I wrote this article back in 2007 and included it as an appendix in the second edition of Prepared to Answer. At that particular time, it seemed to be quite in vogue to object to countless issues in our movement of churches, claiming that those things violated one’s conscience. While we should certainly not violate our consciences, I believe appeals to conscience can be both misused and overused. And we must be careful how we make those appeals. At that time in our history, once people objected to something supposedly based upon their own conscience, they essentially shut down any discussion on the matter, and dismissed any further consideration. My goal in writing this was to help us all have a more biblical understanding of what constitutes a valid objection based upon one’s conscience.
I believe this issue to be quite relevant a decade later as we consider current issues among us. I believe that some people do misuse the conscience principle in discussing certain emotionally charged topics (for them anyway) and are far too quick to pull the “conscience card.” I simply want to offer my study of the subject to a broader audience in hopes that biblical interpretation would be enhanced and deepened, helping us to avoid the misapplication of Scripture in the area of the conscience.
The study of conscience biblically is a very interesting study, due partly to how misunderstood the subject actually is by many. For example, it is common to hear the old (mistaken) adage, “The conscience is a safe guide.” It wasn’t a very safe guide for Paul, who said before the Sanhedrin that he had “fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day” (Acts 23:1). That resulted in a slap in the mouth at the command of the high priest, but it had resulted in something far worse prior to this – he had helped kill Christians while believing that it was a service to God (Acts 26:9). He later stated in 1 Corinthians 4:4, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.” The conscience is a safe guide only to the extent it is properly trained by the word of God.
Through the years, I have encountered several misunderstandings of just how the conscience was designed to function by God. I remember studying the Bible with a person who was deeply immersed in the teachings of Watchman Nee, teachings that I would call “neo-gnosticism.” (See my article, “Watchman Nee’s Teaching on Soul and Spirit: a Form of Neo-Gnosticism” on this website.) Essentially, his teaching is based on making a very sharp distinction between soul and spirit, and building an entire system on this distinction, which is very confusing to anyone not familiar with his system and its terminology. But as it relates to the subject of conscience, he says that the conscience is based on the intuition component of the spirit, which ushers in a type of gnosticism by claiming to have something of a direct pipeline to God’s truths through hearing his voice in our inner self. Many religious people believe that God somehow speaks directly to their spirits, in a way that is better felt than told, and their consciences are often quite misled as a result.
Another misunderstanding, or in this case, blatant misuse, occurred with a ministry acquaintance of mine who often played the “conscience card” if his opinions weren’t carrying the day. If his ideas were accepted, he was happy; if they weren’t, he had a “conscience” problem with the directions chosen by the rest of the leadership group of which he was a part. This frequent appeal to conscience was nothing short of manipulation, and it likely isn’t a surprise for you to hear that he didn’t keep his job long.
An Historical (Almost Hysterical) Example
Another misunderstanding and misuse of conscience takes me back to my old days in the Mainline Church of Christ. In that setting, a number of older leaders often mistook an immature or untrained conscience for a sensitive conscience, which supposedly demonstrated a high level of spirituality. As an anecdotal teacher, I can’t help sharing an amusing incident in my life that illustrates this point all too well. Back in the late 1970s, I was preaching for a church deep in the heart of the Bible-Belt. Once I took a week’s vacation to go with my father and young son on a hunting trip, during which time I didn’t shave. Although beards were none too popular for ministers to have in those days, I decided to let mine grow for a while. The negative reactions by church members to my sporting a beard were nothing short of amazing. I suppose the hippie years were in the too recent past for them to see beards and rebellion as anything other than inseparably connected.
I remember one older member asking to meet with me, and he started the meeting with the question of whether anyone had ever told me that I was hard to get to know. I was trying to validate his evident feelings in any way I could, but unsure of just where he was coming from with such a question. About half an hour later, I figured it out. In essence, he said that he thought he knew me and that I was a great guy – but then I grew the beard, which showed that he didn’t know me at all! Wow, that was an enlightening conversation! But it did show how deeply some prejudices ran in that church at that period of history.
