Adjusting the Conscience (Part 10)

(Read the series so far.)

We often think of “weak” and “strong” as though they are static and unchanging. Are they? Is change possible, either from strong to weak or from weak to strong?

Weakness, properly done, is nothing more than God’s Word applied to our lives. He says, “Put no other God’s before me.” We respond by refusing to involved in idol-worship. But what does it mean to be involved in idol-worship? There is a whole spectrum of positions.

The weakest brother can’t eat any meat, for what is sold in the market could be tainted.1 Another would eat meat so long as no one around was conscientious of tainted food. A third brother would go right into the temple and, ignoring the ceremony honoring the idol, eat with his friends and colleagues.

We must apply God’s Word to our lives. Every time we apply Philippians 4:8 to an issue, we do so even though Scripture doesn’t clearly tell us to apply it to that particular issue and even though someone might come along and tell us that they don’t think it applies. Therefore, we enter the realm of “unclear” applications whenever we apply it, (this is true for all of the general commands we find in Scripture).

We must either not apply Philippians 4:8, or we must apply it in spite of differing views of how it applies. When we reason and apply Philippians 4:8 to our lives, we will conclude that certain things are wrong. The verb λογίζομαι (logizomai) is translated “think” in Philippians 4:8 and Romans 14:14. So for the one who “thinks” something is wrong, for him it is wrong (even though of itself it is good). Living out Philippians 4 forces us right into the middle of Romans 14. When we apply Bible principles, we become the weak of Romans 14.

It also can be good to be strong. Paul spends most of 1 Corinthians 9 explaining how he uses strength for gospel ministry. He says (v. 19-23),

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

When we have strength we have the ability to do or not to do in good conscience. And we can shape our efforts in ministry to be more suitable to a variety of groups.

Influencing Others

God can use you to develop convictions in others. As you do so, you should put more emphasis on teaching Bible principles than on demonstrating how they should be applied. While you should not demand that they apply them as you do, your story of how God has convicted you is an important testimony. Paul demonstrates, with both celibacy and idol-meat, that it is okay to encourage others to adopt your conviction. But there is a difference between these two cases. Paul teaches both celibacy and marriage as gifts from God and biblically sound. But for temple-idol-meat, at least in that culture at that time, Paul taught quite firmly that the strong of 1 Corinthians 8 should become weak.2

Wait. How can Paul demand that they weaken? Isn’t that Jesus’ job? Doesn’t this contradict the non-judging, let your brother honor the Lord with his eating tone of Romans 14? Isn’t the strength of these Corinthians a matter between them and their Lord?

First, the strong of Corinth did have a legitimate point. If they didn’t think of the statue as a god and if they didn’t honor the idol in their heart, then the ceremony wasn’t worship for them. For themselves, eating idol-meat in the temple was ok.

The story of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings 5 illustrates the importance of the heart in the status of worship. Naaman is healed by Elisha and proclaims, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” Then he asks Elisha, “In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter.” Elisha replies to him, “Go in peace.”3 Naaman’s civil duties conflicted with his new conviction to worship only the one true God. He solved this by not worshipping in his heart when he knelt before Rimmon.

The strong have a point, even if it is small, unusual, and dangerous to others. All these matters are heart issues. However, as we’ll see, there is hardly ever only one heart involved.

The strong of Corinth might have raised that point. In spite of it, Paul argued powerfully that they should be weak on temple-idol-meat. Paul’s methods, especially here in this incredibly obvious application,4 are important. First, Paul does grant the strong their technical “right” to eat in accordance with their “knowledge” and calls their opponent “weak,”5 implying that they are strong. Thus, Paul’s example of an issue for which the clear answer is “Do not eat,” is a weak/strong issue.

Insofar as their own heart, they may really think the idol is nothing and they are not worshipping the idol. But also they might be conscientious of the idol in their heart and not want to admit it. Either way, their actions will impact all of those around them, so Paul takes time in chapter 8 to explain the dangers they pose to their brothers if they insist on their rights.

Second, Paul takes great care to give a lengthy biblical argument (1 Corinthians 10:1-22) because Jesus is Lord through His Word. By explaining biblical principles he hopes the Word will change their “knowledge.” Even at his most emphatic, vv. 20-21, he is really just stating two facts:

  1. There are demons behind a lot of these idols.
  2. It is wrong to have fellowship with demons.

In the end, Paul says, “You’re not strong to drink the cup of demons—Are you stronger than God?” Paul applies the scriptural prohibition against idolatry to the Corinthians idols and he powerfully encourages the Corinthians to make the same application. Paul could have simply commanded them not to eat in the temple. But Paul deliberately works at the level of the applications of Scripture in their minds—the point of active mental work that trains the conscience. He’s not telling them that it’s explicitly wrong. He’s guiding their thinking and explaining how they should reason it to be wrong for themselves. And he affirmed that they must “judge for themselves,” v. 15.

