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