On Binding Consciences: The Word of God and the Words of Man

It’s tough being a pastor. I know because I’ve never dared try, but I’ve watched others try. Sure, you can always avoid preaching on anything so concrete and close to home as to ruffle any feathers, and some ministers have perfected the art of doing so for years on end. But as soon as he takes seriously his task as a shepherd of souls, the minister is likely to hear howls of indignation raised—he is a legalist, a killjoy, binding consciences and trampling on Christian liberty. Or perhaps, depending on his congregation, he may find himself accused of being a softie or an antinomian, refusing to man up and speak uncompromisingly to our culture.

Nor can the pastor take refuge in saying that his task is simply to proclaim the gospel. For the good news is, as Oliver O’Donovan has said, a “demanding comfort,”[1] and the task of pastoring means knowing how to apply both demand and comfort to the concrete lives of his flock, which will necessarily take the pastor beyond Scripture—if not its spirit, certainly its letter. To preach and pastor effectively, the minister must be waist-deep in the stuff of everyday life, the myriad personal, social, political, and cultural challenges that confront his congregation and that at every point draw them closer to or drag them further from the face of God. And Scripture, it must be said, does not address modern challenges like home mortgages or legalized gay marriage as such—obviously, it does address debt and sexuality, but these specific challenges that confront us, in all their concrete particularity and novelty, are not in view in the biblical text.

Or to put it another way: one task of the pastor is to name and confront sin in the lives of his congregants, but while sin resides in the heart, all he has to go on is behavior. In a few rare cases, a behavior is so unavoidably and automatically sinful that he does not have to see the heart to name it as sin; there is no innocent way to murder or commit fornication. But even here, some knowledge of circumstances is necessary—after all, if the man with the gun is an officer pursuing a dangerous criminal, he may not be guilty of murder, and if the man making love with the woman has secretly married her, it is not fornication. As we move beyond such non-negotiable norms as murder and adultery, these qualifications proliferate, so that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends greatly on circumstances, or intentions, or both. To be sure, Jesus says that “You shall know them by their fruit,” and someone’s outward actions may strongly suggest that something is not right within, but even where we feel reasonably confident making this judgment in the case of one individual we know well, it becomes much harder to universalize it. And when a pastor preaches or writes, he must name and rebuke sins in general; he cannot pause mid-sermon and say, “Now, in your case, Jimmy, this means that you are sinning whenever you do this, but given your different circumstances, Tammi, I’m not worried about your conduct here.”

The pastor must thus take great care to avoid what is called “binding consciences.” In fact, few worries were more frequently on the lips of the Protestant Reformers than this one, or more central to their reforming work. In the late medieval church, they argued, Christians were weighed down with the fear of offending God over any number of practices that were frankly indifferent, or were only potentially wrong, depending on circumstances—they were expected to fast and feast on certain days, avoid sex if they were ordained and avoid various places and elements of worship if they were not. At the same time, for many of these sins, the stakes were raised considerably by Catholic soteriology. Any sin could be forgiven, to be sure, but only by doing proper penance and receiving the proper sacraments, and without diligent use of these means of reconciliation, the Christian risked dying outside a state of grace and suffering eternal perdition.

It is important to recognize that the Reformers challenged both aspects of this burden on consciences. They insisted that when believers do sin, they have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who bears their sins for them and declares them righteous. But they also insisted that just because the guilty weight of sin had been eased for the justified believer, this was no reason to throw around the term “sin” lightly. Church leaders, they insisted, must not expand the list of sins beyond the teaching of Scripture, and this could be done just as much by forbidding a practice as by demanding it: both the priest who insisted that every Christian must observe Lent and the radical Protestant who insisted that every Christian must renounce Lent were guilty of binding consciences outside of Scripture. If we are to preserve the Reformation’s proclamation of the freedom of a Christian, then, we must maintain both aspects of this proclamation, which is to say the proclamation of justification by faith alone and of the authority of Scripture alone.

Pastor Toby Sumpter thus manifests a common confusion when he argues that a pastor is not binding consciences as long as he is proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness of every repentant sinner:

“It is not legalism or binding of consciences to point out sin. A father or mother needs to apply principles to every day life all the time. . . . An unbiblical form of legalism or binding of conscience happens when a Christian says that such and such application means that somebody can’t be or isn’t a Christian or is a second class Christian. . . . But that is antithetical to the gospel because the Church is God’s great refugee camp for all who look to Jesus in faith. All are welcome. . . . Christ died for all kinds of sins and all kinds of sinners, and nothing can separate you from the love of Christ if you have placed your trust in Him.”

The argument here seems to be that, as long as you are not saying that someone is going to hell (since Christ has borne their sins), it doesn’t matter if you say they are living in sin. But of course this only follows from an oddly antinomian standpoint. For it is not as if the Reformers severed all connection between the sins that we commit and the fate that we deserve. On the contrary, good works, and renunciation of sin, were the mark of your justification. Thus, if you confront a professing believer and tell them that they are in sin, the implication is that they must repent of the sin and at least make every effort to overcome it, turning to God for grace. If they scorn your rebuke and say, “I’m going to stick with this sin, thank you very much,” then they are rebelling against God and the “demanding comfort” of the Gospel. If they stick with this rebellion and cling doggedly to their sin, then one can, indeed, begin to question their justification and their eternal destiny. In short, to accuse someone of sin is to accuse them of acting in a way that invites God’s wrath, and to insist that if they do not repent they may receive that wrath, even if they claim to be a follower of Christ. This, then, is what it means to bind consciences—to say that a Christian must act in a particular way or else incur divine wrath.

