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Lord of the Conscience


A balancing act

‘God alone is Lord of the conscience’ does not give us carte blanche to do whatever we think is right

By Margo G. Houts

Illustration by Anita DuFalla

When the great German reformer Martin Luther punctuated his protest against corrupt monetary practices with “Here I stand, I can do no other” in 1521, he was exercising the right of individual conscience. When in 1974 a candidate for ordination voiced his objection to the practice of ordaining women as elders, he was exercising the right of individual conscience. When in 1992 dissenting Presbyterian congregations began applying for “Relief of Conscience” so that their dues for their pastors’ medical coverage would no longer pay for abortions, they were exercising the right of individual conscience. When in 2002 an elder asked to have her dissenting vote against joining the Confessing Church Movement recorded in the minutes of the session, she was exercising the right of individual conscience.

The first Protestants based their protest primarily on what they discerned as the revealed will of God, not their own conscience. But today, upon receiving the instruction “Vote your conscience,” commissioners to the General Assembly sometimes hear it less as “let God’s Word guide your conscience” and more as “let your conscience be your guide.”

Who is “Lord of the conscience?” is the key question. Chances are, you know the answer: “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”* Perhaps you know it from the church’s constitution. Perhaps you know it because as tensions rise you hear fellow Presbyterians invoke it. Log onto Presbyweb and scan the archive for letters to the editor. It’s there. Read the Minutes of last year’s General Assembly. It’s there. Listen to a debate on the floor of presbytery. It’s there. It’s there in discussions of abortion, genetic engineering, divorce, ordination, clergy tax exemption, war with Iraq, salvation by Christ alone, essential tenets, spiritual gifts, women doing theology, and constitutional defiance — to name but a few issues.

The president of one of our seminaries once observed, “Where 20 Presbyterians gather, 33 points of view will be represented.” It is not surprising that Presbyterians use “God alone is Lord of the conscience” to mean different things.

What is surprising is how far some contemporary usage strays from the historic meaning. It strays in large part because a full paragraph of explanation has been “sloganized” into seven words, a bite-sized morsel for easy consumption. It has been downsized in much the same way that “The Church reformed, always reforming” has been downsized, separated from its original engine, “according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit” (Book of Order).

The Westminster Confession of Faith

What it says:

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.109, emphasis added).

At its best, the “God alone is Lord of the conscience” slogan will function, as it does in our constitution, as a warning against tyranny by the majority against the minority. When used correctly, it means that “my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Only God is Lord of it. Only God’s Word has the right to bind it.” In other words, if a community standard is contrary to my informed understanding of God’s revealed will in Scripture, God sets me free to dissent from it, and then either passively submit to the standard or peaceably withdraw from the community.

At its worst, the slogan will be used to defy, not merely dissent from, corporate judgment. It is used incorrectly when it is used to mean “conscience is my master.” It is used incorrectly when it leads to schism.

Given the trend away from the slogan’s historic emphasis on the Lordship of God to a more individualistic emphasis on the lordship of conscience, let us look at three areas of slippage and the correctives needed — balance, humility and sensitivity.

The need for balance

The protection of the right to private judgment, or freedom of individual conscience, is in the first of six Historic Principles of Church Order in our Book of Order (G-01.0301). But this first principle is immediately followed by a second, balancing one — the right to corporate judgment or freedom of community conscience. While the community of faith cannot compel certain beliefs or inhibit private judgment, it has the right to establish basic standards for its members and higher standards for its officers.

The Book of Order reminds candidates and officers that ordination involves a choice on their part “to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds.” That is, “his or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek or hold office in that body” (emphasis added).

Presbyterian polity constantly strives to balance corporate and private judgment. In the heat of controversy we too easily forget the delicate balance of these two values, wonderfully held in tension.

The need for humility

There are a couple of reasons why we dare not concur with the Blue Fairy’s advice to Pinocchio, “Let conscience be your guide.” For one thing, each human conscience is inescapably subjective. Every interpretation of God’s Word will be shaped by personal experience and background. The ancient Hebrew who prayed, “Lord, I thank you that I am not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman” was able to stand before God with a clear conscience. He sincerely believed that his social lens correctly interpreted God’s law.

For another thing, conscience alone cannot reliably guide us, because it is marred by sin. The soul, reason and the will, all three, have been compromised by the fall into sin and disobedience. Conscience is as likely to be self-serving as God-serving.

This brings to mind the humorous dog and cat analogy that C. S. Lewis draws on in Letters to an American Lady. Both species, Lewis observed, have consciences. But whereas the dog is honest and humble, believing its conscience to be bad, “the cat is a Pharisee,” falsely comfortable in its own goodness, who “sits and stares” at you, “thanking God that he is not as these dogs, or these humans, or even as these other cats!” The dog models what the cat does not — humility.

The need for sensitivity to others

Scripture teaches that individual liberty should be constrained out of regard for another believer’s conscience. The illustration in 1 Corinthians 10 involves meat that has been dedicated to idols. Some Christians felt free to eat it; others did not. Paul’s instruction: The one with the clear conscience must hold back for the sake of the other’s conscience. A kind of balance.

When these three correctives — balance, humility and sensitivity to others — are remembered, liberty will not be confused with license. And God will again be Lord of the conscience.

*Scholars have helpfully traced the origin and meanderings of this slogan. For example, William E. Chapman examines conscience not only in the Westminster Confession of Faith but also in the Book of Confessions, Calvin and Scripture. See his “Beyond Jiminy Cricket: Notes Toward a Reformed View of Conscience” in The Register of the Company of Pastors, 3/2 (Fall 2001): 16-33. And “Historic Principles, Conscience, and Church Government,” 1983 Minutes of the General Assembly, pp. 141-158.) Back to article

Freedom — within certain bounds

Presbyterians believe that liberty is exercised within certain bounds. Here are some examples of how that belief has been put into practice.

  • In 1729 the General Synod (one of the synods that predated the organization of the General Assembly in the United States) approved an “Adopting Act” that directed what to do if a candidate for ordination had “scruples” about community standards (the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms). By requiring candidates to assent to these standards, community rights were preserved. By requiring assent only to their essentials, as determined by the local governing body, individual rights were preserved.
  • In 1758 the Plan of Union between the Synod of Philadelphia and the Synod of New York involved a balancing act. It directed what to do if an individual’s conscience did not allow either concurrence or submission: “When any matter [judged indispensable in doctrine or polity] is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism.”
  • The 1975 ruling of the Permanent Judicial Commission of the denomination in the case of Walter Wynn Kenyon, a candidate for ordination who objected to the ordination of women (Maxwell v. Pittsburgh Presbytery), included the following balance: “We are mindful that conscience can be in conflict with polity. But it is important to recall that the decision to present oneself as a candidate for ordination is voluntary. A candidate who chooses not to subscribe to the polity of this church may be a more useful servant of our Lord in some other fellowship whose polity is in harmony with the candidate’s conscience.”
  • The August 2002 letter from Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly, to presbytery stated clerks clarifies the limits that community standards have on individual freedom of conscience: “The Constitution protects the right of dissension,” he wrote, “but provides no right of defiance.” Balance is retained when a person expresses dissent; balance is lost when he or she acts in defiance. Kirkpatrick was responding to reports that some ministers and congregations are openly defying the article in the Book of Order that specifies that those who do not “live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness … shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Presbyterians Today.