When Christians disagree about applications, the disagreement often boils down to a toggle question: is doing _____ right or wrong? Is it moral or not?
And in those cases, only one side can be correct. Either a godly Christian can enjoy a glass of wine with his meal, or he can’t. Either I can get a tattoo of a buzzard on the side of my neck, or I can’t.
In the passage we’re examining, Paul has introduced a bit of a complication. If the tattoo is OK, but I think it’s wrong, then it would in fact be wrong for me to get one; I should never violate a restriction my conscience places on me.
But we’re finite, fallen creatures, and our thinkers are busted, and sometimes our consciences are mistaken.
Most commonly in our culture, sometimes they think something is OK when it isn’t. Our culture has set out to sear our consciences, and it’s done a powerfully effective job of that.
Let me give you an example, just to stimulate your thinking.
When I was a boy, my family found Christ in broader evangelicalism. In my Christian high school, most of the faculty were liberal Democrats. Some of them didn’t believe that any genuine Christian could be a Republican. And now some of my fellow travelers don’t believe that any genuine Christian could be a Democrat.
They’re both wrong. But that’s off my current point.
Even in that earlier, broader environment, most pew-sitters in evangelical churches had qualms about Christians going to movies. Even the good movies. You don’t want to support a corrupt industry, you know.
Now, 50 years later, the numbers are reversed. Most Christians see nothing wrong with going to movies.
What’s changed in the meantime? Well, for one thing, the movies have gotten a lot worse.
I’m not trying to make a statement about going to movies here. I’m just observing that over the last 50 years, our consciences have gotten much less sensitive. Now we think of those more sensitive days as “quaint.” That’s what our culture does to people.
But back to my main point. While it’s more likely in this day that your Christian conscience is letting stuff slide, occasionally your conscience may bother you when it shouldn’t. It may be mistaken on the restrictive side.
What do you do then?
Well, as Paul has said in 1 Corinthians 8, for now you need to listen to it, and not do The Thing. You need to keep it sensitive.
But while we need a sensitive conscience, we also need an accurate one.
One of the key attributes of God, oft repeated throughout Scripture, is that he is true. He cannot lie (Titus 1.2); he tells the truth; he keeps his promises (Jer 33.25-26); he is faithful (Dt 7.9). (The OT word for his faithfulness is ‘emunah, the root of our English word “Amen!”—“May it be so!”)
And our life is supposed to be a process of growing to be more like him (Rom 8.29), by the gracious empowerment of his Spirit.
So when we’re wrong about something, we can’t stay that way; we need to get right.
How do we do that?
We know the answer to that question. We experience sanctification, by the Spirit, through the means of grace: Scripture, prayer, fellowship with other believers.
So when I notice that fellow believers seem to have no problem with doing things that would trouble my conscience, I can’t just assume that they’re a bunch of worldly reprobates—smh—and continue my obviously superior lifestyle. I have to ask myself whether I might be mistaken—whether I might be misrepresenting the moral character of God. And I’ll use the means of grace to help me answer that question:
- Search the Scripture. What does it say about tattoos, or movies, or wine, or whatever? Does it place absolute restrictions on them? Are there cases where they might be used to glorify God? Are there underlying biblical principles that would make them always wrong? Has the meaning of the practice in our culture shifted over time?
- Pray. God does hear us, and he does speak to our conscience through his Spirit, informing it through the Scripture (see previous point). He does providentially engineer connections and experiences to show us where our thinking has been imprecise. Pray, and listen.
- Talk with other believers—those who agree with you, and those who don’t. Listen to what they say; hear them. Consider their hearts and their words. And keep listening over time.
You may conclude that The Thing is still wrong, and your conscience may become even stronger in its conviction. But it will be strong for good reasons.
Or you may conclude that you’ve been mistaken. And as you think over these things and inform your conscience through the Word, your conscience will come to the point where it relaxes that restriction on you. And when your conscience gives you permission, you can act freely—as long as you’re not influencing someone else with a weak conscience.
Paul’s not done talking about this matter yet. Turns out there are more things to consider. We’ll start on those next time.