See Part 1.
Retrain Your Conscience?
In his lecture, Joe Zichterman made many references to Christian liberty and Romans 14. We should discuss this topic because the misunderstanding of Christian liberty is an important stone in paving the way for a young fundamentalist (YF) to leave Fundamentalism.
The Willow Creek membership manual states, “We do not take stands on controversial issues about which the Bible is silent. Individuals are left to their own consciences before the Lord, rather than depending on the church to tell them what to think or do.” … Unjustifiable dogmatism on disputable matters is a clear violation of the spirit of Romans 14 … . [I]n Acts 15 when the Judaizers were insisting that gentiles be [circumcised] before they could be accepted as full members of the Jerusalem church? Paul told the Galatians later he wouldn’t put up with that for a single minute. You can’t give the impression of dogmatism where Scripture does not allow you to do so (17:48).
Joe used an example from an Amish acquaintance:
[He] told us that he dreamed … about going wild one day and putting on a red shirt … . [T]he first time he finally decided to wear a red shirt when he walked down the street … He felt like everyone was looking at him … and that they were getting riled up emotionally when they saw him … . And he was literally in tears talking about how he wished his family and friends could bask in the liberty he had now found in Jesus Christ (20:10).
He applied these ideas to music:
When I think about the music wars that took place 30 to 40 years ago over musical style, I wonder how many parallels there are with our Amish friend’s conscientious hang-ups over his red shirt. Music that might be considered carnal or sensual by some may not even raise the slightest red flag in the conscience of others because of cultural background (21:20).
Joe seems to understand several things about Christian liberty:
- It is about disputable matters—issues about which believers tend to be dogmatic when Scripture is not.
- Those who have stricter convictions are commanded not to judge those who do not have those convictions.
- Each believer must come to conclusions in his own mind regarding these issues.
- There are many joys in using liberty, including things God created for pleasure.
Joe said he has prayed the following prayer for the last three or four years:
God, make my conscience as broad as You want it to be. Don’t let me be content to be too conservative on any issue. Show me every single area where I’m even an inch too far to the right off of Your radical center of balance (24:55).
Of course, we shouldn’t be “too conservative.” And we don’t want to be anything God does not want us to be. So far, so good, right?
But there are several more questions about Romans 14 that must be carefully answered. The typical answers lead to harsh conclusions about Fundamentalism:
Question 1: Is Fundamentalism populated by weaker brothers?
Typical Answer: Yes. They are over-scrupulous. They judge their brothers. They’re grieved with their brothers’ music.
Question 2: What do we mean when we say they are “weak”?
Typical Answer: They are illogical or deficient in their faith. They need to learn, grow, and strengthen their faith.
A person who makes the mistake of accepting these answers will likely kiss Fundamentalism goodbye. Why? This is important to understand because it partly explains (not excuses) why YFs leave. Before I turn to the passage and challenge these typical answers, let me quickly list some effects these answers have on YFs who are examining a church like CCC (described in Part 1).
- The fundamentalist lacks credibility because he’s “weak.” Why would you surround yourself with weak believers for fellowship and even pastoring and teaching?
- The fundamentalist is in habitual sin-judging. Oddly, the separatist sensibilities of the YF might cause him to break fellowship at this point.
- The fundamentalist church (or pastor) usurps Christ’s authority and abuses the flock by demanding agreement on any disputable matter.
- The convictions of the fundamentalist church needlessly isolate its members from society.
- The YF will conclude that all disputable matters are correctly answered with liberty.
- The YF might feel the need to retrain his conscience by exposing himself to offensive actions until they no longer bother him.
From Joe’s lecture:
By high control groups, I mean those who hold to the core of the gospel, while establishing their own views on non-salvific doctrines as tests of fellowship—and elevating their own convictions regarding disputable matters in practice to the level of Scripture as they exercise excessive control on their members in spiritually abusive ways (31:15).
I’d rather have the chance to make choices for myself as the Holy Spirit leads than to live imprisoned by someone else’s overly scrupulous conscience, as imbalanced sensitivity to the weaker brother makes us look like the Amish to 21st-century seekers. Paul’s plan was not that the weaker brother be permanently allowed to stay that way. He was supposed to educate his conscience (43:27).
[Dress, grooming, entertainment] … which the group elevates (at least practically to the level of a biblical absolute … . These restrictions have the practical effect of isolating members from mainstream society. So they cling to the group leaders for support as they’re despised by the world (42:35).
Is This the Way to Understand Romans 14?
Once you accept Joe’s understanding of this passage, the piety of Fundamentalism quickly becomes a poorly trained, illogical conscience.
Fundamentalists often deny that this passage gives liberty on issues to which Bible principles apply. The reasoning is that if an application is correct, then the “strong,” Scripture-educated thing to do is to follow it. Therefore, the one with this conviction can’t be “weak.” Success with this reasoning is highly dependent on the hearer’s agreeing that the application is, in fact, “correct.” Also consider that the weak brother of Romans believed that his conviction was obvious—yet he was still “weak.”
