I was reading an article by Brian Zhand this morning How does the church differ from the nation?… well I slightly changed the title as Brian is writing in the US context but the issues are much wider than the US v. church. But it got me thinking about the issue of conscience.
I have held that there are levels of authority:
- God and Scripture – maybe we could replace that with the word ‘Jesus’ as both our view of God and our interpretation of Scripture has to go through the hermeneutical lens of Jesus. Here we are dealing with an absolute authority.
- The conscience. Not perfect and needs education, but is not to be violated
- Human delegated forms of authority. A very relative form of authority and should not cross the conscience level (‘obedient to God – as interpreted through my conscience in the light of Scripture and tradition (did I write that?) – rather than to human authority (which includes tradition – ah yes I did write that and feel a whole lot better)’)
So my conscience for example did not allow me to swear an oath in court. The words of Jesus I took seriously on this issue, so when serving on jury duty there were two who declined to take an oath on the Bible. Myself and an atheist! Mind you the early Christians were accused of being atheists because their faith did not have the normal religious accoutrements such as buildings and priests. Let’s assume I am right in my interpretation of Scripture that to take an oath is to deny my discipleship by Jesus. What about the many who take an oath who are probably more Christ-like in their lives than I am? Let me for a moment assume that their interpretation of Scripture (a higher authority than their conscience) is wrong. Do I part company with them?
Oath taking is maybe simply a soft example (though for this and a few other ‘soft’ examples Anabaptists were persecuted and not a few put to death by both Catholics and Protestants). But picking a slightly stronger issue. What about those who ascribe to the belief (or myth) of ‘redemptive violence’? What about those who say, believing they might be defending the Christian tradition, that we simply need to go and ‘kill the bastards’ (language apology but this is the language I have heard). I simply cannot hear the voice of Jesus in those statements, and of course successful military exploits normally need to view the ‘other’ as the enemy. Enemies need to be hated, despised and demonised, because we are the good ones. (In this I am not trying to make the field completely level, but simply trying to pull the mountain top of our goodness down some.)
Conscience. Tricky little number that one. I was told by a prophet that ‘If you are a pacifist it will not cut it.’ Well I am not a pacifist as I do not think Jesus was, but I think the alternative is fraught with huge issues.
Bizzare example now coming up. A person has a ‘free’ conscience to have the occasional affair while married. We all – I hope!!! – are ready to let our objection be heard on this one. (Wonder if any voices were shouting in the OT when Abraham stepped out of ‘faithfulness and forsaking all others’?)
But it does get problematic. Beliefs on heaven / hell / Univeralism. Beliefs on same-sex marriage. So, so tricky. Not tricky because I can shout the loudest with my ‘Scripture’ trump card that has to educate the conscience but tricky because on all of those issues many of those who take a certain stance are digging into Scripture. And on issues of oath taking or redemptive violence where I believe the Scripture is very clear I am not to unhappy when others take a different viewpoint. I do not break fellowship with them.
Solution to the above. Everyone conforms to what is tradition. Done and dusted. Or no easy solution. Loads of dust.