There are few better tributes to a Christian than to say “he is a man of good conscience.” Such a man will do only what is consistent with his conscience and will take no action contrary to it. He has carefully informed his conscience according to the Word of God and then carefully heeds it in even the most tempting and challenging of contexts. As Luther said so long ago, once the godly man’s conscience has been made captive to the Word of God, to go against it is neither right nor safe.
The Apostle Paul knew the importance of heeding his conscience. As he stood before the council of the Jews, he spoke words that could as easily have been spoken by Luther before the council of the Catholics. “Looking intently at the council, Paul said, ‘Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.’” Another time, in the context of disputes over disputable matters, he warned, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” Matters of conscience are to be settled before one’s own master. Just as an employee must answer to his own boss, and not another person’s, a Christian must heed his own conscience, and not another believer’s.
There are important implications to this in our individual and communal lives. Individually, we bear the responsibility to inform our conscience and then to heed it, even in trying circumstances. Corporately, we bear the responsibility to assume that others have informed their own consciences and then to help them to live accordingly. We should be happier if a man follows a different path than we do while heeding his conscience than if he imitates us while violating it. We should affirm him in making a decision that is different from our own, as long as that decision is consistent with his conscience. It is far better that he eats only vegetables with a heart that is pure before the Lord than that he joins us in eating steak with a conscience that is guilty or conflicted. It is a sin for that man to violate his conscience and a sin for us to pressure him into doing so. If he bears blame for the sin of violating conscience, we share the blame for badgering him into it.
“It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” This is, at least, how it ought to be. Yet in our contemporary context it might be better to say, “It is before the mob that a man stands or falls.” Social media has made it easier than ever to form a mob and to use its power to coerce a person into doubting his conscience or even violating it. Mobs exist to bully and cajole, not to discuss and persuade. They exist to force quick decisions, not to enable thoughtful ones, to demand conformity, not to promote conscience. Many a Christian has violated conscience not on the basis of any biblical conviction, but to assuage the wrath of the mob.
But as Christians we ought to do better. In place of mob rule, we need to carefully distinguish between matters of clear biblical principle and matters of conscience, between issues where there is only one correct course of action and those where believers may disagree. Far be it from any of us to afflict the conscience of a brother or sister. Far be it from any of us to confuse matters of absolute clarity with matters of principled disagreement. Far be it from any of us to confuse unity with uniformity, to cause division by negating distinction. Far be it from any of us to lead a brother or sister into an action that would be a sin against their conscience.
The honorable Christian is the one who stands before the Lord, not the one who caves before the mob. The honorable Christian is the one who affirms that stance rather than bullying the other person to change it. The honorable Christian is the one who rejoices more when he sees another Christian heeding his conscience than when he sees him following the crowd. For as the Apostle said, “with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. … It is the Lord who judges me.”