NCW 33, April 1996 (Part II)
Q. Why do different people's consciences tell them to do different things and obey different standards of morality?
We are born with pure consciences. These consciences, however, are not completely formed, and two things may happen to them: (1) They may be educated incorrectly; and (2) they may become darkened by sin. The effect of either, or both of these, is to make our consciences "weak" (1 Cor.8:7). Paul testifies: "To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted" (Tit.1:15, NIV).
It is a very, very dangerous thing to live only by one's conscience as though it were the absolute arbiter of truth. In the late 20th century it is popular to be steered by one's "conscience" and even (in some cases) claim that God and the human conscience are synonymous.
I like to look upon the conscience as a car windscreen. If we have been brought up wrong (like the ancient Spartans, for example, for whom theft was a virtue), then the glass in our windscreen is full of imperfections, distorting the light that comes through it. If we sin (by, for example, speaking evil of another), then the windscreen is covered in dirt. Thus the seeker after truth has a dual responsibility: (1) To repent of his sins and receive a cleansing through the blood of Christ; and (2) To unlearn any false, non-scriptural values he may have been taught and conform his thinking and feeling patterns to God's Word. Most Christians accept the former proposition but a good number have major problems with the latter.
Let me give you an example. When I was younger I had a big problem with hugging. Trained as I was to maintain a "correct distance" with people in the English public school tradition, I found it initially difficult expressing my affections to others in this way. I had to retrain my conscience to accept that hugging was acceptable.
In today's world fornication is considered not only acceptable but a positively good thing to do. Most young people today have no bad conscience sleeping around. But once you teach them God's Law in the Scriptures, their conscience becomes pricked and they begin to realize that what they formerly felt good about is indeed bad.
The conscience has to be trained. In Victorian England is was considered most improper for a woman to expose her ankles. Today we think nothing of such things. In fact, in many countries, people don't give a second thought to nudity now.
It is here that apostolic halakhah is very important. One of the responsibilities of God's servants, the apostles, is to interpret the Law of Christ and, by revelation, set standards, and train the people to readjust their consciences to them. If there is to be "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph.4:5, NIV), then it follows there must also be "one conscience". As it is there are people who, because of their consciences, live in mortal fear of disobeying the Pope, the Mormon Prophet, the Koran, a Hindu deity, or a million other authority figures, who interpret any rebellion against such as a sin against God, because rebellion troubles their feelings.
Of course, we have to be sensitive to people's consciences. We can't walk rough-shod over them no matter how wrong they are (1 Cor-8:12). Instead we have to gently open their hearts to receive, through faith and repentance, God's Holy Spirit -- the Comforter -- who instructs in all truth. Re-educating the conscience usually takes time. And this we allow plenty of in the New Covenant (see Jer.18:1-6).
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Last updated on 9 May 1998
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