In chapter 5, Naselli and Crowley discuss “Twelve Principles about How to Disagree with Other Christians on Disputable Matters.” #1 is “Welcome those who disagree with you (Rom. 14:1-2).” Here they re-define the weak conscience:
The weak person’s conscience lacks sufficient confidence (i.e., faith) to do a particular act without self-judgment, even if that act is actually not a sin. To him it would be sin … His conscience lacked the confidence (faith) to do those things without self-condemnation.1
This definition is excellent, as is the remaining discussion, which is based on it. They go on to describe weakness and strength as a spectrum2 extending from permissive (strong) to strict (weak). This is the pattern for the rest of the book, where “weakness” is treated as strictness, not theological immaturity.
The remaining principles are guided by the fact that “you are responsible to obey both Paul’s exhortations to the weak and his exhortations to the strong, since (1) there are usually people on either side of you … (2) you yourself likely have a stronger conscience on some issues and a weaker conscience on others.”3 Indeed, the discussion continues this idea that “weak” means “strict.” Principle #2 is “Those who have freedom of conscience must not look down on those who don’t (Rom. 14:3-4)” and #3 is “Those whose conscience restricts them must not be judgmental toward those who have freedom (Rom. 14:3-4).” For these two principles, the authors cite Rom. 14, which means they have equated “weak” with “conscience restricts” and “strong” with “have freedom.”
Principle #5 is “Assume that others are partaking or refraining for the glory of God (Rom. 14:6-9).” Here the authors long for a church community “where everyone gave each other the benefit of the doubt on these differences.” Principle #6 emphasizes that “we will all someday stand before the judgment seat of God.” #7 tells those with freedom not to “destroy the faith of the weak brother (Rom. 14:13-15).” They carefully distinguish between being annoyed by your brother and being offended by him (caused to sin), which is a helpful clarification. #8 tells us these disagreements are not the most important thing in the kingdom of God. Principle # 9 (Free? Don’t flaunt; Strict? Don’t expect others to agree) is a bit redundant with previous principles. #10 is “A person who lives according to their conscience is blessed.” #11 calls us to “follow the example of Christ, who put others first (Rom. 15:1-6).” #12 is, “We bring glory to God when we welcome one another as Christ welcomed us (Rom. 15:7).”
Chapter 6 takes the conscience on the road to the surprising world of cross-cultural missions. This final chapter, and indeed the whole book, should be required reading for anyone contemplating Christian missions. The chapter could not be what it is without the painstaking pursuit of biblical truth in the previous chapters. Neither is it likely to have existed without the years of life on the field in various cultures and careful observations of the hearts and minds of the people the authors went to serve, as well as the hearts and minds of the authors themselves (especially J.D., since this seems to be his chapter).
The chapter begins by observing that foreign cultures will often lack taboos and mores that we consider basic, obvious signs of respect, truthfulness, and love for God and fellow man. In those situations, we can be astounded at what seems to us to be a lack of basic good behavior we find in foreign people. We must learn to view their behavior through the lens of their culture’s signs of respect, truthfulness, and love—not ours. And we must learn to speak their culture’s language of behavior, or we will communicate disrespect, untruth, and a lack of love to them. This chapter is very helpful in thinking about how to chart a course through this morass.
In a section beginning on p. 136, the authors apply what we’ve learned from their experience in missions to the church back home. There are other cultures, and in our churches, we find other sub-cultures and different convictions. We must learn that some of our brothers and sisters have different ways of expressing the same biblical principles. Therefore, on these disputable matters, when someone else doesn’t apply some biblical principle the way I do, I should still be able to fellowship with him or her for the glory of God.
Chapter 7 is a beautiful closing prayer for the reader and the church. Let it be so.
The Two-Definitions Dilemma
As I’ve mentioned a couple times, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is how they define and discuss the “weak conscience.” They first define it as a theologically uninformed moral consciousness. Later they define the weak conscience as the lack of confidence (faith) to do things without self-condemnation. This second definition is the predominant basis for most of the book. It introduces a novel and useful treatment of the issues, but by using two definitions for the weak conscience the authors cause a dilemma.
This dilemma is invisible when both definitions fit a particular conviction on an issue. For instance, in the section on subtracting from your conscience, Andy reflects on his experience with the question, “Is it sinful to listen to particular styles of music?”4 He previously believed that particular styles inherently communicated sinful sensuality and rebellion. But over the years, he has educated his conscience on the matter, so that, for him, it “is no longer a conscience issue.” Since Andy is more informed (“strong” by definition 1) now and has more confidence to use those music types without self-condemnation (“strong” by definition 2), the Andy of years ago was “weak” and the Andy of now is “strong” according to both definitions.
But consider another issue Andy mentions: Spending a lot of time on sports. Here, too, Andy’s conscience changed over the years. But this time he added to it; he became more strict. He mentions good friends who passionately follow sports, and ends by saying this “illustrates that mature Christians may form different convictions about specific issues.” Now the dilemma over definitions is visible. In this scenario, Andy is now more theologically informed (he is applying biblical principles of time-stewardship to his life), which, according to the first definition, makes him now stronger. But he has lost the confidence to do something without self-condemnation (he can’t do the sports-fan things he used to do). And according to the second definition, that makes him weak. So which is he? Strong or weak?
To solve the dilemma, one might ask: would Andy and JD apply the principles of Romans 14 found in chapter 5 to Andy and his sports-fan friends as follows?
- Andy should follow his conscience and not spend that time on sports. While not judging his sports-fan friends, he should, in love, gently remind them that they are accountable to Jesus for their time and that they will answer to Him. Andy should feel blessed to live in accordance with his conviction. And without causing strife, he should glorify God with his friends.
Do the authors agree with this application of their chapter 5 principles to Andy?
They seem to, as they do allow for difference of conscience with Andy’s sports-fan friends. If so, they are treating Andy as having a “weak conscience” on the matter of sports-fanaticism by applying to him the principles for the weak brother. The dilemma is solved. Two definitions were offered, but when push comes to shove, the second definition is the real one: The weak conscience lacks the confidence (faith) to do something without self-condemnation.
If the authors would agree with this solution to their dilemma, this book is a landmark in the history of the Christian view of the conscience. With this second definition, the authors of Conscience have, in my opinion, recovered the true meaning of “weak conscience” in Paul’s epistles.
The book expands that idea (sometimes even in disputable matters we should lack the faith to do something without self-condemnation). Further, the book challenges us to apply the principle to personal devotion, church life, and the mission field in such a beautiful, loving way that I heartily recommend it to everyone.