Weaker and Stronger Consciences

Dear Reader,

In I Corinthians 8, Paul instructs believers how to deal with those who will not eat food sacrificed to idols as a matter of conscience. Paul takes sides in this issue. He says really it is okay to eat this food. But some are disturbed by it. Their consciences, he says, are weaker. And those of stronger conscience should be careful not to lead their brothers in Christ astray be eating such food in front of them.

This argument about weaker and stronger consciences gets used in all sorts of contexts. I have heard it used about homeschooling. I have heard it used about modest dress and keeping the Sabbath. The problem is always to know which side is the weaker and which is the stringer. When Paul gets involved in the food issue, he makes it clear which side is better. But he doesn’t tell us how to apply these principles to the millions of other issue that we confront.

It seems to me that the stronger side always says “My Christian liberty does not compel me” to do or not do whatever it is. But the weaker side rarely sees it as a matter of liberty. For the weaker side it is a “this is wrong” or “this is right” issue. The problem with the weaker side is that they feel bound in some way and think all other Christians should be as well.

But the truth is there are some things we are commanded to do or not do. None of us would say that we have the freedom in Christ to steal or murder. These things are still commands that bind us (though our salvation, thankfully, does not depend upon our own obedience). So the trick is to know which issue are truly issues of Christian liberty and which are commands that all believers should strive to follow.

In different areas, I come down on different sides of this. We do homeschool though I have never thought that that was the only right choice for Christians. In that, I would say that it is a matter of personal choice. There are lots of factors that can come into play. The Bible has commands about how to rear children but they do not to me clearly say that one should choose one educational option over another.

In the issue of modest dress,  I take it largely as a matter of Christian liberty as well. I would draw the line somewhere but usually those urging modesty have a lot more specifics and a much higher standard than I would. I would say that their consciences are weaker and that the level of modesty they preach is unnecessary.

But then there is the issue of the Sabbath. We do keep the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship and think others should as well. Some would say we have weaker consciences to feel bound by such things. I would counter that the Sabbath is among the ten commandments. It is part of God’s moral law and we are obligated to try and keep it just as we still recognize the commandments not to murder or steal or commit adultery as binding upon ourselves.

So who is right on each of these issues? I suppose the crux of the matter is that both sides feel themselves right. It is much more common, I think, for both sides to feel a sense of moral superiority. Occasionally one may say “I know that I struggle with this but others do not and that is okay for them.” But mostly I think we, in our human nature, think ourselves right. We almost never think ourselves weaker in conscience. More often we just think others’ consciences defective.

Paul urges believers to lay aside their own rights and to be willing to forgo some freedom for the sake of their brothers. It would be nice if he were here to tell us which side is the weaker in each of these disputes. But he isn’t. And so I think the best we can do is to examine Scripture, examine our own hearts, and act in ways that show Christ’s love to our brothers and sisters even when we disagree with them.



One response to this post.

  1. […] written previously on the topic of the conscience, most recently here, but also here, here, and here. My general thoughts on the topic remain unchanged. They can be summed up as […]


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