bible blog post blog post

Christian Liberty, Christian Conscience

last edit: Aug. 23rd, added footnote.

Recent events have forced many Christians to re-consider the nature of their Spiritual liberty in Jesus Christ, as well as how their conscience functions. This is the case explicitly in regards to the various governmental mandates to either close services of worship, or regulate them in some regards, on account of health concerns. It is also related to the imposition of governments to have individual citizens wear masks in certain conditions, observe curfews on account of civil unrest, and refrain from fireworks in certain locales. Because these issues have stirred up my Christian brothers and sisters to some level of debate, disagreement, and even dissension, I have written what I hope is a good explanation of the nature of Christian liberty and of the conscience. I am intentionally leaving out the issue of how a person should relate to the commands of civil governance, as this is addressed by other people in a better way than myself. In the end, this little article may not answer every question, but I hope it forces us to consider the nature of Christian liberty and the freedom of the conscience more thoroughly.

I. What is the Conscience, and what is Christian Liberty?

Christian Liberty

Christian liberty is a profoundly broad freedom that God grants His people in every age from numerous spiritual evils and to spiritual goods. The Westminster Confession of Faith details these freedoms as, “freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in…being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in...free access to God, and…yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind” (WCF 20.1). God has a purpose behind granting us liberty from these things and to these other things, which is, “that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our lives” (WCF 20.3). In summary, Christian liberty is being delivered from a spiritual enslavement that carries legal guilt and a punitive curse, to a situation of freedom in order to serve God with joy. [1]

The Conscience

The liberty of the conscience and Christian liberty are two distinct but interrelated ideas. The conscience exists among all people, but is sanctified in the Christian. There are numerous definitions for the conscience, but my favorite is that the conscience is “the moral faculty within human beings that assesses what is good and what is bad“. [2] It is a moral faculty. A faculty is a “part” or a sort of invisible organ of a person that carries out a specific task. This faculty is moral–it is concerned with doing things that are wrong or right. This faculty, based on the teaching of Scripture, is endowed by God to all human beings, just as He endows the soul, mind, will, and affections. It is not merely an expression of various people groups based in our cultural setting or place in time. This means that it is originally designed to make distinguishing determinations between what God says is right or wrong, and not merely between the norms of a particular culture. To put it another way, as a moral faculty, it assesses whether something is good or bad. Once it makes its assessment, it serves as a witness (Rom. 9:1), then judge (Rom. 2:15), then either as a prosecutor (accusing) or defender (excusing) of one’s own feelings, thoughts, words, or deeds, and finally as a mentor who seeks to keep you from evil (Acts 24:16).

But the conscience is not alike in every person. Naturally, the conscience may be insensitive, being evil (Heb. 10:22), seared (1 Tim. 4:2), and/or defiled (Titus 1:15). Even in the believer, the conscience may be oversensitive rather than insensitive, and therefore called weak (1 Cor. 8:7). An evil conscience judges something to be bad but does it anyway. A seared conscience is one that, after constant abuse, no longer recognizes what is bad as bad. A defiled conscience is one that “celebrates what is impure and denigrates what is good” (DeYoung). A weak conscience prosecutes us for things that are not really wrong. It is “too easily wounded” (MacArthur). [3]

On the other hand the conscience that once was evil, or seared, or defiled, or weak may become cleansed (Heb. 10:22), good (Acts 23:1; 2 Tim. 1:3), clear (Acts 24:16; 1 Tim. 1:5; 3:9; Heb. 13:18; 1 Pet. 3:16), and strong (Rom. 15:1). A cleansed conscience is one that used to be evil, and previously judged things as bad but did it anyway. A cleansed conscience could be one that used to be seared, doing evil but not recognizing it as evil. A cleansed conscience could be one that was previously defiled, previously celebrating what was evil and denigrating what was good. But, by the work of the Holy Spirit, and faith in Jesus Christ, this conscience has now been changed, and decreed innocent from these false ways of assessing right and wrong. Further than a cleansed conscience, a good conscience is one that properly assesses what is right and wrong, appropriately defends itself when wrongly accused of evil, and accurately convicts a person for doing wrong, swiftly fleeing to Christ for forgiveness. A clear conscience is one that has no reason to accuse itself. Related to these, a strong conscience is one that has been informed by the Word of God, and accurately understands what God desires of His people in the New Covenant.

II. Liberty of Conscience

The Christian conscience is related to Christian liberty in that it means if certain subjects are declared sinful by tradition or the world or a weaker brother, then the person with a strong, clear, good, and cleansed conscience need not submit out of necessity. Our conscience stands before God, and agrees with His evaluation of things. Therefore we are freed from false demands, from impositions that God has not said are wrong, or commands God has not said are good. At the same time, we are set free from these demands in order to show love to one another. A person with a strong conscience is encouraged to submit to the moral concerns of a weaker Christian out of compassion for them. In fact Paul even urges this submission in certain circumstances out of concern for a brother’s well-being (Rom. 14:15).

The Conscience is Free from Man-Made Traditions

It is free from “the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or besides it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray to liberty of conscience” (WCF 20.2). This means that the conscience has liberty from man-made teachings in regards to how to live by faith, and how to worship God. To decide to obey man-made teachings in regards to these issues is to violate your liberty of conscience. But what of things that the word of God clearly says are acceptable or unacceptable in regards to faith and worship? The conscience is not free from these. The conscience is bound to do them, even if the conscience does not correctly assess them.

Not Free from God’s Commands

The conscience is bound to do or not do that which is explicitly taught or necessarily deduced (implicitly taught) from the word of God. The WCF 1.6 says, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life [same phrase as in 20.2], is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture”. This means that certain things may not be explicitly taught in Scripture (the word “Trinity” for example, or the Sabbath in the New Covenant, or *ahem* infant baptism), however they are necessarily deduced and therefore must be taught and believed. Our conscience is not free from these sorts of things.

