What is conscience and why does it matter?

I was talking with a friend a while back about a particular Christian issue. I explained my position to him and he happened to essentially agree. We then talked about some of the ramifications of that position, at which point he disagreed. In fact, he said, his conscience wouldn’t permit him to follow that particular implication even though he recognised the implication naturally followed from the view he was sure that he affirmed. As we talked about it a bit further, he said he felt uncomfortable with the implication and thought that it may well be his conscience bothering him.

That I found very interesting. In fact, I think many of us have a particularly poor understanding of just what conscience is. An inner-feeling of discomfort might be our conscience. For sure, if we’re doing something that we sincerely believe to be wrong based on what we know to be true, we are going to start feeling uncomfortable. But an inner-feeling of discomfort is not necessarily our conscience. There are any number of reasons we might feel uncomfortable about something. If we feel uncomfortable, but we know the thing is not wrong of itself, there are any number of reasons why we might have that feeling. The point here being, feeling uncomfortable of itself is not necessarily your conscience pricking you.

Yet for many of us, that is what we believe conscience to be. It is an inner-feeling of discomfort with a course of action. As my friend put it to me in our discussion, he recognised that many of us have been trained to think of conscience like Jiminy Cricket. But conscience really isn’t that at all. Conscience is to do with what you know. It’s not an inner feeling per se – that could be all sorts of things – it is what you know, or firmly believe, to be a matter of right or wrong.

That is why, when Martin Luther said ‘my conscience is captive to the Word of God’, he wasn’t saying that he just had a feeling in his gut that it is right to stand on God’s Word. In fact, his point was that what he determined to be right or wrong (that is, what is a matter of conscience) was based entirely on what God’s Word said. His conscience (what he determined was right and wrong) was captive to what he knew from God’s Word. Right and wrong wasn’t based on inner feelings, or traditions, or the word of the Pontiff. Moral matters were determined by God’s Word alone and his conscience – his ability to tell right from wrong – was based on what God’s Word specifically taught.

Conscience, then, is a matter of what you know. It isn’t just a feeling of discomfort – though it might make you feel uncomfortable – it is a matter of knowing what is right or wrong. If we firmly believe something is wrong, and yet we do it, we are going against our conscience. If we firmly believe something is right, and yet we don’t do it, we are going against our conscience. If we happen to feel uncomfortable about something, but we can’t explain nor understand why it is or isn’t right, our discomfort is may well be caused by something else altogether.

For example, I have met people who do not believe the principle of 1 Corinthians 11 is that women must wear hats in church (I’m not getting into the rights and wrongs of that view here, this is just to illustrate the point about conscience). However, they have been brought up in church backgrounds where hats for women is regarded as the right interpretation of that passage. But these folks have reached the position that talk of hats isn’t really the principle at play and do not expect their wives to wear hats in church. They firmly believe this to be legitimate based on their understanding of scripture. But still, they struggle and feel uncomfortable when men sit in church in a hat. They readily acknowledge that there is nothing in scripture that suggests it is wrong (on their understanding), but they cannot shake the discomfort.

Some would immediately suggest that, therefore, is their conscience troubling them. I, however, would suggest this is not a matter of conscience because they do not know or believe it is wrong. My question then would be, ‘why do you feel uncomfortable?’ If the Bible doesn’t say it is wrong, and you know it isn’t wrong, it isn’t your conscience making you uncomfortable, it is something else. Something that is less to do with knowledge. In the example above, the issue might be conditioning. They have been brought up in a background and culture that, though they now believe its teaching to be wrong, they struggle to shake the discomfort that comes when that way of behaving is challenged. It is a matter of discomfort because of our culture and upbringing, rather than because of anything we know to be right and true.

That is just one example, but it can be multiplied to almost anything. I will say again, going against your conscience will make you feel uncomfortable. Discomfort might be a result of going against conscience. if you firmly believe what you are doing is wrong, you know it is wrong but you’re doing it anyway, that is likely to make you feel quite uncomfortable. But if you firmly do not believe something to be wrong, in fact your are convinced it is acceptable, but you still feel uncomfortable, that is not an issue of conscience. Your discomfort is stemming from something else.

When we take the matters of conscience that crop up in scripture itself, the issue is never to do with one person feeling uncomfortable whilst the other person feels fine. The issue is to do with knowledge. One person believes something to be wrong while the other believes it to be acceptable. This has implications for the biblical command to not sear other’s consciences.

In fact, when Paul speaks of those whose consciences have been seared in 1 Timothy 4, he highlights people teaching a false gospel of asceticism and says their consciences have been seared. It is those, in 1 Timothy 4:1-2, who have abandoned the faith whose consciences have been seared. They knew what was right and wrong, but they have actively gone against it. Paul even encourages believers, in 4:6, to ‘point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus’. Those who have a seared conscience are those who have abandoned what is right. Those who sear other’s consciences are those who would encourage others to abandon what is right too.

If we take the issue of eating meat in Romans 14. It is notable that Paul says in 14:1, these are ‘disputable things’. Nevertheless, as far as conscience goes, Paul says, ‘Whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. whoever doubts stands condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith, and everything that is not from faith is sin.’ The matter of conscience is to do with what we know, or believe, to be true. It is not an issue of feeling uncomfortable per se but of knowing. It is wrong to go against what we know, or firmly believe, to be right.

There are several implications of this. Let me land on just two. First, some seem to think that – in the case of meat eating – it would be wrong to explain to another person why we believe their conscience (what they believe to be right and wrong) is faulty. But if conscience is about belief, it makes sense to try and persuade others where we think their beliefs are incorrect. In matters of disputable things, it is perfectly legitimate to try and persuade others of what the Bible teaches on a given matter. If the person with a weak conscience is unconvinced, we shouldn’t force them to go against what they believe, but it legitimate to seek to persuade them biblically. If they no longer doubt the issue, if they are convinced on the matter that we are actually free to do or not do this thing, you have not seared their conscience. Assuming you are right, they now know better and, therefore, their conscience no longer troubles them.

But there are matters of right and wrong in the Bible that are not considered ‘disputable things’. But it can be very tempting to appeal to conscience in order to get what we want without any thought for the conscience of others. We, for example, frequently hit on the issue of conscience in respect to Baptism. We are often told that would be wrong to force a paedobaptist to undergo what they would consider a re-baptism to join our church and should simply admit them on conscience grounds. Whilst I accept it is wrong of us to force them to go against their conscience and undergo what, in their view, would be a second baptism, it never seems to trouble anyone else that they might be causing a problem for us by forcing us to admit them to membership when our conscience tells us they are yet to be baptised at all. Whilst I wouldn’t want to force a convinced paedobaptist to go against conscience and be (as they judge it) baptised again, nor should they want to force me to go against my conscience and admit (as we judge it) an unbaptised person to membership. The best solution in those circumstances, in my view, is to find a church where your conscience will not be forced to bend.

The point I am making is that conscience is not an icky feeling, but is a point of conviction. If you are convinced that something is true, and right, then biblically it is sin for you to go against it. That goes as much for churches as it does individuals. If, however, you are convinced that something is, in fact, legitimate – you can see and reason it is so from scripture – a feeling of discomfort is not your conscience troubling you, but must arise from elsewhere. But matters of conscience cut two ways. Conscience is about what we believe the Bible, what we believe God, to be saying is right and true. Whilst you may have a conscience about a matter, so do other people. Where it is a disputable thing, the stronger may set their freedom aside for the weaker. But where the thing is not a matter of indifference, but a firm belief about what the scriptures say, appeals to conscience are misplaced when they are, in effect, a call for the other party to sear theirs.