This flips the passage completely over. The stronger brother is the one who correctly applies the Word in practice. He then defines “strength” according to his own convictions—which sometimes represent extreme scrupulousness. In this way, while Romans 14 describes the scrupulous brother as “weak,” he manages to call the scrupulous brother “strong.”
This attempt to explain the passage is ridiculous. Rejecting it seems to leave the fundamentalist as illogical and immature, which is often the conclusion of YFs. I would have left Fundamentalism several years ago had I not done three things first:
- I paused over the decision. I knew there were many intelligent, sincere, and mature believers in Fundamentalism. It did not make sense to pronounce them “weak”—at least, as I then understood the term.
- I considered the wonderful attention to theology and personal holiness that I saw in some segments of Fundamentalism.
- I studied and meditated on Romans 14. Portions did not make sense. It took a long time to figure out what was in the text and what I was assuming was there. I realized that by dropping unsupported assumptions, the passage began to fit together coherently.
“Weak is bad.”
This is an incredibly pervasive assumption. This is closely tied to the idea that the “weak” should grow to become strong. Neither idea is from the text.
“It is their faith that is weak.”
Not necessarily. It is the brother who is weak with regard to some issue—and he is so “in faith.”
“The problem of the weak is doubting.”
This assumption is based on a translation choice in verse 23—“he that doubteth is damned if he eat” (emphasis added). That word diakrino means “to separate, make a distinction, discriminate, to prefer.” It is just as often translated with the idea of “discernment” and “judging” as it is “doubting.” It could be discerning here as well as doubting. If so, then it should read, “He that discerns (or judges) is condemned if he eats.”
A Quick Run Through Romans 14
As you consider this interpretation, you might be struck by the novelty of it. That might bother you. Why should I suggest something new? I respond that you do not have a solid position to which to retreat as “historical.” I can give you several interpretations of this passage, a few of which are old enough to lay claim to historical orthodoxy.
Ask your YF friends who have left Fundamentalism what the passage means. Ask the fundamentalists what the passage means. There simply is no consensus view.
The key idea is that strength is the ability to do something in faith while weakness is the corresponding inability.
v. 2—One believes to eat meat; the other is weak (unable to eat meat).
vv. 3-4—Don’t belittle the non-eater; don’t judge the eater. God is able to make him an obedient servant.
vv. 5-6—Each should be convinced in his own mind. The one who is able eats in honor of the Lord, and the one who is unable abstains in honor of the Lord.
vv. 7-12—Christ lived and died to actively lord over (verb) the dead and the living. It is through these convictions (both “weak” and “strong”) that Christ exerts His Lordship.
v. 13—It is important for us not to encourage a brother to do other than how Christ has convicted him.
v. 14—Nothing is evil of itself. But for the one who reasons or calculates (logizomenw) that something is unclean, for him it is unclean.
vv. 15-22a—Do not cause a brother to sin by doing something he is unable to do in faith.
v. 22b—You’ll be happy if you never have to condemn yourself for the things you allow yourself to do. This truth doesn’t mean that you should allow yourself to do anything and then—oh yeah—don’t condemn yourself. It means that you should limit what you allow so no condemnation is necessary.
v. 23—He that judges is guilty if he eats—because he doesn’t eat with confidence that he can.
15:1, cf —We who have abilities need to take on the inabilities of those who are unable. Fellowship with the weak is important.
Verse 14b is important here. Yes, there are many things the fundamentalist is weak (unable) to do in faith. Why? Because he has reasoned that these things are violations of Bible principles. These things are evil by application of the Word. The weak brother is a logical brother. And, for him, these things are indeed evil.
Which brother has logically based his conclusion on Scripture? Note that in my interpretation, both the weak and the strong should have done this. If so, they may lay equal claim to being logical and Scriptural and correct. The difference between them is what their conclusion allows them to do. The weak has things he is unable to do “in faith.” The strong is able to do those things “in faith.” Thus, “weak” refers not to the strength of his faith. Rather, it refers to his strength or ability to do things “in faith.”
We see the same basis for distinction between the weak and the strong in 1 Corinthians 8. The basis of the difference is what they know (think, reason). The “knowledge” that Paul discusses is not rote knowledge—it is a line of reasoning. The one whose conscience is weak does not have that knowledge. He has another “knowledge”—another line of reasoning.
Should You Retrain Your Conscience?
Yes and no. We should be retraining our consciences. Joe’s prayer is good.
But no, we should not retrain in the manner Joe seems to be advocating. Joe’s view has several problems:
Paul’s plan was not that the weaker brother be permanently allowed to stay that way. He was supposed to educate his conscience (43:45).
