The Church’s Conscience

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By Preston Highlands Baptist Church. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Conscience at Work

What if you were brought up in a home where watching R-rated movies was not allowed and then, as a young adult, you were invited to go see an R-rated film with a friend. You didn’t want to seem weird and yet you didn’t think you should go. When you told your friend you couldn’t go and told them why, they seemed upset. They jabbed you a little bit, joking that you must be too good to see an R-rated movie. You finally relented and gave into their jeering and told them you would go. The movie didn’t have any sexual content or really bad language, just lots of intense action scenes, but you felt uncomfortable during the entire movie. You felt that you’d made a mistake. You also didn’t like the way your friend made fun of you for not wanting to go.

After the movie, you vowed to never see an R-rated film again and you told your friend to please not invite you if they were going to see one. You thought, “How could they so casually watch R-rated movies?” They wondered why you were so self-righteous and judgmental and not “with the times.” You didn’t hang out with that friend much after that and you were grieved that something like this could break apart your friendship.

What’s going on in this scenario? This is a classic example of a clash of consciences. One friend’s conscience had no problem seeing R-rated movies, but the other friend’s conscience just wouldn’t allow it. This clash of consciences wasn’t handled in a loving way and division was the result.

Majoring on Minors

Dividing over disputable matters is not the way of Christ. And yet all of us our guilty of “majoring on minors,” or of being too dogmatic about our personal convictions. Even respected Christians express their opinions on various things in ways they likely regret. Listen to something that Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great British preacher, said when he was only twenty-four years old:

“I cannot understand a man who wears silk stockings or even gaudily coloured socks; rings, wrist-watches, spats, shoes instead of boots, or who carries a cane in his hand…The modern method of installing a bath in each house is not only a tragedy but it has been a real curse to humanity…If I had to spend a life-time with a companion who had one bath a day or with one who had one bath a year, I should unhesitatingly choose the latter, because a man’s soul is more important than his skin…When I enter a house and find that they have a wireless apparatus (i.e. a radio) I know at once that there is something wrong…Your five-valve sets may do wonders, they may enable you to hear the voice of America, but believe me, they will never transmit the only Voice that is worth listening to.”

I suspect that an older, wiser Lloyd-Jones regretted saying things like this. We’ve all held personal convictions in a way that was unloving or even divisive in our families and our churches.

God cares about everything, but everything is not equally important. There are many things that the Bible doesn’t address specifically that we make decisions on every day. Things that God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled, biblically-minded Christians disagree on. Things like watching R-rated movies, celebrating Halloween, drinking alcohol in moderation, ladies wearing pants or makeup, listening to secular music, drinking fair-trade coffee, eating organic, body piercings, doing Santa Claus at Christmas, playing video games, Harry Potter, getting vaccines, wearing face masks, using homeopathic medicines or antibiotics, when married couples should start having children, how many children married couples should have, using birth control or family planning, doing home school, private school, or public school, eating meat, smoking cigars, listening to Christian hip-hop, eating fast food, global warming, immigration policy, the size of government, using instruments in worship, singing only psalms in congregational worship, getting tattoos, honoring Sunday as the Christian sabbath, using the King James Version of the Bible, wearing head coverings in worship, wives working outside the home, watching Disney movies, singing hymns versus praise songs, how to best live out your pro-life convictions, dating versus courtship, or which presidential candidate to vote for.

The Bible does not give us specific answers to these questions. God never intended for his Word to be an encyclopedia of answers to every question we have. God gave us his Word to reveal himself and to shape us into the image of his Son. The Bible is meant to make us a particular kind of person, not to answer every particular question we have.

The Gift of the Conscience

The good news is that God hasn’t left us without help as we think through the myriad of things the Bible doesn’t specifically address. He’s given us his Word, his Spirit, and his Church. And he’s also given us a conscience.

The disputable matters that fill our lives are decided according to the leading of one’s conscience. This means that understanding the conscience, what it is and how it works, is one of the most important ways to preserve and promote unity in the church.

What is the Conscience?

