Make this your general rule of thumb when binding the conscience of others

You don’t have to be around Christians very long before you hear someone saying, ‘do you really think you should be doing that?’ or, perhaps less frowny, ‘shouldn’t you really ought to be doing this as a Christian?’ I purposefully keep this loosely worded because ‘that’ and ‘this’ could be populated by so many things. Of the things with which to make others feel guilty there appears to be no end!

Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that the Bible does have commands. ‘Do not lie’ is pretty cut and dry, isn’t it? If you’re a liar, it’s not unreasonable to hear a Christian say, ‘do you really think you ought to be doing that?’ There are also positive commands too. There is no ignoring, ‘do not forsake the meeting together of yourselves, as is the habit of some’. If you belong to the some, you should expect a Christian to reasonably say to you, ‘shouldn’t you really ought to be doing this as a Christian?’ There are commands in scripture that the Lord expects us to do and those things which he clearly doesn’t want to do. It isn’t legalism for believers to point out what Jesus has said he expects of his followers and at least ask, shouldn’t Christians be doing what Jesus wants them to do?

The problem isn’t that there are ethical and moral commands in the Bible. Nor is the problem that believers expect other professing believers to at least want to be doing them. Jesus instituted church discipline for a reason, after all. The problem is when we confuse the things we find helpful, or beneficial to us, and suggest that Jesus demands them of all people when he doesn’t.

A good case in point is when the disciples of John approached the Lord and his disciples and asked why they weren’t fasting. They said that John, and so they too, fasted. Shouldn’t Jesus’ disciples be fasting just like them? Jesus’ answer to them was that his disciples weren’t going to fast while he was with them. In other words, it wasn’t something he demanded. As helpful a practice as John’s disciples found it – and Jesus was okay with them doing it – they shouldn’t be binding everyone else’s conscience when Jesus himself doesn’t.

This is typically how most of these things go in the Christian world. Somebody, somewhere, has a practice that they find helpful or beneficial. What they find helpful soon, in their own mind, becomes something important for everyone. Perhaps what they are doing is even drawn from a wider principle in scripture and is a valid application of it (more on that in a minute). But that soon gets turned, in their own mind, to being the principle application of it. If, they begin to think, it is the principle application, then it is as good as a command from the Lord himself. And that, to all intents and purposes, then gets taught and pressed as though it were a cut and dried command, binding on all people.

The problem is, of course, that Jesus hasn’t said it. Yes, there may be a principle in the Bible of which that is a valid application but the emphasis is squarely on it being an application, not the application. It may be a valid outworking, but it is not the only outworking, nor a binding outworking. Whilst these things may get passed on through generations and work in certain cultures, they are seen to be the problems they really are when they are taught to entirely different cultures in which the outworking suddenly doesn’t make much sense nor is it even possible in practice.

This is where the rule of thumb comes in. The only safe way to ensure that we are not binding everyone’s consciences on matters that Jesus doesn’t is to ask ourselves one simple question: Could every believer, in every place, across all time, people’s and cultures, both now and forever, do this thing?

If we ask ourselves that question, we soon clarify whether it is a specific command of Christ. So, can everyone, everywhere follow the command, ‘do not lie?’ Yes, of course they can. Can everyone, everywhere follow the command, ‘read your Bible every morning?’ No, they cannot. Of course, if we read our Bible more closely, we would find the latter command doesn’t exist anywhere. But many believe, jumping from the principle that does exist to meditate on the scriptures and teach them to our children, that this necessitates quiet times and Bible reading. Whilst those things are perfectly valid applications of that principle, asking our rule of thumb question makes it clear that lots of people throughout church history – and even many believers today – simply could not keep that command. It is, therefore, nothing Jesus lays upon the conscience of all believers.

I think this question is the only safe way to get ourselves out of our own cultural biases, away from assumptions based on what we find helpful and drives us back to our Bibles. If we don’t read it in scripture, it is not a command of Christ. If we think it’s a valid application of a principle we do find in scripture, it can only be binding on all people everywhere if such an application is possible for all people everywhere. Even then, it does not necessarily mean it is binding, but what we can say for sure is if the application you draw is not possible for everyone – no matter how helpful you may find it – it is not binding on anyone.