude: ‘I will also speak of your decrees before kings, and shall not be put to shame’ (Psalm 119:46). That is: our public confession before the world does not bring us shame before God, because it is made of the basis of His Word and in good conscience.

Confessing the Faith and Salvation

Scripture brings out the good news of our accountability to God; St Paul in Romans teaches that God works His salvation in us by giving us both the belief in our hearts and the confession of our lips –by bringing together the spiritual belief and the bodily confession (Romans 10:9-10; c.f. 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 2:6-11). In fact we can say that when our outward actions conform to our inward beliefs in Christ Jesus, we have a foretaste of what the Apostles’ Creed means when it speaks of the ‘resurrection of the body’: our bodies are joined to the supernatural confession of faith, and so become bearers of God’s blessing to ourselves and the world (Matthew 16:13-20; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Luke 1:26-56). We are not only forgiven sinners, we are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Peter 2:9).

Bodily Confession of Spiritual Truth

In this paper I will be taking up the Scriptural teaching that what we do with our bodies has spiritual significance, and that we make our bodily confession of faith primarily in the presence of God. In other words I will be working with the understanding that what we speak in our bodies in the temporal world is in fact loaded with eschatological significance, and that this fact is the stimulus for the great joy that we can take in confessing the church’s faith.

In this paper I will also be dealing with the reality of dissent –with the fact that situations may arise in which we may not be able to confess the public teaching of our church in good conscience. We will see that from a Christian point of view dissent does not focus on how an individual asserts their rights, or on how they effect their independence from the power structure of the group. Rather we will see that it focuses on the rupture that is caused when the dissenter refuses to confess that teaching which is the basis for fellowship of pulpit and altar.

From this we will see how dissent from public teaching is linked with the unity of the church, and we will deal with the question of what to do when someone cannot in good conscience confess the unifying public teaching of their church. This is a particularly significant question for pastors, who are required to make public vows regarding their fidelity to the public teaching of the church, and who are held especially accountable by God for false teaching or corrupt practice (James 3:1). In our context one clear practical question becomes: Can a pastor who is in dissent from the publica doctrina of the LCA remain in fellowship with the LCA? But before that question is addressed, we need to examine the relationship of the individual believer to the church in the act of confessing the faith.

The Church’s Publica Doctrina

As pastors we are called by the church publicly to teach and confess not our own opinions or our own particular exegeses of biblical texts, but the publica doctrina of the church as it is confessed in the Book of Concord, and as it is explicated in the Theses of Agreement and Doctrinal Statements and Theological Opinions of the LCA. Not all the issues dealt with in the church’s publica doctrina are of equal weight, and, as we shall see below, in principle our doctrinal and theological statements and opinions are patient of reform on the basis of Scripture. But, until such a time as our doctrinal statements and theological opinions are changed by general pastors’ conference together with general convention, we are bound, at least in our capacity as pastors of the LCA, to teach and act in accordance with them. Practically speaking, although we may have questions concerning aspects of the publica doctrina, when it comes to what we proclaim from the pulpit or teach the congregations in our care we are bound in conscience and by our ordination and installation vows to submit our private judgments concerning the publica doctrina to the judgment of the church.

It is a hallmark of Lutheran theology that care is taken in formulating and defining the publica doctrina so as only to bind consciences on issues that have clear divine commands or prohibitions. It is true that when it comes to the ecumenical creeds and Confessions of our church, we are called to make a quia rather than quatenus confession. That is, we are called to commit ourselves before God and the world to the contents of the Book of Concord because they are true expositions of the Word of God. We bind ourselves in conscience to this confession of faith; that is, we submit in conscience to the teaching contained in these confessions, and rely on the doctrinal content of the confessions to set the boundaries for the proper conduct of our worship and life. On issues that are dealt with in the Theses of Agreement and the Doctrinal Statements and Theological Opinions of the Lutheran Church of Australia, however, there is possibility for reform. In our current context, when we are facing the possibility of change in the publica doctrina of the LCA, it is helpful to look again at the ‘Status on the Theses of Agreement and Other Doctrinal Statements’[1]:

