In my last entry on this series, I talked about something Paul calls the defiled conscience, or the conscience of a person who can’t help but see good things in an evil light. These are false teachers who claim that you can’t come to God unless first you’ve renounced everything that defiles you—when in reality the sin is in the way that you use it, in your intentions and actions, and not in the thing itself.
Today I’d like to talk about another category of conscience, one that is very similar but with one crucial difference: these are not false teachers but faithful Christians. It’s a familiar category: the weak conscience.
The weak conscience has probably had more written about it than any other (and today is no exception). While we sometimes downgrade the role of conscience in the Christian life, we are very aware that there are differences of conscience in the body of Christ.
Or at least I was very aware, growing up in churches that had more rules.
Because whenever there was an argument about what kind of music was acceptable, eventually you had to accept that some people can’t listen to certain kinds of music without their conscience convicting them, and you needed to be considerate of them. Or when someone complained about the informality of a person’s clothing choices. Or when the old King James was revered. Or when working for a company that sold alcohol was forbidden (even if you weren’t buying it, let alone [God forbid!] drinking it).
Language. TV shows. Card games. Dancing. All of these are not hypothetical situations to me; these are actual complaints I’ve personally heard over the years.
Now, as I said, none of these things are bad in and of themselves. The problem is your intentions and uses. And for the person with the weak conscience, they have a difficult time breaking the associations between these things and sinful behavior.
One paradigmatic example for me is a good friend of mine who played electric guitar. We were both into the 60’s psychedelic rock band Cream, but his step-father wouldn’t let him listen to Eric Clapton because when he was a young man and not yet a Christian, he did drugs listening to that music.
As a sheltered Christian teen, it was hard to appreciate what he was saying. But once you’ve been around a while and have amassed some of your own regrets, there are certain associations that remain powerful over the years. To guard your heart, you do what you have to do. My friend’s step-dad had a weak conscience on this matter. He couldn’t break the association. And it makes perfect sense!
For a situation like that, love demands that we help him out by not picking at that scab. This is what Paul was talking about the times he spoke at length about matters of conscience in the church. You are free! And that includes being free to love and free to give up your rights.
I always ended up at this conclusion eventually. You make concessions. Take the high ground. Respect your elders. And of course you should!
But what needs to be reiterated is that the things themselves are not bad.
In 1 Cor. 8, (see also 10:23ff and Rom. 14), we see Paul says not to eat meat sacrificed to idols because it’s wrong to be a stumbling block to your brothers and sisters in Christ. But he also says very clearly: idols are nothing! So food sacrificed to idols is food sacrificed to nothing. So nothing is wrong!
The question is, as it was last time, can you eat with faith and gratitude. If your eating feels like betrayal—even if it’s not—it’s fueled by doubt. Eating that way isn’t nothing. It’s sin. The sin is just in your heart, not in the food.
And please note that this is not an example of relativism, where something is not sinful to some people but sinful to others. The standards haven’t changed. Only the references have changed. The triggers have changed. For one person, meat is the trigger. For another, dancing. Whatever the trigger, the expectation for your heart is the same, no matter who you are.
So everything made by God is good. Nothing is to be rejected if it is accepted with prayer and thanksgiving. But if you have a weak conscience, don’t violate it. You are still charged with obeying it, even thought it’s not properly calibrated.
Now another corrective to keep in mind is that Paul says not to do things that will be a stumbling block to fellow Christians with a weak conscience. But only in front of them. When they are not around, you can do as you like, you don’t have to live by their rules.
You might think that sounds like hypocrisy. I suppose if you went around telling everyone you don’t do something when you really do, then yes, the shoe fits. But Paul doesn’t say pretend you don’t eat that kind of meat. He says don’t do it in front of them. You’re obligated not to impose your freedom on someone else. But the weaker brother is also not to impose his limitations on you.
I make a big deal of these things because I think we often have an unbalanced view of conscience in this area. We rightly defer to the weaker brother, but fail to stand up for the truth that 1) they are wrong about the sinfulness of the thing, and 2) you don’t have to change your behavior when they’re not around. I’ve seen too many rules enforced in churches that I think amount to nothing more than forcing one person’s limitations on the rest of the church family.
Of course, often people don’t recognize the issue is a matter of conscience since many weaker brothers try to make a case for their way being the only biblical way.
The biggest of these in my experience has been drinking. (Yes, I’m about to meddle.) The Bible clearly prohibits getting drunk, but it does not prohibit all drinking of alcohol. It would be wrong of me, if I am free, to drink in front of a brother who cannot break those sinful associations. And they would be warranted! Drinking to excess has caused many headaches, much heartache, and even death. But it’s wrong of him, if he is bound, to force me not to drink in private. It is also wrong to insist it is a matter of Scripture and not conscience.
In all of this, we still want to be careful to distinguish the weak conscience from the defiled conscience. While they both are chained to sinful associations, and both struggle with partaking in faith and thanksgiving, the defiled conscience alone belongs to the false teacher. It is a person not with weak faith but with no faith. They have no relationship with God. They are still dead in their sins, trying to save themselves by ridding themselves of all sinful things, not realizing that the sin is in their hearts and Christ must wash them clean. They need to be confronted with the Gospel.
The person with the weak conscience is washed clean. She is a believer, alive in Christ and dead to sin. Her struggle is she doubts her ability to use in ways that will please God the things she used to associate with sin. What she needs is not a Savior (she already has Him!) but a gracious and understanding church family, willing to help support her in her weakness while she grows in faith.
If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve been exercising freedom with a clear conscience but find out that you’re being a stumbling block to someone with a weak conscience, here are some suggested next steps:
- Apologize for the misunderstanding
- Explain why you are free in Christ (if you can; don’t be a turd about it)
- Commit to avoid triggering doubt in your brother
- But don’t pretend the action is wrong and don’t pretend you won’t do it in private. (Unless it really is wrong. Then you need to follow a different road map.)
If you happen to be the weaker brother and find your conscience troubled by the freedoms exercised by your fellow Christians, try to help them understand your struggles and ask for their help. Do what you can to grow in faith and gratitude about the issue, but NEVER violate your conscience to get there.
Because that’s the fascinating thing to me in all of this. Whether your conscience is “strong” or weak, you are still bound to obey it! You just have to recognize that there may be a difference between how you feel about the issue and what the Bible teaches about it.
This series on the conscience has turned out to be much longer than I expected. I want to be done. But I believe there’s more to be said. What about the issue that triggered all of this for me? What about conscientious objectors? What about conscience and law? What about those who would hide behind conscience when they are really motivated by something sinister?
I can’t quite say my conscience compels me to press on, but I plan to add more entries as things come up. Maybe not this week or even next month. But these are questions worth asking. And if the conscience is as important as it seems in God’s design, we’d better try to get the answers right.