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Bad Words and Bound Conscience


Having become a pastor at a rather middle-aged place in my life, I come into this thing called ministry with a less than spotless past.  Okay, being completely truthful – I went through some very rough times in my late teens and early twenties and have done things which no one but my confessor and I need know about.  One of the least of my offenses was that somewhere along the line – as a way to express the anger and hurt that I was concealing from everyone around me – I developed a very colorful vocabulary.  Being a good Roman Catholic girl, I didn’t take the Lord’s name in vain.  No – my favorites were the f-bomb and the sh&* word.  And they generally only came out when I was angry.  I was both relieved and amused when, in seminary, my Lutheran Confessions professor explained to the class that those words had nothing to do with the Ten Commandments and in fact, may not necessarily be committing a sin.  Of course, she did advise against letting catechism students know that since it could cause them to break the Fourth Commandment.  SO for the first couple of years of seminary, I really felt no compulsion to “clean up” my language.  I rarely used the words in public and then only in the company of people whom I trusted.  However, as I had worked through my issues in counseling, they were becoming more words uttered in frustration than hurt and anger, so my restraint in using them was loosening up considerably. 

Then came the promise of internship looking large on the horizon.  Suddenly, I realized that I would be serving in a congregation – in a pastoral role.  Being in a detached site with no on-site supervisor, I had a great deal of direct contact with everyone in the congregation.  It occurred to me that my expressions of frustrations while “not necessarily” sinful could easily become so if they were offensive to the members of my internship congregation.  And I really couldn’t imagine there were going to be any members of the congregation who would be okay with their intern dropping the f-bomb or proclaiming “Shit!” when she dropped something and it broke.  So I spent the summer prior to internship purging my vocabulary of those two particular words and finding suitable ways to express my frustration.  There was plenty of Biblical mandate for my efforts, but two passages in particular – held together were the driving force behind my efforts. 

The first was from the 14th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Roman’s where Paul is discussing whether or not to eat food that would have been considered ‘unclean.’ Paul writes: ” 13Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.  14I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.  15If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.  16So do not let your good be spoken of as evil.  17For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  18The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval.  19Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.  20Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat;  21it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.”

The second came from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians the 1oth chapter where again Paul is speaking of eating.  “23All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.  24Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.  25Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience,  26for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.”  27If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.  28But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience —  29I mean the other’s conscience, not your own.”

In this manner I began to derive a deeper understanding of the theological concept of “bound conscience.”  I understood that if, in exercising my freedom, I caused a brother or sister to stumble, or have a crisis of faith; or – even worse – if in my exercising my freedom I did not build up the body of Christ, then I had, in fact sinned for I was NOT (to quote Paul) “walking in love.”  In other words, for the sake of the unity and building up of the body of Christ and to avoid causing my brothers and sisters to stumble or have a crisis of faith, I was BOUND to respect the conscience OF MY BROTHERS and SISTERS in Christ.  So – even though it may have been LAWFUL for me to drop the f-bomb, it was neither edifying for the body of Christ, nor serving Christ and walking in love with my brothers and sisters.  For the sake of the people I would serve on internship  and later on in congregational ministry, I learned other expressions of frustration.  (In fact, one time on internship when I said, “O crap!” the congregation president commented to my husband that seemed to be one of my favorite expressions.  He replied with a knowing smile “It is now.”

The point of all of this folksy story about my foul mouth is not to pat myself on the back about my newly purged vocabulary.  (I can still drop the f-bomb with the best of them under the right circumstances and in ‘safe’ company.)  The POINT is that in the past several years, I have repeatedly listened to well-meaning people justify bad theology and their own selfish actions by using a complete bastardization of the theological concept of “bound conscience.”   I have heard more people publicly justify taking a position on a specific issue because their “conscience is bound.”  As if because they are convinced of the rightness of their position and their freedom to act upon it they MUST do so in order to respect their conscience.  And that, brothers and sisters in Christ is pure bullshit.  To reframe Paul – it may be permissible for you to do so, but if doing so injures or afflicts the conscience of your brothers and sisters in Christ and does not uplift the whole body, then you are bound to respect THEIR consciences and REFRAIN from exercising your freedom.   And that more than anything else that has undermined the institutions of Christ’s church grieves me.  Because THAT IS a GOSPEL issue.  On insisting on their right to exercise what they understand to be their freedom in Christ, faithful Christians have twisted and bastardized this important theological concept and turned what was intended to be a prescription for serving others and the good of the whole body into a self-serving justification.

For me, whether we are talking about using colourful language, eating unclean foods, drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking, gambling, or being engaged in same gender relationships the deepest wound is NOT whether the action is “right” or “wrong”, sinful or not – for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  The deeper wound is that we have taken a gift  intended for holding community together in service to the other and used it to justify the self-serving exercise of our own wills. 

I think the past several years has seen the gracious and life-giving gift of “bound conscience” be twisted into a justification of cheap grace.  Out of my deep love of Jesus and the Gospel, I just gotta say: ” That really freaking pisses me off!”  🙂 


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