I. In the exercise of their teaching function, whether dealing with a group or a congregation or with individuals, pastors of the LCA should not run counter to the letter and the spirit of the Theses of Agreement.
2. The Theses of Agreement, the fruit of prayerful labours extending over many years, have been adopted in all seriousness and in good faith by both the former UELCA and ELCA as a unifying document. They should be respected and treated accordingly. Should amendments become desirable in the course of time, such amendments would have to be submitted to the entire Church after thorough theological examination and discussion. Meanwhile, a deliberate disregard of the Theses in teaching and preaching would appear as evidence of bad faith, and would constitute a serious threat to the unity of the Church. There may, of course, be inadvertent disregard of the Theses due to ignorance of their content.
3. It is clearly the right and the duty of the Church, in the face of current challenges, to define how it understands the Scriptures and the Confessions. Therefore, explanations and amendments of the Theses, as well as any other statements of a doctrinal nature, submitted to the entire Church after thorough theological examination and discussion and adopted by it, must be accorded the same authority in the Church as the Theses themselves (see l and 2 above).

The process of debate in the church regarding women’s ordination over the past decade and more, including prolonged discussions at pastors conferences and synods, have been ways the LCA has attempted to live according to its own teaching. This debate has been, as we well know, the cause of much heartache for many of our members, and much confusion on the part of pastors and the laity. Many people have spent time agonizing over how they can reconcile their consciences to the publica doctrina as it does exist, or as it might exist in the future.

Conscience and Publica Doctrina

One temptation that we face when we experience difficulties in accepting the publica doctrina is to pit conscience against the publica doctrina of the church, and to assert that the claims of conscience are superior to the confession that we pastors are called to make. In this model the voice of conscience and the publica doctrina are seen as competing authorities, with conscience being the final court of appeal. At first glance this model seems not simply to be attractive when we face difficulties with the publica doctrina, but to be an accurate reflection of reality. After all, it is true that God calls us always to obey conscience, and that to go against conscience is in all cases to risk spiritual harm (more on this below). It is also true that the content of the church’s publica doctrina is patient of reform, and that at times fidelity to the Word of God may mean agitating for change in the publica doctrina. Then why is this model unhelpful? Why is it misleading to see conscience as a superior authority to the publica doctrina? To respond to these questions we need to consider the nature of conscience.


The reality of conscience as experienced by all human beings is the cross-cultural and trans-historical context into which the Apostolic proclamation of repentance and forgiveness in Christ Jesus is made. Although the Scriptures never give a definition of the term ‘conscience’, the writings of St Paul in particular give us a clear picture of the role of conscience, especially as it is informed by the Word of God, in leading us in the life of faith and love (e.g. Romans 2:14-16; 1 Timothy 4:2; 1 Corinthians 8:7-13). On the basis of the Scriptural witness, the Lutheran Confessions assume knowledge of the role of conscience in human life as being crucial in determining a right understanding of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. In fact the Confessions go so far to say that without obedience to conscience, there can be no faith in Christ.[2]

What is Conscience?

Hallesby, whose writing on conscience is familiar to many Lutherans, defines conscience as ‘that knowledge or consciousness by which man knows that he is conforming to moral law or the will of God’ (Hallesby 8). In this definition Hallesby simply clarifies that, when it comes to determining a right or wrong course of action, conscience by its very nature must be informed by something other than itself. Conscience does not and cannot establish teaching or rules to which any human being is accountable to him or herself, or to others, or to God. Koehler[3] puts it this way: ‘Conscience never sets up a moral rule or code for its own guidance, it does not establish ethical principles for our conduct, it merely prompts us to observe what we believe to be right and to eschew what we believe to be wrong’ (Koehler 346-347). This understanding of conscience is not peculiar to Koehler or Hallesby or even the Lutheran church as a whole. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, explicating the tradition regarding conscience common to the universal church puts it this way: ‘Moral conscience, present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil. It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments…It is by the judgment of conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law’ (CCC 1777, 1778). Again, in this definition, conscience receives rather than establishes knowledge of what is good and evil; it is by means of the conscience that human beings recognize and apply the precepts of God’s law, accessed either by reason through creation, or by faith through revelation.