Strengthening and the Feelings of the Conscience

In Part 8, I quoted J.D. Crowley,6 who says,

How do you know the difference between training your conscience and sinning against your conscience? You are sinning against your conscience when you believe your conscience is speaking correctly, but you still go against it. You are training your conscience when Christ teaches you through his scripture that your conscience has been wrong in a particular area, so you decide to not listen to your conscience in that one area. This is called adjusting your conscience, not sinning against it. (This is what Peter had to do in Acts 10:9-23.)

If you have long thought that something is wrong to do and your family and church taught that it was wrong, even if you become convinced that it is okay, your conscience might still tell you it’s wrong. What then? Remember Paul’s teaching about the weak conscience works. The test for something being wrong for you is that you think (reason) that it is wrong—that you are fully persuaded in your own mind.

Once you are fully persuaded biblically and logically that the act in question is okay to do (in other words, you are satisfied that you no longer think it to be unclean) you are no longer the man in Romans 14:14b for whom it is wrong. You can do it. If your qualms of conscience are still powerfully against doing it, perhaps you are not fully persuaded (assured, convinced, satisfied) in your mind. You should wait. Spend more time in the Word and prayer.

Can you thank God for it? If you’re sure you can do it, then thank God for His gift,7 even if you don’t eat. Peter was shocked at God’s command to “kill and eat.” And he refused so that God had to repeat Himself three times. Peter had great qualms of conscience, but God expected him to go enter the house that same day, sit with gentiles (likely eat) and share the gospel.

Do we take seriously the magnitude of what Abraham was asked to do in Genesis 22:

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac.

This is his son, whom he loved and for whom had waited many, many years. Can we have any doubt that Abraham’s own conscience would have been crying out against his planned obedience? We are to obey God above the feelings of our conscience. The cries of our conscience should warn us that we might be doing wrong, and we should be careful. But “when Christ teaches us through His Scripture that our conscience has been wrong in a particular area, so we decide to not listen to our conscience in that one area, this is called adjusting the conscience, not sinning against it.”8

When we consider what Christ teaches us through His Scripture, we must think about what He actually teaches. If poor theology underlies our convictions, then as our understanding of God’s Word improves, our conclusions will change. In this way, our brothers might lovingly point out gaps in our knowledge of Scripture, or how we should logically apply it, and help us reevaluate our convictions. We’ll look at this more in Parts 11 and 12.

Notes

1 There is nothing new in the New Testament that puts an end to this application. The underlying principle, prohibition of idolatry, is still in place.

3 For a discussion of this related to modern secular employment, see Keller, Timothy, Every Good Endeavor, Penguin Group (USA), 2012, p. 228.

4 We’ll discuss “good and necessary” applications in Part 13.

5 Some believe Paul’s use of “right” and “knowledge” for the Temple-meat eaters in Corinth could be sarcasm directed against the “strong.” But it does not make sense that Paul would speak sarcastically of the “weak.”

6 Crowley, JD (2014-02-23). Commentary on Romans for Cambodia and Asia (ASEAN Bible Commentary Series) (Kindle Locations 9570-9574). Fount of Wisdom Publishing House, Phnom Penh. Kindle Edition.

7 Scripture gives us a test for discerning between sinning against our conscience and adjusting our conscience: Prayer. We will discuss prayer as a test in Part 12.

8 Again, adapted from J.D.Crowley’s quote above.

Dan Miller Bio


Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He is a husband, father, and part-time student.

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There are 2 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Just that.  Want to hear what others have to say, too.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

Three things are in this paper that I thought might raise a few objections. 

The story of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings 5 illustrates the importance of the heart in the status of worship. Naaman is healed by Elisha and proclaims, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” Then he asks Elisha, “In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter.” Elisha replies to him, “Go in peace.”3 Naaman’s civil duties conflicted with his new conviction to worship only the one true God. He solved this by not worshipping in his heart when he knelt before Rimmon.

The strong have a point, even if it is small, unusual, and dangerous to others. All these matters are heart issues. However, as we’ll see, there is hardly ever only one heart involved.

