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Mind Your Own Conscience

Written by Ray Pennings on May 31st, 2021

The following article originally appeared in Cardus Insights, a weekly newsletter by Cardus Executive Vice President Ray Pennings. Reprinted with permission.

My conscience has been challenged recently.

A church member argued that by not facilitating in-person, unmasked worship in my leadership role as an elder, I was violating a member’s conscience regarding appropriate Sunday worship. “The time for debate is over,” a colleague was told in even starker terms. “It is clear. Time to stop talking, repent, and open the churches.”

The details of the debate are beside the point; my conscience is clear with how my own church has handled the issue of COVID protocols. The troubling question regards the misunderstanding of conscience and how to deal with other people’s deeply held convictions in such debates.

Andrew Nawelli and James Crowley, in their 2016 book Conscience: What It Is, How to Train it, and Loving Those Who Differ, helpfully point out that conscience is part of being God’s image-bearer and belongs uniquely to human persons. They review the 30 New Testament texts that use the Greek word commonly translated as “conscience.” The authors conclude by defining conscience as “your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong.” They also highlight how conscience can change. ​​​​Hebrews tells us that many consciences were once evil and in need of sanctification. Thankfully for many believers, consciences serve as a God-given guide for decision-making, although it is certainly possible to “harden our conscience” and be misguided.

Consciences are a gift from God that, when cultivated by an attentiveness to God’s word and through prayer, powerfully focuses our attention on what is right and wrong. But conscience is not an argument to convince others. When my fellow church member (ordinarily a law-and-order respectful type) insisted that his conscience required certain things of him, he was arguing that civil and church authorities should take certain actions. He thought he was appealing to principle. What I heard sounded more like what was described in Judges, where all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. Conscience is like an exclamation mark instead of a period at the end of the sentence. The punctuation does not change whether the statement itself is true or false.

For those who feel conscience-bound to break the law, I have respect. Mary Wagner’s conscience has for the better part of the past decade believed that the continuance of legal abortions in Canada required her public protest, even if that meant jail time. If being silent was a condition of her freedom, she preferred jail. Pastors James Coates and Tim Stephens feel conscience-bound that the existing COVID restrictions in their setting prevent them from carrying out their pastoral duties and are prepared to be arrested for that matter. Reasonable people, equally committed to biblical principle, can differ. Their understandings of what the Bible teaches about worship, the place and jurisdiction of government, and of the conditions for civil disobedience can lead them to different conclusions. All of us can proceed in good conscience, even convicted by conscience on the urgency of the matter. Still, that doesn’t solve our disagreement.

In fact, another person’s conscience isn’t an argument at all for me to change my thinking or behaviour. A pastor-friend, accused of unfaithfulness for not showing up to preach on Sunday morning, replied that he was prepared to go to jail for his own conscience but not for the conscience of his church members. That remains between them and the Lord.  

There are many who for the sake of conscience are protesting these days. Working in the shadow of Canada’s Parliament, my walks this week have passed protests relating to the Israel-Hamas war, the continuation of lockdowns, the restrictions on golf, and the persecution of the Falun Gong. I occasionally stop to chat with protestors who are a regular feature of the Parliamentary precinct. I’m usually impressed by the sincerity and conviction with which they advocate for their cause, even when their argumentation seems irrational and incoherent at times.

Conscience is a gift, not an argument. Jiminy Cricket wasn’t entirely wrong when he told Pinocchio to let his conscience be his guide but too often we forget the first part of his advice. “Give a little whistle” is how the ditty starts. Conscience is a tool that God gives us to prompt us to stop and think about what we are doing. Conscience is like the warning light on my car’s dashboard. It’s not a fool-proof indicator of trouble but we ignore it at our peril. It’s best to stop and check under the hood, before proceeding. We need coherent arguments for our actions, not simply the licence of conscience. When the testing has taken place and it is clear that we must act, then we’ll be ready to accept the consequences of conscience.

A sensitive conscience is a good thing. I need to show respect for the dignity of others and the gift of conscience that God has given them. It is unwise to insensitively run roughshod with polemics against another person’s conscience-compelled perspective. But that doesn’t mean simply acquiescing. I need to respond carefully with sound argumentation. I don’t need to feel guilty just because your conscience suggests that if you were in my shoes, you would do something differently. To imply that someone should feel guilty for the sake of your conscience is to disrespect theirs.

At times, especially when emotions run high and individuals’ consciences lead to different conclusions, we must remind ourselves that conscience is a tool we need to use properly. We must test its conclusions according to principles. We also need to respect it as a tool that is given to guide personal behavior. Using our conscience as a sword to attack others is a misuse of this gift, won’t do much to advance our cause, and ultimately is dangerous to our individual and communal spiritual health.

The advice I derived from Nawelli and Crowley this week seems timely: “Mind your own conscience.”

Ray Pennings is Executive Vice President and co-founder of Cardus. You can subscribe to his free weekly newsletter at cardus.ca/insights/.

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