In this traditional (and indeed Scriptural) understanding of conscience it should be noted that conscience is not simply reliant for its knowledge of good and evil on what is handed down in different human communities, whether Christian or other. Following the lead given by St Paul in Romans 2:15 (‘The Gentiles show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness’), the Confessions acknowledge the role of natural law in informing the conscience. The Apology (Ap. 4,7), the Large Catechism (LC II,67), and the Formula (FC SD VI, 5) all refer to the reality of natural law, known through reason, and received by the conscience (although received ‘to some extent’ (Ap. IV,7) because only divine revelation shows us the full meaning of the law). All human beings, by using their reason, can know the natural law at least to some extent, although different human traditions can darken this knowledge, while the Word of God confirms, clarifies, and deepens this knowledge as it is received by the conscience.

Why is Obeying Conscience Important?

It is on the basis of such an understanding of conscience that the significance of obedience to conscience is most clearly seen. Because conscience is the means by which we apply our knowledge of good and evil to the moral issues that we face, when we listen to conscience we are (whether we are Christians or not) actually putting ourselves before Christ Jesus, the judge of the living and the dead. Obeying conscience, of course, does not in itself justify us (1 Corinthians 4:4 ‘I am not aware of anything against myself [i.e. my conscience is clear], but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me’). But it is the way in which we come from darkness into light, and so receive the mercy of the One who is the light of the world (1 John 1:5-7; John 8:12; cf 1 John 3:19-20). We will deal with this in more detail below.

This teaching regarding obedience to conscience, on the other hand, also shows us that when we suppress the voice of conscience, or when we act contrary to the dictates of conscience, we are sinning not just against conscience but against God. Koehler puts it strongly: `To act against conscience is sin…It is a sin when we act contrary to the First and Second or any other Commandment, but it is just as much a sin when in any matter that involves a moral issue we act contrary to the dictates of our conscience’ (Koehler 356-357). This is why it is possible, in St Paul’s evaluation, for someone to defile their conscience and to fall even when their actions are not objectively opposed to God’s commands or prohibitions, as is the case with a person of weak conscience eating food sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8). In fact in his teaching on this issue St Paul uses the categories of holiness to describe the impact of acting against conscience. To act against conscience is to defile it, and so to render the Christian holding such conscience incapable of participating with blessing in the holiness of God. An example of the consequences of participating in bad conscience in the holiness of God is spelled out in St Paul’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11 (‘For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. [And note how he goes on:] But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged’ –cf. 4:4).

An analogy may be helpful to clarify what has been said so far regarding conscience. A traveler might use a compass to get their bearings. But without a map displaying the traveler’s true location, the compass is of limited use and the traveler will be at no advantage in reaching their destination. Likewise in determining a course of action conscience on its own is of limited use. It needs true doctrine about right and wrong, it needs true teaching about the purpose of human existence. Now, our conscience, like a good compass, will always and infallibly orient us to what we have been taught is good, and will always point us away from what we have been taught is wrong[4]. But our conscience, like a good compass, cannot give us the location of our destination as human beings or knowledge of the right way to reach it. It is true that just as a traveler errs from the path if they disregard the promptings of their compass, so we err from the path of righteousness if we disobey the voice of conscience. But it is also true that just as obeying the promptings of a compass is no guarantee of a successful journey to someone with the wrong map, so obeying conscience is no guarantee of holy living for someone who has received false or heretical teaching.[5]

