Compulsion, Freedom and Conscience
Q. What would you say to a person who sets a higher value on following his "conscience" than on obeying the commandments in faith?
A. This is an extremely important question. As is so often the case, we must strike a careful balance between the two in some cases. I will try to explain.
Quite recently a lady I know who has not smoked now for many years because of the church's teaching that smoking is not only harmful to the "temple of the Spirit" (the body -- 1 Cor.3:16) but to others (who are forced into "passive smoking") decided that obeying this commandment "in faith" was "wrong" and that she needed to find out for herself whether it was right or wrong; in other words, she wanted to be "pricked in her conscience" that it was wrong (have bad feelings about it) and "experience" in her body that it was harmful to her. I do not know what her "conclusion" was (she left the church).
Another man I know decided to do the same thing with coffee and wine drinking. The teaching of the New Covenant Church is that both are harmful drugs and impair the spiritual life. This man (who also left the church in order, partly (I suspect), to "experiment" with the commandments) discovered that coffee does indeed impair the spiritual life. I don't know what his conclusions are about alcohol but I understand he accepts both are bad but believes whether or not one should obey this counsel should be a "matter of conscience."
I cite these two examples because they are typical of our existentialist culture. ("Existentialist" is derived from our experience of existence; there is a philosophy called "existentialism" which says that truth can only be defined in terms of what one "experiences". There are persons who call themselves "Existentialist Christians" who belong to no church denomination and consider themselves to be "trans-denominational").
What worries me about existentialism is that it is partly true. We can only really "know" when we "experience". However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not existentialist -- it is not an "I'll try it out and see if it's good for me" doctrine but a doctrine of FAITH (e.g. Rom.5:1). The approach to marriage in the modern Western world is essentially existentialist: "We'll live together for a few months or years and if it works well get married; if it doesn't we can separate." You will search the Bible in vain for such a teaching.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ begins with faith and ends with faith. It is not a "pick and choose" religion. You accept the whole package or leave it. Disobey one commandment and you disobey the whole Law. We reject utterly the doctrine which says you should come to a church and "experiment" with every teaching -- there can be no spiritual stability in such a way of life. When you marry someone you do so never knowing that person 100%. You don't say: "OK, I'll try this person out in this list of things, and if he/she passes them all, then I'll get married." You enter marriage in faith, knowing that you are marrying an imperfect person.
The New Covenant Church is an imperfect church like all other denominations because it is made up of imperfect people. It is, however, collectively seeking to improve itself, just as Christian couples try to improve their marriages. If God unmistakably calls two people together, and the couple each have an independent revelation from God that they are to be wed, then they should enter into that marriage enthusiastically with 100% commitment to stay together and to work out their differences in Christ. If God calls a person to a Church then the commitment expected is the same as in a marriage. By overlooking faults (as opposed to sins) in both marriage and a Church congregation, and by filling the revelation with love, real growth is possible.
Churches are, I admit, not exactly the same as marriages, despite there being real parallels. What if the Church teaches a false doctrine? Does one walk away from the Church and find another one or labour in love until all are agreed on the truth? We are commanded to search for truth individually and together "until we come to a unity in faith" (Eph.4:3); in some cases, that may be a long, on-going process. Obviously, if a "unity of faith" cannot be reached it may be time to move on to another Church. If it is right, God will lead us onwards. But changing churches should only ever be done after considerable labour in prayer and with the permission of the Lord.
We must be very careful that we do not confuse our feelings for the Spirit. I have changed churches twice in my life. After I discovered that the first one I belonged to was not teaching biblical doctrines, and even after it had thrown me out for not towing the "doctrinal line", I remained loyal to it for longer than I was actually a member of it until I was absolutely sure the Lord wanted me elsewhere. He had definitely led me there in the first place and so I did not wish to go against His will. I was three years in it and three years out of it waiting on the Lord. I joined the second one knowing beforehand that I would only be there briefly -- two years, in fact, before being led by direct revelation to organise what was to become the New Covenant Church.
There have been many times when I have wanted to be a member of a better established church like the Baptist Church but the Lord has never given me permission. We must all be obedient to the Lord's leading. Throughout this period I have paid especial note to what my "conscience" has told me and have noted that my "conscience" has changed in proportion to the new light and truth I have received. Conscience, and the feelings they steer, are in constant flux.