Beyond elements of worship, our conscience is also bound to answer to God’s implicit moral demands. For example, am I free, as a Christian, to shoot up heroine whenever I desire? The Word of God does not explicitly forbid this practice. In addition, the prohibition against bestiality is not explicit in the New Covenant. If we rely upon mere explicit commands as the determining factor for liberty of conscience, then a number of immoral or unethical practices will be considered permissible. Instead, we must employ the use of logic and reason in considering how God intends His Word to be understood and practiced. In fact, a number of things may be described or commanded in general, but we must employ wisdom and logic to determine how these general prescriptions fit our current situations. AA Hodge comments, “That, while the Scriptures are a complete rule of faith and practice, and while nothing is to be regarded as an article of faith to be believed, or a religious duty obligatory upon the conscience, which is not explicitly or implicitly taught in Scripture, nevertheless they do not descend in practical matters into details, but, laying down general principles, leave men to apply them in the exercise of their natural judgment, in the light of experience, and in adaptation to changing circumstances, as they are guided by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit.” [4]

III. Is the Conscience Always Correct?

No! As R.C. Sproul states, “the conscience is not the final ethical authority for human conduct because the conscience is capable of change.” [5] If a person is unregenerate and has a seared conscience, they will not “hear the alarm bells” ringing when they do something wrong. If a person is a Christian with a weak conscience, they struggle with faith and knowledge in the instructions of God for His people under the New Covenant, and may be incorrect in their assessment about the ethicality of certain practices.

IV. Is the Conscience Always to be Followed?

A Regenerated Conscience

Yes, the conscience is indeed to be followed for the believer. R.C. Sproul argues, “acting against conscience is sin (Rom. 14:23)…it is [sin] because he is doing something that he believes is a sin.” Yet, “on the other hand, we have to remember that acting according to the conscience may sometimes be sin as well” particularly if the conscience is misinformed. If we are “negligent in studying the Word of God” we are still liable to God, even if our conscience does not accuse us of guilt. So, according to Sproul, to disobey the conscience is to sin. But, on the other hand, to obey a conscience that is wrong in its assessment of moral good and evil is also to sin.

So then, what of the weak, Christian conscience? Must it always be obeyed? Paul’s examples of a weak conscience in Scripture range from examples of people who believe it is wrong to eat ceremonially forbidden foods (Rom. 14-15) to examples of people who believe it is wrong to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8). He urges the Christians with strong consciences not to force Christians with weak consciences to stumble by eating these items in front of them. He says this is the case because for the Christian with a weak conscience to go against this moral assessment, “for him, it is sin.” The brother or sister with weak faith sees a fellow Christian doing something that they believe to be sin, and says, “Oh no! I can’t believe this Spiritual leader would do that! I’m distressed!” Paul doesn’t tell the person with an over-sensitive conscience to be quiet and get over it. Instead, he tells the strong spiritual leaders to not give unnecessary offense, because the weak Christian’s conscience is still in formation. This leads me to conclude that it is always sin to go against a weak conscience. But, this is not some sort of spiritually good state in which to remain stagnant! We don’t want people to remain weak in their consciences, but teach them about what God says is right so that their conscience will grow strong in conformity to God’s law. As MacArthur puts it, “A weak and constantly accusing Christian conscience is a spiritual liability, not a strength. Many people with especially tender consciences tend to display their over-scrupulousness as if it were proof of deep spirituality. It is exactly the opposite.

But what about Peter in Acts 10, when God says “eat” but his conscience says “no”? At that point in the New Covenant administration, Peter was apparently unaware that, or unsure whether, Jesus’ resurrection abrogated the ceremonial food laws. God corrected Peter’s ignorance by giving him knowledge of the nature of the New Covenant. We do the same by telling those with weak consciences that it is not sin to partake in these foods. But we, unlike God, have no ability to change a person’s conscience!

A Defiled and Seared Conscience

The conscience is always to be followed for a believer, but for the unbeliever, no, sometimes the conscience is not to be followed. In some cases, the conscience is so skewed, that it urges sin. One question that could reframe this is, “Is it a sin to disobey a defiled or seared conscience?” Based on the premise that it is sin to do something one believes to be a sin, should we consider disobeying a defiled or seared conscience as sin? For example, if one believes it is a sin to allow only heterosexuals to marry, or only two persons within marriage, then is it a sin to campaign for changes in our laws about this? If one believes it is a sin to permit Churches to preach about sin, then is it a sin to seek to close Churches? If one believes it is sin to protest in front of abortion clinics, is it sinful to try to stop protests in front of abortion clinics? Simply because one believes something to be sin, it does not follow that they ought to obey their seared or defiled conscience. There are definite limits to the idea that it is a sin to disobey the conscience. In fact, the defiled and seared conscience ought to be disobeyed. The very fact that they are defiled and seared indicates that they are useless guides for what is wrong or right before God. But the important thing to note about this is that the Christian’s conscience is not defiled or seared, but cleansed!

Here are some examples of a defiled or seared conscience: If my conscience tells me it is fine to wear a woman’s dress, or unacceptable to go to Church on Sunday, then the issue is not a matter of whether my conscience is strong or weak, but whether my conscience is defiled or seared. One real illustration of this issue is with a young woman who had lived her life as a lesbian but became a Christian by the grace of God. She traced the steps by which she underwent conversion, and detailed how initially she did not feel that lesbianism was wrong, but she believed what God says is true. She determined to stop practicing lesbianism, not because she was convicted in her conscience that this particular sin is wrong, but because she trusted God is correct. Over time, her conscience was repaired, and she came to feel in her conscience how grievous a sin is this practice. But as she says it herself, “Obedience comes before understanding. I wanted to understand. But did I actually want to do his will? God promised to reveal this understanding to me if I ‘willed to do his will’.” If someone had demanded of her, “No! Don’t stop practicing this until you can say that you have not violated your conscience, because it is always wrong to go against conscience” then she would never have repented. In this way, we see that the defiled or seared conscience must be resisted, restrained, corrected, and conformed to the word of God.

A Pretense of Conscience

But there is another circumstance in which the issue of following the conscience is actually about whether or not it really is a conscience issue in the first place! What do I mean by that? There are times when a person claims, and may even be self-deluded in thinking, that their conscience is telling them something is wrong or right. As we noted above, the conscience is malleable, may err, and sometimes should be rejected. While we should listen to a weak conscience and a strong conscience, there are certain “claims to conscience” that we should not obey.