From this we may go on to say that if disobeying conscience in matters that have no divine command or prohibition leads to a defiled conscience, disobeying conscience in matters that do have a divine command or prohibition (if you like, disobeying the compass when it conforms to a true map) is potentially devastating to the life of faith. Again Koehler: ‘The situation is worse when a man acts contrary to convictions that are in full agreement with the Word of God. He knows that God does not want him to steal, his conscience also warns him not to do it, and yet he steals. In this case he commits a double sin, one against the Seventh Commandment, the other against his conscience. This is a very serious matter, this kills faith. For Paul tells us 1 Tim. 1:19: “Holding faith and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck.” He means to say that he who puts away a good conscience by acting contrary to its demands makes a shipwreck concerning his faith, i.e., loses faith’ (Koehler 359). Conscience is given by God as the guide to lead us to Christ Jesus the Saviour – to lead us to our destiny as bodily participants in the divine life of the Trinity (Ephesians 1:20-23; 2 Peter 1:4). Therefore to abandon conscience is to abandon the means by which God opens us to the revelation of the His Word made flesh; it is, ultimately, to abandon Christ Jesus.

The Relation of Conscience to the Word of God

From this the orientation of conscience to the Word of God may become clearer. It is not that Christian conscience is different in itself from non-Christian conscience, or that the conscience of a Christian person is in itself an ultimate and infallible guide to holy living. Rather, Christian conscience, when it is informed by the Word of God, has a true knowledge of good and evil. The Word, through conscience, judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart with devastating clarity (Hebrews 4:12). In addition to this, conscience, when it is informed by God’s Word, leads Christians to know that they are not simply answerable to themselves or the human community, but that they are ‘naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom [they] must render an account’ (Hebrews 4:13 cf. Romans 2:6-11).

How do we get a Good Conscience?

If this were the sum total of the relationship between conscience and the Word of God, then Christian people would be forced into a situation of perpetual ‘bad conscience’ –of living only with the ever-accusing power of God’s Law. (Ap IV, 167) However God’s Word also reveals to us Christ Jesus the Saviour, the one who gives us the gift of God’s mercy and forgiveness; the one who renews our will and gives us the strength to live according to the perfect law of love. Moreover the Holy Spirit leads people through Word-of-God-informed conscience into fellowship not only with God the Father through the Lord Jesus, but also into fellowship with all the baptized as they partake as one in the holy things of God: the Scriptures; the Sacraments; and the bodily confession of saving faith (SA VIII,10).

In all this it may be said that godly conscience orients the believer to Christ Jesus, and so is the means by which we submit to the liberating power of God’s Word. When our conscience rightly accuses us on the basis of God’s Law, we hunger and thirst for a righteousness which is not ours but which can only be given to us –the righteousness of God given in Christ Jesus (Romans 1:17). Good conscience is therefore Christ-informed conscience that results from and leads a person to placing their whole trust in Christ Jesus as Saviour. In fact the Holy Spirit leads Christians to receive all the promises and commands of Christ as words which liberate human beings from the bonds of sin and death, and lead the believer and the whole Church into the new human life that sprang into being at the resurrection of Christ.

Where does this happen?

What has been said in this last section can sound a little abstract or theoretical. In the life of the church, however, the reality of God informing conscience through His Word, and so leading people to saving faith in Christ, happens in concrete, specific, and even bodily ways. Of course in life there are a myriad of particular situations in which Christian people are led by the Holy Spirit to obey the promptings of conscience; but a key Christ-instituted way (perhaps the key Christ-instituted way) in which we listen to conscience is within the context of confession and absolution.

