Sunday, July 10, 2016

ET25: Many issues are a matter of individual or corporate conscience.

This is the final ethics and theology entry in a series called theology in bullet points that I began on March 7, 2014. I will post one more overall table of contents and be done. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
Many issues are a matter of individual or corporate conscience.

1. "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity." [1] So goes the slogan. Most would readily agree with what it is saying.

If something is essential, then all Christians must affirm and practice it. That is the definition of an essential. There are probably some today who do not see much of anything as essential. But Christianity has no identity if there is nothing about it that is "it." To deny any essentials is to stand outside of Christianity in any meaningful sense.

Most would agree that love must pervade our relationships with each other. Perhaps there would be someone who does not agree, but they must argue with Jesus, Paul, James, and John to explain their new revelation. This theme seems too pervasive in the New Testament and church history to fight successfully.

The difficulty with this slogan, for most Christians, is not what it says. The difficulty is in distinguishing between what is essential and what is non-essential.

2. Christians disagreed on things even in the New Testament church. Some Christians believed non-Jews needed to convert fully to Judaism to be saved. Peter and James disagreed, although they were probably sympathetic. [2] Paul disagreed with James on eating meat offered to idols and how Jew and Gentile might eat together. James had a "stay away from the tainted meat at all costs" approach, and would only allow table fellowship under certain circumstances. Paul had a "don't ask" approach, and rejected all but sexual purity concerns about eating together.

So we often disagree on many things today as well, and Christians have repeatedly disagreed with each other throughout the centuries. The Novatians disagreed with the mainstream church on the forgiveness of priests who had caved in during persecution and split to form their own community. The Coptics disagreed over calling Nestorius a heretic for seeing Christ as roughly two persons.

In 1054, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church ostensibly split over the question of whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or just the Father. The Roman Catholic Church kicked Martin Luther out for his positions on purgatory, Scripture, and justification by faith. Luther and Zwingli could not unite as Protestants because of differing views of communion.

And ever since, Protestantism has split into tens of thousands of little groups with differing beliefs. Paul Tillich called it the "Protestant Principle." Because each individual is expected to form their beliefs on the basis of Scripture alone, you inevitably get almost as many different beliefs as you do individual Christians. This creates a dynamic where we should expect churches and denominations to split regularly because they disagree over what the Bible says.

Just this summer alone, I learned of a German Baptist group that split amicably over the use of the internet. This summer I also watched the United Methodist Church come very close to splitting over the question of ordaining practicing gay ministers.

3. Since Protestants have often claimed to settle all these disputes on the basis of the Bible, the evidence is quite definitive that this avenue has not worked very well at all. And it is easy to see why. There are three simple, very easy to understand reasons:
  • Christians disagree on the meaning of individual verses because the same words can be taken in different ways. [3]
  • It is possible to fit together the varied comments of the Bible in many different ways. Which verses are primary and "clear"? Which are secondary and "unclear"? How do they connect? [4]
  • How do these words, which addressed numerous ancient audiences, play out in our contexts and situations, which are often different from theirs? [5]
The persistent ignorance of these dynamics leads Christian groups repeatedly and mindlessly to beat their chests about those who are or are not following the Bible. Yet they may be unaware of the traditions at work on their own understanding or the cultural dynamics that have led them to interpret and emphasize certain verses in certain ways. All of us as Christian readers are, at least to some extent, unaware of the way in which we read the Bible as a mirror for our own assumptions.

4. So what is essential? In a previous article, I discussed the difference between dogma, doctrine, and adiaphora. Dogma are those things that have been generally believed by Christians for the last 2000 years. Doctrines tend to be matters of specific denominations and church groups, points at which a Wesleyan might disagree with a Baptist. Adiaphora then refers to matters of individual conscience.

We can abstract three basic principles for "disputable issues" from Paul's treatment of meat sacrificed to idols in Romans 14. Mind you, James probably did not consider this a disputable issue, which is fundamental to our problem. Some think some issues are essential and others do not.

The three principles are:
  • Let everyone be fully convinced before God in their own conscience (Rom. 14:5).
  • Act toward others with love in a way that builds up their faith (Rom. 14:13).
  • God knows the right answer, and an individual can be wrong about what they are convinced of (Rom. 14:22).
5. First, my conscience needs to be clear. Romans 14:23 gives us the best understanding of sin in the entire Bible. Sin is when I intentionally do something that conflicts with my complete commitment to God, a "willful transgression against a known law of God," as Wesley put it. [6] I need to act out of faith rather than trying to get away with something.

The problem here is that people can be wrongly convinced that their conscience is clear. Paul hints at this fact when he says, "Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve" (Rom. 14:22). This is the third point. Sometimes there is a definite answer and the point under dispute is not really a disputable issue at all.

God knows. There is a human impulse to want to be able to know for sure now. We want to see the offender punished or kicked out of the church. We don't want someone to "pull the wool over our eyes." But God knows. God is not fooled. Some of us may need a little more faith that God will make sure the right thing is done.

