Book Review: Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ

Conscience  Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ by Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley is a fairly short book at 149 pages (not including indexes), but it’s packed full.

They begin with a brief explanation about what got each of them thinking and then studying about the conscience. Then they explore what the conscience is and does and look briefly at every verse in the New Testament that mentions conscience. They bring out several principles, more than I can reiterate here, but a few stand out: conscience has been given to us by God; no two people have exactly the same conscience; “no one’s conscience perfectly matches God’s will”; conscience can be damaged in a number of ways; we should listen to it and not violate it so that we don’t damage it; once God shows us clearly that an issue our conscience troubles us about is not an issue in God’s Word, we yield to God as Lord over our consciences (e.g., Peter submitting to God’s rule about eating certain kinds of meat even though at first his conscience condemned them as unclean in Acts 10).

Our consciences might misregister due to being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” – if we keep doing something that we feel is wrong and ignore conscience. “Feeding excuses to your conscience is like feeding sleeping pills to a watchdog” (p. 64). Our consciences are also affected by “the standards of other people such as your culture, family, or spiritual leaders. You simply go with the flow without thinking through the issues” (p. 64).

Since Christians are (or should be) continually reading God’s Word and growing spiritually, our consciences will change over the years as we realize some scruples are not Biblically based and as we become convicted of some issues that we had not previously realized were sin. We continually calibrate our consciences to align with God’s Word.

But since we’re all in different stages of growth and come from different cultures and have been taught different things about right and wrong, all our consciences are not going to be on the same page at the same time. How then do we interact with each other?

We should not sin against our conscience by thinking, “Well, Mr. A and Miss B. do this and they are strong Christians, so it must be ok.” No, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:2), we should do everything we do as unto the Lord (Romans 14:6), and we shouldn’t do anything that we can’t do with the full faith that it is okay (Romans 14:22-23) (“Don’t forget that ‘faith’ here refers not to saving faith in Christ [14:22a makes that clear] but to the confidence a person has in their heart or conscience to do a particular activity” [p. 97]). One whose conscience is strong in a certain area shouldn’t despise someone whose conscience bothers them on that issue, and the person whose conscience bothers them shouldn’t judge the person whose conscience has no scruples about issues which are not clearly defined in Scripture (Romans 14:3-4). Bringing up a specific matter, the authors write:

Don’t roll your eyes. This question may make you “face palm” in amazement at how strange someone else’s conscience might be. That’s typically how someone with a strong conscience reacts when they hear about the scruples of the weak. But to the weak of conscience, these are life-and-death matters. Conscience is always a life-and-death matter since sinning against it is always a sin, and getting used to sinning against conscience in one area will make it easier to sin against conscience in other areas. The strong must not look down on the weak but bear with them (Romans 15:1) and, if opportunity arises, gently help them calibrate their conscience (p. 79).

A few of the many quotes I have marked:

We should expect disagreements with fellow Christians about third-level matters [disputable matters where the Bible allows for differences], and we should learn to live with those differences. Christians don’t always need to eliminate differences, but they should always seek to glorify God by loving each other in their differences (p. 87).

Mature Christians should help other Christians train their consciences, but no one should force others to change their conscience (p. 92).

Our ultimate goal is not simply to stop judging those who are free or to stop looking down on those who are strict. Our ultimate goal is to follow the example of our Lord Jesus, who gave up his rights for others. He joyfully renounced his unbelievable freedom in heaven to come to earth and become an obedient Jew in order to save his people (Rom. 15:3-9) (pp. 95-96).

Have the right proportion. Keep disputable matters in their place as third-level issues. Don’t treat them like first- or second-level issues. And don’t become preoccupied with them or divisive about them. They shouldn’t be so important to you that it’s all you want to talk about. They shouldn’t be the main reason that you choose what church to join. They shouldn’t be issues that you are the most passionate about such that you are constantly trying to win people over to your position and then looking down on them if they decide not to join your side (p. 101).

Unfortunately I have seen this far too often. We spend a disproportionate amount of time on these issues, and let them distract us from the main issues.

Notice how generous Paul is to both sides. He assumes that both sides are exercising their freedoms or restrictions for the glory of God. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be in a church where everyone gave each other the benefit of the doubt on these differences, instead of putting the worst possible spin on everything? Paul says that both the weak and the strong can please the Lord even while holding different views on disputable matters. They have different positions but the same motivation: to honor God. They both do what they do for the glory of God (p. 106).

Christ gave up his life for that brother or sister; are you unwilling to give up your freedom [to do something your conscience is free about] if that would help your fellow believer avoid sinning against conscience? That’s what this passage is talking about when it refers to putting “a stumblingblock or hindrance” (Rom. 14:13) in another’s way (p. 109).

