If you have had a discussion with anyone about pretty much anything, you will no doubt have run into people citing the importance of conscience. Conscience does, of course, matter. As Luther said, ‘to go against conscience is neither safe nor right’. His conscience wasn’t his ultimate authority. He was certain that his conscience was captive to the Word of God. To go against what his conscience believed God’s Word to be saying was neither safe nor right. And on that, apparently, he stood and he kann nicht anders.
But there is another way in which conscience is often invoked. You may take a stance on something and yet, it seems, the conscience of other people is mentioned to stop you from speaking. The logic usually goes: (1) this is a conscience issue; (2) Christians legitimately disagree; (3) therefore, you cannot and must not tell another that they are wrong because of conscience.
The problem with this logic is that it cuts the other way. The person doing the other thing is presumably acting in line with their own conscience. If their conscience is telling them that this is wrong, they presumably also think it is wrong for all people. If you think that, isn’t it a matter of conscience to want to convince others that they are in danger, or sin, or both if they don’t change course? Now, of course, you may disagree with that person. That is your prerogative. But what you can’t do is decide that your conscience believes this is a conscience issue on which we can differ while their conscience must be silent on what it tells them is a universal matter of right and wrong.
Take Luther, for example. He didn’t say, hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders aber du machst was du willst (here I stand, I can do no other but you do what you want). The implication of what he said was this: I stand here because my conscience tells me it is right because it is captive to God’s Word. Therefore, this is where you should stand too! Luther refused to recant because he believed this was what God’s Word said and doing otherwise would go against conscience. But the conscience issue for Luther wasn’t the position he took; the conscience issue was that it is wrong and dangerous to go against God’s Word and this is what God’s Word says. The implication clearly being, if the rest of you obeyed God’s Word, you would also agree.
Now, of course, those asking him to recant disagreed with him. But Luther wasn’t trying to suggest that this was a conscience issue on which we can agree to disagree. He was arguing that obeying God’s Word is a conscience issue and this is what God’s Word says. You are now forcing me to choose between God’s Word and a doctrine I can only view as man-made. Conscience wasn’t invoked as a call to agree to disagree. It was a invoked to say, we differ hard and my conscience simply won’t agree with what you have asked.
Which brings me back to our use of conscience. Ultimately, everything is a matter of conscience. I do (or should only do) what my conscience will allow. As should you. If my conscience is captive to the Word of God, like Luther, I should only do what I believe the Word says. Where my conscience will not bend, where I understand God’s Word to say something in particular, I have to say, here I stand, etc etc. But in saying here I stand, I’m not really saying, here I stand, you do what you want (though ultimately you are at liberty to do what you want). I am saying, here I stand because going further would be wrong for both me and you! I have no power to stop you, but I certainly don’t endorse what you’re doing just because your conscience is OK with it.
But all too often, we want to use conscience to mean, let’s agree to disagree. My conscience says this is fine, your conscience says it isn’t, let’s just agree to differ. But that, of itself, is a conscience position. It is a position that says, I believe this is a matter on which we can take wildly differing views; I can do, you can not do, and that’s fine. But it then such people get agitated when the other person’s conscience isn’t OK seeing it that way. What they are, in effect, saying is that their conscience ought to govern your conscience and that your conscience differs to theirs is, in fact, a problem to them.
Now (I believe) there are issues on which we can legitimately differ. I might think you are wrong, you might think I’m wrong. We might prefer each other took our view, but we’re not going to fall out about it. My conscience is OK with that on certain issues. But if I really believe in the importance of conscience, I won’t have a problem with somebody else – whose conscience feels differently to me – telling me so. Just as I don’t want somebody else’s restrictive conscience telling me I can’t do what my conscience is happy to do, it would be hypocritical to try and use conscience as the grounds of restricting their right to disagree with me. I can’t say, my liberty to do this is a conscience issue we can disagree over so you can’t say I’m wrong! That is restricting their right to speak, according to conscience, in exactly the same way I don’t want them to restrict my actions based on their conscience on the matter.
All too often, we see conscience as a get out of difficult conversations free card. We wave away any concern as an issue of conscience, as if that frees us of any need to think about it and is credible grounds to stop people disagreeing with me on it. But that is a misuse of the concept. If our conscience tells us something is OK, it means we are free to do it or not (and the ‘or not’ matters). If our conscience tells us something is not OK, we aren’t free to do it at all. If our conscience is telling us something is wrong and sinful, that doesn’t only make it wrong for us, but for all people. That isn’t a call to agree to disagree, it is a position that says neither I nor anyone else should be doing this.
For that reason, in Romans 14, Paul doesn’t tell the weaker brothers to shut up and stop speaking. He tells the ones with a strong conscience – those who are free to act or not – to bear with the weaker conscience. The weaker folks, for sake of the stronger, are speaking up on what they perceive to be a matter of sin in your life. The stronger folk, for the sake of the weaker, give up their liberty to do this thing so as not to stumble the weaker. Rather than insist on what we might be rightly able to do, we choose not to do it so as to give no offence to the weaker brother. Because they’re not saying ‘this is a matter of conscience, do what you want.’ They’re saying, this is a matter of sin that my conscience won’t break, yours shouldn’t be doing either. Paul’s solution isn’t to stop them speaking, agree to differ. It is to say to the strong, don’t do that thing for the sake of the weaker folks if it’s going to stumble them.
That doesn’t mean the weaker guys can pull out the conscience-card all the time to force conformity to their views. It doesn’t mean any time they don’t like what you’re doing they can claim it’s a conscience issue and you have to stop. It means, any time you do something and they might be encouraged to break their conscience doing it with you, you better not do it. If somebody says, my conscience won’t bend to that, you better not spend your time cajoling them and encouraging them to go against their tender conscience just because yours is fine with it.
But everything is ultimately a matter of conscience. We do what our conscience will allow and we don’t do what it will not. If our conscience is captive to God’s Word (as Christians claim to be), we presumably believe what our conscience says lines up with what God’s Word says. Which means our conscience is not really a private matter to disagree over if we want, but an issue of obedience that should be true for everybody. Either our conscience is aligned with God’s Word or it is likely off-kilter. Which makes appeals to conscience so that we might agree to differ somewhat misplaced because somebody’s conscience is saying this is very wrong!
What we tend to mean is that we are interpreting God’s Word differently. But, of course, to say that leaves open the possibility that somebody might show me where God’s Word tells me I’m wrong. So, we appeal to conscience. Nobody can challenge my conscience and we infer that Paul was basically saying, live and let live, don’t ever challenge somebody whose conscience either won’t bend or whose conscience is remarkably pliable.
But appeal to conscience is not a ground to never be challenged. Your conscience may not bend – and it would be wrong for you to go against it – but that doesn’t stop another from showing you from scripture why perhaps your conscience is more rigid on this matter than it needs to be. Likewise, your conscience might be pretty soft and flexible, but that doesn’t stop another from showing you from scripture why perhaps you ought to be a little more rigid on that matter. The fact is, our conscience is not a means of stopping other people from following theirs and to use it as a powerplay to get what we want is to abuse it.