Self-Government, Conscience & True Liberty:
A Divine Pattern of Self-Government
by Gerald R. Thompson
With this foundation now laid concerning the nature and freedom of the conscience, I want to examine some difficult scriptures. I refer mainly to Romans 14, but I also include 1 Cor. 10:24 & 28, as well as 1 Cor. 8:4-13, which speak to similar concerns. Unfortunately, these are often interpreted in a way which severely undercuts the rights of conscience and self-government.
It is one thing to say the conscience is free from external coercion, part of God’s reserved jurisdiction over the heart and mind, and not any part of the power of civil government. It is quite another thing to say, as many would have us believe, that as part of our religious duty to God and love for our neighbor we ought to give up the sole, exclusive and absolute right of conscience for the benefit of others. However, this is a gross misinterpretation of the scriptures.
The Law of Conscience Confirmed
Remember, it is God who set up the law of conscience, made the conscience sacred, inviolable and free. Plus, it is He who made the conscience free from any outside constraint. So as a starting principle, God will never countermand His own laws, or undermine the liberty which He has given us. If I am correct in describing the law of conscience, then a violation of the conscience is never justified. God never expects us to violate His laws (or His voice) as a means of fulfilling His will.
A common saying accepted by believers since the early 1600’s is this: “In essentials, unity; In non-essentials, liberty; In all things, charity.” I suggest the purpose of Romans 14 is to instruct us how to relate to each other regarding non-essential matters. The bottom line of Romans 14 may be fairly summarized as supporting liberty, but there are some bumps in this textual road, and it requires careful analysis.
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. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:1-4).
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. … Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. … So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Rom. 14:5, 10, 12).
The chapter opens with a discussion of two behaviors we may characterize as non-essential, namely, whether to eat meat, or to observe special days. Apart from the laws of ancient Israel (which neither Gentiles nor the Church are required to observe), whether to eat certain foods or observe special days are non-essentials as far as the laws of nature and nature’s God are concerned. For the most part, they are matters about which God has neither required nor prohibited specific conduct, and people are free to do as they please in the course of their own self-government.[There are two possible exceptions. The first being the prohibition of eating or drinking blood (Gen. 9:4), which I assume is not really at issue here. The second is the Sabbath (Gen. 2:3), which even though it is a universal principle for all people, its observation is left to individual discretion under lonang. There are no other dietary restrictions or special days that either Gentiles or the Church are commanded to observe – the observance of the Lord’s Day being a custom, not a command.]
In other words, these are matters of individual discretion, and where there is discretion we have liberty. This is the clear assumption of the text as a starting point. It is twice confirmed later on in the chapter (in vv. 14 & 20) that these are matters in which nothing is unclean, therefore any decision regarding them can be honoring to God. We are also repeatedly told (vv. 4, 10 & 13) that regardless of our own decisions about such matters, we are not to judge others in the decisions they make about the same things. Thus, the context of Rom. 14 must be limited to matters which are indifferent (or morally neutral).
Given this backdrop, how are we to then govern ourselves? The rule of conduct (v. 5) is that “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” This rule is implicit in vv. 12 and 22 as well: we will each give an account to God for our convictions. Thus, in areas of liberty (i.e., non-essentials), the rule is one of personal conscience. As long as each person follows his own conscience, our conduct will bring honor to God (v. 6). Rom. 14:22 says, “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves,” which is essentially a rule of conscience.
The text thus far is a straight up admonition to biblical individual self-government: 1) each person is governed by their own conscience; 2) no one should think less of another’s decision to act in a different manner than he has chosen (i.e., no one should judge another’s conscience); and 3) this is honorable in the sight of God. So far so good. Now for the wrinkle.
Stumbling Blocks Notwithstanding
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. (Rom. 14:13-16).
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:20-23).
With verse 13 the concept of a stumbling block is introduced. We must take care not to force an interpretation which puts anyone in the position of violating either their own conscience, or the conscience of another. If the conscience is truly sacred, then the last thing God would ever call anyone to do is to violate anyone’s conscience, including their own. Further, we must interpret the second half of the chapter to be consistent with the first half, for God is not the author of confusion.
