Shaping your conscience without searing it

As Jiminy Cricket sang, "Always let your conscience be your guide." I treasure my conscience and guard it carefully, but it is not authoritative. It is only a guide. Many, many times in the past my conscience has told me things that I no longer believe to be true. It was still right for me to be following my conscience when it told me those things, but I should have also had a clearer understanding that I might not be right.

I follow my conscience not because it right, but because I don’t want to risk searing it. If going along with the current trend in the church requires me to continually choke back the objections and concerns my conscience raises, that just teaches me to ignore my conscience, a bad thing. But if it is a situation where I can maintain perspective, e.g. I am pretty sure the trend in my church is wrong but I can find a way to live where I don’t endorse that trend and it doesn’t affect me much, then I am better off keeping my peace—and thereby contributing to the peace of the church. Not to mention that I might gain a broader, more loving perspective in the process.

We’ve been part of communities whose understanding of a vibrant church life conflicted with the way we ran our family. Fortunately, we had spent plenty of time living a different way, and we were confident that our way was much wiser. Did we make an issue of our convictions? Not at all. Even when other families would complain to us that the “vibrant church life” was having serious negative effects on their home life, we would advise them that it was fine and maybe even wise for them to scale back their participation, but we avoided subverting the general practice by disparaging it.

Did we go along with the trend? Not exactly. We simply didn’t participate. Did it mark us as oddballs? Yes, very much so. But we never let it bother us. And it did not affect our participation in other aspects of church life, e.g. folks still talked to us in the foyer, the ones who liked us still liked us and the ones who didn’t still didn’t. I think that as long as you are not dependent on the approval of others, you can find a way to co-exist with a trend in your church without embracing or even endorsing it.

The most miserable Christians I know are the ones whose strong, specific convictions force them to divide with brothers. The best thing would be if they could keep their convictions and also find a way to live in true peace with those brothers. The next best thing would be if they didn’t have those convictions, since those convictions won’t get them extra points on judgment day and in the meantime make their earthly existence a lonely, self-centered one.

We took our kids out of Sunday School in the late 90s, long before we had heard of family integrated worship. It happened the day we were asked to substitute for a teacher, and were handed the day’s lesson plan. The lesson was trivial—not only did our young kids already understand the matter in much greater detail from home instruction, presenting this to them as a "lesson" trivialized the whole idea of learning. And when we taught the class we realized that nobody wanted to be there, the kids didn’t learn what little we had to say. The truth was we were babysitting these kids so that their parents could go to their own Sunday School classes without them, listen to adult talk, hang out with their adult friends.

Did our new understanding lead us to make a stink about Sunday School with the elders? Not at all. Did we make some sort of show about taking our kids to adult classes (which they probably could have benefited from)? No, because that would not have gone over well with the others; even though our kids would not have been disruptive, their presence would have been a rebuke to parents whose kids were in the babysitting classes. We decided to just not come for Sunday School at all, arriving in time for the service itself. We did keep our kids with us, which was seen as strange but did not cause any difficulties; if it had caused difficulties, we would have let them go to Children’s Worship (while also thinking long and hard about whether it was worth staying at this church!)

If we had been unable to reconcile that church’s practices with our convictions, I think we would have been better off without the convictions. Sending our kids to Sunday School and children’s worship would have wasted their time, but not much else. It would have been worse for them to see us leave a church (and the friends we had made) over such a matter.

Now, think about the person who embraces the teaching that Sunday School is from hell. Even if that is right (which I don’t believe), most of us have endured hellish environments, and not knowing how truly horrible they were has actually been a comfort in enduring them. Spending time in a hellish environment doesn’t doom us to hell, and in many cases God uses them as a refiner’s fire. But anyone who finds themselves in circumstances where the only way out of Sunday School is to divide with an otherwise healthy and supportive church community is going to be continually miserable about sending their children to a hellish institution. Wouldn’t they have been better off never to have heard that particular teaching?