The conscience ought to tell you that what God says to do, you ought to do, and what God forbids, you ought not to do. But there are times when a person’s conscience agrees with the Word of God, and yet that person does not want to obey. What a person might do, based on the Bible’s teaching about obeying a weak or strong conscience, is to suggest that their conscience says it is okay, or does not say it is wrong. It is possible for a person to do or not do something on the pretense that their conscience says “don’t do it” or “do it”. The logic of a pretender is: “If a weak or strong conscience must be obeyed, then I will claim my conscience is offended so I don’t have to or do have to do something.”

One example of a possible pretense of conscience is with a person who told me they believe it is perfectly acceptable for a Christian to get drunk. I showed them, in the Word of God, why this was unacceptable for the Christian. They said they were unsure as to whether the passage means what I say it means. They responded that perhaps this is an issue of the liberty of the conscience: since they are not convinced that it is immoral, they should not restrain themselves from it. Would it not be sin to go against the conscience that says drunkenness is fine? To demand that they must listen to their conscience, in this particular situation, would be incorrect. Either this person was lying and is getting drunk “upon pretense of a clear conscience”, or else they still had a seared or defiled conscience. Should they, then violate their conscience (or pretense of liberty of conscience)? By all means, yes. Yes, they should.

Or for another one, consider the man or woman who says things like, “I am miserable in my marriage. God says He intends for His people to be happy in Him. I am unhappy, therefore I should divorce my spouse.” The logic of the argument is purportedly that one’s Christian liberty and happiness are being undermined. But the reality is that God commands married couples to uphold their vows for the sake of the well-being of the other party. To claim divorce is acceptable on the grounds of Christian liberty or liberty of conscience, for these reasons, is a pretense of conscience.

This leads us to another thought, which is that the individual’s conscience and Christian liberty are wrapped up not only in individual life and in the individual’s relation to God, but also in our various spheres within society. This is important to discuss because it helps us understand the way we employ our Christian liberty and our cleansed consciences.

V. Spheres of Society

Our conscience is placed within us as we are created by God in relation to other creatures. God governs this world by covenant relationship to His creatures, and by instilling a natural structure within us as we carry out our covenant obligations.

Covenant Relationship

The covenant relationship God establishes with us is either through the covenant of works or the covenant of grace. We are either “in Adam” as our covenant representative, and bear his nature, gifts, and merits, or we are “in Christ” as our covenant representative, and bear his nature, his gifts, his merits. Adam disobeyed, obtained a corrupted nature, lost the Spiritual gifts, and earned us death and everlasting hell. We are, each of us, conceived as natural descendants from Adam, and obtain and deserve all that Adam has along with an afflicted conscience. On the other hand, Jesus suffered the justice due for sin, obeyed the full extent of the law, obtained the right to pour out the Holy Spirit without measure, and earned us life and everlasting paradise with God. Those who are represented by Him are endowed with a new nature, the gift of the Holy Spirit, forgiveness of all sins, a restored conscience, the beginning of eternal life, and the promise of life forevermore. But, some outward members of the covenant of grace are not actually real members of the covenant of grace. Faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for a person to be joined to Jesus, and to appropriate His obedience and suffering on our behalf. A person without faith in Jesus may be “in the covenant” in some respect, to outward appearances, by making vows publicly or else by being born as children of covenant members and heirs of the covenant promises (WLC 166), but unless they believe in Jesus as the covenant mediator, they are not inward members of the covenant of grace.

This distinction within the covenant of grace might be unfamiliar to you. It might lead you to ask some questions. A common one is in regards to infants, but it also applies to unbelieving adults. The question is if they are without faith, and are actually members of the covenant of works, then in what way are they members of the covenant of grace? In regards to infants, we do not assume either way whether or not they have faith.  They could easily have been regenerated and have faith from the womb like John the Baptist.  But they likewise might not have faith until they are 2 or 3 or 7 or 10 or 12, or ever. They are outwardly considered members of the covenant of grace, and are treated as people who are entitled to believe what they are taught.  At some point it is appropriate for them to step forward and publicly claim their birthright (so to speak) by professing that they believe in Christ (and possibly have done so since infancy), or else cede their birthright like Esau and depart from the covenant community.  The one who says, “I do not believe” at an appropriate age is to be excommunicated from the covenant, and should be evangelized as a stranger to the covenant.  That said, there is a second group of people within the outward covenant of grace, who are actually not genuine and inward members. There are numerous people who never apostatize or leave the covenant community, and yet have never believed in the covenant mediator.  For this reason, they are genuinely in Adam though outwardly they appear to be in Christ  They are among the covenant of grace but not truly in the covenant of grace.  These people are told they will receive greater condemnation!  It is these people, who are “hypocrites”, the literal meaning of this word, who will receive covenant curses.  Grace was held out to them, Christ was declared to them, the Lord’s Supper was served to them, baptism administered for them, and though these things should have led them to repent, instead they hardened them, and they filled up the full measure of their guilt by crucifying the Son of God again to their own destruction. Their consciences are seared and defiled from willingly living a double-life.

But not only does God grant the conscience within a covenant structure, He also gives it to us to use within

Natural Structures and Spheres

God grants us inward structures to carry our our obligations within our roles in the covenant (either the covenant of grace or works). The structures God instills in us include the impulses to create family, to worship, and to have persons governing large groups of people. Because of this, God gives distinct roles to the Family, the Church, and the State. Each of these “spheres” or “realms” has a particular authority structure, specific commands, and an intricate and delicate way of relating to the other “spheres” of life. The Family is the foundation of all society. Within it, God commands the husband to be head, protector, and cherisher, the wife to be the assistant, servant, and respecter. He further commands fathers to not give their children over to anger by their discipline, but to raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and for mothers to love their children. While this order is broken and marred by the sin of Adam, and by our own sins, it is still the basic way God intends for us. Even within households deprived of certain elements of this (sometimes through no fault of their own), God seeks for us to be faithful in the area He has given us, and to seek the assistance we need to fulfill our callings. The family structure and instruction forms the basis and nurture for all societal interactions. Prior to the Mosaic covenant, Family was also the essential place of corporate worship in the Church. Even under the Mosaic covenant, God commanded parents to instruct their children throughout the day in the worship of God. But in addition to this regular worship, God also instituted times of corporate worship, a practice that was not only local and familial but national and based in the State. In Israel, then, we see a combination of each of the three spheres in one: Family, Church, and State all called to worship God.