Christian freedom is not “I always do what I want.” Nor is it “I always do whatever the other person wants.” It is “I do what brings glory to God. I do what brings others under the influence of the gospel. I do what leads to peace in the church (p. 115).

One of the authors is a missionary to Cambodia, and they discuss dealing with cross-cultural issues of conscience as well. For instance, the author had a fledgling mango tree that finally produced three pieces of fruit. A friend doing some concrete work at his house ate the fruit. In the US, we’d consider that at least thoughtless and selfish, at worst, thievery. But in that culture, eating fruit while on or passing through someone else’s property was not a problem at all (there is even Biblical precedent for that in Deut. 23:24-25 and Luke 6:1). Reacting negatively to that would be seen as stingy. Preaching against it as “sin” would have either confused the hearers or caused them to dismiss the missionary’s message. They cite another case in another country where the people had no qualms about a women’s chest being uncovered, as they associated breasts with feeding babies, but to them “the sight of a woman’s thighs stimulates lustful desires” (p. 125). So a lady missionary thought the bare-chested women were highly immodest, but they thought she was immodest for wearing clothes that showed her thighs. The authors devote a whole chapter to dealing with these kinds of issues, pointing out especially that when we discuss sin, we need to major on what the Bible clearly says is sin, not sin in our cultural contexts, and we need to be careful that we’re not reproducing churches or Christians that mirror the culture that we came from, but rather we need to help them reflect Christ in their own culture.

There is so much more that I’d like to share, but I am in danger of reproducing the book as it is. Much of this was not new to me, as once when we moved to a different area and could not find a church “just” like the one we came from, I had to study through Romans 14 and related passages to come to terms with differences in preferences among the folks in our new area.  But this is a much more thorough exploration than mine had been. I appreciated not only the study but also the practicality, balance, and accessibility (easy to understand without a lot of theological-ese) of the book. Highly recommended.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carol’s Books You Loved)

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ

  1. Thanks for your review of this book. I’ve been wanting to read it but haven’t gotten to it yet. I’m most curious about how they determine what are first-, second-, and third-level issues. I assume they must use scripture in their analysis, but there are lots of opinions about how important certain issues are. And really principles are all we have to go on for some areas of life. Some, for example, say music would be third level, but yet it is worship of our God, who wants us to be separated from the world (and certain styles are more strongly associated with the negative aspects of the world than others). So how does one know how important a matter is and whether it’s an area where different opinions are okay? Since we share some similarities in background, I think you know where I’m coming from. Thanks for this.

    • On page 86, they define first-level issues as those “most central and essential to Christianity. You can’t deny these teachings and still be a Christian in any meaningful sense.” Issues like the fact that Jesus was fully man and fully God, that He died for our sins and rose again bodily, etc.

      “Second-level issues create reasonable boundaries between Christians, such as different denominations and local churches. These issues will have a bearing on what sort of church you are part of.” Here they place things like views on baptism, church government, the role of women in the church, etc. We acknowledge that people can differ on these issues and still be Christians, but it would be hard to maintain church unity with differences in these areas.

      The third-level matters are things like what you think should or shouldn’t be done on Sunday, who we interpret the “sons of God” to be in Gen. 6, etc. “Disputable matters aren’t unimportant, but members of the same church should be able to disagree on these issues and still have close fellowship with each other.”

      So the first level has clear Scriptural guidelines, but I think many people would disagree over what goes in the other categories.

      We’re wrestling with music issues just now as we have been visiting churches for the last few months. There are some with excellent preaching and friendly people, but the music is beyond our comfort zone. One church said on their website that since the Bible does not say anything specifically about musical styles, they welcomed a number of styles. And I agree that Scripture doesn’t address different styles specifically, but, as you said, there are Scriptural principles that apply. I think some whom I have heard and read on this topic over the years went way beyond Scriptural principles. But it’s hard when there aren’t clear specific Scriptural guidelines on exactly what’s acceptable in this area. I can remember a time when a lot of Christians thought syncopation was wrong, then Ron Hamilton came out with a piece with some syncopation in it, and there was almost an audible gasp heard round the country. 🙂 Then Frank Garlock came out and assured that syncopation was ok. I know some dear people who worship God with all their hearts with music that I’m personally uncomfortable with. It’s one thing to accept that on a personal level, but it’s harder to deal with when a whole church’s music is beyond what my conscience will allow.

  2. GREAT QUOTE! -> “Mature Christians should help other Christians train their consciences, but no one should force others to change their conscience.”
    This sounds like a must read! I’m reading Alan Jacobs’s How to Think right now and it’s pushing some of the same buttons.

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