For Conscience Sake

Christian liberty is God encouraging us to determine for ourselves how best to follow Him: we each stand or fall before our own Master. (Ro 14:4-5) He isn’t encouraging us to sin (Ro 6:15), to break His law (1Jn 3:4), but to apply His precepts in extra-biblical matters in ways we believe most pleases Him. It’s something He calls us to do from the heart as we follow Him, rather than blindly conforming to man-made tradition.

A very challenging scenario for early Christians was whether to eat food that might have been sacrificed to idols. (1Co 10:28-29) It wasn’t technically sinful, but many weaker souls didn’t understand, so extra-biblical discernment was required in each particular situation. When one was offered food in a public context, either in the open markets or at a particular feast, one couldn’t be sure if it had been sacrificed to an idol or not, and how others might view this.

For mature believers, knowing rituals can’t contaminate our food (1Co 8:4), Paul resolves this with a don’t ask policy (25); it isn’t actually a matter of sin since no food belongs to an idol. (26) But if someone points out that some food’s been dedicated to an idol, then abstain to avoid causing others with a weak conscience to stumble. (28) Love limits freedom for conscience sake, not for ourselves but for others.

Taken out of context, this principle might be abused to claim that God doesn’t care what we eat now; no matter what kind of food’s available – don’t worry about whether it’s God’s design for food, biblically clean, or not. After all, Paul does say in the same context, “All things are lawful for me.” (1Co 10:23)

Yet taking such principles literally in isolation produces absurdity. If “all things are lawful for me,” then murder, sodomy and blasphemy are fine now? Of course not! And even if we limit this to food, is cannibalism OK now? Or poisonous frogs, cockroaches and flies? Not at all.  Contextually, it’s clear that Paul is saying every creature God has sanctified as food for us in His Word is lawful and good (1Ti 4:4-5), regardless what ritual has been performed over it.

When wrestling with passages like this, trying to understand the relevance of Torah in our lives, particularly dietary law, we must divide the word honestly, rightly harmonizing each text with the whole of scripture. It’s true that Paul doesn’t explicitly delineate how every single law in Torah is still relevant for both Jew and gentile, yet he shouldn’t have to: Jesus does, as clearly as it can be done – it’s all relevant for everyone for all time. (Mt 5:17-18) Saints are classified by our mind towards it (19), and all who break it as a manner of life are guilty without excuse. (Ro 3:19)

Paul never says Gentiles don’t have to obey certain parts of Torah, breaking God’s Law up into pieces, some of which are irrelevant. This can’t rightly be done (Ja 2:10); we get this mindset from those who’ve corrupted the Word. (2Co 2:17) Instead, Paul asserts that faith establishes Torah (Ro 3:31), and that it’s all good when used as God intended (1Ti 1:8), pointing out that our old man hates it (Ro 8:7) and our new man delights in it. (Ro 7:22) Once we’re aligned with Paul, serving Torah (Ro 7:25), we won’t be asking which laws we must obey, but which ones we’re allowed to.

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To His Own Master

Scripture is perfectly precise; it isn’t overly specific, nor is it inappropriately vague. The detail God has provided is both necessary and sufficient for us; we must not add to it, nor take away from it. (De 4:2)

Yet there are a great variety of circumstances in which we might find ourselves, and a body of law which explicitly detailed how to act in every conceivable setting would be enormous, unthinkably vast, anticipating the impact of undeveloped technologies and innumerable cultural/familial complexities. Composing such a paint-by-the-numbers standard is evidently untenable as we consider the great variety of possible cultural and societal forms that might evolve across time.

Even so, all we need to be fully equipped to please God in every circumstance of life is provided us in the Tanakh, the Old Testament. (2Ti 3:16-17) We may derive from its precepts how God would have us act in every scenario we could ever encounter. It is miraculously precise in this regard, a living Sword, discerning every motive and intent of our hearts. (He 4:12)

So, in extra-biblical matters, which are by definition beyond the scope and obvious spirit of the text of Scripture, we are required and encouraged to use our own judgement and understanding as to how best to follow God, discerning His way for us through the precepts embedded in His Word (Ps 119:104), which He must help us understand (Ps 119:27) as we meditate on them (Ps 119:15) in the Spirit. (1Jn 2:27)

Each of us may, indeed, being at varying points in our journey after God, see things a bit differently from those around us; this is both expected and healthy. God does not want us to blindly defer to others in these kinds of things by failing to seek His wisdom and discernment for ourselves, but to maintain a sense of individual responsibility to walk and to please Him. He tells us to be fully persuaded in our own mind (Ro 14:5), and to be happy in the freedom to obey according to our own conscience. (Ro 14:22)

This kind of spiritual autonomy and individuality does not promote lawlessness, where everyone’s selfishly doing what’s right in their own eyes (De 12:8) in spite of what God says, justifying absolutely anything they like. (Pr 21:2) Such is the way of the world. (Pr 30:12) This kind of liberty only works well in communities of saints, who delight in God’s Law as He is writing it in their hearts.

Neither should we permit our individuality to make us unteachable, disinterested in the insights, wisdom and challenges of others. (He 10:25) It is our great privilege to edify one another, seeking the living Christ in each other as we help each other follow Him. (1Th 5:11) This is the very foundation of spiritual community. (1Co 14:26)

And, to be certain, there are clear guidelines for this kind of spiritual liberty; we must not allow it to become a stumbling block to our weaker brothers. (1Co 8:9) When a brother or sister doesn’t have a mature understanding of God’s Way, and would be tempted to violate their untrained conscience through our example, walking in such liberty violates the law of love and sins against Christ Himself. (1Co 8:12) Further, insisting that others follow our particular understanding when seeking practical consensus in community is likewise stubborn uncharitableness. In such cases, deferring to others, especially the elder and more experienced, is simply wisdom. (Ep 5:21)

The dangerous alternative to God’s design here is to impose universal compliance in matters which God has not clearly specified, effectively adding to His Word through man-made tradition, which subtly — yet inevitably — corrupts our worship (Mk_7:7) and turns us from the truth. (Tit 1:14) It elevates a select group of men above the brotherhood into a place of unhealthy spiritual authority over others, oppressing the saints into delegating their responsibility to discern the optimal application of God’s Word for themselves to these select few. This is entirely contrary to God’s design for our spiritual life.

To be healthy in God, we must each retain a sense of individual accountability to God as our own Master (Ro 14:7-8), and encourage others to do the same. (Rom 14:4). We’re each individually responsible for how we live before Him; if we’re in any kind of error (Ja 1:16), or are misapplying God’s Word in some way, it is no one’s fault but our own.

The head of every man is Jesus Christ (1Co 11:3); we are to be looking unto Him as our Example in every facet of our lives (He 12:2), delegating no step of this precious, eternal walk to anyone else. (1Pe 2:21)

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