The Liberty and Limitations of Conscience

In a wood shop in Italy a little cricket emerged and seated himself on a box of matches. As firelight danced on the walls the cricket drew near to a wooden puppet and asked if he wanted to be a real boy. Eager to learn, he and the cricket had a heart-to-heart, and singing a little ditty that is chiseled on the memories of many, the would-be boy is taught a simple motto: “Always let your conscience be your guide.” While that isn’t perhaps a perfect piece of advice to live by – mostly because of a lack of qualifications – it does have a nugget of truth: the importance of one’s own conscience.

The conscience is given a significant place in Christianity as a capacity that God himself has given to us. Simply defined and to paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, the conscience is the capacity to judge one’s self according to God’s own judgment. You might say that the conscience is an internal witness that compares our thoughts, words, and deeds to God’s standard. As it does it either accuses or approves what we think, say, and do. To live in harmony with that judgment – approving what God approves and disapproving what God disapproves – is to have a “clear conscience” (Acts 24:16), to be living for “the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5), and to be of “a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:19). The Bible tells us that a clear conscience is a blessing: “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves” (Romans 14:22).

In fact, the conscience is so significant that God lays claim to it for himself. James wrote, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and destroy” (James 4:12). Likewise, Paul said, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Romans 14:4). To bind the conscience with the commandments or traditions of men is to take what rightly belongs to God. It’s why Peter challenged his accusers saying “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This is why Paul says, “Do not become bondservants of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23). Jesus himself emancipated the conscience from men when he taught “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). The faith we have is lived coram Deo –before the face of God.

This is a pivotal point for Reformed Christianity. Against the ceremonies, traditions, and commandments of men, Reformed theology asserts the liberty of conscience. For instance, John Calvin said “Our consciences do not have to do with men but with God alone” (Institutes 4.10.5). The Puritan David Clarkson wrote: “Conscience is God’s deputy, and must in the exercise of this office confine itself to the orders and instructions of the sovereign Lord” (Works, 2:475). The Presbyterian churchman James Bannerman said, “[The conscience is] a sanctuary where God alone may enter, and where none but God may rule” (Church of Christ, 1:160). In one of the greatest statements penned to this effect, the Westminster Confession of Faith rightly teaches: “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” This isn’t some abstract point because to say otherwise is actually to deny the precious blood that has purchased us (1 Peter 1:18-19) and to make of no effect the death of the Lord Jesus (Galatians 2:21).

But this biblical teaching of the liberty of conscience has often been abused. It has been twisted by individualism, autonomy, and licentiousness – as though crying “Liberty of conscience!” is a license that frees one from all limitations. Calvin cautioned against this very thing when he wrote: “For immediately a word is uttered concerning the abrogating of human constitutions, huge troubles are stirred up, partly by the seditious, partly by slanderers –as if all human obedience were at the same time removed and cast down” (Institutes, 3.19.14). Against this, Reformed theology has recognized that the liberty of conscience has its limitations. Princeton theologian AA Hodge insisted “It is of the highest importance, on the other hand, clearly to understand that Christian liberty is not an absolute liberty” (Westminster Confession of Faith: A Commentary, 267). What are those limitations?

To begin with, the liberty of conscience is limited by the law of God. Paul wrote: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Galatians 5:13). Likewise, Peter warned: “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). There is no true liberty and freedom apart from what God has revealed in the Bible. Rather, sin — which is lawlessness — is pictured as a cruel master and we its willing slave. To this, Samuel Rutherford said, “The Word of God must be the rule of Conscience, and conscience is a servant; and a under-judge only, not a Lord, nor an Absolute and independent sovereign…Conscience is ruled by Scripture” (A Free Disputation, 10).