Let’s start by defining the conscience. Conscience is our self-awareness about what we believe is right and what’s wrong. Our conscience is our moral check engine light. Conscience is our inner sense of what we should or should not do, and our inner sense of guilt when we do what we should not do and approval when we do what we should do. Our conscience functions as a guide and a judge. It has a forward-looking and backward-looking function. It warns us before we do something wrong and urges us to do what’s right. And it accuses and condemns us when we do wrong and excuses us when we do what’s right.

Everyone has a conscience. Romans 2:14-15, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

A Condemning Conscience

Just as pain in our body alerts us to a physical problem, so guilt in our conscience alerts us to a spiritual problem. When we understand how holy God is and how sinful we are, our conscience will rightly condemn us when we sin. A lost person lives with a guilty conscience all the time because they are guilty. They’re still in their sin and outside the righteousness of God. This is why people who aren’t Christians feel deep and abiding guilt and shame and unrest and are afraid to die. Their conscience hasn’t been cleared because their guilt hasn’t been removed.

The good news of the gospel is that everyone who turns away from their sin and turns to Christ will be given a clean conscience. Hebrews 9:14, “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

Friend, if you’re living under the weight of a guilty conscience that’s like a bag full of rocks you can’t get off your back, turn to Christ and be forgiven! God will forgive and cover your sin. He’ll never count that sin against you because it was already counted against Christ instead.

A saved person has a cleansed conscience and has the Holy Spirit to reveal sin in their life and help them fight it. The Spirit opens our eyes to sins we didn’t know were sins, like pride, greed, lust, and wanting what other people have. As you read the Bible, the Spirit starts to rebuild your conscience, helping us to love what God loves and hate what God hates.

But saved people inevitably sin, repeatedly and sometimes tragically. But the promise of a clean conscience remains. God says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). God promises to forgive you and cleanse you! As the hymn says, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” And another hymn, “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins; and sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.” Jesus’ blood can cleanse you and keep on cleansing you.

Calibrating Our Conscience

Going to Jesus in faith and repentance is what we must do if our conscience is rightly condemning us. What do we if our conscience is wrongly condemning us? Our consciences aren’t infallible; they can be wrong. We should generally always follow our consciences. God didn’t give us consciences so that we would regularly distrust them. Christians who have the Spirit and the Word should especially listen to and obey their conscience.

But our consciences aren’t the voice of God in our heads. Some people confuse the voice of their conscience with the voice of God. Our consciences don’t necessarily tell us what God would say.

So how do we align our consciences with God’s voice? To answer this question, we need to understand two categories of Christians that Paul discusses in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, namely, “weak” and “strong” Christians (Rom. 14:1-2, 15:1; 1 Cor. 8:9-11, 9:22).

John MacArthur explains a “weak” conscience like this: “A weak conscience…usually is hypersensitive and overactive about issues that are not sins…Scripture calls this a weak conscience because it is too easily wounded. People with weak consciences tend to fret about things that should provoke no guilt in a mature Christian who knows God’s truth.”

A “strong” conscience is theologically informed, understanding what things God has commanded and forbidden and what things Christians are free to do and what things they must abstain from doing.

How can we move from having a weak conscience to a strong one? The simple answer is that we must educate our conscience with truth, especially the truth revealed in God’s word. MacArthur is helpful here: “A regular diet of Scripture will strengthen a weak conscience or restrain an overactive one. Conversely, error, human wisdom, and wrong moral influences filling the mind will corrupt or cripple the conscience.”

Something will shape your conscience. Seeking truth is the way to shape it after the thoughts of God. Absorbing the truth of the Bible is the primary way to do this. But there’s truth outside the Bible that can help too. For example, you may think that a certain kind of birth control is okay until you learn that it induces an abortion. Or you may think that invitro fertilization is okay until you learn that the extra embryos are living human beings who’re discarded if not used. As we form convictions about what’s right and wrong, we need to take into consideration truth inside and outside the Bible.

Educating our conscience is not a class we take or a one-time event. It’s a life-long process. And it shouldn’t be pursued in a vacuum. God has put you into a community, such as your family and your church, so that you’ll be better able to discern the differences between right and wrong. For example, just because you think watching movies with nudity in them is okay, or that wasting inordinate amounts of time on things like video games or sports, doesn’t mean that it is. Parents, we inherit all kinds of rules from our families of origin, and we often uncritically use them on our kids. Talking with other parents helps us discern the difference between family rules and Bible rules. Our consciences are our own, but we need help calibrating them.

