Part 2 - What constitutes a Christian conscience?
Conscience can be affected by all kinds of forces. Let me remind you of some of the ways in which the conscience is generally referred to. It is sometimes said that conscience can "bear a witness” or "give testimony”.
Things are said to be done "for conscience sake”. The Bible reflects some of those ideas for in the New Testament conscience is described as "good”, as "void of offence”, or as "pure as toward God”. But it is also described as "weak”, as "seared”, as "defiled” and as "evil”. Finally, and most hopefully, we read there that conscience can be cleansed.
We have seen that conscience is a mechanism which can be attuned to a set of moral standards, or which can be neglected and overridden at an individual’s choice. Ignore it for long enough and it will cease to work as its Maker intended, just as any mechanism will fail through neglect or persistent misuse. So what is a "Christian conscience” and how would it differ from one which has been programmed by some other set of moral values?
A Christian conscience, quite evidently, must be one which has been instructed by the teaching of Christ; by the pure doctrine of the Word of God and by the faithful testimony of the truth. So for the disciple it is essential that the conscience is constantly corrected and readjusted by these forces. We have seen al ready that otherwise it may become weak, seared, defiled, desensitised. Evidently a conscience which is not working properly can lead a disciple astray.
Weak consciences are not clear in the apprehension of what God regards as good and evil. They are not quick in discerning the fear of the Lord. Remember that if any disciple is to make a stand on the ground of conscience, he or she should have the ability to give a reason for the faith which drives his conscience to make that stand. It is no part of the properly instructed conscience to declare something "wrong” when it is quite evidently "right”, nor to approve as "good” that which is unmistakably "bad” – according to God’s Word.
Although the Apostle Paul was ready and willing to respect the conscience of some first century believers who had difficulties about eating and drinking or those who wished to give special place to a particular day, he was never willing for the individual conscience to violate a divinely true principle: something which he regarded as essential to the Truth of God. He could be very tolerant about certain non-essential issues, but very insistent about things that he regarded as essential.
In the ancient world many eating places were associated with places of pagan worship as much business was done in temple dining rooms. Some believers thought it was best to have nothing to do with such places as the food would ceremonially have been offered to idols. Others took the view that as idols do not exist, any such ceremony was meaningless and it was all right to eat the food and to go to such places. Here is the advice given by the apostle:
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience sake; for ‘the earth is theLord’s, and all its fullness’. If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, ‘This was offered to idols,’ do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness’ (1 Corinthians 10:25–28).
Here Paul takes the view that there is really nothing wrong about eating such meat, for idols do not exist, so it means nothing if the meat has been offered to them (1 Corinthians 8:4), but if that offends other believers his advice is that it is best to avoid such practices in case it damages the faith of others. He goes on to say that if the eating of meat causes offence to others, he will become a vegetarian (1 Corinthians 8:13).
But here’s a quite different example where, for conscience’s sake, the apostle says that he will allow no compromise with his convictions. Some people required, as a matter that they said was vital for salvation, that Gentile converts must be circumcised, following a Jewish precedent. Paul had consistently been arguing that a believer is saved by faith, not by works, and that circumcision was thus no longer necessary. See how he dealt with this issue:
Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be
circumcised. And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage), to whom we did not yield submission even for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue with you (Galatians 2:3–5).
Quite likely those who wanted to impose circumcision were acting conscientiously – their conscience told them it was necessary. But Paul would not give way to the niceties of somebody's conscience on this occasion because it was denying a fundamental teaching of the gospel. A principle was being violated and no man’s conscience may do that without being resisted.
Right from Wrong
So there it is. A Christian conscience, primed and instructed by the teaching of Christ, will tell us when we do right and will warn us when we do wrong and will urge us always to do right, as we rightly understand it. Such a conscience is an individual force in human nature. It will protest when we act impurely; when we lie; when we are dishonest and when we are unjust. It will give us no rest when we depart from the solemn will of God. In cases where human judgement has to be exercised it may lead us to disagree with our fellows. It is some times a mysterious thing, but in the end we have to obey it if we seek to be true
and desire to find peace.
The one thing is to keep it pure, strong and void of offence. Keep it well primed by the Truth; let it be mastered by love. A conscience which is directed by love is the best driving force for the race that is set before us.
In the next article in this series we will examine how to apply such a conscience to a situation where the law of Christ runs contrary to the law of the land and thus explain why Christadelphians consistently claim exemption from military service.
-- Dennis Gillett