One website’s depiction of sphere sovereignty

Under the New Covenant, Jesus alters the way in which these institutions relate to one another. He does not undermine them, but makes their roles crystal clear for the whole world, and not just for one ethnic group. For one, Jesus instructs the Family to assemble not for yearly feasts and festivals, but instead for weekly and corporate worship on Sunday. But He also distinguishes between the role of the State and the role of the Church. My personal views about the relation of these two spheres is actually currently in development, and I plan to write in depth about this later. It can be summarized this way: Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world, and so the members of His Church, which are outward members of the covenant of grace, have become citizens of this heavenly Kingdom. They listen to His instruction, heed His voice, and exercise discipline according to His spiritual ways. Meanwhile the State is granted, by Jesus, the power of the sword to physically punish evil and protect its citizens from threats. And yet there is some overlap between these two spheres. Members of the Church are also members of whatever State in which they reside. They have a temporary earthly citizenship, and a permanent heavenly one. The State is to see that the Church can worship in freedom, and the Church is to submit to lawful injunctions of the State. But, in addition, Jesus also calls the King’s of earth to recognize and obey His Kingly authority in their constitutions and their civil practices. Some differing views regarding the relation of these two spheres can be read here. Last of all, throughout these spheres, there is an overarching law that demands something of our Christian liberty and liberty of conscience.

VI. Our Spheres and the Moral Law

The last theoretical aspect to consider concerning the conscience and Christian liberty is to see that they are intimately related to the moral law. The moral law is, in essence, the ten commandments with their broad implications as interpreted by the command to love God wholeheartedly and love our neighbor as our own self. The moral law touches not only the life of the Church, but also the life of the State, and the life of the Family. Each of these so-called “realms” are regulated by God’s Word, have distinct authority structures from God, distinct minor aims and ends, and yet simultaneously have multiple levels of overlap and share a common end (God’s glory). For example, the moral law, “you shall not murder” is written upon all human hearts, and therefore forms a basic element of civil law (ie murder faces penalties). But “you shall not murder” also relates to family life (think of Cain and Abel), and to the deeper sense that God cares for us to love one another and not hate our family members. It also relates to our Church life in that the assembly of Christians ought to express our love for each other beyond the way the world loves itself. The moral law then has an overlap in each area of life, and the conscience ought to follow it in each area: if a person hits a person at Church, they may be penalized by the State, and if they have struck a family member, then they may ruin their family. For this reason it must be added that:

The Conscience and Christian Liberty Must not Violate the Moral Law

A person might do things that violate the moral law, and feel that it is okay because they have a seared or defiled conscience. Or they might violate the moral law, knowing it is wrong, but they claim it is okay “because my conscience says so” or because “I have Christian liberty”. But AA Hodge explains why the moral law must overrule the claim to “conscience” and Christian liberty:

“This Christian liberty is not, however, absolute. It has its distinct end and limits. Its end, is that every person, without hindrance of his fellowmen, should have opportunity to serve God according to his will. The limits of this liberty are of two kinds: (a.) The authority of God, the Lord of conscience. (b.) The equal liberties and rights of our fellow-men, with whom we dwell in organized societies. Since God has established both the Church and the State, obedience to the legitimate authorities of either, acting within their rightful sphere, is an essential part of obedience to God. The Church has the right from God of exercising its discipline upon any who maintain or practise opinions or actions plainly contrary to the light of nature, the doctrines of the Scripture, or the peace and welfare of the Christian community.”

-A.A. Hodge

Hodge’s description is important because it points out that our obedience to God isn’t merely individualistic. We obey in the context of human societies, and these societies may be governed by “the light of nature” as well as “the doctrines of the Scripture” and “the peace and welfare of the Christian community.” This depiction of human interaction under the moral law avoids the false dichotomy between the Church’s role to offer or minister spiritual life and between the Church’s responsibility to protect the physical life of her members and visitors as well. Robert Shaw [6] likewise argues,

“The liberty pleaded for in our Confession is not absolute and uncontrollable. To assert that men have a right to think and act as they please, without respect to the moral law, and without being responsible to God, would be atheistic. And, if men are considered as socially united, and as placed under government, their natural rights, in religious as well as in civil things, must be liable to restraint and regulations, so far as the interests and ends of society require.”

-Robert Shaw

Shaw adds to Hodge’s point by suggesting that our civil rights are “liable to restraint and regulations” for the purpose of benefitting society. He argues that to think otherwise is actually “atheistic” because it is to reject the role of the moral law in the civil realm. Basically, these men argue that a claim to Christian liberty, and a claim that something violates the conscience, are improper claims if they violate God’s concern for our responsibility towards others.

This leads us to our practical consideration for today. In regards to contemporary circumstances, what role should the conscience play? I have several practical examples to consider in considering whether one is genuinely obeying their conscience, or merely practicing things based out of a pretense of conscience and Christian liberty.

VII. Correcting False Claims to or Improper Uses of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience

As best as I can see it, Churches are facing a series of conscience and Christian liberty questions. While there are numerous conceptions or ideas lying behind these issues, I simply want to address the two or three most prominent ones. We first were told that a deadly and highly infectious pandemic was upon us. We were informed that it had an extremely high rate of death among the elderly, and that to stop its spread we should not touch shared surfaces or gather in close proximity. Now, many people were and are skeptical of these claims. So the first claim to liberty is then:

1. My conscience and Christian liberty is offended by the instructions of health experts, and I am free to reject the health experts in favor of other interpretations and instructions.

