When Paul talks about wisdom in areas where Scripture is not clear, he makes it clear that unity is more important than uniformity. Many Christians would agree. But this is easier said than done. And this emphasizes the importance of our conscience.
For instance, when asked if it’s OK for Christians to read or watch Harry Potter, some in the church would say, “It’s clearly witchcraft. In fact, some of the terms come straight from the occult. So no, we should avoid any hint at Satanism.” Others say, “It’s just fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The characters in Harry Potter even celebrate Christmas, so they are clearly not Satanists.”
Or if the topic of yoga comes up, some quickly point out that’s it’s a Buddhist practice that in its original formulations is about clearing your mind and finding oneness with the things around you, and that’s not Christian. Others contend that yoga is just good stretching, and there’s nothing anti-Christian about letting your mind rest, attempting to eliminate distractions and be more present to the moment. (For others, of course, the more contentious issue is over yoga pants … a topic for another day.)
I could go on and on. Public school vs. homeschool. Alcohol vs. teetotalling. We may not argue about eating meat sacrificed to idols (like people did in Paul’s day), but there are hundreds of secondary issues we fight over.
Paul’s instructions on how to handle these conflicts in the church would be to first obey your conscience:
“Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind. Whoever observes the day, observes it for the honor of the Lord. Whoever eats, eats for the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; and whoever does not eat, it is for the Lord that he does not eat it, and he gives thanks to God.”
– Romans 14:5–6 CSB
Whatever you do, you should be able to do it as an offering to God. Can you listen to this kind of music, watch this popular movie series, participate in this activity as an offering to God?
Be fully convinced you can, because, here’s the thing: If you feel like something is wrong (even if it’s not wrong in itself), and you do it anyway, it’s wrong to you: “But whoever doubts stands condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith, and everything that is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
For example, if I give someone a thumbs-up gesture, that’s not likely to be offensive. Most people in the U.S. see that as a symbol meaning, “Good job.” But if, for whatever reason, I thought giving a thumbs-up was an insult, and then I went around showing everyone my thumb, I’d be sinning. Even though a thumbs-up isn’t inherently immoral, it’s damaging to my soul to act against the urging of my conscience.
We don’t talk about conscience much anymore, and that’s a tragedy because your conscience is a gift from God. It’s a type of moral intuition where you know something before you can articulate it—a kind of “sixth sense.” It goes beyond head knowledge. In other words, before your head knows something, your heart feels it.
If your conscience is a gift of God, then numbing it is dangerous. When you get used to doing what your heart feels is wrong, you’ll gradually tear it apart until doing wrong doesn’t even feel wrong anymore.
But your conscience, while a gift from God, is not God.
Paul tells the Romans that while they should obey their conscience, they should also be open to having it reformed. Your conscience is from God, but it can still go wrong. Sometimes God needs to challenge what we consider right and wrong in an attempt to reform our conscience.
I’ve experienced this a few times in my life (and probably will more in years to come). For instance, the Christian school I grew up in taught me that any kind of rock beat in music was sinful. Syncopation was of the devil. Putting Christian words to it didn’t help; it was like serving a T-bone steak on a plate of manure.
Later, even after I knew in my head that wasn’t true, my heart would still feel guilty when we’d sing a song in church with a drumbeat in it.
My conscience had to grow in the truth.
It bothered Peter’s conscience to eat with Gentiles. He’d grown up thinking that was impure. Paul told him in Galatians 2 that his conscience was wrong and needed to get more in line with the gospel.
If we really want unity in the church, we have to be humble enough to learn from another Christian that does not see something the way we do. And that means listening. Really listening, not for flaws in the argument, but for understanding.
What kind of great witness could the church be if its people were willing to listen to each other and change their minds? When we are humble enough to listen and secure enough in our identity in Christ to be wrong, we are modeling a law of love that pursues the kingdom of God through “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).