I want a principle within
of watchful, godly fear,
a sensibility of sin,
a pain to feel it near.
I want the first approach to feel
of pride or wrong desire,
to catch the wandering of my will,
and quench the kindling fire.
From thee that I no more may stray,
no more thy goodness grieve,
grant me the filial awe, I pray,
the tender conscience give.
Quick as the apple of an eye,
O God, my conscience make;
awake my soul when sin is nigh,
and keep it still awake.
Original Title: A Tender Conscience Author: Charles Wesley (1749)
[ For clarity these terms are used as follows:
The Church (all upper case) – the Church catholic. The Church gathered at the table with the angels and archangels.
the/a Church (lower case article) – a denomination or association of churches with common polity and doctrine.
the/a church (all lower case) – local Christian community]
I am compelled to speak on a subject where I am a novice. Others are more qualified, yet they do not speak. I impute no fault for this because these are chaotic times, and God has them employed in other matters. Until some one of them is allowed sufficient time to address the duty of Christian conscience as it applies to our current dilemma, I hope these these words might be a temporary help..
In many places I hear faithful Christians and clergy making a mockery of conscience. I hear representatives of Christ condemning people for the unnecessary risk that might come from the practical consequences of following their conscience. I see people who are obviously educated and well-informed accused of acting from ignorance and misinformation in their moral judgement. The phrase, “follow the science” is repeated from our pulpits as though they were red letter words of Christ: “If any would be my disciple let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow the science.”
Conscience will not lead us to a risk-free life. It has consequences. It is seldom practical. Conscience will often judge contrary to the most enlightened human opinions. While science must inform our reason, it also must be tamed by our conscience. Science can inform our conscience, but it must not form it. Science without conscience produces Joseph Mengele. A great scientist and a great devil. If science must veto conscience, then it is time to close the church and devote the time and resources to more utilitarian endeavors, for there is no science to support anything of your religion. Maybe some few fringe scientists may suggest it has some benefit, but the overwhelming scientific consensus is that your God is a fantasy.
None of the aforementioned objections can release a person from the moral obligation of conscience. Even if they were all true, a person is still bound by conscience (Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. James 4:17). If anything, such objections indicate an ignorance of the great work God does in speaking to the individual conscience. We could do well by revisiting how it is that God works in us through the voice of conscience.
Perhaps, the most ordinary of the means of Grace which God offers us is the conscience. Even the unregenerate “…detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience, when necessary, speaks to his heart.” * Conscience leads us to witness the moral law of God through particular acts at specific times. Conscience speaks a moral judgement about acts we are about to perform or have already performed convicting us of the moral good or evil of which we are culpable. God’s prevenient grace is manifested through us even before we are fully awakened. “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: (Romans 2:14)
Those who are born again will nurture and inform their conscience, being always bound by it and faithful to it. They will daily avail themselves of this most ordinary means of grace as it helps them on the way to Christian perfection. They have the law of God written on their hearts. They possess a clean heart. Conversely, those who reject their conscience, those who suppress this voice of God, those who either through laziness or willfulness allow it to be usurped by pragmatism and utilitarianism, those who allow it to be supplanted by the impostor of self-will, and even worse (if it be possible) those who have accustomed themselves to the council of unholy spirits; these are said to have hardened hearts. On occasion, it is said that God has hardened their hearts, and should it be any surprise that God would withhold from one for a season that treasure which they have spurned and loathed.
“Suppose we have a tender conscience; how shall we preserve it. I believe there is only one possible way of doing this, which is, to obey it. Every act of disobedience tends to blind and deaden it; to put out its eyes, that it may not see the good and the acceptable will of God; and to deaden the heart, that it may not feel self-condemnation when we act in opposition to it.”**
“The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.” It is incumbent upon The Church to help the Christian distinguish the voice of conscience from its impostors. It is necessary that the Church provide for the nurture of conscience so that it is spiritually formed and rightly informed. It is imperative for every Christian to uphold every other Chirstian in claims they are bound by conscience. It is essential that we encourage one another to act or refrain from acting in accordance with their own conscience even if our own conscience speaks differently with us. “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience,’”*** especially by the Church.
No one can know what God speaks to another in the quietness of the heart, because “conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.”**** We can judge, and certainly must judge, the legitimacy of the claim upon The Church to uphold one in an act of conscience. There is a helpful four-part test. 1. Is it a clear moral claim? 2. Has the person performed their due diligence? 3. Is the act contrary to the plain revelation of God? 4. Is it contrary to the teaching of a Church.
We must be sure the action considered is based in a clear moral claim and not one’s natural desire, imagination, or human philosophy. If one claims that they are called to act for their comfort and happiness, then that is a natural desire and not a moral claim. Depending on the particulars The Church may aid them in other ways but not as an act of conscience. If one claims that God is calling them to kill someone then that is likely their imagination or the result of consulting unholy spirits. It is not a moral claim. If one claims that they cannot participate in an action because it encourages adultery, then that is a clear moral claim.
Having established that a true moral judgement is involved then it is incumbent on the person to perform due diligence that there is a relationship between the proposed act and the moral concern. First, have they searched the Scriptures? Have they come to an understanding of the moral consequences and what constitutes personal culpability? Second, have they made sufficient effort to understand the facts of the current situation? Have they consulted authorities on every side of the issue? Have they inquired of persons who ought to have answers? Have the considered the credibility of the source and the reliability of the information? The amount of time devoted to this is dependent upon the imminence of the act. If a decision must be made in twenty-four hours, then one cannot conduct a thirty-day study. One must act in accordance with the information available and is bound by conscience even if it is an erring conscience.
Regarding an erring conscience, it is important that the Church guide a person in performing due diligence. It is inconsequential whether they reach the same conclusion as I would in studying the same evidence. One of us will be in error. Both of us may be in error. None of us are liable for the errors of invincible ignorance. In Wesley’s sermon On Christian Perfection, he illustrates how we cannot be perfect in knowledge. Even the angels are not perfect in knowledge. We will consider some sources less credible than they are and other sources more credible than they are. For this reason, two Christians can vote for two different candidates and each leave the polls a child of God. If a person has performed the due diligence that a conscientious person would display in seeking the correct answer to a question, then they have met the due diligence requirement.
It remains whether the act is contrary to the plain revelation of God. Conscience is a witness to the moral law. Conscience is not the source of the moral law. Conscience is a conversation with God but not in the same sense as general revelation. It will not overrule revealed truth. If the proposed course is contrary to revelation, then The Church must help the person find another route to address the moral concern or direct them to abandon the path altogether. It is not necessary to locate a positive command in Scripture permitting the act. It does not matter that no one else in history has ever taken such a stand. It only matters that the act is not expressly prohibited by Scripture.
Sometimes a claim of conscience may be verified as based on a clear moral claim, the product of due diligence, and not contrary to revelation, yet it may be contrary to the teaching of a Church. We are not talking about fundamentals of the faith as discussed above, but those well-founded doctrines and disciplines of a Church which vary in degree or kind from one Christian community to another. It may concern a matter of Church order as reflected in polity and ecclesiology, or it may concern a practice or theological statement that a Church believes best represents a truth commonly held by The Church. We never can be sure what God has said to another in the sanctuary of their conscience. That is only known by the person and God. If the claim passes the first three questions, then we act in support of their claim because we assume people do not lie about their conscience.
Suppose the PPRC chair of a United Methodist church claims that as a matter of conscience their church cannot accept a woman in the pulpit. Such a claim could conceivably pass the first three questions. It is a matter on which different Christian communities have different policies. I cannot judge the person’s conscience, so I assume they are not lying. I am not qualified to judge whether they are bound by conscience to reject a woman in the pulpit, but I am qualified to judge that they are not called to be United Methodist. I must aide them in their conscience by directing them to a Church that is suitable to their conscience—and that with expedience. A person cannot be conscience bound to disrupt the order of a Church. A truly open door can be used as an exit as well as an entrance.
Finally, let me apply this to the specific claims of conscience regarding the vaccine mandate. Full disclosure: I find the vaccine a morally acceptable option. I am fully vaccinated (depending on next week’s definition of what that means). Yet, if someone has a conscientious objection then I am compelled to offer them all help and comfort in abiding by their conscience. The test is simple.
Is it a moral claim (sanctity of life because of the stem cell issue) as opposed to natural desire (its my body) or human philosophy (government should not have that much power)? Have they performed due diligence beginning with searching the Scriptures regarding the remoteness of the originating sin from the beneficiary? Is their action expressly prohibited by revelation? Is it contrary to the teaching of our Church? If they pass these questions, then I assume they are not lying about what God has said to them. It is my duty and privilege to counsel them as bound by conscience.
****Veritatis Splendor par 54 – 64