Coronavirus, the Conscience, and the Unity of the Church

Throughout the last several weeks, the elders of our church have labored to shepherd the people of God through a very challenging time. At the individual and corporate level, the Body of Christ is facing a complex set of decisions as we continue to persevere through the stay at home order. If one looks to the horizon of reopening, the discerning eye will see one of the greatest tests to the unity of our church–the delicate process of thinking through how we will gather again.

There’s a lot to consider throughout the process. Social distancing details, wearing or not wearing masks, church service sizes, opening in submission to the government or defiance, community groups, and caring for children are just some of the concerns that must be considered in re-opening. And there will be a full spectrum of opinions across the Body over the issue of re-opening. 

In disputable matters, it is not right for us as a Body to divide over such disagreements. We can discuss these and should discuss them. But to nurture bitterness over these things is not the way of Jesus. The Bible has much to say regarding the cultivation of Christian unity over disputable matters (Ro. 14; 1 Cor. 8; 9:12). We can lean on this wisdom to help us reflect the character of Christ to one another, even when we disagree on things. God will use the friction of our differences to fortify our unity–if we lean into the Spirit of His wisdom and not our understanding (Pr. 3:5-6; Ro. 15:4-7). 

Defining Conscience

So, how do we cultivate unity in the family of God in situations of difference or dispute? For us to answer this question, we must consider a concept in the New Testament called the conscience. The Greek word syneidēsis, translated into the English word, conscience occurs 30 times in the New Testament. Many of us, when thinking about a conscience, have this image of an angelic creature and a demonic creature on the two shoulders of a person to guide them through the ethical labyrinth of their decision making. If we bring this assumption to the text, we will miss what the biblical authors are describing when they speak about the conscience. 

After spending a large section of their book looking at each of the 30 occurrences of conscience in the New Testament, Andrew Naselli, and J.D. Crowley define conscience this way: 

”Your conscience is your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong.”

This definition is quite helpful because it draws out a few implications [1]

  • Conscience will appear different in people who have differences in their moral standards. No two people have the same conscience and no one’s conscience will perfectly align with God’s will (think about that for a moment). 
  • Conscience can change and develop over time. As we grow in our understanding of what is good and not good according to God, our conscience changes, aligning more with his. At the same time, if we persist in sin, we can damage our conscience. We can begin to separate our conscience from the Lord’s. This is how people united to Christ can fall into seasons of spiritual darkness where activities and thoughts once inconceivable now become routine (1 Tim. 4:1-5). 
  • Conscience acts as a guide, monitor, witness, or judge. Our awareness of what is right and wrong serves to lead us in the right direction. It keeps us persevering in that way, acts as evidence for or against the way we go, and condemns or vindicates us in our decisions. 

As you can see, conscience plays a massive role in our everyday lives. 

Points of Difference & Dispute

Now that we have a framework for understanding what the conscience is, we must diagnose scenarios of “disputable matters” and “indisputable matters”. For this, the image of triage is helpful. If you ever have gone to the E.R. you would be very familiar with the idea of medical triage. Medical triage assigns different levels of urgency to patients depending on the severity of their injury or illness so they can determine what order the patient is seen. Thinking of a similar process, we are going to use the idea of theological triage [2]. Theological triage becomes helpful in assigning priority to different theological issues. All matters of theology are important, but not all matters are equally important. For example, the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection is much more important than your view on whether or not Christians should play video games.

Theological triage typically comes in three tiers:

  • First-Tier: Doctrines essential to Christian teaching. Things like God being the One true God, the deity of Jesus, the Trinity, Christ’s death as a substitute for sinners, and the resurrection. These convictions define biblical Christianity. 
  •  Second-Tier: These are doctrines that create reasonable boundaries between churches and denominations. Your views on baptism, spiritual gifts, church polity, and God’s sovereignty in salvation fit in this tier. You don’t need to subscribe to a “camp” to be in Christ, but it is hard to cultivate unity in a church where there is disagreement in these areas. 
  • Third-Tier: These are the “disputable matters” I have been drawing your attention to. These could be issues of theological nuance like, “What does it mean for Christians to practice the Sabbath?”, or your instrument preferences for congregational singing on Sundays. Additional things falling here are tattoos, Halloween, private/public/homeschooling, your political party, your interpretation of the millennial reign of Christ in Revelation 20, etc.

