What Qualifies As An Issue of Conscience?

I finished the last post by commenting that Paul’s real concern in 1 Cor. 8-10 and Rom. 14-15 is not the particular issues being discussed, but rather how those issues are being handled in the church. This opens us up to applying the principles from these passages to controversies concerning debatable issues of conscience today.


Of course, in most of these issues, one of the biggest points of contention is whether or not the issue itself qualifies as an issue of conscience. One party in the controversy will claim they have the freedom in Christ to act a certain way, and the other party will claim they do not. So how do you determine if it qualifies as an issue of conscience?


First, we must be clear that these are not issues of minor theological disagreement. Certainly the principles of these passages will apply in great measure to theological controversies, but the issues being discussed in Romans and 1 Corinthians are primarily issues of Christian behavior, not Christian theology. They are issues of morality, ethics, and conduct.


Similarly, these are issues concerning actions that appear to have the possibility of moral value. In other words, the Christians in Paul’s day were not arguing over whether it was OK to wear a green toga versus a blue toga. That is not a moral question.


These issues become moral questions because at least one side of the controversy has solid biblical and/or theological and/or ethical reasons for believing the way they believe. For instance, the Jews of Romans 14 almost certainly based their views on eating certain foods and celebrating certain days on the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament). The Gentiles in Romans 14 almost certainly based their views on the teachings of the New Testament gospel of grace. In 1 Cor. 8:4-6 Paul makes a strong case that it is OK to eat food sacrificed to idols. In 1 Cor. 10:14-22, Paul appears to make a strong case AGAINST eating foods sacrificed to idols. There is good biblical/theological/ethical reasons for both sides of each of these controversies.


Along with good reasons supporting each side, Paul assumes that the people on each side of the controversy are motivated by a desire to do what is right in order to honor God (Rom. 14:4-12). In a true issue of conscience, you will see that the different parties involved are people sincerely trying to understand the Word of God and to apply it in their daily living. What you should not see is people trying to use their “freedom in Christ” as an excuse to do whatever they want.


Finally, in order for an issue to be an issue of conscience, it has to be an issue in which there is the possibility of disagreement within the bounds of a reasonable understanding of Scripture. For example, murder is not an issue of conscience. Scripture is very clear that murder is sinful and wrong. There is an emphasis on the “reasonable understanding” of Scripture. Basic hermeneutics and common sense apply.


The last two points above are where the church seems to be getting hung up today. Without tackling any specific issues, in my next post I will dig a little deeper into why Paul’s teaching in Rom. 14-15 and 1 Cor. 8-10 cannot be as widely applied as some people might hope.

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