Taken on its own, this idea seems plausible. If a Christian person has no relation to anyone else in society, then sure, the Christian is indeed free to reject the advice of health experts for themselves. But this freedom is not inherently a freedom of Christian liberty or of the liberty of the conscience. Remember, Christian liberty is being delivered from a spiritual enslavement that carries legal guilt and a punitive curse, to a situation of freedom in order to serve God with joy. The conscience of the Christian is cleansed so that we can consider sinful the things that are sinful and righteous the things that are righteous. If a health expert tells you to wash your hands or to wear a mask they are not commanding you to do something sinful, and keeping you from obeying God. To claim that the conscience is offended and Christian liberty is removed by these injunctions in themselves is possibly a pretense of conscience.

Where this issue begins to relate to Christian liberty and the liberty of the conscience is in regards to its effects upon the individual Christian as they are in society, and as they gather in the Church. This is a distinct step from the original step, and it is important to demarcate the two. Think for yourself–do you reject the opinion of health experts because you do not believe they are objectively accurate, or because of the potential implications they might have in other areas of life?

Since Christians are not lone wolves, and are called out from sin and darkness within societal structures, and placed within a Church family, the issue of considering health is vital to that of the conscience. Because of this, ordinarily, my response to this sort of brazen rejection of expert opinion as “Christian liberty” is “No!” The Christian must observe the moral law. The moral law involves us obeying the sixth commandment, which is, “Thou shalt not kill”. The inverse and necessary implication of this command is that we must promote the life of one another.

“Q. What is required in the sixth commandment? A. The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life, and the life of others.”

-Westminster Shorter Catechism, 68

We promote life broadly by preaching the good news about Jesus and eternal life in Him, but this does not contradict that we must promote the physical life of others as well. The Church considers the “best health practices” of the day to be instructive for the Christian in how we relate to our fellow man. These best health practices ought to be observed and practiced unless there is some reasonable reason not to do so. One example of how much warrant is required to reject “best health practices” came up prior to COVID-19 with the issue of vaccination. A number of people believe there are reasonable reasons not to vaccinate their children, and so do not do so. I won’t speak to this particular issue now, but just want to point out that it is based in a similar discussion on the nature of Christian liberty and freedom of conscience, and how that relates to the conception of “best health practices” for our society.

But in other areas of life, with much less debate or consternation, we consider following best health practices to be necessary in order to obey God’s commands and fulfill the demands of our consciences. Do we have a fever because of an infection? Then our society considers it, at the least, polite to stay home. Do we have a contagious, deadly disease? Then it is necessary to stay home so as not to “murder” another. This is the case whether or not the government mandates it–it is based solely on our concern for the health of others. It is not fear of man or unholy fear of personal injury, but reverence for God’s command to preserve the life of others that causes one to alter the circumstances of corporate worship for a time. As Hodge and Shaw say above, we are put within societies, and must consider how we may promote the life of those around us in order to keep a clear conscience. We do not ordinarily reject the opinion of health experts or established best health practices unless there is some reasonable cause to do so.

A Caveat

While the Christian is not free to reject the best health practices given by health experts, unless there is a reasonable reason to do otherwise, we may now be at a point where we do have reasonable reasons to do otherwise! I’m no epidemiologist or virologist. My acceptance of “best health practices” is derived by known and credible scientists, and by scientific studies (many available on pubmed). Initially, we had no grounds on which to reject the claims of health experts regarding COVID-19. The problem is that the initial claims have not necessarily been backed up by later claims or by contemporary results. Or maybe they have! I do not wish to say whether or not this is the case. In fact, I’m not entirely sure, and am cautious about this. Instead, what I hope you take away from this is a consideration of how you view your own liberty in relation to medical advice and to the good of those whom you live with in society. Do you reject expert medical advice for good reason, or because you do not like the implications of accepting it? Is it your conscience that is offended or your personal space? If you are rejecting expert medical advice without warrant, you may actually be guilty of violating a good conscience.

What necessarily follows is a piece of logic like this:

2. My conscience and Christian liberty demands that I impose my conception of best health practices on the Church.

The idea is that the conscience says that the Church must have its liberty preserved. Some decision has to be made! This could occur in two ways. One person could reject the advice of health experts, and the other could accept it. These persons could be members of governing bodies who vote to establish the regulations of Church life. Whose perspective on this issue should “win”? Whose conscience should be followed, and which best keeps us from sinfully binding the consciences of other Church members?

Rejecting or Ignoring Health Experts

The person who rejects or ignores the health expert determines not to impose any regulations on worship, and to worship with all the original circumstances of worship in place. In this way they believe they do not bind the conscience of members to do anything sinful, and allow Church members to make their own decisions regarding their own personal health practices.

Do they have the Christian liberty and freedom of conscience to make this determination? Perhaps. But perhaps not. If we are knowingly allowing people who are susceptible to a deadly disease to put themselves in danger, or for our other members to put them in danger, then are we fulfilling the command to use all lawful endeavors to promote their life? It is one thing to say, “Hey, kid, don’t go over the fence, there’s a car coming!” and yet the child chooses to disobey and faces injury. It is another thing to say, “Hey, kid, I’ve opened the fence, and want you to cross the road.”

Do Churches have the spiritual right continue to offer unaltered services of worship in the light of a known pandemic? In my estimation, the answer to this depends on whether we have warrant to alter the corporate assembly of the Church on Sundays, and whether one has proper warrant to reject the advice of health experts.

Following Health Experts

On the other hand, does the person who accepts the advice of health experts sinfully bind the conscience of the Church? Is it ungodly fear, or sinfully binding our people if we do change the elements or circumstances of worship? Some of the particular regulations given by health experts relate only to circumstantial areas of Church life (ie wearing masks, sitting six feet apart, etc.) that do not alter the elements of our worship. These regulations, then, have absolutely no bearing on the conscience! As others have pointed out, we obey numerous safety codes and procedures, designed and tested by health experts. For example, we follow fire codes, and would expect fire extinguishers and fire safety protocols to be followed by members of the Church. In the case of a fire, we would hope that members would say, “stay calm, and file in line through the exit”. It would be preposterous for someone to yell out, “Quit imposing the advice of health experts on me–I have Christian liberty and a free conscience! I must be allowed to continue worshipping without interference!” Clearly, these things are not concerned with the conscience.

