Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Christian conscience in a secular culture

Reflections of an ecumenical Pentecostal

Daniel Tomberlin, 13 February, 2014
Reproduced with permission

Daniel Tomberlin*

In 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.