Review: Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ (Part 2)

Image of Conscience
by Andrew Naselli
Crossway 2016
Paperback 160

Handling Disagreements

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).”

Cross-Cultural Missions

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.

Notes

1 Conscience, Kindle 1352, P. 97.

2 Conscience, Figure 5, The spectrum of conscience, and surrounding explanation, Kindle 1367, P. 98.

3 Conscience, Kindle 1376, P. 98.

4 Conscience, Kindle 1024, P. 76.

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 7 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

I actually stopped watching football not out of concern that I was wasting too much time on it (although I probably was), but rather because the commercials (e.g. Cialis) got pretty raunchy.  I'm still not ready to explain some of the concepts in those commercials to my kids!  Perhaps it illustrates, to a degree, how matters of conscience interact with matters of genuine sin.  The borders can be fuzzy.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

Bert and Susan, your posts are interestingly complementary. I'm working on the last three papers for my series, and this is a little of a preview, I guess.

Bert is saying that the raunchiness of NFL ads turned him away from watching football. Yes. I've done that, too. (Though in my estimation, since the "wardrobe malfunction" in the Super Bowl several years ago, the NFL has cleaned up things considerably.) 

There's an aspect of the conscience that is "automatic" - you "just know" something is wrong and so you stop. And the conscience sometimes requires study and consideration before one can feel confident he is "fully convinced" in his mind. To understand why it is sometimes each one of these, we have to understand that any good conviction of conscience has two elements: Bible truth and real world application. 

The second, real world application, includes culturally defined symbols, which are everything from language to physical gestures to works of service, love, hatred, respect, disrespect, etc. In general, all you have to know to know the meaning of these gestures is be steeped in the culture. If you are, you just know.

Real world application also includes attitudes of the individual heart. A man who stops watching NFL because every ad is a bikini ad is acting on this. If we are self-observant, then we just know when something is resonating with the evil in our heart (lust, etc.).

The first element of a good conviction is Bible. This is not automatic. One does not "just know" that a Biblical principle exists (at least not reliably). This is where Susan's post comes in. When we steep ourselves in the Word of God, then this element of conscience becomes more automatic. And that's how she describes it. 

Problems come when people observe that convictions come automatically and then they assume that they should come in that way for everyone. In that way, I think older Christians take their knowledge of Bible principles for granted. 

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I took a lot of flack for reading the Bible that way? I was told that 'just reading' the Bible without 'studying' it was shallow and mechanical. Of course, I ignored them, because the people that griped the most weren't reading the Bible much if at all. 

But then, we aren't really a nation of readers anymore, and that's probably part of it. We've become baby birds who want the pastor or some author to catch and chew our food for us then spit it down our gullet. 

Ew.

On the topic of conscience, I'm a little surprised by the things that don't bother me anymore, and the things that bother me now. I used to have major problems with people who thought differently, because how can we have the same Holy Spirit and yet vary on matters of conscience?

But I see the things that affect me and don't affect others, and vice/versa. For instance, I grew up in rural WV and there are terms used in that context (farming) that in another context are considered obscene. It doesn't bother me at all if those terms are used in the proper context. Ditto the proper terms for male and female anatomy. I never made up cute names for my kids to use - we used Gray's Anatomy to teach human biology, and there are no euphemisms in that book. I personally think it's silly to not use the scientific terms for things, but then, that's me and my conscience. 

Dan Miller's picture

I appreciate the need for each believer to be in the Word. And I think it's awful that most Christians seem to get 90%+ of their nourishment in the Word during that 35-minute sermon Sunday morning. 

But I'm not sure I like the idea of depicting the preached Word as vomitus. The calling to preach and teach God's Word is a noble one. And done as it ought to be, it is beneficial to all who hear, whether babes in Christ or not.

I'm sure you feel the same way. 

-------

That said, I'm interested the nature of the "flack" you received over your dedicated Bible reading.

Bert Perry's picture

...if we suppose what we see too often, a pastor who does not really preach the word but rather uses it as a springboard for what he wanted to say anyways, vomitus might not be that bad of a word picture, no?  Tyler pointed out in the secular schools thread that good preaching gives people a lot to think about, but spoon-feeding violates that principle.  Certainly the crowd at Pentecost had a lot of room to think things through, as well as the Sermon on the Mount, so I'd wonder if spoon-feeding is almost ipso facto un-Biblical preaching.  

And really, for re-calibrating one's conscience, reading through the whole Scripture can't be beat.  I mentioned in the secular colleges thread that the apostles were reminded of passages they'd learned in the Old Testament after the counselor was given--more or less after Pentecost, no?  And given many of the things we fundamentalists argue about--often it seems as if we're trying to extend Paul's lists to be a more complete Talmud--one might infer that there is a roar of our culture that needs to be drowned out through investigating the depth and breadth of Scripture.

I personally wonder if some of the flack Susan got, then, was that she started seeing how the roar of our culture wasn't necessarily guided by Scripture.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Dan Miller wrote:

I appreciate the need for each believer to be in the Word. And I think it's awful that most Christians seem to get 90%+ of their nourishment in the Word during that 35-minute sermon Sunday morning. 

But I'm not sure I like the idea of depicting the preached Word as vomitus. The calling to preach and teach God's Word is a noble one. And done as it ought to be, it is beneficial to all who hear, whether babes in Christ or not.

I'm sure you feel the same way. 

-------

That said, I'm interested the nature of the "flack" you received over your dedicated Bible reading.

In my baby bird analogy I was thinking more of depicting Christians who choose to remain helpless and dependent on others for spiritual nourishment - didn't intend to convey an ick factor about the preached Word. More like "I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able." Milk- it does a body good. But eventually one should grow up already.

The 'flack' I received was pretty much as I stated - "just reading" is mechanical and doesn't mean anything if you aren't "studying". But what does it mean to "study"? Must we use commentaries, guides, and devotionals? Read at a slower pace? Keep a journal? Stare meaningfully at the ceiling? Anyway, it seemed weird to people that I was reading so much, like it was nuts to read the Bible once a month. It was only 45 pages a day in my old Thompson Chain. The people I know who are 'readers' can get through a mid-size novel in about a week, so they are probably reading an average of 60 pages a day. I have no idea why it seemed a big deal that I was reading 45 pages a day of the Bible, but it was definitely frowned upon as excessive. I wouldn't even have told anyone except I was doing nursery duty and one of the other ladies asked me what system I used to read the Bible. And then word got around, as it does so often when one spends time in the nursery...

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Bert Perry wrote:
I personally wonder if some of the flack Susan got, then, was that she started seeing how the roar of our culture wasn't necessarily guided by Scripture.

That was part of it. Not only did some of what was coming from the pulpit begin to sound skewed (and sometimes downright nonsensical), but I deviated way too far from the norm. I remember hearing the preacher say, "You don't have to read a lot, just at least read something. Even a verse is better than nothing." Well, that might be true, but it certainly isn't very challenging, not is it consistent with Scriptural principles of reading and learning the Word. 

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