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).