The Small Catechism gives the most straightforward teaching concerning what Christ has given us in conferring on the church the authority to forgive sins. Put simply, Christ has given us the freedom to look at our lives according to reality – according to the Law of God - and to make our confession of sin because God is love and forgives us our sins for Christ’s sake. When Luther poses the question: What are the sins of which we have knowledge and that trouble us? He answers: ‘Reflect on your condition in light of the Ten Commandments’ (SC V, 20) - that is, in light of the Law of God, which is both inscribed on the human heart in creation, and handed on clearly in revelation. Luther goes on to encourage the believer to make a further confession, that is that the forgiveness they receive from the confessor comes from God (SC V, 27). In this the conscience, open to the Word of God as it is received in Law and Gospel, leads the believer to place their trust in Christ alone, and so to receive the power of the risen Christ to live the life of Christian love (Philippians 3:10).

The theology that is at the basis of the practice of Private Confession and Absolution is spelled out most clearly in Article XII of the Apology (Penitence): ‘The power of the keys administers and offers the Gospel through absolution, which is the true voice of the Gospel...Hearing the Gospel and hearing absolution strengthens and consoles the conscience’ (AC Ap. XII, 39-43). Here we have a Christ-centered understanding of the role of conscience in relation to the Word of God, that upholds God’s law and Gospel in their purity, and that gives the believer real access to the saving presence of Christ in the church.

Luther had sharp words to say to those who refused to use the gift of Christ (the Keys) that we receive in the form of Private Confession and Absolution: ‘[I]f you despise it and proudly stay away from confession, then we must come to the conclusion that you are no Christian and that you ought not receive the sacrament. For you despise what no Christian ought to despise, and you show thereby that you can have no forgiveness of sin. And this is a sure sign that you also despise the Gospel’ (LC Brief Exhortation, 29). The index to the Book of Concord gives copious references to the evangelical interpretation of Private Confession and Absolution given throughout the Confessional documents. Given the significance of Private Confession and Absolution in both the writings of Luther and the theology of the Confessions, it would at the least be curious if a Lutheran pastor were to refuse to use such a gift while at the same time dissenting from the publica doctrina of the church. I am personally persuaded that a deeper appropriation of our Scripture-based tradition of Private Confession and Absolution would be a very helpful precondition for any real critical engagement with the publica doctrina that would not offend against conscience, either of the one dissenting, or of those receiving the theological argumentation that might form the basis of dissent.

What does conscience have to do with the confession of faith?

The way in which conscience is dealt with in the confessions, and which is reflected in the treatment on conscience in this paper, can make it seem as if conscience exists primarily in aiding us somehow to escape God’s commands and prohibitions. This apparent conclusion is far from the mark. While it is true that Christ Jesus frees us from the condemnation that comes from failing to live according to God’s Law, it is just as true that Christ Jesus frees us to live according to God’s commands and prohibitions. When Christ, through His church, liberates us from the power of sin, He gives us the Holy Spirit, who frees us to live in a God-pleasing way. What might this look like?

Let’s say that a pastor sins by knowingly making a false confession of faith – by using his mouth to confess what his heart does not believe, and to confess what he knows does not conform to the Word of God. That pastor has ‘doubly sinned’ and will experience bad conscience. If his bad conscience does not find rest in Christ, that pastor will be vulnerable to spiritual attack from Satan and so may be drawn further into sin and even into false belief in his heart. Left uncared for, the pastor may even end up rejecting conscience with its burdensome accusations, and so ‘shipwreck’ his faith (1 Timothy 1:19). But let’s say that the pastor is encouraged by a brother to confess his sins and receive absolution. When he avails himself of the opportunity, he will receive the gift of good conscience in Christ Jesus. This will give him the strength to seek God’s approval rather than that of human beings, and it will give him the freedom to do what he could not do by his own strength – make a true confession of faith with heart and mouth. The absolution, in giving good conscience, thus also gives freedom and power to live according to God’s will.