But, other particular regulations given by health experts do relate to elements of our worship like singing, sacraments, and meeting corporately, and so they might relate to the conscience. If they advise that the Church not assemble, or only assemble under certain restrictions, does it betray ungodly fear and/or sinfully bind the conscience of Church-goers to apply this advice? Other ways of asking this question include: Do Churches have the spiritual right to suspend worship, or modify worship, for the sake of the health of its people? (ie Is there ever a time in which Churches may rightly suspend corporate worship or modify corporate worship, or is this always sinful?) In addition, do Churches have the spiritual right to suspend worship, or modify worship, for the sake of obeying civil leaders? Is there a level of Christian liberty or freedom of conscience that permits Churches to instruct their members to worship at home rather than assemble for corporate worship? These questions are essentially related to whether the Church 1. Has the God-given right to alter the circumstances of corporate worship and 2. Whether altering these things binds some congregants to do what they believe is sinful.

I want to answer these questions by looking at the next issue of conscience.

3. My conscience demands that we must worship normally, regardless of health risks.

The idea is that we must always assemble for corporate and public worship, and proceed with normal practices, without exception, even if we accept the testimony of health experts. Some argue that the first command to worship God may not be stopped or altered by any circumstances, even for considerations of the sixth command, and that we must continue to worship on Sundays under normal conditions. Honestly, this gets to the heart of the entire debate. On the one hand, the Word of God says it is necessary to preserve the life of others. On the other hand, the Word of God likewise says it is necessary to worship on the Lord’s Day. Which command takes precedent? Can they contradict one another? A faithful understanding of Scripture embraces the idea that the command, “thou shalt not kill”, and its inverse necessity, “thou shalt promote and protect life”, are not contrary to the command for us to worship God according to His desired way. But, one of two things must then follow, and this is the source of much disagreement in regards to the conscience: EITHER we must always assemble for corporate, public worship, without any exception, OR there are unique times in which we may suspend corporate and public worship without doing injury to the conscience.

My answer is that there are indeed unique times in which we may suspend corporate and public worship in favor of home worship without sinfully binding the conscience.

May We Alter the Circumstances of Our Worship?

Yes! I reason this from several passages and theological categories.  For one, I reason this from covenant theology.  Under the Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic administrations of the Covenant of Grace, corporate worship existed in quite a different fashion.  Under Adam, Noah, and Abraham, families gathered in their own homes to worship.  Consider how many thousands of years this was the regular pattern for God’s desire in worship.  In addition, this still serves as the basis for all worship today (see Bavinck’s “The Christian Family”).  Under Moses and David, families were to worship at home, and then assemble at several particular feast days for corporate worship. These ceremonial events were abrogated in the New covenant administration, and instead, families were called to assemble together on Sundays for worship.  Though this is the regular pattern instituted, it is a reasonable conclusion that if there is something preventing the assembly of these families for corporate worship (such as plague, pandemic, war, weather), the private, familial structure of the older administrations are the proper recourse.  Given the familial nature of salvation, as well as of the prior covenantal administrations, it is reasonable to conclude that in extraordinary circumstances, God is pleased for families to assemble in their own homes

Secondly, the Scriptures show a number of extraordinary circumstances in which worship is undertaken outside of corporate worship, because corporate worship was not possible: the Ethiopian eunuch was not baptized in a corporate worship service (Acts 8:36-38), nor was Saul/Paul (Acts 9:17-19), nor, in all likelihood, was Lydia (Acts 16:13-15), nor was the jailer (Acts 16:29-34).  Most agree that baptism ought normally to be engaged when the assembly of godly families have gathered.  But this shows that there are unique and special times in which worship may be undertaken, in the new covenant, outside of corporate worship and instead in private, family worship.

Third, I use a defensive argument from Hebrews.  In this letter, the author says, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some”.  This does not in any way prove that there are grounds to suspend corporate worship.  However, it also does not prove the point that corporate worship may not be suspended, and I want to show that.  Calvin’s interpretation of this passage is that there are numerous obstacles in each of us that prevent us from wanting to fellowship (particularly Jew v. Gentile relations).  This passage is then intended to call out those who are stubbornly refusing to worship together because of differences of opinion or of non-essential matters of conscience.  Another interpretation is that people were refusing to worship over fear of persecution, something the Bible clearly says we ought to worship in spite of if possible (though it likewise encourages fleeing at times).  A last interpretation is that this refers to lapsed families.  Just as we should call a lapsed family to attend worship again, so too the author is calling lapsed families to assemble again.  His aim is to stir up families who have made it a “habit” not to assemble for corporate worship.  This command, then, does not necessitate that we may never suspend worship, only that those families or persons who regularly do not engage in corporate worship because of selfish motives ought to be rebuked.

Fourth, I want to again consider the Reformed interpretation of the command “You shall not murder”.  According to the WLC 135, this means, we are commanded to engage in “all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others”.  This type of practice also includes a large range of behaviors such as, “charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild, and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.”  In its explication of what this means we should not do, WLC 136 says, that the sin of “neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life” is forbidden.  By necessary consequence, it can be deduced that the temporary suspension of corporate worship or alteration of its other circumstances, out of concern to preserve the life of ourselves and others, is a proper application of this commandment, and is not at odds with God’s desire for our spiritual well-being.

Fifth, I want to argue from the development of historical implementation of this practice from the early Church and Reformation Church to the Modern Church.  The historical practice of the New Covenant church is one in which we do not fear death, but are rightly cautious about carelessly spreading disease.  As theories of the nature of disease have changed, the Church has acted accordingly out of love for others.  During the early Church, the Medieval Church, and the Reformation Church, the prevalent theory of disease was the miasma theory.  This theory is that miasma, or polluted air, spreads disease.  Since this was supposed to be the case, care to preserve the life of others was centered around “cleaning” the air, and cautioning the elderly to avoid bad air.  The most common occurrences of Christian fidelity occurred under the Antonine Plague, the Plague of Cyprian, and the numerous outbreaks of “black death”.  I have been unable to determine from my research whether Christian public worship was suspended.  If it continued, it may be because the miasmal theory suggested contamination came through places of air pollution, and not from physical contact with the sick.  But, what is obvious, in all the accounts of these times, is that Christian hospitality and private worship faithfully continued, while Christians also attempted to follow the best-known practices to prevent spreading the disease.