So what, for example, do we do when we read in the New Testament that the first Christians had "all things in common"? Do we reject it by saying that this was a "local" commandment, not relevant to us today? What about the commandment to women to cover their heads in church when praying and prophesying? Was that also a "local" commandment also? What about the fact that temple worship was an important part of early Christian worship? Do we "explain that away" by saying that the Church was still "Jewish" and that it would later shed its Jewishness, and therefore so should we? What about the spiritual gifts? Do we say, as many denominations do, that these are "not for us" today? What about the need for apostles? Do we argue that just because they died out in the first century that they would never return? How, then, does the Church make laws? Through popes, patriarchs, synods, councils, or what? What about alcohol consumption? Or smoking? Or gambling? Or surrogate motherhood? Or abortion? Who decides what it right? Or should we all just "follow our own consciences" and decide what is Church Law for ourselves?
If we follow the existentialist approach (as the group which left us in 1995 is doing) by solely following our own "conscience", then every man and woman will walk in the laws of his own heart. Many believe they should be in no church or have no leaders, as Israel once did as it is written during times of great national anarchy: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (Judg.21:25).
I have mentioned issues which many believe the Bible does not resolve. But what of plainly stated laws? Should we, as the woman did with smoking and the man with coffee and alcohol, apply the same standards to the Ten Commandments? Shall we "test" out adultery to see if its is really destructive or not, and judge the Law by what our "conscience" or "feelings" tell us? Shall we do the same with murder, coveting, etc.? Believe it or not, this is what is happening in the Christian world. Once you make your religion existentialistic, then there are no laws at all except your own, AND THAT, FRIEND, IS NEW AGE DOCTRINE. In short, every man appoints himself as his own god.
This line of reasoning may seem extreme but sometimes we need to see the consequences of taking our position to its logical conclusion before we see the folly of our own personal theologies.
THE NEW COVENANT CHURCH OF GOD TAKES THE POSITION THAT EVERY COMMANDMENT IN THE BIBLE WHICH HAS NOT BEEN SUPERSEDED BY A HIGHER LAW ON THE AUTHORITY OF CHRIST IS TO BE UNCONDITIONALLY OBEYED AS AN ACT OF FAITH AND NOT OF CONSCIENCE.
Our conscience is given to us for two reasons: (1) To lead us in light and truth in the days of our ignorance (e.g. if we are not believers); and (2) to build upon the light and truth which God has revealed already to us in the Scriptures and in His personal revelation to us in the past until we come to a fullness of knowledge.
CONSCIENCE WAS NEVER GIVEN BY GOD AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR LAW and I challenge anyone to show me from the Bible that this is not true.
If God leads me by personal revelation to join a Pentecostal Church then I assume that I am to obey its Church Laws. If He leads me by personal revelation to an Episcopalian Church then I assume that I am obey its Church laws. If He leads me by revelation to the New Covenant Church of God then He expects me to obey ITS laws.
"But", you may argue, "what if the laws change?" As far as the New Covenant Church is concerned THE LAW HAS NEVER CHANGED. Administrative forms have changed, the scriptural canon has changed, the names of offices and priesthood procedures have changed, BUT THE SPIRITUAL PRINCIPLES ARE EXACTLY AS THEY HAVE ALWAYS BEEN.
You have only to work your way through the New Testament starting at the Gospels and ending at the Book of Revelation to see that rules, procedures and offices changed as there was need for that change. Indeed the Christian Church has been in constant change, adapting to needs and surroundings. But the principles of eternal life and the conditions of salvation and sanctification have never altered.
In my experience the "conscience" can often be abused as an excuse for rebellion against God. "Conscience", taken to its logical conclusion, always leads to the "solo-Christian", which is a New Covenant impossibility. The Church of Christ is a covenant community bound by law.
To those who have received an unmistakable call to this New Covenant Church we can only say that if they are outside it then they are in direct rebellion against God, and when their "conscience" tells them otherwise it is nothing but the deception of the heart which, as Scripture reminds us, is "desperately wicked" (Prov.10:20). If, however, such a person has received an uniquivocable revelation from God that he is to join another Church then we say to him, "God bless you. May our fellowship in the Lord Jesus ever grow closer even if we are in different denominations."
To the person who is searching, who is not sure about certain principles of the Gospel (as, for example, our total abstinence from alcohol), and can't get a direct answer from God, then we suggest that they ask the Lord which Church they are supposed to be in. If you are called to be in this one, then it follows that you obey the Law of this Church. If you are not sure where you are called, then you must use all the time you need, without feeling pressurised, to decide what your future is. It's entirely your choice. We do not want to press you into this Church or into any other one because you would never obtain the Spirit of this Covenant if you felt compelled in any degree against your will, and you would leave it sooner or later anyway. We would encourage you to become a catechumen -- an "investigating member" -- to use as much time as you want getting to know the New Covenant Church so that you can make a decision with a pure conscience that this is, or is not, your spiritual home on earth.
This page was created on 16 October 1997
Last updated on 26 February 1998
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