There is a little catch phrase within the vocabulary of the Church of the Brethren. In any theological or ethical conversation it is only a matter of minutes before someone in the conversation invokes the Brethren tradition of “respect for conscience.” It is the ultimate trump card, protecting positions on anything from ordination of women to human sexuality, and most of all congregational autonomy.
Unfortunately for our current state of the church, this was not the origination of the concept. A quick read of the writings of Alexander Mack reveals that the concept was framed as a posture to the governments of the world, not to matters of church practice and faith. This is especially clear in Mack’s letter to a German Count in which he defends the practice of Believers’ Baptism. Here, the scripture texts are arranged so as to make clear that there is no injunction of the government which can prevent the conscious practice of Christian ordinances.
However, over time the ideas of “no force in religion” and non-creedalism have infused our understanding of conscience. It has come to imply that the church cannot infringe upon the individual’s conscience- even when that conscience contradicts the essential values and ethics of the community. As I argued in a discussion of the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, contemporary Brethren have assumed that the individual and the community are constantly in tension. That is to say we assume the community slips into a kind of tyranny over the individual and that each one must guard their conscience against giving over too much to the community. Respect for individual conscience, then, is a kind of buffer to the power of a collective.
As I have argued regarding the cliche of being “spiritual but not religious,” this antagonistic view of the communal and individual dynamic is simply naive. It is not as if the individual person is closed system. Each one participates in a number of communities whose practices give shape to the ideas and desires of each person involved. This means that the so called autonomous individual is never free from the influences of some community. Following the title of one of Alistair MacIntrye’s works, it is more a matter of whose rationality and which community is shaping our thoughts.
In his work on Social Imaginaries, social theorist Charles Taylor has helpfully shown how this buffered image of the individual is a product of Enlightenment thinking. In rebuking the mystical world-view of the Middle Ages, the modern thinkers began to draw an ever thickening line of protection around the individual. At first, this line refuted the magical incursion of spirits infecting persons but gradually included a rejection of communal authority. The individual in this way became what Taylor calls a “buffered self.” As such, we now have a building block understanding of community which assumes, following the political philosophers, that community is formed by the assent of individual. That is to say that individuals endow a community with authority thus leaving communities to ultimately become affinity groups. When the group exercises too much sway on the individual, that person removes their assent to participate in other communities more like their own current perspective.
For contemporary Brethren, regardless of partisan color, the unfortunate reality is that we are more shaped by the American political landscape. Even the ways we read the scripture together are more defined by the political party of those reading. In essence, when individual conscience is invoked it is a sign that stereotypically conservative or progressive views are perceived to be under attack. In that moment we as the church are thrust into partisan politics rather than engaging in true discernment.
Brethren, in a true synthetic and not antagonistic understanding of our Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, have argued that no one individual holds the whole truth. First, our pietistic understanding of the Priesthood of All speaks of each individual’s access to the Holy Spirit. There is no elite spiritual class that solely encounters the speaking of the spirit. Yet, this access to the Spirit is not for the sole benefit of the individual, but a gift for the whole church. Thus, Brethren treated the gathered church community as the most appropriate place to discern truth- not the conventions of Democrats or Republicans or even affinity groups. Here, individuals speak into the community from their experiences of God and the scripture, but each one’s perspective is tested against the other voices of the church. This gathered wisdom, then, is the teaching of the church. Each individual then, must discern their conscience to decide if this is their community of faith.
Much damage has been done in the name of Church unity throughout time. Yet, a more church oriented vision of individual conscience to me values deeply the voices of those who have covenanted to the community. When the community’s discernment runs against our conscience we must discern if this is a disagreement about the essentials of our beliefs. Respecting one’s conscience in this light, then, is about blessing an individual who discerns that the contradictions are so great that a new community of faith must be sought. If, however, the individual continues to covenant with the church community, the church does not ban them but continues to seek their understanding of the Spirit in the processes of shared discernment. In traditional terms, this means that that the act of excommunication is not something for the church to impose on another, but for the individual to discern for themselves. Respecting their conscience is to be an act of blessing to find the community in which the individual and corporate voice are more in harmony with each other.
There must be then, a kind of submission to the community, freely offered on the part of the individual in the covenant to participate within this particular body. While we modern Americans do not like the idea of submission, there is an integrity in this act not often articulated today. In essence, the covenant makes explicit that this community is the one that I want to shape my desires, beliefs, and actions. As we currently practice “respect for individual conscience” there is no proclamation of which community it is that we have staked our claim in. So, we assume that persons are submitting and contributing to the discernment of the church when in fact it is some other tradition that is influencing their ideas and values. In our case today, the poles of our tradition are more in line with American conservatism or liberalism than they are with any theology and practice of the church. So we continue to fight one another, bringing the partisanship of the democratic system into our discernment- in effect making them debates about the alternate communities in which we participate.