The Heresy of Conscience

The Heresy of Conscience October 6, 2016


by Jonathan Ashbach

Evangelicals and the Infiltration of Moral Relativism

If the current election cycle has disclosed a number of disturbing truths, one of the more disturbing is the pervasive manner in which moral relativism has infiltrated the evangelical church.

It’s a shocker because one would expect theologically conservative Christians to have resisted this particular modern infatuation better than most groups. Indeed, approach us directly with the assertion that some things are good for you and others are good for me and you are not likely to make much headway. But throw one seemingly innocent word into your explanation, and suddenly the blessed fullness of divine grace seems to illuminate this post-modern falsehood: conscience.

It is not the purpose of this article to tell readers how they should act in relation to the upcoming elections. But it is important that we confront a habit of thinking that those elections have made disappointingly clear: We have ceased to think of conscience as a generally reliable but potentially faulty guide to objective moral truth, and have deified it, instead, as the much more comfortable source of subjective, relativistic truth-for-me.

Pay any attention to the debate surrounding the question of Christian voting and chances are you will hear something like the following: “Ultimately, it’s not really important who we vote for. What’s important is that you do what your conscience tells you to do, and I do what mine tells me to do.”

The problem, of course, is that Christians are committed to belief in an objective moral order. What is right is eternally defined by the character of God. It does not change on the basis of our feelings, and it is not self-contradictory—it does not tell us both to do and not do a given action in relevantly similar circumstances.

But conscience does. One person’s conscience tells him to do one thing. Another person’s conscience tells her to do the opposite, in relevantly similar circumstances. They cannot both be right. At least one is wrong. Which means that at least one is fully capable of following his or her conscience while doing what is wrong. Given the amount of disagreement between the consciences of different persons that is evident in the world around us, this is not a hypothetical. It is an everyday reality.

If we are serious about seeking to do what is right—to please God—then it is imperative that we recognize this fallibility and do what we can to correct it. We will not achieve perfect judgment in this life, but we must strive to know and do God’s will as we are able. That means turning from a moral epistemology based on a naïve trust in conscience to a healthier one admitting a chastened trust in conscience, but ultimately based on reason and revelation, rather than simple emotion.

Reason tells us that scripture is a reliable source of knowledge. Scripture tells us that conscience is a divinely given indicator of moral truth. It is the law written on our hearts (Romans 2:15). But scripture also tells us what that law is: Love of God, self, and others. All of revelation is intended to illustrate this great moral rule (Matthew 22:37-40).

To love a person is to seek that person’s good. Not just his or her material good. Not just what that person wants. But the real, holistic, spiritual and material good. Conscience gives us some indication of what that looks like. So does scripture.

There are many gray areas where it is hard to judge what actions will be most conducive to the good of those around us. But the important point is that we recognize that we are making a reasoned judgment about an objective reality. Some actions are loving. Some actions are not. A reasoned moral choice is an attempt to rationally judge what form of action is most loving on the basis of what we know from scripture and conscience. It is not blind and absolute adherence to what-feels-right-for-me. The fact of widespread disagreement should not lead us to conclude that there is no right answer. Instead, it should give us pause and cause us to carefully reevaluate our own judgments in hopes of achieving a better understanding of the moral truth toward which we all so messily aim.

Perhaps the parishioner who says that there is no right answer and we should all just follow our consciences simply means to recognize the understandable nature of the fact that judgments will differ. If so, the point is well taken: We should all be intellectually humble enough to recognize the fallible condition of ourselves and of those around us, neither confident of perfection in our own judgments, nor expecting it from the judgments of others. Good people will come to different moral conclusions, and we should not generally allow that fact to interfere with the greater unity of the family of Christ.

But let us also be humble enough to admit the implications. If my moral judgments are wrong, my actions will be wrong. That may be understandable, but it does not make them right. Appealing to conscience is not an escape valve that magically makes everyone’s behavior okay even when it isn’t. It is time to excise the strain of moral relativism that has crept into the church.

PatheosJonathan Ashbach is a Ph.D student in Politics at Hillsdale College. He holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University and a B.A. in Politics and Economics from Humboldt State University. Homeschooled K-12, Jonathan has taught small co-op classes in Politics and Church History at the high school level for members of his group, and holds a Citation Award from AWANA Clubs International. He has also worked in the hospitality industry and as Assistant Editor for the Humboldt Economic Index.

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