How do we defend right and wrong?
"Just follow your conscience." Has a friend, parent, or spiritual guide ever advised you to do that when you were faced with a difficult moral decision?
Depending on what your conscience actually told you, such advice could have been good – or bad.
Many assume our conscience is inherently trustworthy and would never lead us astray. However, it’s entirely possible for our consciences, even as Christians, to be misguided, twisted or unreliable. So following our conscience is only good advice if we have a way to gauge its dependability.
The English word conscience is derived from two Latin words, con (meaning with or together) and scientia (knowledge). Similarly the New Testament Greek word means to know with. Conscience is something known together with.
In the New Testament we find the word conscience is usually qualified in some way. It can be clear (1 Timothy 3:9; 1 Peter 3:16), good (1 Timothy 1:5), guilty (Hebrews 10:22), weak (1 Corinthians 8:10–12) or even corrupted (Titus 1:15).
Because the Bible qualifies conscience either positively or negatively, we can infer that conscience is not the measure of truth, goodness or morality in and of itself. It does not stand alone as our guide.
The mark of a good conscience is not, "I feel right about this," or "This makes the most sense to me," and certainly not, "This is what everyone else believes, so I’ll believe that too." Rather Christian conscience should be based on the evidence of what together the Holy Spirit and Scripture teach.
Conscience is a knowing with. It isn’t just what I independently believe, but how what I believe aligns with an external norm. For Christians, this means continually testing conscience both in light of Scripture and the Spirit’s speaking through God’s people, the Church. The former is the true standard to which we must be aligned, and the latter ensures we do not too easily assume our personal interpretation of the Bible is the right and only way.
I’m grateful to live in a country where freedom of religion and conscience is legally protected, as outlined in section 2a of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yet not all is well in Canada. The ongoing pressures placed on health care workers to act against conscience on medically assisted death is an obvious example where the legal protection of conscience rights is being tested.
We must respectfully support those who already face these challenges, and especially those who have already experienced loss for standing firm on their conscience.
At the same time we need to ensure our consciences are aligned well. It can be unsettlingly easy to allow our convictions to be shifted by public opinion and fear of being called out, or even suffering personal loss. We need to ensure our consciences have been "freed by the Word of God" (Karl Barth).
Shaping a Christian conscience demands not only a commitment to reading and meditating on Scripture to align our thinking with God’s, but to have Spirit-filled courage to exercise conscience, even when it might be hard or scary to do so.
This is where individual Christians and churches alike need to be united with those already facing challenges to their conscience. We would not want to stand alone when we might be called to make public stances. Might the Spirit be emboldening us to stand with others who are facing tests we have not yet had to face? I believe so.
These are crucial questions for Jesus followers today. How diligently are we allowing our consciences to be truly shaped by God’s Word? And how well are we supporting brothers and sisters in Christ already facing difficult challenges?
The answer to those questions may well speak to the future veracity of the Church and her mission. It’s important to work for legal protection of conscience, but even more important to help each other keep our consciences in alignment with God’s Word and the Spirit-filled wisdom of the Church.
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.