How much time do you spend thinking about your conscience? If you're like me, I would guess not much. That's why a book on the conscience spent some time on my shelf before I finally decided to pick it up and read it. But when I finally did, I realized that we need to be thinking about the conscience more than we are.
Though we may not think about our conscience very often, we use it every day. And though we might not talk about it much, the Bible sure does. I was surprised to find out just how much. 30 times in the New Testament the word "conscience" is used. That's a lot! From those 30 uses, Naselli and Crowley came up with this definition of conscience:
"The conscience is your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong." (p 42)
Now of course there is such a thing as right and wrong. There is a standard, and that's why it's so important that our conscience is informed by the Word of God. However, in some of those New Testament passages on the conscience it becomes clear that there are things that Christians will disagree with one another on.
In their book, Naselli and Crowley, speak of performing theological triage. Triage simply referring to ordering things by their "priority and urgency" (p. 85) And they suggest three levels of priorities when it comes to doctrine:
"First level issues are most central and essential to Christianity. You can't deny these teachings and still be a Christian in any meaningful sense."
"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."
"Third-level issues are disputable matters...disagreement on third-level issues shouldn't cause disunity in the church family." (p 86)
It's in the last two levels, and particularly level three where the issue of conscience comes into play. And where we need to learn how to work together with those who might share a different conscience than us.
One of the passages that deals with how to do that well is Romans 14:1-15:7. Until reading this book I never thought about the fact that in Paul's magnus opus, Romans, 10% of it is devoted to the conscience. In chapters 14 and 15 Paul talks about how two Christians can function together when their conscience differs. You can read the book to see how the authors break down that passage, but it was very eye-opening for me.
Hopefully our churches are filled with people whose conscience differs then ours. If not, we should ask ourselves if we are part of a church, or a club. Are we a group of people who gather because of our faith in Jesus and desire to be more like Him, or because we want to surround ourselves with people who are just like us? If it's the former, then we're going to have to know how to think about the conscience.
Let me close with these words from Naselli and Crowley:
"What's going to happen when you obey Christ and become a servant to the people inside your church who aren't like you, who make you uncomfortable - people you want to judge in your heart because they're not strict enough, or people you want to roll your eyes at because they're not free enough? What's going to happen when you obey Christ and become a servant to people outside your church who differ from you and make you uncomfortable? What's going to happen? The same kind of fruitfulness that came about when Jesus and Peter and Paul laid down their lives in the same way. Unimaginable fruitfulness. And fruitfulness always brings happiness to the glory and praise of God."
May this happen in our lives and our churches.