What is typically suggested about conscience probably falls short of authentic biblical teaching on the subject. Though it may not be intentional, there are some believers who would like to take on the role of the Holy Spirit and be the standard for spiritual behaviors in the Church and society. This creates a multitude of problems leaving the teaching on the conscience, quintessentially, ‘mishandled.’
The conscience is the imprint of God left on every soul that instructs about right and wrong. My dictionary defines conscience as, “An inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior.” A person sins whenever they do anything that is contradictory to their conscience. This does not mean that this is the only time anyone sins. Nor does it teach that every area of conscience is a universal sin. The conscience is a complicated subject that needs to be addressed.
It has often been surmised that whenever two people are together, the more sensitive conscience should be adhered to. Based on what Paul taught in both Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8, stronger brothers should not do anything to cause a weaker brother to sin. What typically happens with these passages is that people use them to propagate their own positions (or weakness) and set their own convictions as the universal standard for everyone else.
This has had negative consequences on the next generation as they look for absolutes and attempt to relate to their world and culture. When the previous generation mishandles the teaching of Scripture to pan to their own preferences, the next generation is taught a poor principle on how to read their prejudices back into the Word of God.
In order to better equip the next generation to handle the tests of tomorrow, this generation needs to teach them the whole truth about conscience.
- Conscience is not the primary authority for right and wrong. The Word of God is the primary authority for knowing God. The conscience works with the Word of God to direct a believer to acknowledge truth. The Spirit of God works to bring the conscience into conformity to the will of God through His Word. Neither the conscience nor the Spirit of God override the authority of God’s completed Word. Everything a believer needs to know is found in the Bible.
- No conscience has a 100% accuracy rating. Let’s face it, the conscience is fallible. There are several passages that can’t be denied here. I Corinthians 8:12, 10:29, I Corinthians 4:2, Ephesians 4:20, I Thessalonians 5:19, I Timothy 4:2, Titus 1:15. All of these verses point to one thing, the conscience can be bias, weak, over-sensitive, abused, or misinformed. All of this points to a very large margin for fallibility.
- There is no universal conscience to attain to. For some reason, God has kept people divided by conviction since the start of His Church. Remember Paul and Barnabas parting ways over Luke (Acts 15:36-41)? There are a multiplicity of Gospel centered denominations who would all teach the fundamentals of salvation, but are unable to agree on some open handed issues. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing who is right on ever issue. This inevitably allows God to remain the focal point and it should cause men to be humble in their pursuit of Him.
- Limitations are never a mark of maturity. Please note, this has to be understood in context. I’m not talking about limits to sinful things (i.e. drunkenness), or limits to Biblical standards (i.e. one wife per pastor). What I mean to say is that weakness is not a mark of strength. Ironically, what people typically teach about the conscience is that they need to become more sensitive, instead of being more mature. While this is a complicated point, the Bible never describes a person with extra-biblical limitations as being mature, but as being weak. Hopefully I’ll be able to address this further in the weeks to come. A mature person should be able to withstand in this evil day. There is a sense, biblically, where we need to become indifferent to the things of this world.
I once heard a grown man say that he couldn’t go to the mall because there was a Victoria Secret there. I wanted to ask him if his mother still had to buy him boxers because he couldn’t go in the underwear section at Wal-Mart.
With this in mind, what does Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 teach us about the conscience?
- Who is the weaker brother? I found this article interesting concerning those who make it their practice to get others to conform to issues that are sensitive to their conscience. What these people are unwittingly doing is admitting that they are the weaker brother. In the scenario here, the one who is bothered is the one who is sinning, and therefore the weaker brother.
- Where do we draw the line? Many Christians would suggest that we draw the line with the least common denominator. But that would require us all to be like the Amish. Actually, that wouldn’t be enough. I’m sure there are more conservative consciences than the Amish out there. What Romans and I Corinthians are teaching here is that believers should not force their maturity on the weaker Christians. Remember this overarching principle: God has people where they are for a reason. Don’t force your views upon them. That means if you’re weaker, you shouldn’t try to bring your brother down to your level. That means if you’re stronger, you shouldn’t tempt your brother to do something that their conscience won’t allow.
- When does conscience cross the line? When someone starts demanding that their views be held, they’ve crossed the line. If anyone does this, they are teaching contrary to the supremacy of Christ, and it is time to offend for the sake of the gospel. Martin Luther, in his work “The Freedom of a Christian,” gives us a strong response to those who would attempt to restrain ones liberty in Christ.
“There are some who have no understanding to hear the truth of liberty and insist upon their goodness as means for salvation. These people you must resist, do the very opposite, and offend them boldly lest by their impious views they drag many with them into error. For the sake of the liberty of the faith do other things which they regarded as the greatest of sins….Use your freedom constantly and consistently in the sight of and despite the tyrants and the stubborn so that they also may learn that they are impious, that their laws and works are of no avail for righteousness, and that they had no right to set them up.”
Consider this video of D.A. Carson teaching on I Corinthians 8 and 9 titled, “That By All Means I Might Win Some.” I particularly like what he has to say between 18:00 and 23:00.
How does a believer function on these principles?
- Don’t do anything that is contradictory to your conscience. As noted before, if you do anything contrary to what your conscience will allow, you are sinning. However, you ought to bring your conscience into conformity to the Word of God and not perpetuate a weak conscience.
- If you see a brother doing something that is contradictory to your conscience, search the Scriptures, pray, and approach your brother. Do not demand that they conform their conscience to accommodate yours. You may just find that your conviction was weak and wrong. Communication is a necessary process. Remember that you need the influence of your brother and they need you as well. Work together in love and unity, rather than judgement and conformity.
- Don’t remain weak. If you have a sensitive conscience, don’t make that the benchmark for your spirituality. You are implored by Paul to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). As soon as you settle into your neatly diced up convictions, you’ve effectively given up. There’s not retiring with old age. If something bothers you, work it out!
- Don’t do anything mean spirited against your brother. Romans 12:18 says that you should live at peace with all men. That includes those who make your life difficult. Remember that everyone will answer to God for their actions and convictions. Don’t attempt to circumvent the wrath of God by taking matters into your own hands.
- Offend when the sufficiency of Christ is at risk of being brought down. You have been enlisted to contend for the faith (Jude 1:3). That means that you have to fight those from without as well as those from within. Contend earnestly, and stand up for the sufficiency of Christ death on the cross.
One more error I’ve heard concerning these passages…
I once heard a guy preach to a group of college students from Romans 14 that since the old people in church get upset when they wear jeans to church, the college students are causing the older patriarchs to sin. Since judging their brothers in the LORD was a sin, the elderly christians were sinning by judging the younger, but the fault really came down on the college students who were the root of bitterness, causing the sin. That is not at all what the passage in Romans is saying. You are not sinning if you wear jeans to church. Even if you cause someone to be angry. That is there sin, not yours. Please, let’s stop decimating these passages of Scripture and stick to what the Bible actually says.
It is essential that we get a biblical grasp on what the conscience is and how we need to relate to it. We must be careful that we don’t put too much stock in our conscience, but on the other hand, we need to be careful that we don’t think to lightly of it as well. If we are going to accurately teach the next generation on issues of faith, we need to teach them how to confront and cultivate their conscience through the ministry of the Spirit and the Word.
“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” Galatians 5:16