Now, it is important to note that from one perspective, one can say that Protestantism rendered such conscience-binding impossible. Objectively speaking, human authority cannot do such a thing; only God and His Word can, and so human beings—whether pastors or ordinary Christians, can only do it inasmuch as they are accurately repeating the words of God, accurately describing what God has said. It is not as if, when a pastor says, “You must do this,” that he has indeed pronounced some magic words such that whoever disobeys him disobeys God[1]—this was part of the mistaken Catholic doctrine that the Reformers opposed.

Speaking more loosely, however, and from the subjective viewpoint, conscience-binding happens whenever a believer thinks, based on what another Christian (often a pastor) has said that they must act in a particular way or else incur divine wrath. Given the power asymmetry between a minister and most congregants, it is very easy for congregants, particularly those of tender consciences, to feel bound in this way, even if Scripture does not seem to justify the pastor’s words. There are at least four dangerous responses that can result from such conscience-binding when it is not according to the Word:

  • Those of tender conscience may fall into needless fear that they are incurring God’s wrath because they have failed to behave in a certain way.
  • Those who tend toward complacency may feel false assurance that they are spiritually all right because they, in fact, have toed the line of the outward behavior being condemned.
  • Those who are Pharisaical may be tempted to look askance at other Christians not following the command, and conclude, with smug satisfaction, that those other believers are less holy.
  • Those who are rebellious may feel an urge to disobey the command, however good advice it is, just because it has been framed as an absolute command.

Of course, if the rebuke is according to the Word, if the minister does indeed accurately proclaim and apply God’s wrath against a certain kind of behavior, then it may be worth the risk of such responses; something will need to be said, although one still needs to be wise in when and how it is said.

Accusing people of sin, then, is a delicate and dangerous business indeed, and not something that even pastors can do lightly, even though it is part of their job. This is why the Reformers insisted that Scripture, carefully interpreted and prudently applied by those trained in wisdom, was the only standard by which such a diagnosis should be made. And Scripture provides precious few universal generalizations of what counts as sin; indeed, even where it seems to provide plenty, as in Leviticus, we have to interpret carefully, as some of these commands represent unchanging moral norms, and others represent time-bound ceremonial commands. On many whole areas of life that confront us with daily moral decisions and myriad temptations to sin, such as our clothing and eating, our business dealings and government policy-making, it provides little more than general principles and a few examples to guide us, leaving it to Spirit-sanctified wisdom to make application to particular times, places, and persons.

Pastors must make such applications from time to time; if they did not, they would be leaving large portions of their congregants’ lives untouched by the Word. But they must be extremely aware of their own limitations and biases when they do so, and their congregants must, like the Bereans, search the Scriptures to see whether these things be true (Acts 17:11). In churches that have become echo-chambers (as many of ours have), few of the pastor’s congregants may even think to question the equation of the his opinions with Scripture. But the error is destructive nonetheless and pastors must cultivate the practice of reading widely enough, particularly in history, to recognize where their opinions are, well, just their opinions. Moreover, because it is so rare that one can make a prudential application of Scriptural teaching that holds with universal force—“it is always sinfully irresponsible to smoke cigarettes,” “it is always sinfully immodest to wear X,” “it is always sinfully overreaching for a government to oversee Y”—pastors teaching on such things should generally take care to hedge their teaching with qualifications, as well as spelling out the train of biblical reasoning, so congregants can search the Scriptures for themselves.

Of course, it is also important to remember that the larger the number of people you are addressing, the more the possibility of exceptions, and the more the potential for misunderstanding, multiplies. So while pastors must indeed apply the Word to particular behaviors, they can do this best in a one-on-one counseling context, individually confronting those who need to hear that their behavior is an offense to God. When the audience is widened to include a whole congregation, such applications become more difficult; when it is widened to include anyone reading a blog or downloading a sermon, it becomes more difficult still.

Thankfully, pastors do not need to worry that by restraining themselves frequently from making such sweeping applications that they will deprive their sermons of vigor or relevance. For the “Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit.” As the Protestant Reformers quickly realized, simply proclaiming the Word of God and trusting in the Spirit to put it to work can have a mighty effect, provoking sinners to repentance far more effectively than any merely human words could have done. In a context where our culture seems to be crumbling around us and the very pillars of morality and social order seem to be shaking, it is tempting to think that the Word of God is not enough, that we must add to it an extensive appendix of lines that can’t be crossed and things that must be done if the Church is to avoid being assimilated into the world. But in such a context, we must recover our faith in the simple Word of God, proclaiming it faithfully without addition or subtraction and trusting that as we do so, Christ will preserve his Church.


Elements of this post are taken from my new book The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed.

ADDENDUM: See follow-up post here.


[1] To be sure, human positive laws (usually made by civil authority, but also in a certain form by church or familial authorities) can make it sinful to do something that before was indifferent, like driving through an intersection or paying a tax. However, this per accidens binding is a different kind of thing that would require its own detailed treatment, and I will leave it out here. In case you are interested in a thorough consideration, see my forthcoming book The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty.

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, The Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2008), 104.

One thought on “On Binding Consciences: The Word of God and the Words of Man

  1. Pingback: The Perilous Business of Pastoring |

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