The liberty of conscience is also limited by the rule of love. In navigating a particular problem in the church at Corinth, Paul lays down a principle that is to govern the way we use our freedom. He teaches that the eating of meat offered to idols – of itself – isn’t commanded and it’s not forbidden. Yet, he exhorts the church “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9). To wound the conscience of a brother or sister in things indifferent — even in the name of liberty — is to “sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:12). When that happens, liberty ceases to be liberty. Our freedom is intended, in part, for service: “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Finally, the liberty of conscience is limited by God-given authorities. Paul commanded the church in Rome to be subject to governing authorities. He wrote: “Therefore, one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). That command isn’t absolute in its extent as Peter and the Apostles chose rather to obey God than man, and willingly suffered the consequences (Acts 5:29, 40-41). Similarly, though often overlooked and neglected, the conscience is limited by church authority. We see a working example of this at the Jerusalem Council when the Apostles and elders wrote: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:28-29). The church is the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), and to it has been committed the ministry of binding and loosing (Matthew 18:18). Likewise, the author of Hebrews writes: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).

Now, it’s not noted here how far the authority of the church limits the conscience. Admittedly, that’s an extremely tricky question. But what needs to be pointed out – especially in our day of individualism and autonomy – is that the church may exercise lawful authority. In that exercise, the simple plea, “Liberty of conscience!” doesn’t automatically (even in God’s sight) free one from the authority God has appointed, or the authority one has willingly placed themselves under. As James Bannerman noted so well: “They are wrong who would stretch the authority of the Church so far as to destroy liberty of conscience; and they are equally wrong who would stretch the rights of conscience so far as to destroy the authority of the church” (Church of Christ, 1:171). In fact, the liberty of conscience and the lawful authority of the church are not antagonistic to each other as the Westminster Confession of Faith brilliantly affirms:

And because the powers which God has ordained, and the liberty which Christ has purchased are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And, for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation), or to the power of godliness; or, such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ has established in the Church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by censures of the Church and by the power of the civil magistrate (WCF 20.4).

 

11 Comments

  1. Nathan Eshelman December 9, 2017 at 4:07 pm #

    Those that under so-called “liberty of conscience” believe and promote heresy or error; live scandalous lives; or refuse to submit the teaching of the Word of God are not practicing Christian liberty as defined by the Protestant Reformation.

    Rev. Borg, you have done the church a great service here as often the church courts–even in reformed and presbyterian communities–fold as soon as someone cries, “liberty of conscience!” That’s not how liberty of conscience is supposed to be used.

    We need to regain a biblical understanding of what liberty of conscience actually means. And from most the discussions that I have heard around this topic–most people are not saying the same thing as our church standards say. Liberty of conscience for many in the modern church are actually more along the lines of “libertine” rather than liberty.

    Thanks so much, Kyle!

  2. grh December 9, 2017 at 4:12 pm #

    As Paul writes, we aren’t simply free and unfettered from our original slavery to do whatever we want. No, our slavery to sin has been replaced not with liberty, but with slavery to obedience.

    In other words, freedom isn’t the license to do what we want, but the power to do that which we ought!

  3. RPG December 10, 2017 at 8:05 am #

    Kyle, you should read the original version of Pinocchio meeting the Cricket. This link takes you straight to the right (very short) chapter: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/500/500-h/500-h.htm#link2HCH0004. I was confused by your intro until I remembered the Disney version!

    • Kyle Borg December 11, 2017 at 11:00 pm #

      Sorry for the confusion! I figured the “ditty” would give it away that I was reminiscing on Disney’s revisionism 🙂

  4. David Carr December 11, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

    The boundary between liberty of conscience and submission to authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, has been a continuing issue in Presbyterian, esp. Reformed Presbyterian, churches since the days of John Knox. It was even a significant issue at RPCNA Synod 2017. The entire chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession should be consulted for a balanced view of individual and corporate liberties and responsibilities.

    • Kyle Borg December 11, 2017 at 11:01 pm #

      Yes!

  5. Ren Adams December 11, 2017 at 10:12 pm #

    1. Regarding church authority, Jesus forbade his leaders-in-training, born with the human default of authority-seeking, from exercising authority (exousia) over others in the strongest possible terms (Mk. 10:42-43). Indeed, all authority has now been given unto Him alone (Mt. 28:18). Instead, church leaders are so be servant-leaders; the symbol of our “authority” is the towel.

    2. The decision of the apostles and elders at the Jerusalem Council, besides correcting their own teachers, was for Gentiles to abstain from four things. The three stipulations which limited liberty of conscience were temporary, contextualized standards for the purpose of keeping peace in the church during a time of transition from Jewishness to Gentileness. The counsel was received with rejoicing. If a modern church asks members to abstain from something, the cry is “No, liberty of conscience!”