What tier do you see many of the issues surrounding COVID-19 falling? They are often in this third tier. Third tier issues are still worth thinking deeply about. The conversation around these issues is still important and often (like issues surrounding COVID-19) necessary. At the same time, passages like Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 expose that we are not supposed to be rigid about all of our convictions and beliefs. The goal is not to eliminate or even minimize the differences among us. The goal is for us to seek to glorify God by loving one another well in the middle of our differences and disagreements. We don’t avoid dispute, we leverage it for His glory. In Christ, both Jew and Gentile were united into the same covenant family (Eph. 3:6). They had massive ethnic and cultural differences that needed attention and care. The hard work of this attention was possible because they found unity in their diversity in Christ. Their corporate union to Jesus outweighed their cultural distinctions and made the hard work of unity worth it. 

Unity When Consciences Conflict

To help us understand how we face matters of difference among our brothers and sisters, we are going to look at Romans 14. As Paul speaks toward division in the church of Rome over disputable matters, he draws our attention to two kinds of people in the argument, the “weak in faith” and the “strong in faith”, We are going to spend some time looking at these two characters. 

It is important to note that when Paul refers to the weak and strong he does not mean faith in the sense of “saving faith”. Instead, he is talking about the confidence a person has in their conscience to partake in a specific activity.

The situation within the pages of Romans 14 never perfectly meshes with the disputable matters of our own culture. But Paul’ dealings with the disagreement become a helpful tool for us in the school of brotherly affection in Christ. 

In essence, the disagreement was between Jew and non-Jew believers in Rome concerning the area of Jewish dietary restrictions. According to the Law of Moses, Jews were prohibited from eating food that non-Jews coming out of a culture of pagan worship practices ate freely. Sound tense? Yes, this was very tense and drove a wedge in the community as they would often share meals in times of fellowship. Here’s how Paul begins to address the issue: 

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. (Ro. 14:1-3 ESV)

The “weak” are identified in the text as the abstainers, while the “strong” are identified as the partakers. Paul actually takes a side in the argument–siding with the strong in their freedom to eat (Ro. 14:14; 1 Cor. 8:8). But I want you to notice something about Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. Paul is not chiefly concerned with who is “right”. Paul is chiefly concerned with this: No matter where you land in the dispute, exercise your freedom (whether to abstain or partake) with the love of Christ, to the glory of God. 

The Weak in Faith

The temptation Paul calls out in the text for the weak is the temptation toward judgment. They are saying, “It is sinful to eat meat, and Christians who eat meat are being unfaithful to what God has called them to.” Do you see what has happened? They have taken an issue of “dispute” and made it an issue of dogma. They are creating man-made rules and pressing toward the ancient heresy of legalism which says you must follow the dietary restrictions of the Mosaic covenant if you want to be a Christian. This is a dangerous place for someone to be and it is the result of having a conscience that is misinformed. 

Remember, according to Scripture the strong are not in sin by simply eating meat. The weak one’s unbiblical prohibition is a sign of immaturity. At the same time, Paul reminds us that if someone is convinced in their conscience that eating certain food is sinful than for them to eat would be sin–even though the act, in and of itself, is not. Why? Because the violation of their conscience would be coming out of a heart of rebellion. 

They don’t need to change their actions. They need to wash their conscience in the gospel so they might begin to see things through the lens of the gospel. Their weak conscience has room to be strengthened and grow. And in the meantime, the weak are not to judge because Christ has welcomed the strong who eat freely. Since Christ welcomes the strong, they too should welcome the strong. The Kingdom of God is much more important than your reservations about food. You may be thinking right now which side of the dispute you are on (weak or strong). Before you get to the specifics of trying to draw the bridge from the biblical conflict to the possible conflicts in the midst of COVID-19 open up your Bible and read through Romans 13-15:7. The principles at the end will help you make sense of the heart of this section (Ro. 14). As you read, allow the text itself will bring clarity to the specifics in your context. 

