Whoever it was who dreamed up the saying ‘let your conscience be your guide’ didn’t really understand the concept of fallen humanity. The conscience of many a serial killer is no guide at all, having been anesthetized long before by sin. Another way of putting it would be to say his heart has been hardened. But what about the conscience of the Christian? Does it have a role to play in deciding how to behave? The answer actually yes. It comes into play when we are dealing with what scholars call adiaphora, things indifferent. If you carefully read through what Paul says in 1 Cor. 8-10 you will discover several things, and at least one key principle— whatever a Christian cannot do in good conscience, whatever they cannot do in faith, is ‘sin’ for them, a violation of conscience, even though in the absolute the act itself may not be sinful. Paul’s test case has to do with the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Paul agrees with the Gentile ‘strong’ in Corinth that meat is just meat. It’s not inherently polluted, unclean, or forbidden for Christians to eat. Indeed, it can be seen as a good gift from God. However, for the weak of conscience, by which Paul means a person with too MANY scruples about food, they cannot and should not be seduced into eating such meat, because for them it would be sin, it would a violation of their faith and conscience. And then there is the whole matter of not causing your brother or sister to stumble. I personally have nothing against having a glass of wine or beer with a meal. I don’t think the Bible does either. But if I’m dining with an adamant teetotaler who is totally going to drink only tea, then I am not drinking alcohol either. It could mess up the relationship, and even, if we are dealing with a weak willed person, cause them to stumble and violate their own conscience. This is simply not loving behavior that takes into account the other persons weaknesses. It just isn’t.
In fact, there are a whole series of things in Christian life which could be called adiaphora in themselves from what we eat, to what we wear (within reason) to what car we drive and so on. In fact, I would dare say most of our normal day to day life decisions are matters of adiaphora. Christians do not have a rule for every occasion and an occasion for every rule, and this is a good thing. Christians need to grow up and learn a process of moral discernment, and making good choices on the basis of that healthy conscience, listening to the Spirit’s guidance in one’s life.
I have friends, very conservative friends, for example some very conservative Mennonite friends for whom dressing, eating, and living very simply and plainly is a matter of absolute principle and conscience. You will never see them wearing Gucci anything, or driving a gas guzzling SUV. Good for them, the Gospel of excess, or health and wealth is not the real Gospel. At the same time, I don’t feel compelled to dress like I shop at the Amish mall either. What do I do when I’m with such friends? Well I don’t wear anything that would be considered provocative to them.
It is interesting that there are certain settings where certain apparel is fine and other settings where it is not. It would not be appropriate for me to wear a bathing suit to a funeral, but if I’m at the beach, this is the apparel of choice. I mention this just to illustrate that equally sincere Bible believing Christians will differ on the dos and don’ts when it comes to things adiaphora. Some Christians will not go to an R rated movie, and may even have issues with some PG 13 movies. I’m talking about adults now, not children or teens. These sorts of discernments involve dealing with one’s own conscience and what seems fitting and appropriate. Even when one has a general rule of ‘whatever I can’t do to the glory of God and for the edification of myself and others, I shouldn’t do’ that still leads to a wide variance of how sincere Christians will adjudicate adiaphora matters. But it remains true that whatever an individual can’t do in faith and to the glory of God they should not be doing, even if others can do it and not violate their faith or conscience at all.