Strength for the Weaker Conscience

If Our Conscience Says It’s Wrong, for Us It’s Wrong (Even If for Others It’s Right)

  • “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (Romans 14:14 ESV).
  • “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” (Romans 14:23).

This may sound confusing. How can something be wrong for one person and okay for another? It’s not that the activity itself is subjective in God’s eyes. Rather, when I violate my conscience, I’m no longer acting according to what I actually believe is pleasing to God.

“Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Faith here is that quality of assurance and confidence that something is in God’s will. It’s okay with God. Whatever does not proceed from a moral confidence is sin. It’s a sin to violate your conscience. As Mark Dever succinctly puts it, “Conscience cannot make a wrong thing right, but it can make a right thing wrong.”[1]

Let me share a story here from my past. I know to some this will sound perhaps silly and I certainly don’t want to assume all have freedom, so I’m not encouraging you to violate your conscience. But here is an example from my life. I grew up in a conservative home with convictions about certain activities. One of them was that Christians shouldn’t go to the movie theater. I was the conscientious oldest son, so I didn’t. Then I went to a Christian college that included in its lifestyle statement that we wouldn’t attend movies. I believe I had to sign my name. Again, I was conscientious about things and I conformed. So, by the time I graduated from college at 22, I had never been to a movie theater in my whole life.

I went away to Phoenix, Arizona to go to seminary and a Christian movie came out that I really wanted to see. I was living out west, on my own, and was ready to spread my wings, but I struggled with whether to go see this Christian movie at the movie theater. I decided to go. But you know what happened while I was sitting there? The Tell-Tale Heart. My heart was beating inside me as I tried to watch the movie. I felt so guilty. As I recall, I left early I was so miserable. I knew in my mind that this was morally neutral to God. But my conscience wasn’t there yet.

Years later I came to enjoy the experience, but then I came to Bethel Church 23 years ago. At that time, there were some Christians for whom going to a movie was not appropriate. What did I do? My memory is that I didn’t go to a movie, in our area at least, for many years. Why? Different reason. I had gone from a Susceptible Weaker Brother to a Participating Mature Brother to a Non-Participating Mature Brother [See full sermon for a description of these categories]. My conscience was my guide, and then it transitioned to whatever would be best for the church, at least for where it was at that time.

Culture changes. Different Christian cultures have different consciences. I’m told that there was an international missions conference where many American missionaries were upset by the Europeans drinking alcohol and many Europeans upset that the Americans were drinking soda pop, which is so unhealthy and poor stewardship of the body.

We see so many of our assumptions are less tied to Scripture and more tied to our culture. Our upbringing. The example of some key person in our life.

While We Shouldn’t Violate Our Conscience, We Can Change It

We should all want to be mature in everything. To grow. Growth means change. Certainly, a church filled with mature conscience Christians is to be desired. Andy Naselli wrote an excellent book on the conscience. Here’s a great quote on changing our conscience,

“This means that the second principle (obey conscience) has one critical limitation. If God, the Lord of your conscience, shows you through his Word that your conscience is registering a mistaken moral judgment and if you believe he wants you to adjust your conscience to better match his will, your conscience must bend to God…. If your conscience is so sacrosanct that it’s off-limits even to God, that’s idolatry.”[2]

Don’t disobey your conscience, but don’t bow to it either. Our consciences are not the voice of God. They are broken and they can be changed and redeemed. How?

Compare your position with the Word of God

This is always first. Our consciences are not infallible guides, but the Word of God is. Therefore, we must seek to inform our consciences with God’s Word. If I feel guilty over something that God says is okay, why do I feel that way?

Study what the Bible says either implicitly or principally. Meditate on key related passages. Strive for a renewed mind in that area. I am amazed at how many people get extremely irate over an issue but don’t have a clue what the Bible says on the matter. Go back to the Word. The Bible is my final authority, not my tell-tale heart.

Return to key doctrines like the authority, inspiration, and sufficiency of Scripture and our freedom in Christ

As you struggle with an area that feels wrong, but you recognize that it isn’t wrong by God’s standard, return to key doctrines regarding the Word of God. It is inspired. It is reliable. It is all that we need.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Meditate on that truth. Preach that to yourself. Repent of judgmental attitudes toward others in non-essential areas.

Wait for conscience clearance before participating

If you do steps one and two, and can’t have a clear conscience about something, don’t do it. Wait. Perhaps that will change, but if it doesn’t, don’t violate your conscience. Pray and ask God for wisdom and wait for the internal green light.

Whether you are strong or weak, participating or not, remember the main goal: In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

[1] Mark Dever as quoted by Andy Naselli & J.D. Crowley, Conscience: What it is, How to Train it, and Loving Those Who Differ, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 72.

[2] Naselli & Crowley, Conscience, 31, 33.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

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