As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
We all know what our conscience is: that soft or sometimes loud voice that tells us something is wrong. It may speak to us or shout at us when there’s a moral decision we need to make, a wrong we have done, or an issue we must resolve.
Conscience can be the voice of the Holy Spirit within our hearts—but not always. In reality, conscience is a very mysterious and complex human capacity. It is perhaps the most important and immediate signal of our moral consciousness. But it is not always accurate or reliable, and, most important, it is highly individual. By that I mean that one person’s dictates of conscience do not necessarily apply directly to another.
We are deeply formed by the moral voice of our conscience, but conscience also needs to be informed. By itself it is not a fully formed capacity but is more like a reservoir of moral consciousness that gets filled up over time. The conscience of a child is typically very different from that of an adult because experience and information needs to fill it over the years.
For Christians, the Bible is one of the most important sources for informing the conscience. It is from the Bible that we learn God’s moral norms for human life. But it’s also clear from the Bible that Christians can experience the dictates of conscience differently.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul discusses differences of conscience between Jewish and Gentile believers over meat sacrificed to idols. He uses the interesting terms “weak” and “strong” consciences. Some may be very scrupulous over certain matters that don’t bother others.
So conscience itself is not the final arbiter of moral rightness. It depends on how that conscience is informed and how it interprets the information. Paul offers his own understanding of the issue facing the Corinthians, which is different from that of the Jewish Christians. Still, Paul says that no one should violate their conscience because that would mean living in the uncertainty of guilt.
This tells us that Christians may have very different conscientious views on a moral issue. What may be right or wrong for one is not the same for another. That is partly because we may sometimes interpret the biblical commands that inform our consciences differently.
What do we do with that discrepancy? Sometimes the Christian Reformed Church makes pronouncements on specific moral issues, and in some cases it declares them to be binding on its officebearers and members. It is a serious thing to bind the conscience of our fellow believers. It must be over a matter that has been thoroughly studied and discussed to the satisfaction of the vast majority of its members.
We face such an issue with same-sex attraction and marriage. Some, even many of us, feel that it is wrong to engage in same-sex activity, and by extension, same-sex marriage, and believe they have the Bible on their side. Others are not so sure, or already interpret the biblical texts differently in a way that allows for these things under certain conditions.
I believe that it is sometimes necessary for the church to declare something to be morally wrong and thereby bind the consciences of its members. The question is when. On the issue of same-sex attraction and marriage, I am not at all sure that we are ready to take that step. A considerable number of CRC people have differing view on the issue.
So I suggest that we take the time to honor each other’s conscience by not insisting on our own views and making them binding on others. Now is the time to study and learn, listen and share, and walk in each other’s shoes.
About the Author
Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.