First, it helps to know what a stumbling block is. It is not, as many suggest, merely a personal offense. The text, in fact, never uses the word offense, so there is no need to assume that’s what it means. If we take our cue from similar usages in scripture, the meaning of a stumbling block is linked to the stone of stumbling (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:8), which is a crisis of faith, not a personal offense. In other words, a stumbling block is something that causes another to lose faith, or doubt their faith, or deter them from having faith.
Second, I think the stumbling block situation is a very limited case, a type of exception to the general rule of do whatever you think is best when it comes to indifferent things. It is limited to cases involving another believer (i.e., a brother), and the context suggests it is also limited to cases where you already know that your actions will provoke a crisis of faith in someone else. How often do cases like that come up, really?
What distinguishes the strong person from the weak person is knowledge. This is clearly seen from v. 14: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” In other words, eating meat or observing days (or whatever), is indifferent under God’s laws. The weak person, however, does not know this, and their conscience – which is not yet mature or fully trained up to recognize when things are truly indifferent – tells them something is wrong, even though it really isn’t.
While it is the job of the Church (broadly speaking) to educate believers about the true nature of things, when you and someone else have a difference of opinion in the course of daily life, it is not usually an optimal educational opportunity. They don’t want to be lectured to, and you shouldn’t try to shove anything down their throat (as it were), so often you simply have to acknowledge your differences and show mutual respect (i.e., don’t pass judgment). And that works both ways.
Yet, when you know the subject of your disagreement is in reality an indifferent thing, it will not violate your conscience to voluntarily restrain your liberty, or momentarily waive your right to do as you please, because it frankly doesn’t matter (morally) how you do something which is morally neutral. And so long as you do not bend the other person to your will, they do not violate their conscience either. Everyone’s conscience is preserved, and this is what honors God.
No, it doesn’t mean you always have to defer to others as to indifferent things. God gave you liberty, and you are entitled to use it. Christ did not set us free, only to be enslaved by the preferences of others. As I said, the stumbling block scenario is very limited – it is the exception, not the rule.
Even when this exception applies, deferring to another person’s preference must be completely voluntary (i.e., there can be no moral duty to defer) and is subject only to personal discretion. For one thing, no one can ever be under a moral duty to do something which is morally neutral. For another, there is no ought in discretion, and no duty in being voluntary.
Strictly speaking, while we are called to love, there is no duty to love, and the manner in which we discharge our duty to God (and by which we love our neighbor) is entirely discretionary. It can neither be coerced, nor can it be guilt-tripped (i.e., manipulated). Therefore, no one has the right to demand others to defer to their own preference. Being weak in the sense used in Rom. 14 (being a person who lacks knowledge) vests no rights in the weak person. Ignorance is not power over others. If someone you know really objects to you (or anyone) having a “pagan Christmas tree” in your home, just don’t invite them over to see yours. It doesn’t mean you can’t have one.
So the next time you are in a restaurant, your menu choices are not going to be dictated by what other people think you should eat, or what they choose to eat themselves. The way you celebrate holidays (or not) doesn’t depend on what your neighbors or fellow churchgoers decide to do. The rule remains the same, that in areas of liberty (i.e., non-essentials), we are guided by personal conscience.
In any event – and this is the bottom line for me – God never puts us in a situation where He expects us to violate our conscience, either for the sake of obeying Him, or for the sake of loving our neighbor. The conscience is inviolable.
When we look at the way God has consistently dealt with people throughout history, we can see a clear pattern of Him maximizing our exercise of self-government and having the liberty to follow our own consciences.
A Progression of Self-Government
Consider the Garden of Eden. God created man and woman, told them to reproduce and fill the earth with their offspring, and to rule over the earth and the animal kingdom. This they did, and from then until the Genesis flood people showed a continued proclivity towards violence and immorality. The result of this was God killing off all the people on the earth except for eight individuals. During this entire time, who was in charge of society? No one – each person did whatever they thought was best without any external constraints. It was raw self-government.
When given their first opportunity for self-government, people failed miserably. But God knew this would happen from the beginning. So why was it, do you think, God initially gave people no external constraints on their behavior? At that time, there were no nations, no governments, no churches, and no written laws. There was nothing to guide people except their own consciences and the laws of nature observable from the creation. Obviously then, this was God’s plan for mankind.
I believe that from God’s perspective, what the first generations of people had was enough. He gave everyone a living conscience, and a revelation of Himself and His laws in creation. That was all they needed. He gave them nothing else because God wanted people to govern themselves – each person guided by their own conscience. Self-government was, and is, the divine intention. Otherwise, God would have given them some external constraints right from the beginning.
