The Pastor's Study | Caring for the Conscience
In the fourteenth chapter of his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul provides his readers with several vital principles to help them navigate gray areas—matters that the Scriptures do not directly address. Questions about holidays, movies, entertainment, and even some specifics of church life can often burden Christians because they seem to preclude clear, straightforward answers. Issues of preference can also cause rifts between brothers and sisters in Christ because of the potential for disagreement.
In Romans 14:22-23, as Paul develops his thoughts on preserving peace amidst controversial gray area issues, he begins with a key piece of instruction in verse 22; a statement that relates to something Paul already said much earlier in the passage in verse 5. Let’s look at these passages together.
Verse 5: One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
Verse 22: The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.
Be Fully Convinced in Your Own Mind
When it comes to matters of preference, you have to start by being fully convinced in your own mind and not wavering on what is right or wrong in a given situation. You have to search the Scriptures, pray to God, and seek His wisdom through godly counsel on the matter in question. And you have to become convinced in your own mind on that issue before you can act. For example, abstaining from alcohol 100% of the time might be the right thing for you to do before God. And that is why Paul says you need to be fully convinced in your own mind. Another way to say it is how Paul says it in verse 22: “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God.” You have to settle this matter between you and God first. This is where we must start when it comes to gray areas.
Another common example: Is it wrong to watch television? Knowing my lifestyle—the way I think, the distraction and temptation it can be—it might be wrong. Actually, my wife and I came to the conclusion early in our marriage that we were not going to own a TV, so we banished the television for years. Then we ended up with a television because someone gave us one. So, after a few years of not watching television, we turned it on and we were shocked. You talk about offended sensibilities—we were like, “Whoa, I can’t believe that explicitly carnal and raunchy commercial!” But then you watch enough of those crude commercials and you become numb to it. Sin, worldliness, crudity and smut become normal with time through over-exposure. And therein lies the danger. Your conscience becomes dull. You’ve got to think through all of these issues in your own personal life, starting with yourself and your home. What are your convictions before God going to be? You have to settle these matters in your own mind.
Why exercise such rigor over these issues of preference? Paul tells us in the latter part of verse 22: “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” What does this mean? It simply means that the Christian who doesn’t violate his own conscience over matters of preference will be spiritually happy. He or she will have true joy and a peaceful conscience. Here’s the key principle: Don’t violate your conscience.
Now, it might be that your conscience is ill-informed. You might be ignorant or naïve, or you might not have proper biblical theology on a given issue. In these cases it is possible to feel inappropriate guilt. You might think something is sinful when it isn’t. This happens when your conscience has not been properly programmed or informed with biblical truth. You might have a terrible background and you haven’t been able to land on the biblical position yet. And now you can’t partake in a particular activity without violating your conscience. Paul still says, “Don’t violate your conscience!” God may, in time, bring you to a point where you have the freedom to partake in that activity without violating your conscience. But for the time being you cannot violate your conscience.
“Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide?”
As we discuss this issue of the conscience, you might be reminded of the movie Pinocchio and one of the main characters, Jiminy Cricket. He sings a song in that movie that contains the phrase, “Always let your conscience be your guide.” You might think highly of the cricket’s counsel. Actually, that is a rather pathetic theological statement. Personally, I don’t trust my conscience half the time; and an unbeliever has a depraved conscience, so Jiminy is actually giving us terrible advice.
But that’s not what Paul is telling us here. He’s not saying, “Let your conscience be your guide.” He’s saying: “Do not violate your conscience.” There is an important difference between these two bits of counsel. Our conscience might be uninformed or ill-informed, so it can’t be our ultimate guide. But if we come across something in which we cannot partake because it will violate our conscience, then we must abstain from that activity. In the latter sense our conscience doesn’t serve as a guide to what is right, but as an indicator to what might be wrong. The conscience has a limited function so it cannot serve as our ultimate guide.
This is an important principle because Paul makes the command to not violate one’s conscience central to his counsel in Romans 14. Note verse 23: “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” The phrase “he who doubts” refers to when you begin to violate your conscience in the decision that you made. Any decision with which we are confronted must be decided in faith without any doubting whether it is the right thing to do. Why is this so important? Because whatever we do without faith—without believing that God approves of what we are doing—is sin.
Let’s make this concrete. What about a decision to join some friends at a local club? You don’t plan to drink, but they might, and you will be in a place where there will be a lot of people drinking. Here’s Paul’s answer: If there is even an inkling of hesitation or doubt on your part that joining your friends is the right thing to do, you cannot go. Gray areas are gray areas, but what you are called to do when confronted with a gray area is black and white. Scripture is clear: Do not violate your conscience. Do not go. A useful phrase that crystalizes Paul’s principle in verse 23 is this: “If you doubt, then don’t!”
Caring for the Conscience
Now let’s look back at Romans 14:20. The opposite of mutual edification is mutual destruction, so Paul commands us in 14:20: “Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food.” The implication is that we must not live in such a way that our actions cause a fellow believer to sin or stumble over preferential matters. Although it is true that “all things indeed are clean” it is “evil for the man who eats and gives offense” (v. 20). In other words, although the strong Christian knows that pork, for example, is clean and perfectly good for eating, it is wrong to eat that meat if it offends the conscience of the weaker brother. The conscience matters. One of the golden rules for discerning between matters of opinion or preference is that every single Christian—whether you are weak in faith or strong in faith—is that you should never, ever violate your own conscience. Nor should you act in a way that would violate a fellow Christian’s conscience. That is one of Paul’s main exhortations in this entire passage.
In fact, there are times when it is good to refrain from legitimate activities and liberties if such refraining keeps a brother or sister from stumbling. Paul continues, “It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (v. 21). And this exhortation is not just for strong Christians and it is not just for weak Christians; it is for every believer in the church. Everybody has a part to play.