The Strong in Faith

For the strong, the temptation is to drift into arrogance. They are saying, “I have the freedom to eat meat when I want and those who say I’m in sin are in theological error and being unreasonable.” They are distorting the beauty of the gospel through lawless disregard for others. Since they are free to eat whatever they want, they can do it in a manner they choose–without regard to the character of Jesus in the process. 

This would be like a Christian saying, “I’m free to drink alcohol whenever I want, so I’m going to hang out at a keg party each week.” This kind of logic distorts the freedom Christ has bought for His people and it damages the conscience of the weaker brother who thinks that such actions are sinful. 

Jesus surrendered is rights as King to become a servant (Ro. 15:8; Php. 2:5-8) He didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give up his life as a ransom for many (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45). This is the man who said that the meek would inherit the earth and you were blessed if you are a peacemaker (Mt. 5:5, 9). His character dripped with compassion for those who were lost and he welcomed the weak, tired, and burdened (Mt. 11:28; Lk 19:10). Instead of using His strength to separate from the weak, His strength as Lord and Savior was found in His willingness to die for them, for us, who embrace Him in faith. 

Paul calls out the strong and gives them greater responsibility in the dispute:

”We who are strong, have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”

The strong have an obligation to bear with the weak. They have a responsibility to initiate steps toward unity. They have the responsibility to surrender their liberties for the sake of love to their brother–like Christ stepping off the throne with its privileges of glory to become a servant for the sake of sinful humans (Php. 2:5-11). The strong must leverage their strength, not to flaunt it to the weak, but instead to learn how to get along with the weak and appreciate them. They need to assume the weak are abstaining for the sake of God’s glory and not think of them as a bunch of “fundamental legalists”. If the strong one’s freedom causes the weak to “sin against their conscience” (Ro. 14:14-15), they are not walking in love and leading their fellow brothers and sisters to sin. The Kingdom of God is much more important than eating or drinking. 

Moving Toward Maturity as We Welcome One Another

Now that we have a working understanding of the conflict in Rome, let’s look at 12 principles the conflict can teach us about how we can relate to one another in matters of dispute as we think about gathering again [3]. As you read these, use your imagination to apply the principles directly to the disagreements you have with brothers and sisters regarding the current pandemic. 

  1. Welcome those who disagree with you (Ro. 14:1-2).
  2. Those who have freedom of conscience must not look down on those who don’t (Ro. 14:3-4)
  3. Those whose conscience restricts them must not be judgmental toward those who have freedom (Ro. 14:3-4). 
  4. All in Christ must be fully convinced of their own position in their own conscience (Ro.14:5). 
  5. Assume that others are partaking or abstaining to the glory of God (Ro.14:6-9)
  6. Do not judge each other in these matters because we will all someday stand before the judgment seat of God (Ro. 14:10-12). 
  7. Your freedom to eat is correct, but don’t let your freedom destroy the weaker brother (Ro. 14:13-15). 
  8. Disagreements of eating and drinking are not important in the Kingdom of God; building each other up in righteousness, peace, and joy is the important thing (Ro. 14:16-21.
  9. If you have freedom, don’t flaunt it; if you are strict, don’t expect others to be strict like you (Ro. 14:22a).
  10. A person who lives according to their conscience is blessed (Ro. 14:22b-23). 
  11. We must follow the example of Christ, who put others first (Ro. 15:1-6). 
  12. We bring glory to God when we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us (Ro. 15:7). 

God, in His brilliance, has called us to relate to one another in dispute this way. God in His grace, will use matters of dispute and the conversations around it to cultivate in us a heart of love for one another. May we come out the other side of this pandemic with a deeper love for Christ, higher regard for His work, and a forged bond of unity with our brothers and sisters. God will use the friction of our differences to fortify our unity, so let us joyfully and eagerly lean into the Spirit of His wisdom and not our understanding.

[1]         The definition and implications were taken from: Andrew Naselli, J.D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ, p. 42-43

[2]         See eg. Albert Mohler Jr., “Confessional Evangelicalism”, in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Andrew Naselli, Colin Hansen, Counter Points: Bible and Theology

[3]         Taken from Andrew Naselli, J.D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How To Train It and Loving Those Who Differ, p. 96-115