Christian conscience in a secular culture
Reflections of an ecumenical Pentecostal
Daniel Tomberlin, 13 February, 2014
Reproduced with permission
a recent blog several conservative Christians were taken to task for
supporting Hobby Lobby’s ongoing battle against provisions of the Affordable
Care Act (ACA) that violate religious conscience, specifically issues
dealing with contraception and abortion. Many Christians will be forced to
violate their personal and institutional consciences by being coerced to
participate in the ACA. The blogger suggested that these conservative
Christians are misguided in their efforts, misusing Scripture, and that "it
is impossible to avoid enabling sin." He then offers several examples of how
Christians inadvertently enable sinfulness. If it is true that it is
impossible to avoid enabling sin, then it must be assumed that Christians
should not attempt to exercise conscience or resist evil.
The Gospel of Christ should inform believers on the political left and
right, and convict sinners on the left and right. The Incarnation (God with
us) means that Christ is above, in, and with all human endeavors. So yes,
Christian theology and ethics should seek to inform and shape public life.
That means that individual Christians, and Christian institutions, have an
obligation to exercise a Christ-shaped conscience.
So then, how does a Christian exercise conscience in a pagan or secular
culture? Should believers bow before the idol of state for the sake of
peace? For two millennia Christians have struggled with this issue. Should
Christians serve in the military, or should Christians embrace pacifism?
Questions of this kind have been understood to be matters of conscience. In
his defense the apostle Paul declared, "I also do my best to maintain always
a blameless conscience both before God and before men" (Acts 24:16). When
seeking to negotiate proper social interaction in a pagan culture,
specifically the eating of meats sacrificed to idols, Paul advised,
If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to
go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for
conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, "This is meat sacrificed to
idols," do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for
conscience’ sake… (1 Corinthians 10:27-28).
Paul is adamant that the Christian is free to eat the "sacred meat" unless he has been specifically informed of the meat’s origin – pagan temples. An informed conscience requires actions consistent with the
"glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). Even unbelievers can possess an enlightened conscience (Romans 2:14-15), a conscience that reflects the righteousness of God. Paul also warns that some believers will fall into apostasy and suffer a seared conscience that no longer reflects the righteousness of God (1 Timothy 4:1-2).
Sin – public or private, individual or systemic – must be resisted.
Should I buy a diamond ring to celebrate our anniversary? Should I buy a
shirt made in China? On the face of it, these questions seem rather
straightforward and harmless. But if I am made aware that the diamond is a
"blood diamond," then I become compelled by conscience to make a decision
that reflects the glory of God. If I am made aware that the shirt was
manufactured using child slave labor, then I am compelled by conscience to
make a decision that reflects the righteousness of God.
Throughout history Christians have provoked social and political change
because they acted on an informed, Christ-shaped conscience. William
Wilberforce led the movement to abolish the slave trade in the British
Empire because of conscience. Martin Luther King, Jr. provoked the
conscience of a nation because he
dared to dream that the United States could "be transformed into an
oasis of freedom and justice." Both Wilberforce and King were opposed by
people of seared conscience, or weak conscience.
Many Christians of weak conscience opposed King’s work, and accused him
of fermenting civil strife. While in jail
King penned a letter to the white clergy of Birmingham. He addressed
them as "men of genuine goodwill," but then sought to provoke their
consciences. He wrote,
… I am in Birmingham because injustice is here… I am
compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown… Injustice
anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… You deplore the demonstrations…
but your statement… fails to express a similar concern for the conditions
that brought about the demonstrations… The purpose of our direct action
program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably
open the door…
Christians from the political right and left have an obligation to act
with an informed, Christ-shaped conscience. We must act in ways that reflect
the glory and righteousness of God. Healthcare for the poor and protecting
the life of the unborn are acts of social conscience that do not conflict.
Protecting marriage between one man and one woman does not mean the
demonization of homosexuals. Nor does resisting the "gayificaiton" of
culture imply intolerance and hate.
Christians on the right and left must be people of "genuine goodwill." As
such we must act conscientiously to provoke dialogue over monologue, to have
a prophetic voice in the public square.