Matters of conscience and matters of wisdom

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This is a quick response to my friend Steve’s article this morning. Today, Steve has commented on the issues with identifying something as a matter of conscience. Some people seem to treat a “matter of conscience” as a kind of subjective route into saying that they can hold to their own personal truth unchallenged.  As Steve points out, this is not the case. In the famous example where Martin Luther said that his actions were governed by his conscience, he made it clear that this too was subject to another authority -that of God’s Word.

In other words, for a believer, a matter of conscience is a situation where I hold to deep convictions about what God’s Word says on the matter. So, to give a couple of examples.  A few years back, we decided as a church to go to two morning services. Now, there were people within our congregation who didn’t think it was the right thing to do. Their reasons included a fear that it would split the church, that we were too small to do this and resources would be spread too thinly and that they were going to miss the people who went to the other service. Now, those were quite reasonable concerns to raise in terms of how they felt personally and indeed, some of those concerns were genuine challenges for us.  However, none of that really amounts to a matter of conscience.[1]

On the other hand, over the years we have talked as leaders about our position on matters such as infant baptism[2], divorce and re-marriage and the role of men and women in leadership. On each issue, there were strongly held views and those views were based on what individuals believed that Scripture taught. The result was that if the church went in a certain direction, it would for some have brought into question whether they could continue in membership.  What it also meant was that if someone grounded their position in Scripture, then the only reasonable way of challenging them and getting them to consider changing their mind would be to go to the specific Scripture together and show why you thought they had got their interpretation wrong. 

This is important because I think Steve is touching on a crucial issue regarding our unity and partnership together as Gospel churches. I think we have misunderstood the “conscience” matter. The primary use of the phrase in secular terms is to do with ethical issues.  In Parliament for example, some matters have traditionally been recognised as matters of conscience. It doesn’t mean that there is no right or wrong but it is a way of recognising that MPs may submit to a higher authority than the party whip. It is worth remembering that the concept arose in a country that still regarded itself as officially Christian. Similarly, doctors may argue that it goes against their conscience to be involved in abortions or euthanasia not because they don’t personally feel it is right but because their deeply held convictions are rooted in their faith.

Over the past few months during lockdown we (I include myself in this) have at times used the phrase “matter of conscience” and I’m not convinced we are fully aware of what we mean by that. This has come up in terms of

  • Should the Church defy the Law on lockdown?
  • Should we take communion.

I’ve noticed that in the resulting conversations, there has been little attempt to look at Scripture together. Arguments have tended to be Bible light and that leaves me wondering whether these genuinely are strictly speaking “conscience issues.”

Rather, what I think we are seeing is what would better be described as “matters of wisdom.”  In other words, it is not that we necessarily disagree on how to interpret Scripture but more about how we can apply that to our contexts. Furthermore, it may well be the case that we are not really disagreeing on application, it is simply that our contexts are different. Whilst I might not personal take the action that Steve would for example, this does not mean we necessarily disagree. Rather, after a conversation, we might recognise that if we were in the other person’s shoes then we would take a similar course of action to them.

So, let’s distinguish carefully between matters of conscience and matters of wisdom. This means where it is a conscience matter then, we need to keep seeking to all be subject to God’s word together.  Where we are genuinely dealing with matters of wisdom, then let’s seek to respect each other’s decisions as appropriate to our different contexts.

[1] That is not to say that there aren’t people out there who would object on the basis of conscience.  For example, the 9 Marks view as reflected by people like Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman is that each church should consist of one physical gathering.

[2] note on infant baptism it was not about whether we practice it but rather on whether we admit people into membership who were baptised as babies without insisting on believers’ baptism

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