The Inviolability of Conscience

We have a dog named Duke who is a mix of Border Collie and Australian Shepherd. He is incredibly smart and loves to go on walks. He’ll often sit and stare at the door and then look at us, and then stare at the door, as if to say, “I’m ready. When are we going?” My dog, unlike humans created in God’s image, doesn’t have a conscience. He obeys (sometimes), and his reason for doing what he is told is he wants treats.

The conscience is a mysterious faculty of our minds that makes us feel guilty when we do things we’ve been taught are wrong. Animals don’t seem to possess this. Conscience is a marvelous gift that sets humans apart as the crowning work of God’s creation. Martin Luther, when he was tried for his religious teachings, explained why he could not change his views, “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” Luther was willing to die rather than violate his conscience. He said that to do so was “neither right nor safe.” 

The Bible also has something to say about the conscience. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, explains that there were followers of Jesus who conscientiously refrained from eating foods offered to idols. In other words, because of their “former association with idols,” their consciences made them feel guilty for eating such foods. In their own minds, eating foods offered to a pagan idol was as offensive to God as worshipping the idol itself (1 Cor 8:7). Paul’s understanding of foods offered to idols was different. He didn’t see it as offensive to God. “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (vs 8). The reason why Paul’s conscience did not make him feel guilty for eating foods offered to idols was simple. In his mind, “an idol has no real existence” and “there is no God but one” (vs 4).

So what was his advice to the Corinthians? Don’t eat foods offered to idols. Why? Not because it was morally wrong to do so, but because some Christians were convicted this was not right, and as long as they held this conviction, to go against their conscience was not good. “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge [that an idol has no real existence] eating in an idol’s temple, will he [who has former associations with idols] not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? (vs 10). 

So what does it mean to have a “weak conscience”? For Paul, it is a conscience that makes a person feel guilty for something that is not necessarily offensive to God. If we murder, steal, lie, commit adultery, etc., we should feel guilty. Remarkably, some don’t because their consciences have been defiled and violated so often that they become callous. These practices, unlike eating foods offered to idols, are offensive to God because they actually hurt other people. God cares about our behavior when it violates others. However, sometimes we feel guilty for things that are non-issues as far as God is concerned. Eating foods offered to idols was one such issue. However, because some Christians found this practice scandalous, Paul advised the Corinthians to refrain whenever possible. 

This raises several questions: Do I feel guilty for doing something that God actually allows me to do? Do I feel free to do something that I actually should feel guilty about? Do I do things that are inoffensive to God, but that others find scandalous? Am I being a stumbling block by exercising my freedoms? What if I feel guilty for doing something, and then I find out that maybe that issue I was so concerned over was not as important to God as I once imagined? Should I just change my behavior, even if I feel guilty for doing so, or is there a healthier way to move forward?

I’d like to suggest that Luther’s words are still true. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. We need to educate (or reeducate), rather than violate, the conscience. Ellen White wrote, “Let the conscience be educated…” (Education, p 292). She also said, “The … Word of God, makes the conscience smart…” (Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p 965). Also, “Conscience must be first enlightened…” (Testimonies for the Church, vol 5, p 43). And A.H. Strong wrote, “Conscience is uniform and infallible, in the sense that it always decides rightly according to the law given it. Men’s decisions vary, only because the moral reason has presented to the conscience different standards by which to judge. Education corrects, not the conscience, but the material conscience has to work with”  (A.H. Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 500

H.C. Trumbell wrote, “Conscience tells us that we ought to do right, but it does not tell us what is right – that we are taught by God’s word.” And Bishop Charles Gore, “Man’s first duty is, not to follow his conscience, but to enlighten his conscience.” We need to be humble and recognize that we have a lot to learn about God’s will, his character and how he wants us to live. We also need to be mindful of others and their conscientious convictions. Sometimes (not always), God may want us to give up our rights to do certain things that may be in and of themselves right, but that would not be best for those who may stumble or be offended by our behavior. This is what Paul meant when he said, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).

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