For example, during the plague of 1527 it is likely that public worship was suspended in Wittenberg, since people had fled the city in droves.  Luther wrote his famous tract “Whither One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” during this time.  In this little tract, he argues that those who wish to stay should not look down on those who flee.  Luther suggested that this decision was up to the conscience, and encouraged Christians to establish hospitals to prepare for crises like this.  That said, Martin and Katie Luther chose to remain in the city rather than flee, and Luther quarantined himself in his home, turning it into a place for the sick and dying.  He would preach to those who were ill and dying from home. The Church’s worship may have been suspended, but what is clear is that as an individual, Luther practiced Christian hospitality, charity, and evangelism.  

During the five plagues in Geneva, again, I cannot find whether or not they retained or ceased public worship.  From the Register of the Company of Pastors it is apparent that, in general, public worship’s date/time of assembly was set by the assembly of ministers (with civil approval), and was under their jurisdiction, and that they could alter this.  In regards to private visitation, Calvin wanted to personally continue private pastoral visitation, but the counsel of ministers forbade him.  He went anyway, as did many of the other ministers.  After the death of Calvin, plague broke out again in Geneva, and the response of the ministers is detailed on pgs. 367-371 of the Registers of the Company of Pastors of Geneva.  They describe their previous practice differed from time to time, but generally they appointed one minister to visit the sick who were detained in a plague hospital outside the city.  They took precautions by enabling the minister to live in isolation, and chose the minister who would do this by casting lots.  Again, it is evident that ministers followed the best practices they knew to preserve life.

By the 1800’s the miasmal theory had splintered, and an offshoot developed which believed disease was spread by contagion (touch).  But, the bacterial theory (or germ theory) of disease was not proposed in Europe until the 1850’s, and not adopted until around the 1890’s.  Once the transmission of disease was understood differently, it effected the way that the Church has responded to certain types of disease. This is first evident, from what I can see, in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.  During the flu pandemic, DC Churches were ordered to close by mandate of the government.  All the ministers/sessions of these churches assented to the demand of the governor.  As the number of cases/deaths from the pandemic declined, the churches petitioned the governors for permission to meet again until they lifted the ban.  The details of these decisions are spelled out in an article on 9 Marks, and contain explanations that the ministers gave for why it was biblically permissible to temporarily suspend corporate worship.

While the details of the Church’s historical response to plague or epidemic are by no means conclusive, I believe I have cautiously and clearly shown how the Church has attempted to practice best health practices in the light of our concern to fulfill the sixth commandment and the first commandment simultaneously.

Sixth, I want to argue from the PCA’s BCO, and most Church’s past implementation of this sort of order.  Morton Smith comments on BCO 12-5E, “This is a broad statement concerning the responsibility of the Session regarding worship services, and the use of the church building.  The session has authority over the time and place of the preaching, administration of the Sacraments, and over all other religious services.”  By means of the ministerial authority that King Jesus has granted to the Session, most if not all Churches have previously suspended corporate worship for things that might reasonably cause natural harm to our people, such as snow days or floods.  In my estimation, many Church’s decisions to suspend corporate worship or alter the other circumstances of worship these past few months has been in regards to a similar situation.


Excursus: Answering Two Common Arguments

The premise, “my conscience demands that we must worship normally, regardless of health risks,” often has two logical reasons appended to it: 1. If we obey God’s command to worship, even without following best health practices, we can trust that God Himself will ensure that the well-being of our people is promoted to fulfill the sixth commandment. We can trust this because we are obeying God and not caving in to fear. A second reason appended to the premise is that 2. Even if God providentially permits illnesses to kill the members of the congregants who assemble for worship without following best health practices during a time of pandemic, this is in fulfillment of His good and wise plan.

But, in my estimation, the reasons presented to support the premise reveals three things: presumption, disobedience, and a violation of the liberty of conscience.

First, there is NO promise from God that God will preserve the physical safety of His people if they choose to publicly, and corporately worship during a time of fire, flood, extremely dangerous weather, deadly illness, or war. It is a false dichotomy to suggest that a person would alter the circumstances of worship only because they are afraid. It likewise does not follow that to leave the circumstances of worship unaltered is somehow more pleasing to God, and worthy of unique divine protection. In other situations in life, we do not presume upon God to fulfill the commands for us, despite our actions against wise or best practices to promote human life. Therefore it presumes upon His mercy rather than trusts His promises to assemble without best health practices.

Second, God’s command to preserve life is given for us to obey, not for Himself to fulfill in our place. It is, in fact, disobedience to His revealed will, foolhardy, and unloving to not take reasonable precautions to protect the health of our congregants. In addition to this, it is a cruel mockery of the nature of God’s providence to believe that the miserable deaths that may follow our obvious negligence were merely the providential hand of God, to the exclusion of our responsibility.

Last, and most impactful of all, what violates the liberty of conscience? To believe and practice the doctrines of men. It is not a biblical doctrine to believe or practice that God will preserve human life for us if we meet to worship, regardless of circumstances. There is not a single line of Scripture that suggests this, or a single piece of necessary deduction to promote it. To believe this is to assent to the man-made doctrine that God will protect human life for us if we assemble to worship without best practices in a time where this is dangerous to human life. We ultimately violate the very liberty of conscience that is being proclaimed if we presume that God will protect human life for us even if we do not alter the circumstances of our worship. It binds the conscience of Church-goers who are commanded to preserve the life of their brethren to tell them to worship without following best health practices.

We must have very good reason, then, to believe that expert medical opinion is incorrect if we are going to meet without best health practices. To do otherwise may violate the very liberty of conscience that claim #3 seeks to establish.


Therefore, It Does Not Offend a Strong Conscience to Alter the Circumstances of Worship

I want to say that loud and clear. Think through it with me. A person who does not have an overly sensitive conscience may be saddened that we must alter the circumstances of our worship, but they will not be morally offended by it. I can become all things in order to worship God, and NOT kill my brothers and sisters. I can wear a mask. I can worship at home or with a small group of people.