I also suspect that the only way to embrace such a teaching without becoming miserable is to sear your conscience on other matters. It tempts you to be prideful and self-important, contemptuous of weaker brothers, disdainful of elders, unconcerned about peace, prone to divide. This is playing with fire. 

Going along is not always the answer. The health of one’s family is more important than keeping peace. But we still need to keep the peace as much as possible. And worrying about the negative results on other families should simple be set aside. Nobody appreciates pressure from others, whether to conform or to see the light, regardless of the purity of their motives? It is easier and more honest to persuade people they are wrong by living rightly in contrast, than by merely telling them how wrong they are.

Tolstoy once wrote "Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to change themselves." People often use their concerns about the world (their church, their society, their community) as an excuse for not doing the hard work of changing themselves. Better to focus on what is actually in our control, our family. And to the extent that we succeed, our examples will affect the world in a way that meddling never could.

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6 thoughts on “Shaping your conscience without searing it

  1. Well said! We experienced much the same thing over the years. We did pull our kids out of Sunday School when the teacher was teaching environmental studies with no Biblical reference. It caused no small stir when we took our kids to adult Sunday school, taught by my husband. The kids enjoyed it but others were offended. In retrospect, it would have been better to simply not attend Sunday School, rather than cause division.

  2. Thank you for this article. Last year we joined a local church. I love the people. I think most of them are wonderful and enjoy being around them. However, I have come against people who on one hand tell me how wonderful we are doing raising our children but on the other hand think we are doing things wrong. Doesn’t that seem odd? Recently a friend of mine from our church said “You need others to teach your children”. I told her that while I love our children’s Sunday School teachers (I really do!) that it is my husband and my job to teach our children. If I happen to grant that ability to someone else for one hour a week then that is my choice. No one should feel they have a right to my children. I know that this coming year there were will things said as we will be pulling our 12 year old from Sunday School class for her age to be with us. I do not want her mingling with the middle/high school bunch without my guard. We have worked too hard to hand her over to children that are not being trained in the same way. She can be the “salt of the earth” when she is a grown woman.

    I’m printing this article off to keep. I really need it to encourage me. Thank you so very much.

    Mrs. G

  3. As a member of a church you are called to question the motives of leadership if the scales of your conscience is tipped over. Matthew 18 is an excellent example of this. If you don’t agree with certain practices speak up. We are at war daily with this world. If the Elder ship doesn’t see your concerns, than maybe God is calling you to another local body. Jesus didn’t come to bring peace, but division. I pray you study Matthew 18 thoroughly and see how wrong you are in your approach.

  4. Rebel,

    Thanks for the recommendation of Matthew 18. May I in turn suggest that you consider the following verses?

    “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” (Romans 12:18)

    “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14)

    “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalms 34:14)

    “Aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11b)

  5. Micah 7:1-20, Luke 12:49-59, Luke 3:16, Luke 9:51-57, Luke 17:28+29, Jeremiah 5:14 All of these speak of judgment and division. It needed to be done. It needs to be done. How do you see the difference between the chaff and the wheat if we all just get along? God gives us peace individually; the world is divided. I speak words of division daily because I share Gods word. I will again point out, more direct to you that of you don’t like what your Church group is doing, than as a member of the body of Christ you must take a stand and be prepared to get bricks thrown at you. If the Elder ship doesn’t believe your worries are biblical, then you can decided whether to stay or leave on your own convictions, if they truly are from Gods word. Avoiding the hassle is not what Christ commanded us to do.

  6. Rebel,

    As I read those verses (and I read them all), the divisions spoken of are between believers and an unbelieving world, not among believers. God does the winnowing, He separates the wheat from the chaff (Luke 3:17).

    Jesus explicitly tells his workers not to separate the wheat from the tares before the end of the age, at which point He will send forth His angels to separate and cast the tares into the furnace of fire. Our job is to stand and watch, while we shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of our Father.

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