Then the Tower of Babel incident comes along, after which God divides the earth’s population into various nations. Each one governing itself – God never gave any nation authority to rule over any other nation (think about the geopolitical consequences of that for a moment). Each nation now possessed its own civil government to do what? To govern its own people by physically restraining evil. To punish wrongdoers by the power of the sword, and all that. (Rom. 13:1-5). An external constraint on individual behavior, if you will.
Yet, with this constraint on individual behavior, there was no constraint on national behavior, i.e., God never gave anyone authority to keep the nations in compliance with His laws. Each nation can do, and historically has done, whatever they want. No one is a national, or international, overseer. The nations answer to no one but God. They govern themselves, and this is what God intended. So you might say that each nation’s compliance with God’s laws is actually a function of the extent to which the individual people of that nation govern themselves rightly.
In other words, how well the people of any nation exercise self-government will ultimately determine how well the nation will govern itself. If any nation or civil government falls into decay, anarchy, corruption or vice, don’t go wondering who is to blame. The fault lies with the people.
So when God decided to set apart the nation of Israel, He gave them both a system of government (i.e., a system of judges), and a system of written laws. Both of these were to do what? To restrain evil among the people, and also to teach the people more about what God expects from their behavior. Yes, because of the law, sin abounded. (Rom. 5:20). But that was merely the effect of the law. The purpose of the law was to inform people what things were sin, so people could then avoid doing them.
Which brings us to this statement at the end of the book of Judges. “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Jdg 21:25).
When God led the people of Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus, He gave them a very minimal system of civil government. Their was no legislature, and the Judge exercised a very limited executive authority (mainly as commander-in-chief of the army). So when we get to the end of Judges (about 400 years later), the people are exercising self-government. I see this as a good thing, because that is exactly the system of government God gave Israel and intended for them to function under.
But that’s not how most people read Jdg. 21:25. In fact, there is a nearly universal sentiment that this verse is an indictment against the Jewish people. Most people read it as saying Israel had fallen into anarchy, although the text never says that. It is simply inferred by people who are predisposed to look down on self-government as inferior and lacking.
Sure, the Israelites failed miserably to exercise good self-government. But it does not negate the fact that self-government is exactly what God wanted the Israelites to exercise. If He had not wanted them to be self-governing, He would have given them more external constraints. It was never God who wanted a stronger system of external constraint on the Jewish people, it was the people themselves who asked for a king, pretty much against God’s advice. (1 Sam. 8:4-9). And in spite of the Israelites’ failure, God’s intentions never wavered.
A Self-Governing Church
People in churches commonly understand that the ancient Jews were under a system of laws, whereas the Church is founded on grace. You might think people would be inclined to accept the logical consequence of this paradigm – “we’re under grace, not law” – but no. What logical consequence? That there are no laws, as such, given to the Church. OK, take a deep breath, and think about it.
Nobody mentioned in the New Testament, and not one of the N.T. writers, was acting in the capacity of a lawgiver, that is, as a legislator. Paul did not say, in 2 Tim. 1:11 (or elsewhere) that he was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher and lawgiver. None of the other N.T. writers made any such claim, either. So what – you think that unknown to the biblical writers, God was secretly acting as a lawgiver behind their backs?
Just because the writers of the Bible wrote under the inspiration of God doesn’t mean that God was always acting as a lawgiver. Just because God says something, does not make it a law. Not everything in the Bible is law. If and when God wants to make a law, He certainly knows how to do it. “And these things shall be for a statute and rule for you throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.” (Num. 35:29). Now see, that is God acting as a lawgiver, making a law. But God makes no such statements in the N.T.
Did you think that when Christ came, God forgot how to makes laws? That in the O.T., God came right out and said He was making a law in so many words, but in the N.T. He got all sneaky and coy and decided to change His methodology of lawmaking by leaving everything to mere implication and interpretation? That He would make laws without saying, “This is a law”? Sorry, but God doesn’t do things that way.
Take, for example, communion (the Lord’s Supper) and baptism. Two religious ceremonies claimed by most ministers to be an ordinance (i.e., a law) of the Church. Yet among all of the scriptural discussions of these practices, there is no command to observe them, and not a single enforcement mechanism is provided, either to compel compliance or to punish noncompliance. Further, there are no time, place and manner restrictions (where these can be done, how they are to be done, by whom they can or must be done, etc.). All these decisions are left to personal discretion. Whose personal discretion? Yours and mine individually.