But, It Might Offend a Weak Conscience to Alter the Circumstances of Worship

A question to ask about such a claim is: is a person who claims “my conscience demands that we must worship normally, regardless of health risks,” a person presuming upon conscience or a person with a weak conscience? A weak conscience is overly sensitive. It views as sin that which is not sin. In this instance, it may be that such a conscience is weak, viewing it as sin to not assemble for corporate worship or to worship in a modified form, for the sake of health concerns. If it is a weak conscience that leads one to this conclusion, then the conscience ought to be obeyed. A place of worship must be found. If their local Church suspends corporate worship for a time and promotes family or small group worship, and a member is offended by this on account of their weak conscience, then this member may attend elsewhere during that time. Similarly, the leadership of the Church may attend elsewhere during that time if they believe it is always necessary to have corporate worship offered.

The Tyranny of the Weak?

You might be wondering: If it offends a person with a weak conscience, then should we not follow Paul’s injunction to not cause offense? We do our uttermost not to give offense to persons with weak consciences, however in numerous circumstances we cannot alter things for the sake of a weak conscience. To do so would be to allow weak consciences to reign over necessary practices in the Church. For example, what if a person grew up in a Roman Catholic background, and became a Protestant. They then attend a worship service where a declaration of pardon is read aloud. They might be offended, considering this a form of sacerdotal absolution. Because their conscience is still weak and in formation, they do not perceive that this is actually an essential element of worship that we cannot remove in good conscience. Similarly, the health and life of our congregants is something we must put ahead of the weak conscience that is offended by an alteration of circumstances to worship.

A Presumption of Conscience or a Weak Conscience?

But last, I want us to consider whether such a claim, “my conscience demands that we must worship normally, regardless of health risks,” may be a presumption of conscience. Indeed, it may be a weak conscience that demands this. But, on the other hand, there may be people who claims to conscience that are not actually offended. The presumptive person thinks, “I want to worship, regardless of the circumstances. Nothing should prevent me from this. I will claim my conscience is injured in order to worship where I like, when I like.”

Summary

So where have we been? In the end, we’ve seen that Christian liberty is being delivered from a spiritual enslavement that carries legal guilt and a punitive curse, to a situation of freedom in order to serve God with joy. Our liberty is that we are freed from sin, and freed to serve God. We’ve reviewed the nature of the conscience and how it relates to the liberty of conscience. Conscience in general is “the moral faculty within human beings that assesses what is good and what is bad” (DeYoung). The conscience can be characterized by numerous traits, but once a person is regenerated, the conscience is renewed. It becomes cleansed, good, clear, and either weak or strong. A Christian’s conscience may be too sensitive, and assess something as sin when it is not. But the weak conscience should still be obeyed. Indeed, the Christian’s conscience is set at liberty to obey only what God commands, and prohibit only what God prohibits. It need not, out of necessity, cede to the demands of anyone or anything else. However, there are times for Christian’s to deny their liberty and submit to others out of love. Meanwhile, a Christian may engage in a pretense: they may claim that they have an offended conscience about an issue in order to avoid something or do something. We do not have liberty to sin simply by claiming our conscience is offended! In fact, the Christian conscience is set squarely within the context of the covenant relationship God has with us, and as we are placed in Family, Society, and the Church. Each of these spheres has God’s moral law as a guiding principle and instruction. The Christian’s conscience is free to obey this moral law in each of these spheres, but is not free to reject His moral law in these spheres.

In regards to contemporary issues, we’ve noted that we must be very careful about the reasons and warrant we may have rejecting or ignoring expert opinion about medical issues that are related to the life of our other congregants. We may be guilty of great errors like the pretense of conscience or violating the sixth commandment, or even binding the conscience! We also saw that there may be brothers and sisters with weak consciences who simultaneously wish to uphold the sixth commandment. There may be times when there is good warrant to reject medical opinion. But this has to be established for the right reasons, and with genuine causes, or else we are engaged in seeking a means to violate the sixth commandment.

I pray this has been a helpful overview of the nature of Christian liberty, and the liberty of conscience, and has led you to thoughtfulness in regards to your own decisions about these very practical matters. May God bless all those who are in Christ, and enable His Church to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.


Footnotes and Sources

[1] The Westminster Confession of Faith is available to be read here.

[2] From “The Art of Turning from Sin to Christ for a Joyfully Clear Conscience” by Kevin Deyoung
Other definitions of the conscience include:

  • “The soul reflecting upon itself” -Richard Sibbes
  • “A man’s judgment of himself, according to God’s judgment of him.” -William Ames
  • “The mental organ in man through which God [brings] His word to bear on them.” -Puritans summarized by Packer
  • “Something that God implanted within our minds” -Sproul
  • “The innate ability to sense right and wrong” -MacArthur
  • “The awareness of what you believe is right and wrong” -Naselli/Crowley
  • “Moral self-awareness which touches my affections and my will” -Ash

[3] From “The Vanishing Conscience” by John Macarthur

[4] From “The Confession of Faith” by A.A. Hodge

[5] From “How Can I Develop a Christian Conscience?” by R.C. Sproul

[6] From “The Reformed Faith” by Robert Shaw

[7] Articles about how Churches should meet, and are not liable to alter circumstances of worship
https://www.gracechurch.org/news/posts/1988
http://theologyinshorts.com/why-the-church-must-meet/
https://www.theaquilareport.com/why-i-oppose-mask-mandates/

[8] Articles about the issue of conscience, and whether we can alter the circumstances of worship
https://www.9marks.org/article/a-time-for-civil-disobedience-a-response-to-john-macarthur/
https://heidelblog.net/2020/07/between-conscience-and-defiance-questions-for-grace-community-church/
https://gavinortlund.com/2020/08/02/should-churches-in-california-defy-government-restrictions-a-response-to-john-macarthur/

[9] Calvin on the conscience: https://faculty.wts.edu/posts/calvins-view-of-christian-freedom/

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