This story is remarkable. One of my pastors preached this Text a few years ago and the end of the Text shocked me. Naaman is clearly a believer. But his proposal to Elisha that he continue to help his master worship Rimmon and that he himself continue to physically bow to Rimmon without meaning it seems like a horrible proposal. I imagined Elisha saying, "No - you must choose whom you will serve. You cannot bow to God and Rimmon." But he says, "Go in peace." 

JFB says, "Elisha's prophetic commission not extending to any but the conversion of Israel from idolatry, he makes no remark, either approving or disapproving, on the declared course of Naaman, but simply gives the parting benediction ( 2Ki 5:19 )."

(Jamieson implies that Elisha's comment is simply "a parting benediction" and doesn't indicate approval of Naaman's plan. I believe it's wrong to reduce the assurance of peace in the benediction to a mere "goodbye." By saying "Go in peace," Elisha is assuring Naaman that his proposal of dealing with his ethical question about his master's worship is one he can undertake in "peace [with God]." I'm interested in critique on this.

Matthew Henry has more to say: 

2. In another instance he under-did it, that he reserved to himself a liberty to bow in the house of Rimmon, in complaisance to the king his master, and according to the duty of his place at court (v. 18), in this thing he must be excused. He owns he ought not to do it, but that he cannot otherwise not do it, but that he cannot otherwise keep his place,-protests that his bowing is not, nor ever shall be, as it had been, in honour to the idol, but only in honour to the king,-and therefore he hopes God will forgive him. Perhaps, all things considered, this might admit of some apology, though it was not justifiable. But, as to us, I am sure,
(1.) If, in covenanting with God, we make a reservation for any known sin, which we will continue to indulge ourselves in, that reservation is a defeasance of his covenant. We must cast away all our transgressions and not except any house of Rimmon.
(2.) Though we are encouraged to pray for the remission of the sins we have committed, yet, if we ask for a dispensation to go on in any sin for the future, we mock God, and deceive ourselves.
(3.) Those that know not how to quit a place at court when they cannot keep it without sinning against God, and wronging their consciences, do not rightly value the divine favour.
(4.) Those that truly hate evil will make conscience of abstaining from all appearances of evil. Though Naaman's dissembling his religion cannot be approved, yet because his promise to offer no sacrifice to any god but the God of Israel only was a great point gained with a Syrian, and because, by asking pardon in this matter, he showed such a degree of conviction and ingenuousness as gave hopes of improvement, the prophet took fair leave of him, and bade him Go in peace, v. 19. Young converts must be tenderly dealt with.

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Paul could have simply commanded them not to eat in the temple. But Paul deliberately works at the level of the applications of Scripture in their minds—the point of active mental work that trains the conscience. He’s not telling them that it’s explicitly wrong. He’s guiding their thinking and explaining how they should reason it to be wrong for themselves. And he affirmed that they must “judge for themselves,” v. 15.

Here, I present Paul acting as a teacher of the Word, calling his reader to listen to it as he is presenting it, and obey it. I'm not saying that Paul couldn't have acted on his own authority as an Apostle. Why? I suppose: 1) The acknowledgment of his rights to teach as an Apostle was by no means sure, as evidenced by the first 4 chapters of 1Cor. 2) He wanted to demonstrate that those who hold positions of authority may teach convictions from the Word. They may teach weakness, but when they do, they should afford the "rights" to the strong and they should endeavor to call their hearer to the Word and find their conviction there-not just in human authority.

-----=-=-=-=-=-=-----

Once you are fully persuaded biblically and logically that the act in question is okay to do (in other words, you are satisfied that you no longer think it to be unclean) you are no longer the man in Romans 14:14b for whom it is wrong. You can do it. If your qualms of conscience are still powerfully against doing it, perhaps you are not fully persuaded (assured, convinced, satisfied) in your mind. You should wait. Spend more time in the Word and prayer.

Can you thank God for it? If you’re sure you can do it, then thank God for His gift,7 even if you don’t eat. Peter was shocked at God’s command to “kill and eat.” And he refused so that God had to repeat Himself three times. Peter had great qualms of conscience, but God expected him to go enter the house that same day, sit with gentiles (likely eat) and share the gospel.

Here, I am saying that if you come to realize from the Word that something is ok to do, but you still have qualms about doing it because of your long training in the convictions of others, you may do it. This idea separates me quite a bit from the traditional view of the weak brother. I see Paul's view of the weak brother as the one who has reasoned in his mind from the Word. He doesn't just have a base-less conviction related to old socialization. He has a conviction. That is why he must not violate his conscience. And that is why when he no longer "thinks it is unclean," he should eat.

Thus, our actions should be based more on our thinking than on our feeling. The feelings of conscience are simply a reminder to previous habits thought about right and wrong. 

 

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