How can any religious ritual such as communion seriously be regarded as an ordinance, which is given with this instruction: “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:25). As often as I drink it? How often is that? As often as the Pope decrees? As often as my denomination requires? As often as my pastor or the elder board determines? No, as often as I decide, in my discretion, as God leads me. And if the Jewish feasts are any example, once a year is plenty often. But even that is discretionary – not a command by example. (Pssst – there’s no such thing as a command by example.’ God doesn’t legislate by implication.)
If my church serves communion and I choose not to participate, is it a sin? If I’m a believer in Christ and profess my faith publicly, but I don’t get baptized in water, is it a sin? If I get baptized by sprinkling without being fully immersed, does it mean I won’t get into heaven? No, no and no! All these things are discretionary – not with my church leaders, but with me. And you.
Oh, so you’re in one of those few churches that lets parents participate in baptisms or communion for family members. Big whoop! Does your pastor tell you that you are fully capable of performing sacraments by yourself in your own home? In your own way, at times of your own choosing? I thought not. Where does the scripture give anyone else in the body of Christ (much less your pastor, minister or priest) the right to tell you when, where, how, and with whom to observe the rituals of the Church? Absolutely nowhere.
When there were problems with the way the early Corinthian church was observing communion, what was the solution, according to the apostle Paul? To exclude the troublemakers from the church service? To put the clergy in charge of dispensing the elements? No. “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” (1 Co 11:28). The solution was self-government! Not rules or regulations. Not by taking the ceremony out of the hands of the people. Not by instituting a sacramental police authority. But allowing people to govern themselves.
Lately there’s been a lot of buzz about whether the Catholic Church can or must refuse to serve communion to the President because he approves of abortion, contrary to the teaching of that church. Everyone’s talking about the need to keep unity in the church, or maintain the purity of doctrine, or whether to get church officials involved in politics. Meanwhile, I’m wondering who gave the Catholic Church the authority to intervene in a decision that only rightfully concerns the President and his God as a matter of personal conscience. Who in the tarnation do these people think they are – God’s representatives on earth? What crap.
Instead, what is the universal rule of conduct in the Church? Christian liberty. Jesus came to bring it. (Lk. 4:18). The apostle Paul said, “why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” (1 Cor. 10:29). Again, “all things are lawful for me” (1 Cor. 10:23), and “let no one pass judgment on you” (Col. 2:16). “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” (Jas. 2:12).
Why would Paul say all things are lawful for me, if it wasn’t true? Is it not obvious? The Church, as such, has no laws. That doesn’t mean Christians are not subject to any laws, nor that they are only “led by the Spirit” – far from it. We are still subject to the laws of nature (which includes the Ten Commandments), the Adamic and Noahic covenants, and all of the laws of God not confined to the Jews.
It is simply to say that becoming a believer in Christ under the Church covenant subjects a person to no new or additional laws, apart from those that already apply to everyone anyway. It is also to say God does not have one set of laws for Christians, and a different set of laws for everyone else.
People, Govern Yourselves
Let’s review. In the beginning, God created people with the capacity for self-government, and the expectation they would exercise self-government. He gave them nothing except a conscience and the laws of nature (the will of God made visible in the creation). Then, He gave people self-governing nations, whose use of the sword would provide an incentive for individuals to govern themselves better.
Then, God gave the Israelites a system of written laws – both for their benefit and as an example to all other nations – to supplement what was evident from the laws of nature. Yet He still expected people to exercise self-government with very little government oversight.
Then when God established the Church, He established it on the basis of individual liberty. Grace, not more new laws. Strictly speaking, the universal Church (the body of Christ) has no government structure – there is only Christ as head, and everybody else. All those church institutions, organizations and structures you see – all those came from men. God didn’t make any of them.
As I see it, the plan of God has never changed – He has always expected us to govern ourselves, because he made us (as moral beings made in His image) capable of self-government. The only thing that has changed is the number of tools God has provided us with, to help us exercise our self-government.
Think of the advantages we have, compared to the first people. We have the laws of nature and our consciences, which are simply a partial representation of the laws of nature in our minds. But we also have civil government to restrain criminal activity. We have God’s laws preserved in scripture for us to read and study. And most of all, as believers in Christ, we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. So we are better equipped than ever before to be self-governing.
