But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We are a guilt/innocence society. We depend our conscience, our inner sense to confirm whether or not we are wrong or right. When our consciences are clear, then we know that we are innocent. When we feel guilty, then our conscience eats away at us. Usually it takes confession and forgiveness for the burden of guilt to be removed. But when it comes down to it – we trust our conscience to guide us into the right course of action and the right set of beliefs.
My friends often tell me that you can be certain that you’re doing the right thing when you feel blessed, happy, affirmed, and even joyful. They would tell me to trust my conscience when it says to do something. But when I don’t feel my conscience telling me to do something – then I must disobey my conscience when it would have me disobey scripture. It makes me wonder – how I can be sure my conscience is right just because Scripture happens to agree with it?
Think back to the era of slavery – this institution didn’t exist apart from Scripture and Christians, but in part through it and because of it. In a documentary I’ve watched over the past week, Frederick Douglass recalls: “I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture–“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.“” That’s Luke 12:47.
It was the realization that slavery was a violation of their conscience that drove the Abolitionists to those very same scriptures to assert the equality of all people and call for the freedom that had been so very long denied. Again, it was conscience that was the heartbeat of the Civil Rights era that put two sets of Christians against each other using the Bible as the dividing line. “Obey authorities!” Said one. “We’re all one in Christ!” Said the other.
So too, our consciences are moving in us to take stands on issues such as women in ministry and LGBT inclusion. Our consciences are guiding us in our beliefs – and it’s very much an individual thing. All of us have come to decide on an individual basis who or what God is to us, how we ought to worship Him/Her/It, what God would have us do is not necessarily the same exact conclusion a brother or sister in the faith will draw and we’re okay with that whereas in the past there used to an idea of a “one true, right way” and there was no limit to the heartbreak because of disagreements and violence that resulted from the imposition of that standard upon others.
The problems arise when one group decides that their conscience ought to be the standard that all consciences must obey, going against their own standards and bowing to ideas that are not necessarily their own. Worship is a personal thing, it cannot be made into an exercise of conformity and retain a sense of personal relationship; rather, it betrays it’s own nature to make it a ‘one size fits all’ approach. When we are told that we cannot trust our conscience, then that means that we cannot be certain our senses of right and wrong are right or wrong. Now i know most at this point would say: “Good! God is our objective standard of morality! There’s no truth in morality being subjective – then you would have people reaching opposite conclusions and you know that one or both of them are wrong. But with an objective standard of morality, then you know that God is never wrong!” The problem lies not in God being an objective standard, but that the people who interpret and apply Scripture are very much subject to their own whims and desires – that’s evident in how we have historically used the Bible to support both sides in all sorts of conflicts. And since the Bible can never be wrong, then both sides must be correct. The only thing that can decide for us which way to go is our conscience – it will either rage with a burning zeal for the truth of the Scriptures or beat with a ceaseless and tireless love for others in that living out of the Spirit of the Word sort of way.
Sometimes it’s not enough to be “not wrong” – in it’s day and age, pro-slavery advocates were not wrong, Scriptures did affirm slavery, sanction it’s limits, and instructed the masters and slaves how to interact. But they weren’t exactly right – slavery in the Bible never really was the same sort of slavery in the World. The instructions God gave to the Israelites weren’t the ones the Romans had decided to follow when they were in power. Slavery in the American South (and the rest of the world, for that matter) looked nothing like what God had asked the Israelites to do. Even today slavery hasn’t been erased from the face of our planet, in far too many lawless regions it thrives in one form or another. We can look to Scriptures – but ultimately it’ll be on our consciences to provoke us into action and wake us up from inaction – on this and all other matters of conscience.
We’ll have to ask ourselves on all things: “Is it right?”