After a fairly short time, I shaved off the beard, but determined to address the issue of how I had supposedly “violated the consciences” of many members with my beard. It was obvious to me that the understanding of Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 8–10, along with Romans 14, was woefully lacking. About six months later, I preached a sermon entitled “The Sin of Beards and Bowties.” At the time, large butterfly bowties were still on sale in stores, but quite out of style anyway (except to one news announcer on a local TV channel). The night I preached the sermon, I wore one of the floppy things, and knew that a young ministry student with a beard would be sitting in his normal place in the second row in front of the pulpit. Thus, I had the props all set up for my sermon!
I began the sermon by talking about the importance of example and influence, and the sin of causing brothers to stumble (an oft-repeated claim in situations like mine). The “amens” started pretty early that night. I went on to show the biblical basis for not offending our brothers, by simply reading a number of verses in the chapters mentioned above. If you would like to read them, they are, in the order read, 1 Corinthians 8:1-2, 9, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 10:23-24, 32. Romans 14:13, 15, 19-21; 1 Corinthians 9:3-7, 11-15, 19-22; 1 Corinthians 10:31-33; and finishing with 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”
I ended the readings with this statement, “If my bowtie bothers you, I ought to take it off; if Ralph’s beard bothers you, he ought to cut it off! The chorus of “amens” rose to a new level, as quite a number of people were evidently rejoicing to see that I had finally seen the light! My next statement was that since it had been a very short lesson up to that point (about seven or eight minutes, as I recall), surely there must be other things on the subject to notice and study out in the context of the passages read. From there, I explained the passages used thus far in their context and in a way that caused the blood to drain from the faces of a number of folks in my audience. I stuck the sword of the Spirit in and twisted it! Just why I never was fired or asked to leave a ministry is a mystery!
As I began that confrontational explanation, since the last passage read was 1 Corinthians 11:1, I talked about the example of Christ in his earthly ministry. Certainly Jesus, like Paul, gave up many rights to influence people for good. Matthew 20:28 is a good passage on this point, as it states that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Another good one is Matthew 12:20: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
However, some things Jesus did seem to point in another, somewhat contradictory, direction. For example, Jesus often healed on the Sabbath Day. Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 were very explicit – work six days and do no work on the Sabbath day. In fact, the Jews cut their teeth on the teaching that they shouldn’t do anything on the Sabbath that they didn’t absolutely have to do. It is not a mystery why some might see Jesus’ work on the Sabbath as at least questionable. Yet Jesus seemed to make a point of healing on the Sabbath. Sometimes Jesus disrupted those gathered in the temple or the synagogues for the purpose of worshiping God to the extent that bedlam ensued.
Don’t you think the people had at least some reasons for their feelings? There were six other days in which Jesus could have healed, but he insisted on Sabbath day healings! Even a more amazing situation was when the apostles picked grain on the Sabbath. Go back and read Exodus 16, which contains some very strong warnings about doing much of anything on the Sabbath. Also read Numbers 15:32-36, where it describes a man being stoned to death at the command of God simply for gathering wood on the Sabbath day! What would you have thought about the disciples gathering grain on the Sabbath day if you had grown up with these passages? They could have prepared food the day before – Israelites had been doing it for hundreds of years. Further, Jesus was criticized for the kinds of people he associated with, including prostitutes. (Likely, a minister in my ’70s setting would have caused some serious buzz through such associations, even if for spiritual purposes!) He was also accused of being a glutton and drunkard – but he didn’t quit eating or drinking. The fact that his behavior and practices drove some up the wall didn’t stop him from doing it. Why did he continue? We will answer that question a bit later in the article.