Other individuals have a hyper-active conscience. They doubt everything and Romans 14:23 becomes a verse of terror: "Those who have doubts are condemned if they eat." This type of individual needs to know that Paul does not have passing thoughts in view here. Doubt in the New Testament is much more a matter of conflicting loyalty than passing thought.

6. So what is an essential? When there is a well-nigh universal understanding of Scripture on an issue, we are likely standing on an essential. Notice how I have worded the statement. Not some little group's understanding of the Bible, not my understanding of the Bible, not even the original meaning of the Bible, but an interpretation of the Bible that has shown staying power among God's people for the last two thousand years.

Can any of these be modified? As a Protestant, I would say that the Protestant Reformation suggests that the church can get off track. Always leave room for reformation based in reflection on Scripture.

Since we have a tendency to see things as essential that aren't, I would suggest practically that we treat as a disputable issue any issue where Christians of faith disagree. God will sort us out soon enough.

7. It is reasonable that Christians would form communities with "corporate convictions." That is to say, it makes perfect sense that Christians with the same perspective on a particular doctrine or issue should come together as a community. Those Christians that believe you should baptize a certain way are welcome to come together and baptize a certain way, being sure to love those who disagree with them. Those Christians who believe uninterpreted, unknown tongues are a blessing to practice in public worship are welcome to come together and practice uninterpreted tongues-speaking in public worship, being sure to love those who disagree with them. [7]

To think that all Christian churches should believe and worship exactly the same way--and then to think we can do it the New Testament way--simply reflects an ignorance of the nature of the Bible, the facts of church history, and the role of culture. This will never happen. It was not so even in the early church.

So it is fitting that there be churches and denominations who agree in their corporate conscience. Let them be fully convinced. Let them show love toward other groups and individuals. God knows the right answers.

8. Similarly, there will inevitably be matters of individual conscience. We used to call these items matters of personal conviction. You believe you can drink moderately. I believe I should abstain completely. You believe you can watch certain movies. I believe I should not. You have no problem celebrating Halloween. I do not.

Since we usually cannot know another person's true motives, Jesus tells us not to judge our fellow Christian on such matters (Matt. 7:1). God knows the heart. God knows who's right. Love is the essential of all essentials, taking precedence over ideas and specific actions.

As an individual Christian, it is my conscience that I must worry about most. Is my heart right with God? Can I truly do this in good conscience? Can I glorify God and Christ and do this? Am I simply saying my conscience is clear when, deep down, I know I am simply trying to justify something I shouldn't do?

And all of us must love those who disagree with us. We should "agree to disagree" far more often than we do. Most of the splits in history, arguably, have been as much about broken relationships as they have been differing ideas. We can love each other and disagree.

Paul is also concerned that one person's freedom not hurt another person's faith. Just because my conscience is clear doesn't mean I should exercise my rights or freedom. It's not about me, in the end. If my freedom hurts another person's faith, then I should not exercise it. We before me. I am third, after God and others.

9. God knows. Sometimes an issue isn't truly debatable. I can be fully convinced wrongly. Blessed is the person who does not condemn him or herself because they think their conscience is clear but it really is not.

Here endeth the series.

[1] The quote comes from Rupertus Meldenius in the 1600s.

[2] The wording of Galatians 2:3--Titus was not "compelled" or forced to be circumcised. The most natural way to take the expression is that James and Peter preferred for him to be circumcised.

[3] Here it is important to point out that even scholars regularly disagree on the meaning of individual verses. This is in part do to the fact that we lack sufficient evidence to know the meaning of many statements. That is, the meaning is regularly under-determined.

[4] So James does not end with a footnote that says, "For those of you reading Paul right now, here's how what I'm saying fits with him." And Romans does not come with a footnote that says, "For those of you reading James right now, here's how what I'm saying fits with him." Whether we like it or not, we are forced to connect these books together, outside of the biblical text.

[5] The impulse to say, "These words mean the same thing in all times in all places" demonstrates a lack of knowledge of how the meaning of words and actions is determined by the context in which those words and actions take place. Reading the Bible in context is a cross-cultural experience, like visiting Africa or China.

[6] You can find references to "sin properly so called" in Wesley's sermon, "The Scripture Way of Salvation" and you can find this definition of sin in a letter he wrote in 1772 to a Mrs. Elizabeth Bennis.

[7] Someone might say, "Uninterpreted tongues contradicts what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14." But who was Paul writing to? He was writing to a specific church at a specific time and place with a specific purpose. Could it not be that a group of Christians today--a different world in the sense that there are many, many different churches in any city that you might attend--might all feel edified by watching others speak in tongues even if they didn't know what they are saying? And, similarly, might it not be that it would be more edifying for some churches today not to have tongues spoken at all in worship, interpreted or not?

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