Just because people fail at self-government is no reason to remove self-government from people, except when a person forfeits their liberty for committing a crime. But in the universe of possible bad decisions which are not criminal (as most are), there is no basis for depriving a person of the liberty to make those bad decisions. You want to take up smoking, or shoot up heroin? Get drunk every night? Gamble away your earnings? Bad decisions. But I’ll defend your right to make them, foolish as they are. I’m not your master – better make darn sure you don’t try to be mine, either.
So far, I have shown that God has fitted every person for self-government, since we are all made in the image of God and are morally responsible beings. In addition, God has plainly told every person what He expects of us via the laws of nature revealed in creation and the laws of God written on our hearts (i.e., the conscience). The conscience has absolute liberty before God, and nothing concerning stumbling blocks limits that freedom.
Therefore, every person is not only capable of self-government, but also has the inalienable right to exercise self-government as to all matters which are consistent with the laws of nature and nature’s God. And it is plainly the plan and intention of God that people – all people – should be free to exercise self-government, which has remained constant throughout history.
Unfortunately, according to many of our governmental, religious, educational and business leaders, that is a very big problem. It’s one they intend to solve by stamping out self-government. In fact, their solution is already well under way. And your church is probably one of the worst offenders.
The War Against Self-Government
Let’s recall Jdg. 21:25 – when everyone in Israel was doing what was right in his own eyes. What, exactly, is the remedy for this supposed anarchy? Does every nation need to be led by one or more strong men (i.e., a king, or a dictator), men who are fatally flawed, inherently sinful and corrupt in their reasoning, in order to be better governed? Is the remedy to abandon a decentralized system of self-rule (essentially, a democracy), and replace it with a strong centralized government as a way to reduce corruption and abuse? Oh sure, that always works well.
Yet, that is the operating paradigm in society today. Just consider how many thousands of rules are imposed on people everyday. Civil government regulates your travel (it didn’t used to) and your health care (it didn’t used to do that, either), requires you to buy auto insurance (God forbid you should neglect to do that), and tells you what you can or cannot eat, smoke and drink. Civil government even tells you what clothes to wear in government buildings (such as a courtroom). But tell me this: If the courts really belong to the people and not to the judges, then why must the people dress to please the judges?
Businesses are told who they cannot avoid hiring, what questions they can’t ask when interviewing, what things they cannot make their employees do, and what they cannot use as a reason for terminating someone. Employee hours, wages, vacations, benefits, pensions, tax withholding, and workplace environment are all highly regulated. Lord knows what peril the world would be in if we let business owners (those greedy wretches) make these decisions themselves! What’s that – you say you are a business owner? See, right there? – you’re the problem.
Families are told how to discipline children (or not), how, where, when and by whom kids are to be educated, what foods they can or cannot send their children to school with, what level of care and type of living conditions they must have in order to adopt a child, and in some countries how many children they can have. Dare we allow families to decide these things for themselves? My word, people might start locking kids in closets or basements in squalid conditions. But of course, they are already doing that, even with heavy regulation.
There is nothing so scary in our modern world than a man who knows his conscience, is assured of his liberty, and is persuaded to exercise his own self-government. Just think about all of the multi-faceted rules we have in life about things which are – according to the laws of nature and nature’s God – either completely indifferent, or which God has squarely placed in the hands of individuals to do as they see fit according to their own conscience.
Sure, I know that many of these things are addressed in scripture as moral admonitions, such as to dress modestly, avoid intoxication, treat laborers fairly, love your children, remember the Lord’s death till He comes, respect authority, not to give in to prejudice, etc. But none of these things come with specific standards of what is modest, fair, loving, respectful, etc. Nor are any of these things delegated to civil government (or to the Church) to enforce.
Which means that under the laws of nature and nature’s God, individual self-government before God prevails in such matters, and people have liberty to do as they please directed only by their consciences. But God forbid we should let people actually govern themselves in this manner. We simply cannot trust that people will govern themselves appropriately, so we make up endless rules that supersede individual judgment and impose, if not uniformity, then at least conformity with artificial standards.
Yes, there’s a war going on, all right. It’s a war to remove you from governing yourself as much as possible. And the war is almost completely lost already.