The way we align our consciences with God’s voice is by listening to God’s voice in Scripture and then thinking through its application with other believers. Scripture is where we find out what our freedoms and our obligations are as Christians. The church is where we get help in working out the details.

Consciences in Conflict

We should expect differences among believers on tertiary matters, and we must learn how to live together despite them. Our goal isn’t to eliminate all differences or to eliminate those who disagree with us! Our goal is to show the world the glory of Christ by loving each other despite our differences.

What do we do when our conscience is in conflict with someone else’s conscience? In Romans 14, Paul tackles this issue head on. I want to give you Andy Naselli and J. D. Crowley’s twelve principles from this text that will help us know how to disagree with other Christians on disputable matters.

First, we should welcome those who disagree with us (vv. 1-2). The more we understand what faith in Christ means, the freer we’ll be from unnecessary regulations. But we must understand that both the strong and the weak can please God and sin against God in how they handle themselves in these disputes.

Second, those who have freedom of conscience must not look down on those who don’t (v. 3a). Those with a stronger conscience will be tempted to look down on those with a stricter conscience, accusing them of being immature or legalistic. But Paul condemns this kind of superiority.

Third, those whose conscience restricts them must not be judgmental toward those who have freedom (v. 3b). It’s tempting to accuse people who have a freer conscience of not caring about holiness or of being too worldly.

Paul gives two reasons why doing this is wrong. First, “God has welcomed him” (v. 3c). If God allows his people to hold different opinions on non-essential matters, then why do we think everyone should agree with us? Second, we’re not the master of other believers (v. 4). God is the master and we’re all his servants. Our job is to welcome; God’s job is to lead.

How to Address Third-Level Issues

This is not to say that third-level issues aren’t important. It’s okay to talk about them. But when we do, we need to do so with the right spirit. A critical or condemning spirit is not Christ-like. Be strict with yourself and gentle with others.

We also need to make sure we have the right proportion. In other words, we need to make sure that third-level issues stay third-level issues. Theologian John Frame provides us with a good antidote on this point. He says, “Don’t lose your sense of humor. We should take God seriously, not ourselves, and certainly not theology. To lose your sense of humor is to lose your sense of proportion. And nothing is more important in theology than a sense of proportion.”

Third-level issues shouldn’t be so important to us that it’s all we want to talk about. They shouldn’t be the main reason you join this church or that church. We shouldn’t be constantly trying to win people over to our side on these issues and looking down on them if they decide not to join us. Subcultures shouldn’t form around these issues in our churches. New believers or new members shouldn’t feel pressure to embrace a particular view on third-level matters in order to be a “good Christian.” And the leaders of the church shouldn’t impose prohibitions or commands that aren’t clear in Scripture.

A maturing Christian knows when to flex in order to love a weaker brother or sister and when not to flex in response to a controlling Christian who wants to force their scruples on them. The ability to do this well is what ensures that the gospel, and only the gospel, is passed on to the next generation, and not the gospel with all our cultural baggage.

More Principles from Romans 14

Back to Romans 14, the fourth principle for engaging with Christians who disagree with us is that each believer must be fully convinced of their position in their own conscience (v. 5). On disputable matters, we must obey our conscience, even while we constantly seek to align our conscience with God’s will.

Fifth, assume that others are partaking or refraining for the glory of God (vv. 6-9). We should assume the best of each other’s motives. Unity in a church flourishes when we give each other the benefit of the doubt instead of putting the worst possible spin on everything.

Sixth, do not judge each other in these matters because we will all someday stand before the judgment seat of God (vv. 10-12). I love how Naselli and Crowley put this, “On that day, we’ll be busy enough answering for our own life; we don’t need to spend our short life meddling in the lives of others. In these matters where good Christians disagree, we just need to mind our own conscience and let God be the judge of others.”

Seventh, your freedom to eat meat is correct, but don’t let your freedom destroy the faith of a weak brother (vv. 13-15). It’s sin to bind someone’s conscience with rules that don’t clearly come from God. Christians with a stronger conscience shouldn’t use their freedom to embolden a weaker brother to sin against their conscience. Remember, Jesus died for that brother or sister, so we should be willing to give up our freedom if it would help a brother or sister avoid sinning against their conscience.

