Christians and Conscience: What’s Off Limits?

by Roger Barrier

Dear Roger,

My Christian friends hold a very different set of values than I do. They permit their kids to celebrate Halloween, they engage in social drinking and use recreational drugs. I can’t imagine how we can have fellowship with each other when our convictions are so different. What do you think?


Dear “L”,

First of all, I am pleased to see that you have used the word, “convictions”. A dramatic difference exists between Biblical truths and personal convictions. Too often we Christians confuse the two. We live and die for Biblical truth. On the other hand, personal convictions are not nearly as foundational to living out the Christian life. Convictions have more to do with our consciences which are trained to respond one way or another to particular situations and issues.

Christians have been divided over what Paul referred to as “disputable issues” ever since the first century. Most church fights—from the first century down to the present day—were not over Biblical issues. The fights were over personal convictions regarding personal consciences. The Roman Christians were having great difficulty in deciding just which activities were acceptable and which were not. They were arguing, among other things, about whether or not it was all right for Christians to eat meat which had previously been offered to idols and then sold at a discount in the market places surrounding the pagan temples.

Paul gave us specific guidelines for settling “food fights” among brothers and sisters in Christ. In Romans 14:1-15:5.  Paul taught how to settle disagreements among God-loving Christians who are trying to live out the Christian life in gray areas.

In Romans 14:1-3 Paul wrote: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.

“Disputable matters” are areas where the Bible doesn’t expressly give direction. Two disputable matters—among many others—were rampant in the church in Rome:

1. Eating meat offered to idols
2. Celebrating pagan holidays

Unfortunately disputable issues still divide and hurt Christians today: drinking alcohol, dancing, dress, movies, music, video games, holidays, tattoos, body piercings, bodily augmentations or “upgrades,” worshipping with uplifted hands in prayer and home schooling, etc., etc. and etc.

Two extremes must be avoided as we decide what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

Legalism: We make a list of rules and conform to the rules. Then, we attempt to impose our personal convictions as normative for others.

Libertinism: “Since I’m free in Christ and the Bible forbids none of these things, then I’ll feel free to do any and/or all of them!”

One of my close friends, Gary Shrader, synthesized Paul’s teaching regarding disputable issues of conscience into what he identified as four “boxes”. We need to know what box we are in and what box our friends are in as we sort out our relationships in the gray areas of the Christian life.

BOX 1: I can’t; and, I struggle if you do.
BOX 2: I can’t; but, you can.
BOX 3: I can; but, it is a struggle for me.
BOX 4: I can; and, you can.

By the way, Gary’s boxes are only somewhat of an indicator of personal spiritual growth. Some very young Christians may be able to enter many areas of freedom while those much farther along in the journey may still struggle in some areas.

In Romans 14:13-15:5 Paul added three more boxes. The overarching principle of handling issues of conscience is found in Romans 15:1: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” Who are the strong? What are the failings of the weak? Strong Christians eat the meat without any pangs of conscience. Weak Christians can’t eat without feeling that they are violating their consciences.

BOX 5: I can; but, I won’t because others might stumble.

Paul wrote in Romans 14:13b: “Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” What is a stumbling block? If you pick any disputable matter and do it in front of weaker brothers offending their consciences, you have become a stumbling block to their faith.  Don’t flaunt your freedom before others (Romans 14:22). Keep your freedom in this area between you and God.

BOX 6: I can’t; so I won’t until I can.

Paul carefully addressed those gray areas where our engagement in certain activities might violate our consciences. He writes in Romans 14:23: “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

Contrary to popular belief, our consciences don’t necessarily tell us what is right and wrong. They give us behavioral instructions along the lines of what we have been trained to believe is right or wrong. If a certain activity violates our consciences we are not to engage. To do so is to sin. A violated conscience impairs our ability to hear God speak deep in our inner spirit. Paul is clear: we are never to act contrary to the leadings of our consciences. Instead, we strengthen them by retraining them along the lines of Biblical truth so that we can experience the freedom of the Spirit-filled life. By the way, how we behave in these disputable gray areas means that what is sin for some is not sin for others. Think about that!

BOX 7: I can; and I’ll help others find freedom.

Paul wrote in Romans 14:19: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” “Mutual edification” has to do with retraining our consciences along the lines of Biblical freedom. We help “weaker” brothers or sisters whose consciences are more attuned in some areas to personal convictions than to Biblical truth by restricting our liberty—and then coming along side them and helping them understand why we restricted our liberty. Then, we encourage them to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, search the Scriptures and enjoy freedom in those particular areas.

Rallying around the indisputables is one of the best ways to enhance relationships, unity and peace.

Paul wrote in Romans 15:5-6: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6 so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

From my perspective the Indisputables are:

1. The Bible is the Word of God.
2. Jesus is 100% God and 100% man (Jesus was virgin born).
3. Jesus died a substitutionary death on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin.
4. The bodily resurrection guaranteed that Christ’s mission was s fulfilled.
5. Forgiveness of sin and salvation come solely by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
6. God establishes an eternal relationship with those who personally receive Him as Savior and Lord.

When we get these “indisputables” right, our priorities and choices will fall into place. We will live in deeper fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus focused on the essentials as a powerful way to bring in the kingdom. So may we!

Well, “L”, I hope this helps. May God bless you as you live wisely and Biblically your Christian life.

Love, Roger

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