The Importance of Context
Studying passages in their context is a must, especially when sensitive subjects are involved or when addressing misunderstood texts. Look back at 1 Corinthians 8:4, 7-13, where the context gives a deeper insight to this subject of influence. First, notice in verse 9 that the wrong use of influence could cause someone to stumble. Verse 11 states that it could cause them to be destroyed. (Romans 14:15 uses similar terminology.) We must understand that there is a difference in causing someone to grumble, and in causing them to stumble. Second, 1 Corinthians 8:9-10 shows exactly how someone was caused to sin in this setting. Bottom line, they see your example and end up doing the same thing, but their conscience won’t allow them to do it without seriously damaging them. So, to make the application to beards and bowties, it would mean contextually that my example or Ralph’s example caused someone to wear a bowtie or grow a beard when their conscience wouldn’t allow it without producing guilt!
Third, note that the weak person is the one that is caused to stumble, not the strong person. My experiences growing up often showed the supposedly spiritually mature brothers raising issues about nearly everything, and thus they backed others off of a given choice so that they wouldn’t be caused to “stumble.” Frankly, those men were only grumblers and actually should have been the focus of church discipline, because in the words of Titus 3:10, they were divisive. Fourth, Romans 14 makes the other three points, but gives one additional point. It’s about the attitudes the strong should have toward the weak, and also about the attitudes the weak should have toward the strong. Read verses 1-10 to grasp Paul’s line of reasoning. Note that in verse 1, we are dealing with matters of opinion.
The strong brother should not discount the conscience of the weak brother. The weak brother, on the other hand, should not judge the strong brother who has the stronger conscience and the freedom that goes with it. Either way, Romans 14 gives a clear call for tolerance towards each other. It should be quite obvious that my hearers in the long ago had looked at these passages in a surface way in the past, and had often given some incomplete or even wrong applications of them. To summarize, (1) Paul was talking about causing someone to fall away; (2) the way that they were made to sin was by following your example when their conscience wouldn’t allow it; (3) the weak person is the one caused to stumble, not the strong one; and finally, (4) in matters of opinion, we must develop and exercise tolerance toward one another with different viewpoints.
But how do we harmonize what Paul taught here with the examples of Jesus already noted? Paul is dealing with young Christians, whereas Jesus was dealing with those who were supposedly mature. Paul was arguing for giving the immature time to grow, while Jesus was not willing to placate the ones who claimed to be mature – the keepers and defenders of the law of God! I have found that the young are typically not the ones upset about such things as beards and bowties – they haven’t had time yet to become traditionalized. It is most often the supposedly mature who appeal to conscience being violated.
In my lesson of long ago, I went on to discuss possible objections, which although strongly felt, were emotionally based instead of biblically based. I decided as a result of that study that I would try to imitate both Paul and Jesus. In a nutshell, I wanted to be very careful with those who were newer Christians and thus immature in their faith, but not be manipulated by older Christians who were not willing to change their minds and alter their consciences. Real maturity is willingness to entertain the possibility of being wrong – of having a conscience that needs further training. Digging in one’s heals in the kinds of issues that Paul would call matters of opinion is not a very mature practice. Hardening of the arteries is probably an inevitable part of aging; hardening of the attitudes should never be.
Consciences Can and Should Be Retrained
All in all, I would never advocate someone violating their conscience, even in an opinion area. I believe that is what Paul was warning against in the passages referenced. However, I will always try to help someone retrain their conscience in opinion areas. The reason I make this distinction and feel strongly about it is intensely personal. I was raised in a church of about thirty people, all of whom believed sincerely that taking communion from multiple cups, having more than one tray of bread passed, and dividing the assembly into Sunday School classes were all sinful practices. We were technically called a “one cup, no Sunday School” type of Church of Christ. Once, we debated for six months whether we could change from using grape juice in communion to using wine, in order to have one couple join us on Sundays who were driving to another city to worship with a “wine, one cup, no Sunday School church.” Although I was a preteen at the time, or maybe a young teen, I still remember vividly some of the heated conversations between my parents and other members of that little church. The memories are not good ones, but after a number of decades, sometimes they can seem at least a little humorous. During those conversations, the questions of violating consciences came up often, rest assured.