Perhaps more than any other part of Scripture, 1 John brings out this connection between confession of sin, forgiveness in Christ Jesus, and the new ability to love and keep God’s commands. In fact the Apostle teaches that God’s children have boldness before God through belief in Christ Jesus (1 John 4:18-24), a boldness that gives them a new reception of God’s commandments: ‘For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?’ (1 John 5:3-5). The one who, when condemned in heart (that is, when experiencing bad conscience) places their trust in Christ Jesus the Saviour, receives God’s forgiveness, and is renewed by God to love all that He commands, and to do it by the power of the Holy Spirit.

If a right confession of faith were our own work – if by it we somehow established our status as sons of God - then we would always be defeated when assaulted by Satan. We would be forced back on to our own integrity or honesty or intellectual prowess or knowledge of history or theology; we would be forced to rely on ourselves and our own strength, and so would fall. The devil is more subtle in his temptations than we are sure in our convictions. But, thanks be to God, a right confession of faith is the work of the Holy Spirit, who gives us the very words by which we may rightly address God (Romans 8:15-17; 26-27), and who, in bringing us to Christ, teaches us that God is love.

The example of St Peter (Matthew 16:13-28) reminds us that the right confession of faith is never our own possession. At all times we face the temptation to turn away from the cross to human glory. I believe that it is no coincidence that Jesus gives St Peter the Keys between the Apostle’s Spirit-inspired confession and his Devil-inspired rejection of Christ and his ministry. God gives the church authority to forgive so that Christians may make the true confession of faith in a penitential posture. When we pastors confess our sin we hear in absolution the very word that brings us to the true confession of Jesus the Lord, and that frees us to receive all his commands with joy and thanks.


The issue of dissent is not a theoretical one for the LCA. At this coming General Pastors’ Conference and national Convention, we are facing anew deliberation concerning the LCA’s publica doctrina on the ordination of women. This is an issue that is potentially one of deep dissent, and that may even lead to separation of congregations from the LCA. It is worth looking again at the careful way in which our church’s teaching is worded, to see how it makes an appeal to conscience on the basis of the Scriptures.

Though women prophets were used by the Spirit of God in the Old as well as in the New Testament 1 Cor. 14:34,35 and I Tim. 2:11-14 prohibit a woman from being called into the office of the public ministry for the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. This apostolic rule is binding on all Christendom; hereby her rights as a member of the spiritual priesthood are in no wise impaired. (TA VI 11)

In the LCA most of the debate on the ordination of women has centered on the two texts cited in this public teaching, either by dealing with them exegetically, or by attending to the hermeneutical principles used in arriving at different interpretations. It seems to me that three basic positions have developed in response to the debate, corresponding to three different groups of people.

There are those who believe in conscience that God’s Word prohibits women from being called into the office of the public ministry. These people are thus conscience bound to the current publica doctrina of the LCA on this issue, and a change in the publica doctrina would lead them into a situation of dissent.

There are those who are unsure whether God’s Word prohibits or allows the ordination of women, and so who do not experience being bound in conscience one way or the other. For the sake of unity and peace in the church (Ephesians 4:3) these people are content to live and teach according to the publica doctrina on the issue, either as it stands now or as it might be changed in the future.

Then there are those who believe in conscience that God’s Word allows and even mandates the ordination of women, and who see the refusal to ordain women as a denial of the Gospel. Without a change in the current publica doctrina of the LCA such people are conscience bound to head into a situation of dissent.

The first and last of these positions are mutually exclusive; the middle position, although the least threatening to unity in the LCA, is spiritually safe only for those who can maintain uncertainty in good conscience. Insofar as the publica doctrina on women’s ordination in time leads to unavoidable consequences in practice, our church appears to be at a crossroads. What are our options? The Theses of Agreement, in dealing with those principles governing church fellowship state:

We believe that where differences in teaching and practice exist or arise between Churches uniting, these differences are to be removed by willingly submitting to the authority of the Word of God. Where a difference in teaching or practice is a departure from the doctrine of the Bible, such difference cannot be tolerated, but must be pointed out as an error, on the basis of clear passages of Holy Writ; and if the error is persisted in, in spite of instruction, warning, and earnest witness, it must at last lead to a separation (TA 4a).