    3. When Heb. 13:17 says to obey leaders, the word is not the same as when the wind and waves obeyed Jesus, or children obey parents, or servants obey masters. Rather, the word is the middle-passive voice of peitho, to persuade. “The obedience suggested is not by submission to authority, but resulting from persuasion.” (Vine’s) We might say, “be teachable, allow yourselves to be persuaded.” The church’s role is to form consciences, not substitute for them. Regarding church leaders, members are to give respect, not obedience. If the leader doesn’t convince his hearers from God’s Word, there’s no obligation to “obey.”

    4. A decision to eat/drink or abstain from meat/wine is necessarily individual (not individualistic). Rom. 14:21 and I Cor. 8:13 are for the individual member to possibly implement: “I will not….”

    5. The “Divines” were themselves divided over church governance, which is why the WCF treatment of ecclesiology is so “thin.” But they agreed that the conscience is free from commandments of men contrary to the Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. I think a greater danger facing us, than abuse of liberty of conscience, is church leaders saying, “Trust me, I know what is good for you” in some area of church practice. That is failure to gently persuade and is the requiring of an implicit faith.

    • Kyle Borg December 11, 2017 at 10:59 pm #

      Thanks Ren for the comment. Not sure if you’re looking for interaction, but…

      1. While service is certainly descriptive of the eldership I’m not convinced a simple appeal to Mark 10:42-43 will bear the weight of the Bible’s full witness. Yes, Jesus is the one who has been given all power and authority, but historically and theologically Presbyterians have carefully distinguished between absolute and relative/derived authority. That the church has the latter is biblical (see Matthew 18:18), though that authority doesn’t rest in any single person but is distributed in the whole body and exercised by ordained elders. As the RPT says: “The Lord Jesus has clothed His Church with power and authority. The authority is vested in the whole membership of the Church, which has the right to choose its officers from among those of its own members who poses the scriptural qualifications” (RPT 25.6 and c.f. 25.7). The WCF also recognizes this when it says the “decrees and determinations, if consonant with the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in His Word” (31.3, italics mine).

      2. The Jerusalem Council demonstrates the authority the church has even if it only imposed things that were “contextualized standards for the purpose of keeping peace in the church during a time of transition from Jewishness to Gentileness,” right? Discerning from the Word the elders and Apostles were able to ministerially declare what the mind of the Spirit was. Which, again, belongs to the church to “ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience” (WCF 31.3).

      3. If *all* Hebrews 13:17 means is “allow yourselves to be persuaded,” then the vast majority of English translations who use the language of obey/submit are just plain wrong? Yes, “obey” means “obedience on persuasion,” but the second word translated “submit” is, to quote Peter T. O’Brien “stronger and means ‘to give way, yield, or submit to someone’ (usually in authority).” It’s not an unwarranted translation, is it?

      4. Yes.

      5. The “Divines” were divided, but however “thin” the ecclesiology of the WCF is it’s still quite thicker than the ecclesiology of many today — where autonomy and individualism run rampant. I too am opposed to the commandments of men and an implicit faith and…maybe I’m misunderstanding your point, I don’t think I said anything against that. Did I?

      Blessings to you Ren!

      • Ren Adams December 12, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

        I agree that the church, as Christ’s body, is to manifest His authority – servant authority. I think Jesus’ point in the 3 synoptics is that the way that “power” manifests is to be quite different, in fact the opposite, from what we see in civil government, i.e., should be bottom up rather than top-down. The Jerusalem Council is a beautiful illustration of this: the whole church was involved, all were persuaded by the evidence, and consensus and unanimity were achieved. The very last to speak (James) was the “greatest.” The order of Heb. 13:17 is important; submission or yielding follows from first being persuaded. Oh, if our session, presbytery, and Synod meetings were all like that!

        I just don’t see liberty of conscience “often (being) abused,” at least within the RPCNA. I would need some specific examples; perhaps you meant outside our denomination. Many members, deacons, and elders have “scrupled” over various matters and I think that is a fine way of handling differences in matters beside the Word.

        Blessings and peace to you too, Kyle!

  6. Mike December 14, 2017 at 1:32 pm #

    Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him.

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