This conclusion is not in the passage, so Joe is apparently trying to read Paul’s mind. In verse 5, Paul tells these brothers (one of whom is “weak”) to each be fully convinced. Paul is reinforcing his weakness! In fact, there is evidence from Ambrosiaster that the believers in Rome took the passage seriously by taking on the weaknesses of the Jews. The “plan” for the weaker brother to be forced out of weakness may instead have been hatched by the anti-Semitic John Chrysostom.
You remember in Acts 15 when the Judaizers were insisting that gentiles be made to conform to the cultural practice of circumcision before they could be accepted as full members of the Jerusalem church? Paul told the Galatians later he wouldn’t put up with that for a single minute. You can’t give the impression of dogmatism where Scripture does not allow you to do so (18:18).
The elders and apostles did remove the requirement for circumcision, but they also instituted the rule of avoiding idol meat. Later, idol meat served as Paul’s example of Christian liberty, and the rules were still in place in Acts 21. Some refinement of the concept is necessary. The local church does have the responsibility to define right and wrong (at least temporally and locally) in disputable matters.
I’d rather have the chance to make choices for myself as the Holy Spirit leads than to live imprisoned by someone else’s overly scrupulous conscience (43:18).
First Corinthians 5 commands church discipline. This includes such hazy offenses as “greed.” The line at which greed is crossed will be a very disputable matter. There should be a “both … and” in this. Churches should give members latitude and allow the Holy Spirit to lead. That way, members will apply the Word and obey the Holy Spirit. But it must be remembered that it is okay—even required—for churches to decide on some disputable matters.
He told us … that it took him about three weeks of wearing the red shirt for it to stop bothering his conscience … I thought that testimony was extremely insightful as to how the conscience really can be systematically trained to believe just about anything (21:00).
The conscience may be retrained, but Joe’s example is not the way to do it. This man wore the red shirt for three weeks, and all the while it was “bothering his conscience”—until one day the shirt stopped bothering him. Joe remarks that the conscience can be “trained to believe just about anything.”
Remember that for the weaker brother of Romans 14:14b the item is evil when he has calculated—logically reasoned—it to be so. What you allow yourself to do must be based on what you conclude. That conclusion must be based on a logical application of Bible principles.
Joe seems to skip the step of logically applying the Word. Instead, “training” consists of doing an action that bothers your conscience until the guilt magically stops. Yikes! As Joe says, the “conscience” can be trained to “believe” just about anything. But we don’t want our consciences to believe “just about anything.” We want the right and wrong of our consciences to conform to the Word of God. That means we must mentally apply Scripture and then act accordingly.
If your conscience has been “trained” by exposure instead of having been educated according to the Word, then you are rudderless. You have no thoughtful conscience—instead you have random guilt. Whatever you’ve been exposed to is “right,” and whatever is atypical is “wrong.” And almost every time you do feel guilt, you’ll have to admit that you shouldn’t be feeling guilt. After all, “to the pure, all things are pure” (emphasis added). And “nothing is unclean of itself” (emphasis added). In fact, according to this method, we should never feel guilt about anything that isn’t explicitly forbidden.
If you’re a YF who is thinking about reexamining some of your old convictions, by all means do so. Re-listen to the biblical applications of the fundamentalists. Listen to the biblical arguments from those who feel at liberty to do those things. Pray for wisdom, weigh the arguments, and conclude in your own mind about what you should do to serve Christ according to His Word. Then obey what you conclude with confidence. But do not eviscerate your conscience by doing what you feel guilty about until you don’t feel guilt anymore.
I will not discus other problems in detail. Joe slides frighteningly from discussing accepting differences in application to accepting differences in interpretation. That is where Joe’s references to the Emergent conversation are troublesome (18:35). The YF may benefit by listening to Mark Driscoll on this matter. Here and here are two short samples of his thinking.
I don’t have space to elaborate, but discernment is not a “spiritual sixth sense.” It is steeping our minds in Bible principles, thinking about how to apply them, and making judgments as the Holy Spirit reminds us of the Words of Christ.
I disagree with the typical evangelical understanding of Christian liberty. I have expressed previously in SI how I disagree with the way I’ve seen fundamentalists minimize it. Each side seems to want to beat the other over the head. In order to do so, one needs to misinterpret passages like Romans 14; the other needs to ignore or minimize them.
Sometimes our spiritual rudders direct us into different waters. Some honor the Lord by eating, and some honor the Lord by abstaining. Each honors the Lord in his action when that action is obedience to the conclusions of his mind as he logically applies the Word. We fundamentalists shouldn’t judge the one who concludes that he has liberty. But others should also remember not to despise the fundamentalist for his abstention. We are right to obey what we have logically concluded.
All quotations are from the audio Why I Joined Willow Creek Community Church. The time location in minutes and seconds follows each quote.
|Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist living in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He received a B.S. in Premed from Bob Jones University in 1991 and an M.D. from The University of South Carolina School of Medicine in 1995. He serves as youth leader and board member at Cedar Heights Baptist Church, also in Cedar Falls. He has been happily married to Jenny since 1992. His opinions are not necessarily those of his church or Sharperiron.|