Liberty of Conscience

13 Sep

A core value of the Baptist tradition is “liberty of conscience”.  It is one of the reasons I like that I belong to an American Baptist Church these days. It makes explicit as a value the “big tent” idea that I truly believe in: “unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials and charity (love) in all things.”

But this isn’t just a nice idea.  It is firmly grounded in the scriptures.

The Apostle Paul makes this argument several times.  In Romans 14:1-12, for example, he writes:

1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:  “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me;    every tongue will acknowledge God.’” 12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

The basic principle Paul lays out here is that when it comes to non-essential “disputable” matters, we are all directly accountable to God and therefore should not judge and condemn each other.  He also makes the case that we should live consistently with what we believe.  In other words, if we believe it is wrong to eat meat, it would then be wrong for us to eat meat.  But if we have no problem eating meat, then it is not a problem.

Paul makes a similiar argument in 1 Corinthians 8 in regard to eating meat sacrificed to idols.  To many, this is clearly sin.  But for some Christians, they did not regard it as sin.  Paul argues that for those that think it is sinful, it is.  And to those that do not, it is not.  He also counsels that we should show wisdom when interacting with “weaker brothers” — in other words, it would be wrong for me to serve meat sacrificed to idols at a dinner party when I knew I was inviting some who thought it was sinful.  To give it a more contemporary application, I have no problem with moderate drinking of alcohol.  I enjoy wine, beer and all types of alcohol and have no problem with it.  But when I invite my conservative Baptist friends over (or we go out to eat) I choose not to drink or serve alcohol.  Why? Simply out of respect for their convictions (and, perhaps, to avoid a lecture… just kidding… they are always very gracious.)

Lest we think that this only applies to small issues, it is helpful to understand that the issue of idols, sacrifice to idols and eating that meat, was a huge issue in the early church.  No issue of sin is bigger than idolatry.  Many believed that to eat that meat, was to participate and sanction idolatry.  No sin is bigger than that.

In fact, the Counsel of Jerusalem, when they tried to determine what the minimum standards were for Gentile Christians in relation to Jewish law, inlcuded on their list both sexual immorality and the eating of meat sacrificed to idols (see Acts 15:29 and Acts 21:25).  In other words, the early church leaders considered the eating of meat sacrificed to idols (as well as eating unclean food contaminated by blood or strangled) as being in the same category as sexual immorality. (It is also worth noting that Peter’s vision allowing him to eat all things (Acts 10) comes BEFORE the counsel at Jerusalem — in other words, apparently the church leaders in Jerusalem disagreed with Peter on this issue.)

Yet in 1 Cor 8 and Romans 14, Paul says that this issue (meat from idol sacrifice) is a non-essential and disputable issue — once that falls within the “big tent” of liberty of conscience.

As I have written before, I think this issue gives us a framework for how the modern church can and should deal with the LGBT issues.  These are disputable matters (as seen by the amount of dispute WITHIN the church on these issues) and non-essential in terms of core doctrines of the faith.  Clearly, it falls under the “big tent” of liberty of conscience.  We should respect LGBT folks, therefore, who conclude differently on this issue.  Some LGBT folks I know are committed to a Side A solution (monogamous, committed, Christ-centered relationships); others believe that only Side B is an option (that is, life-long celibacy).  Others seek change through counseling.  And even others fall somewhere in between on this spectrum — or are yet unsure as to where they are.

Paul’s advice? Follow your conscience.  If a gay marriage is sinful for you, then don’t do it.  But if getting married is a way to honor God and make Christ the center of your life, then do that.  

Afterall, we are all accountable directly to God. 


1 Comment

Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Uncategorized


One response to “Liberty of Conscience

  1. Ben Dubow

    September 18, 2011 at 6:15 am

    I hear you John… and never doubted it.I do think you bring up a valid issue in terms of a slave-holder… is that beyond the big-tent? For me, probably — but I think this reveals my own bias and my own limited ability to extend grace and love the hard to love. I am not sure that God thinks they are outside the tent… but I do struggle with where the line is.I do think — at least for me — issues of justice are central to God’s heart. Hence the importance of calling out racism, discrimination, economic injustice, etc. I have come to believe that how LGBT people are treated by the church is, in fact, a justice issue and it grieves the heart of God. As I read and study the Hebrew prophets, it seems clear that justice is a very big deal to God. Also, Jesus’s strongest judgments are against those that try and keep people away from Him (the money changers in the Gentile court of the temple, keeping children away, etc, etc). In our day, few people are "kept away from Jesus" and outside the church more than LGBT folks… again, I believe this grieves the heart of God.



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