When I married at the ripe old age of twenty-two, my (then) Baptist wife wanted us to attend church together. We at first agreed to switch off attending each other’s type church, which we did for a few months. When it was time to attend the Church of Christ, I chose one of the more typical ones, with multiple cups and Sunday School, thinking that the little church of my childhood would be so different from what she was used to that it would seem too weird to her. After a few months, I just couldn’t go to the Baptist church anymore, knowing how far off they were on the subject of conversion. In one service with a guest preacher, he had everyone close their eyes, and then asked those who wanted to accept Jesus to simply raise their hands. He kept telling us that one and then others were now being saved as they raised their hands. Although I honestly wasn’t interested much in going to church anyway, I just couldn’t condone what I was observing in that church, and told Theresa that I wasn’t going to go with her anymore.
That could have been the end of it, and I could have used my Sundays for fishing – which was more to my liking anyway! But she said that she would just go with me to the Church of Christ (which was not particularly good news to me). But we started visiting various Mainline Churches of Christ at her insistence. It is a fact that the Baptist church teaching on salvation violated my conscience, based on passages about baptism and forgiveness of sins. And I believe that my conscience was correctly educated on that matter. It was not a matter of opinion.
However, like the folks being addressed in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, I had conscience issues about other matters that were not as clear biblically – notably the use of multiple cups and Sunday School (which Paul could have called “disputable matters.”) Fortunately for me, I became friends and fishing buddies with a preacher whom God used to change my life and my eternal destiny. I have written about him in the introductions of my books on Surrender and Romans. He introduced me to other scriptures about conscience and patiently helped me think through it all. He basically said that conscience shouldn’t be violated, but it could be re-educated, noting that those addressed in passages like 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 and Romans 14 were younger Christians with weak consciences in areas related to their backgrounds. Those like Paul had stronger consciences, which meant in essence that they had better trained consciences. I’m sure one of the passages my friend used was 1 Corinthians 4:4, which we have already quoted.
While abiding within the boundaries of our conscience is important, the conscience is not always correct in its conclusions, however strongly the conclusions may be felt. With my friend’s help, I was able to retrain my conscience and accept a number of teachings that once violated my conscience. Those same principles he taught me served me well when I first encountered the discipling movement and then later became a part of it. I did not violate my conscience (although at times it got “stretched” a bit!), but I did seek to ask the hard questions and try to deal with them biblically, and then prayed that God would help my conscience change in ways that it really needed to – moving from what would be classified as “weak” to “strong” (or at least “stronger” as the process continued).
In recent settings (then 2007), I am hearing more about conscience than I have heard in a long, long time. Perhaps that is because some (most?) of us violated our consciences in our movement’s past. But we have had far too many pendulum swings in the last several years, and this may well be among them. I would hope that matters of conscience would become more and more confined to biblically clear matters, not simply to what Paul calls disputable matters. People need retraining of their consciences far more than the strengthening of them in opinion areas. In the Mainline church, we used to have an old saying: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; and in all things, love.” The problem I found with some folks was that their definition of faith issues was really broad. They didn’t like to admit that very much of what they believed belonged in the opinion arena. The practical result was most often that they were able to hold others at bay who had different opinions. Otherwise, they reasoned, we would be asking them to violate their consciences.
I am not the judge of anyone’s conscience. As Paul said, God is the one who judges. I am just pleading for consideration of possible weaknesses in how we are viewing conscience and conscience issues. My plea grows largely out of some of my own experiences in trying to work with others, and from my experiences in needing to retrain my own conscience – a painful but highly rewarding experience, for which I am most grateful. Had I not been open to that, I believe my life would have gone in quite different directions than it has, and I’m so thankful that my preacher friend (now deceased) was patient and loving enough to help me get past some things that were at first very difficult to deal with due to my background. And I do believe in looking back that my conscience was simply improperly trained in some areas, and hence according to Paul’s definition, it was weak.
As we mature, I think our opinion areas should become less important to us. Learning to properly identify the differences between opinion and faith areas is pretty essential for unity and harmonious relationships. And as we do that, the strength of our emotions in opinion areas should lessen considerably. One thing that has helped me since I have been in our movement is to realize that when good brothers who know the Bible well have sincere differences, this fact alone makes it highly likely that these differences fall into opinion areas. And in opinion areas, I want to remain tolerant and open to being persuaded to go in other directions than I might opt for personally, in order to work together most effectively. That is a worthy goal, and clearly a biblical one.
A Caution to Leaders
Since leaders are in the forefront of making decisions that affect a lot of people, they are the ones who especially need these lessons, it seems to me. Back when Wyndham Shaw and I co-authored the book Golden Rule Leadership, I wrote the introduction. Near the end of the introduction, I included the following caution:
The greatest danger in reading this book is to assume that you really already understand the principles being discussed and are currently putting them into practice. This is especially true for our most experienced leaders. We do not see ourselves as we are; we do not see ourselves as others see us. Our strong tendency is to think more highly of ourselves as leaders than we ought to think (Romans 12:3).
Guess who got offended by my cautionary remarks? Not young Christians – they were saying “Amen.” But a number of older leaders were definitely offended. What does that say to us? It says to me that as we age in leadership and years of service, we can be guilty of exactly what I penned in the quote above. In our earlier days as a movement, I was often cautioned about how I stated things, lest I offend the leaders. Now I am again being given exactly the same cautions. Something is wrong with that, and I think badly wrong. I can “lay it out” strongly to the average members, but I have to be careful not to offend the older leaders? Wow! Must history repeat itself again? Leaders ought to be able to hear challenges more humbly than anyone.
Certainly Paul argued in 1 Corinthians 8-10 that we must be willing to give up our “rights,” and he used himself as a great example of such. But for whom was he anxious to give up his rights? The weak, immature ones in the fellowship who were struggling with their consciences over past pagan practices, and also for those not yet saved. Hence he was willing to become all things to influence the ones in those categories and to give up all things in order to do so. But he was not willing to compromise or change his approach in teaching to placate the ones who should have been more mature. His question in Galatians 4:16 was “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” Rest assured that he was not directing that question to young Christians.
Frankly, one of my bigger concerns for us as a movement is our tendency in the direction of some of the unsavory elements of the churches of which I used to be a part. I suggest that you look up every New Testament passage using the term conscience. The only places that I could find where it was warning against violating the consciences of others were in 1 Corinthians 8–10. Romans 14 contains the same concept without using the word itself. In light of the context of who Paul’s concern was about (immature Christians with weak consciences), and what the issues of controversy were (background pagan practices primarily), we need to be slow to play the “conscience card.”
My best judgment about how to view and use money is not shared by all disciples, and that can bother me. My best judgment about the kinds of movies or TV shows to watch or allow our children to watch is not shared by all, which also bothers me. My best judgment about alcohol consumption (especially where and with whom it is done) is not shared by all of my brothers. So once again I am bothered. But I don’t intend to let those differences of opinion cause me to violate my own conscience by joining in to practices with which I disagree, nor do I intend to become bothered enough to let it affect my love and fellowship with my brothers who have opinions and practices that vary from mine.
What others do in opinion areas is ultimately their choice, and it is not about my conscience. In other areas more related to leadership decisions and directions, I am pretty flexible. If a real biblical issue is involved, we are going to have to hash that one out before proceeding, but if it is a judgment matter, I will for the sake of unity throw in my lot with majority opinion. Those are practical and workable paths to follow in our personal families and in God’s family. Let’s just keep conscience appeals out of places where they don’t belong biblically. Generally, I like the old Restoration adage about faith and opinion, with this one change: “In matters of clear biblical doctrine, unity; in matters of judgment, freedom – but freedom exercised with a strong bent toward practical unity; and in all matters, love.”