I used to think the idea of a “bound conscience” was a good thing. It allowed for communities of faith to support a wide range of viewpoints. My home congregation took some comfort in this idea after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Churchwide Assembly votes and decisions in 2009. To be fair, I appreciate “bound conscience” in its sense and respect that people have different understandings of scripture. However, when used in congregations, it is often seemed to result in using it to justify a lack of tolerance. Because of this, the more that time has past, the more I think that the concept of “bound conscience” is really a cop-out.
To either take no stand or to say that a congregation or community is neutral when it comes to a certain group of people, particularly LGBT members, is to take a stand. It’s to say you are welcome to be here, but we aren’t going to go out of our way to say so. Well, enough is enough. To decide on having a “bound conscience” or to proclaim that one is neutral, is to take a stand. It’s a stand that on the surface seems to affirm the widest range of community. But under the surface, I believe it is a stand lacking courage.
You are probably wondering what is causing me to write this post now. Part of me hesitates to write it. A larger part of me hesitates to post it. But my conscience and heart say that this is something that is very much at the heart of neighbor love. Last Thursday Thrivent announced a policy about being neutral. A good friend of mine wrote on Facebook exactly what I was thinking, “The problem with ‘neutral’ policies is that they’re very often not neutral at all.” Indeed. I understand that Thrivent is a pan-Lutheran and now a pan-Christian organization. As such, it is trying to be accommodating to a wide range of viewpoints. The problem is that by abandoning a sense of welcome and hospitality without limits, it has created limits and effectively told some of its members they aren’t equal and they cannot use their Thrivent accounts to support some social organizations they have in the past chosen to support or may in the future choose to support. It seems so similar to the thoughts around bound conscience that the ELCA had four and a half years ago.
In the midst of the discernment of what it means to be a pan-Christian organization, Thrivent could have used this opportunity as a chance to come out in support of LGBT rights. Instead, by saying it is neutral it has basically turned a cold shoulder. In order to be a pan-Christian organization, it seems that Thrivent has decided that it is in their best interest to make certain organizations not able to receive outreach support or funding. As their neutrality announcement outlines, “This includes, but is not limited to, organizations with a primary purpose of providing services for or advocating positions either supporting or opposing certain social, politically partisan, or health and human services causes and issues, such as abortion, sexual orientation, or guns.” As an organization, they certainly have the right to do this. It just grieves me that they are going to place limits on the type of organizations that their members can support. It also grieves me that an organization which exists today as the creation and fulfillment of a near century of good work through the likes of organizations such as Lutheran Brotherhood and Aid Association for Lutherans would seem so hesitant to live in the tension of openness. In order to seemingly have the least amount of conflict they have chosen to restrict possibilities. I am sorry, this is not what I expect from a sense of grace and love of neighbor.
Let me clarify my thoughts and stance. 1) My stance doesn’t require that a member of Thrivent support LGBT. It only leaves open the possibility of those who choose to support LGBT to be able to do so. 2) For those of you who appreciate the “bound conscience” idea, congregations which accept and affirm LGBT members and people, do so because they believe that all are Children of God, even though all have different opinions, experiences, genders, ethnicity, etc. These congregations and faith communities aren’t saying you have to agree, they are simply saying that “All are Welcome.” By saying one is neutral or has bound conscience, that effectively says by result that “not all are welcome.”
I am sad today. Thrivent, an organization I greatly respect and appreciate has let me down. It has let many of my brothers and sisters down. Most importantly, it has let its own stated mission, vision, and values down. As part of them, Thrivent claims:
“We believe that all we have is a gift from God and that generosity is an expression of faith.”
If all we have and all we are, are a gift from God then there should be no limits. That’s up for God- God’s goodness and creation. What does a stand like the one taken by Thrivent on Thursday say to our LGBT sisters and brothers? I hear it as “all we have is a gift from God… except.” I fear I am not alone on this gauging from the reaction on social media. But I have hope especially when I hear Rev. Anita Hall’s words in response to this news:
“Whoa…and now for a word from an old movement warhorse LGBT advocate. To change policy requires that folks stay engaged. I won’t be leaving Thrivent anytime soon. If we had all left the ELCA during the long years of struggle for policy change, we likely would not have been able to change policy to allow clergy in same-gender relationships to serve.”
What do you think?
*For some more on “bound conscience” consider this post by the Pondering Pastor.
Image Credit: Thrivent Sign
 To be fair, through this policy it seems that Thrivent is trying to strike a balance between as many conflicting areas of viewpoint as possible. It also seems to be a way by result, to unintentionally make members of the ELCA and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), the two main Lutheran denominational bodies, both upset but for different reasons. For ELCA members it seems to be, like for me, the way that supporting LGBT supportive groups like Reconciling Works has been restricted. For LCMS members what seems to be causing strife is the lack of ability to support pro-life groups and establishments doing work to support young mothers and children. More can and should be said here about all of this, and perhaps I will offer some thoughts in an upcoming post. But the focus of this post, is in relation to “neutrality” and “bound conscience.”
4 thoughts on “The Misnomer about being Neutral”