The “stumbling block principle” doesn’t mean that we just refrain from anything that another believer may disagree with. And it doesn’t mean that we should refrain from things because someone has a physical or emotional susceptibility to something, though that could be helpful if you’re in their presence. The point Paul is making is that we shouldn’t put anything in front of someone that would be a stumbling block for their conscience. The point is that the weaker brother’s faith won’t allow them to do this or that. It’s a theological weakness, not a physical one. Drinking alcohol with someone who has a history of alcohol abuse is probably not a good idea. But drinking alcohol with someone who thinks that drinking alcohol is wrong would be to put a stumbling block before their conscience.

Eighth, disagreements about eating and drinking are not important in the kingdom of God; building each other up in righteousness, peace, and joy is the important thing (vv. 16-21). Paul is saying that the strong should voluntarily abstain from anything that would cause a weaker brother or sister to stumble. We could, of course, extend the list of things in verse 17 to any disputable matter. The kingdom of God isn’t about political parties or schooling choices or Harry Potter or Santa Clause or how and when you Sabbath or eating only organic. The kingdom of God is about “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Ninth, if you have freedom, don’t flaunt it; if you’re strict, don’t expect others to be strict like you (v. 22a). This applies to the strong and the weak. The strong need to be wise in how they talk about their freedoms, especially as their discipling their children and new believers. The weak need to guard against policing others and expecting them to adopt their standards. Those with a strict conscience could lead people into the serious error of confusion about what it means to be a Christian. If we insist that people hold our view on disputable matters in order to be a true Christian, we’ve crossed the line into legalism.

We must not elevate things to the status of moral law that aren’t indeed in God’s law. For example, it’s not inherently wrong to read Harry Potter, talk about Santa Claus, get vaccinated, wear a mask, vote for a Democrat, drink alcohol, use birth control, or listen to Christian hip hop. There are no commands in Scripture about any of this and Christians will come to different conclusions. If we use these as a test of faithfulness then we’re becoming Pharisees, we’re using things outside the Bible to define the people of God.

Tenth, a person who lives according to their conscience is blessed (vv. 22b-23). When we obey the warnings of our conscience, our joy in God is increased. Our conscience is God’s way of guarding us from sin that will rob our joy.

Eleventh, we must follow the example of Christ (15:1-6). This doesn’t mean that the strong have to agree with the position of the weak, or that they can’t exercise their freedoms, or that they must tolerate or put up with the weak. “To bear with” means that the strong will gladly help the weak by refraining from anything that would hurt their faith.

Our freedom in Christ doesn’t mean, “I can do whatever I want!” It means, “I will do whatever brings the most glory to God and brings others to love the gospel and creates peace in the church.” In light of what Christ has done, we should be willing to give up anything for his sake, and for the sake of those for whom he died.

Twelfth, we bring glory to God when we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us (v. 7). This entire section is bookended with the command, “welcome one another” (14:1 and 15:7). We’re to welcome others the way Christ has welcomed us, for the purpose of displaying the glory of God. In other words, it matters how we treat each other when we disagree on disputable matters. There’s a way to disagree that actually reveals the glory of Christ.

A Garden that Needs Tending

Our conscience is a precious gift from God. It points us to our need for the Conscience-Cleanser, Jesus Christ. And it increases our joy in God as we obey it. But, like any gift, we’re responsible to take care of it in a way that pleases God.

Picture your conscience as a beautiful garden that God prepared and then gave you at birth. But, as you grew up in your culture and your family and your church, weeds came into the garden and some of the plants started dying. Over time, it ceased to bear good fruit.

No garden can be neglected for long before it stops bearing fruit. So we must tend to this garden. We must water it with the Word of God. We must pull out the rules that don’t belong and add ones that do. And we need help from other gardeners to know the difference.

Open the gate to your garden, and say to Jesus, “It’s yours, Lord. Tell me what stays, tell me what goes, and tell me what’s missing.” And watch his grace make something beautiful and fruitful for your joy and his glory.

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