Our church is now, even here, in the process of examining the ‘doctrine of the Bible’. What the future holds for the LCA is not ours to see. But our own future as God’s baptized people is ours to see, and is set before us in the word of absolution. What God will make of us, what confession of faith in heart and mouth He will give us, will only become apparent in this world when we place ourselves on our knees before Christ Jesus, when we let His Word inform our conscience, when we speak what our conscience commands us to say, and when we hear in trust His forgiveness.


In this paper we have looked at conscience, dissent, and unity in the church. The majority of the paper has been a treatment on conscience, because conscience under God’s Word is the true forum in which issues of dissent and unity in the church are rightly understood. Obedience to conscience under God’s Word is the right and effective means to lasting unity in the LCA, and is the only way that dissent can be dealt with in a healing manner. The nature of the ongoing debate at pastors’ conference and general convention is dependent on the extent to which the participants are willing to obey their conscience under the Word of God. If the participants are unwilling to obey conscience as it receives God’s Word, then no outcome, however harmonious it may outwardly appear, will be for the lasting benefit of the church. If the participants are willing to obey conscience under the Word of God, then the outcome, no matter how conflict-ridden it may seem, will be for true unity in and of the church.

This paper has primarily been a call to repentance; specifically, it has been a call to us as pastors of this district to obey the voice of conscience and to receive anew the Word of God as it informs conscience. It has been a call for us pastors to take the lead in submitting to Christ’s gift of the Keys as we receive it in the form of Private Confession and Absolution. It has been an exhortation for us to trust that in this gift of Christ we will experience the power of his resurrection as we are freed by the Holy Spirit to make a true confession of faith in our hearts and with our mouths, in spirit and body, before God and the world. It is my hope that in this we will lead as true shepherds of the flock entrusted into our care, and so experience God-given unity as one flock under one shepherd.

St Matthias, 14th of May, 2006
Bendigo, Bethlehem Lutheran Church
[1]Prepared by the Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations. Recommended for adoption by the General Pastors Conference. Adopted by the General Synod. 1975 Convention. *Reviewed July 2001, unedited

[2] In the Formula of Concord it is put this way: ‘[W]e should not imagine a kind of faith in this connection [justification] that could coexist and co-persist with a wicked intention to sin and to act contrary to one’s conscience’ (FC Ep. III, 11).
[3] E W A Koehler (1875-1951), was a Missouri Synod pastor and theologian. He was awarded his DD from Concordia Seminary in 1941. For reference to his writing on conscience see the bibliography.
[4] Koehler: ‘saying that conscience is infallible does not mean that it will inevitably function in every instance in which man is about to do what he knows to be wrong. For if one persistently disregards, and willfully acts contrary to, the promptings of conscience, these become weaker and weaker until they finally cease. This is what paul means when he speaks of a “conscience seared with a hot iron” 1 Tim. 4:2’. (Koehler 351)

[5] The fact that we are called by God always to obey conscience is consonant with the fact that conscience can be badly informed and so lead people into acts which are objectively sinful: ‘Knowledge and convictions in moral matters differ greatly among men…But there is no difference in the function of conscience; it acts alike in all men. While, therefore, the knowledge, according to which conscience acts, may be in error, conscience itself never errs in its unique function of urging man to comply with what he believes to be right –Our opinions and convictions as to what is morally right change…But conscience never changes; it never approves what for the time being we know to be wrong, nor does it ever warn us against doing what we know to be right’ (Koehler 340)

The Book of Concord Theodore G Tappert (ed) Fortress Press Philadelphia 1959

Catechism of the Catholic Church (second Edition) St Pauls Strathfied, 2003

Hallesby, O Conscience IVP Leicester 1995

Koehler, E W A ‘Conscience’ Concordia Theological Monthly Vol XII, No 5 May 1942

All biblical quotations are from the NRSV

No comments: