Issues of Conscience: When Sin Seems Uncertain
Updated: Nov 24
Scripture is usually quite explicit in defining sin and God's character is consistent and His word never changes, so why is it that there are some issues which appear a bit fuzzy? The rub is in the fact that God is not the only being in the universe who defines sin—mankind does as well. This is where issues of conscience come into play, and though the issues themselves appear blurry, the way scripture instructs us to handle them is crystal clear.
The Origins of the Conscience
One would think that only God has the authority to define sin, and in a perfect world, that would indeed be the case. However, we live in a fallen world—one which ironically fell as a direct result of man attempting to define sin for himself. Remember that the serpent in the garden of Eden tempted Adam and Eve with the idea that by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they could become like God in that they could define good and evil.
The serpent said to the woman, “You certainly will not die! For God knows that on the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves waist coverings. -Gen 3:4-7 NASB
Note that when temptation comes, there's often a kernel of truth in the lie. The serpent wasn't entirely incorrect that by eating the fruit, mankind would gain a sense of good and evil. But by bypassing the creator, we created an aberrant secondary set of definitions governed not by God, but by something else entirely. The immediate effect for Adam and Eve was not that they observed that they were naked—I mean come on, Adam was a man and therefore was fully aware of Eve's figure—but that they made a moral determination that being naked was wrong or shameful. That day, man's conscience was born, and since that day, man's conscience has created problems because it regularly disagrees with God's definitions of sin.
When God came looking for Adam and Eve, they hid themselves out of shame, but God's response was, "Who told you that you were naked?" In other words, God didn't define nakedness as shameful, but now man's conscience did. The interesting and theologically significant point we must acknowledge though is that God couldn't undo what had been done, so He honored man's conscience, using humanity's understanding of sin alongside His own, holding us to whichever definition was stricter. Indeed, God didn't tell Adam and Eve that being naked was in fact fine, even though obviously to God it was. Instead, God honored their definition and prophetically killed an animal and shed blood in order to clothe them and cover their self-imposed shame.
The Biblical Principles
The main texts which discuss issues of conscience can be found in Romans chapter 14, 1st Corinthians chapter 8, and 1st Corinthians 10:23-33. These passages use one primary example of issues of conscience in order to outline the principles of conscience. All three passages touch on the issue of diet as meat eating was a sensitive subject in the early church. This was due to questions regarding clean and unclean animals as well as the possibility in a pagan society that the meat had previously been offered as a sacrifice to an idol prior to being sold at market. Both of these meat issues are explained as ultimately being non-issues for God as He had made all things clean to eat, but the author acknowledged that not everyone's conscience would allow them to eat meat for various reasons. The other example briefly used is that of holy day observances—which again, are ultimately a non-issue for God, but a stickier subject for man.
One person values one day over another, another values every day the same. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and the one who eats, does so with regard to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and the one who does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat, and he gives thanks to God. -Rom 14:5-6 NASB
As the issue is not sin against God, but rather sin against man's own conscience, practical steps are outlined to navigate such issues. The first set of guidance is how to treat one another regarding issues of conscience in that both parties must be careful to honor the other. Those with a strict or strong conscience cannot judge those who appear to sin in their eyes, and those with a lenient or weak conscience cannot look down upon those who do not walk in the same maturity and freedom. The second set of guidance is how to act around one another. Those who walk in more freedom (lenient or weak conscience) must be careful not to cause others who walk in less freedom (strict or strong conscience) to stumble. In practical terms, if I believe eating meat is a sin, it is sin for me because eating it would violate my conscience. However, if I see another person eat meat, I cannot judge them or accuse them of sinning, as that would also be sin for me. If I believe eating meat is permissible—praise God and pass the dipping sauce—then it is not sin for me as my conscience is clear. However, I must not eat meat around others who do view it as sin as that would be sin for me.
What is equally important to understand is that your conscience is not static, but dynamic. It can be shaped by both internal and external influences such as culture, relationships, experiences, trauma, and beliefs. As such, it can be retrained and transformed to align with God's law rather than continue as a rogue agent which has developed its own definitions. That isn't to say that every definition our conscience holds is incorrect, but just to acknowledge that once we come into The Kingdom, there is much in us which needs brought into proper alignment with truth. Theologically, there are three stages of salvation. The first is the renewal of the spirit, called justification, the second is the renewal of the soul, called sanctification, and the final is the renewal of the body, called glorification—which occurs at Christ's second coming. Now, justification happens instantly as God's Spirit enters the new believer (see John 20:22), but sanctification—the renewal of the soul—is a long and painful process as we submit our mind, our will, and our emotions to a God whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8).
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. -Rom 12:2
So just because I believe eating meat is a sin, that doesn't mean that someone can't lovingly disciple me into a more mature understanding which aligns with God's. But the key phrase in Romans here is that we must be "fully convinced" in our own mind. I can't walk in someone else's beliefs, I have to make them my own. Once a dear brother or sister has discipled me out of my inaccurate convictions and truth has set me free, I am able to partake of the heavenly beef without issue. Until I'm fully convinced though, it's still sin for me to eat it and sin for them to put it on my plate or eat it in my presence. That shift in conviction could be instantaneous for one and a lengthy process for another, while for yet another, it may never happen at all. And that's ok, God loves vegetarians too—He just prefers to sit at the marriage supper of the lamb with the omnivores.
The same principles which apply to issues of conscience for individuals, also applies to issues of conscience for entire groups, cultures, or societies. For example, while Catholics have no issues with drinking, it's a major taboo within much of the Protestant Church and while wearing bright colors in Western nations is viewed as cheerful, in some Central Asian nations it is viewed as shameful. In order for Christians to maintain a good witness, it is important to be aware of and honor these definitions and practices.
To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might gain Jews; to those who are under the Law, I became as one under the Law, though not being under the Law myself, so that I might gain those who are under the Law; to those who are without the Law, I became as one without the Law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might gain those who are without the Law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak; I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some. -1 Co 9:20-22
Note that Paul states that though he "became as one without the law," he also points out that he did not violate God's law, as that would be sin. Again, God holds us to the strictest definitions of right and wrong in any given context. Issues of conscience do not give us carte blanche—they can add to God's definitions, but they cannot subtract from them. This is very different from moral relativism which allows each individual or culture to define right and wrong whole cloth, cherry picking scriptural definitions or ignoring them altogether.
One cultural sin which was so prevalent in the ancient world that we often assume the biblical texts define it as sin with a capital 's' is women in leadership. Several passages in the New Testament speak about a woman keeping silent in the church or not being permitted to teach, but other passages note that women were evangelists (Php 4:2-3), prophets (Acts 21:9), deacons (Rom 16:1-2), church leaders (Rom 16:3-5), and apostles (Rom 16:7). In fact, there's even a strong argument to be made that the author of Hebrews was a woman—one of Paul's top disciples, Priscilla. Of course there were notable female leaders in Old Testament Israel as well. Miriam is named as a leader of the Exodus along with Moses and Aaron (Mic 6:4), Deborah was a judge over all of Israel (Jdg 4-5), and Huldah was a prophet who guided king Josiah to reform the nation (2 Ki 22:14-20).
Sometimes identifying cultural sin or issues of conscience isn't always obvious in the biblical texts. One example would be 1 Co 11:5-7 which appears to give clear instructions about head coverings in the church with Paul saying women should wear them and men should not. Some church traditions interpret this passage as a cultural sin, noting that at that time male Jewish believers were wearing head coverings during religious prayer, reading, and worship and that Paul makes no effort to correct this practice in his letters in order to bring them into alignment with his instructions to the Corinthians. Other church traditions interpret this passage as universal, contending that women in modern Western cultures must also hold to this dress code during religious practices. Some go further and claim women should wear a head covering at all times. Due to the various interpretations and traditions within the Church, this practice should be treated as an issue of conscience.
Clear Conscience Christianity
Several New Testament passages speak of keeping a good conscience (eg: 1 Ti 1:5), a blameless conscience (eg: Act 24:16), or a clear conscience (eg: 2 Ti 1:3) as essential to the Christian faith. In fact, one of the qualifications of a deacon or elder is not just being mature in the faith, but also holding a clear conscience (1 Ti 3:9). The reason for this is that God honors that byproduct of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil from Genesis all the way to Revelation. We often think of judgement day in a courtroom setting with Satan acting as our accuser and prosecutor, but the full weight and consequence the human conscience brings to bear can be seen in Romans.
...in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience testifying and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of mankind through Christ Jesus. -Rom 2:15-16
That's right—your own conscience will be used, in part, to condemn you before a holy and righteous Judge. Satan is the least of your worries when your conscience is the ultimate tattletale and like a scorned wife, doesn't forget a single infraction. Paul warns of the potential dire consequences of one not keeping a good conscience in the faith in his letter to Timothy.
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme. -1 Ti 1:18-20
As a result of this sobering reality, we should follow Paul's example and take our conscience extremely seriously.
In view of this I also do my best to maintain a blameless conscience, both before God and before other people, always. -Acts 24:16
Today, the complexities of the modern world make issues of conscience all the more important to understand and properly apply. It is especially important when Christians begin to publicly support laws and legislation which either align with or violate issues of conscience. An obvious recent example would be the passionate debate regarding COVID mandates such as masks, social distancing, and vaccines. Regardless of your understanding of the actual scientific literature—which is far less clear and definitive than we'd all prefer—at the end of the day, whether or not you feel you should wear a mask or get vaccinated is clearly an issue of conscience. However, rather than treating it as such and abiding by the biblical principles regarding them, many in the Church have drawn lines in the sand and accused those on the other side of sin.
What's more, the one possible legal route to pursue reprieve from a mandate which violates one's conscience—and which federal judges believe violates the constitution—is a religious exemption. Ironically, many Christians question the framing of their objection in such a way. Those in favor of universal compliance also question the legitimacy of religious exemptions for vaccine mandates as the Bible does not explicitly address the question. What seems to be overlooked in this discussion however, is that the Bible does explicitly address issues of conscience. Therefore, exemptions are completely justified based on religious grounds because to violate one's conscience—for whatever reason—is defined as sin in scripture.
Some may take issue with this claim, feeling that an issue of conscience should only effect an individual and that others' health and safety should be a believer's higher priority. But in a complex world, each individual's risk assessments, risk management, risk mitigation, and risk tolerance will vary wildly. Regardless, asking—or worse, forcing—one person to violate their conscience in order to hypothetically benefit yourself or others is clearly condemned in scripture. If one believes a vaccine will reduce their risk of serious illness or death to an acceptable level and their conscience permits it, then they are free to seek such medical intervention. But to guilt, shame, or coerce someone else into the same action you chose of your own free will simply because you believe it will slightly reduce your own risk even further is immoral. In any aspect of life, there is no achieving zero risk and attempting to do so becomes a debilitating exercise in diminishing returns which at best sacrifices known quantities of freedom for unknown quantities of safety.
Some may argue that it is not immoral to force people to violate their conscience if it serves the greater good, but this line of reasoning has led many down the dangerous path of "the ends justify the means." Others might argue that they don't want to force people against their will to get vaccinated for their own benefit, but for the immunocompromised or others who cannot get the vaccine themselves. Again, while the motives may sound pure, the method is not. Consider for a moment that one may be thoroughly convinced that the risk of overpopulation is unacceptably high and therefore choose to get sterilized. But that belief—however well-intentioned but misinformed it may be—does not give one the right to sterilize others against their will, beliefs, and convictions, even if one wholeheartedly believes it will avert a catastrophe. Now, there is indeed benefit to herd immunity—but again, there is no scenario where zero risk can be achieved. So what we're left with is an arbitrary and relative threshold of what one considers an acceptable risk. This is a value difficult to ascertain, impossible to agree upon, and impractical to achieve as a society. Preserving people's freedoms, conscience, and free will by allowing each individual to make their own informed decisions however, is relatively straightforward.
It used to be widely accepted and well understood amongst societies that freedom was more valuable than security and even life itself. This basic belief has been a major underpinning to countless rebellions against tyrants and was captured famously by Patrick Henry when he said, "Give me liberty or give me death!" But in the modern world of nanny states, trigger warnings, and "safetyism," cultural values have shifted a bit, and not for the better. As the philosopher Friedrich August von Hayek once noted, "'Emergencies' have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded."
This is precisely what has happened during the pandemic as democracies around the world have backslidden toward authoritarianism according to a major new study published by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance based in Stockholm. The study states that, "Over the past two years, some countries, particularly Hungary, India, the Philippines and the USA, have seen a number of democratic attributes affected by measures that amount to democratic violations—that is, measures that were disproportionate, illegal, indefinite or unconnected to the nature of the emergency." Of course this phenomena isn't new—it also happened in ancient Egypt. Under the misguided ambition of Joseph, a free and prosperous society ended up completely enslaved as a shrewd government official used a seven year famine to absorb all the wealth, property, and freedoms of the people in exchange for food security (Gen 47:13-19). Biblically, this unfortunate but predictable outcome serves as the backdrop of the Exodus event and developed a major reoccurring biblical warning and theme of deliverance from slavery and into freedom.
It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. -Gal 5:1
We must understand that God values freedom above safety—so much so that in the garden of Eden, He didn't violate Adam and Eve's free will even when He knew the outcome would result in the death and condemnation of all mankind. The next thing we must understand is that we are commanded to do the same and honor one another's conscience and convictions even when we don't understand them or agree with them. However, we are also called to renew our minds, train our conscience, and challenge our convictions when they are not in alignment with God's law. But it should go without saying that the sanctification process doesn't happen through guilt, shame, and coercion. In the essentials there should be unity, in the non-essentials there should be liberty, but in all things there should be charity.