Churches aren’t perfect because we as individuals and leaders aren’t perfect. When we trust Jesus we’re given his perfect record and filled with his Spirit, but we’re still works in progress. God is at work changing us and recalibrating our conscience, and each of us will be calibrating our consciences at different times in different places. It will also look different for each of us to have calibrated our conscience on different issues, we may have reached different conclusions and/or express our understanding differently in the way we live it out. So there is always the potential for conflict when two or more consciences meet.
But how do we deal with that well? Accepting that we’re each at different places in our spiritual maturity, accepting that God in his sovereign wisdom doesn’t have a universal conscience-forming curriculum which works through A, B, C, D, and E in that order. Accepting that the same conclusion on a matter of conscience can be applied very differently in how we live that out. How do we as a church and as Christians live and talk about these issues without causing conflict? How do we know what are matters of conscience we can differ on and truths we have to hold to?
There are biblical principles that help us know where we hold to the truth but differ on matters of conscience. So we can speak the truth to one another in love and encourage each other to grow in grace as we humbly sit under God’s word in love.
Non-Negotiables, debateables and matters of conscience
In 1 Corinthians 15v1-8 Paul writes to the church in Corinth. It’s a church full of gifts and life and energy, but also conflict, error and arrogance. It’s divided over which teachers are the best, how to deal with conflict, whether or not to eat meat, and so on. Paul writes this letter to remind them of key truths they must hold on to and help them love each other on matters of conscience on which they should flex. But the danger is in getting mixed up between the two. Not everything is a matter of conscience or debate.
In ch15 Paul wants to make clear the things that are of “first importance”(3). He is reminding them of the gospel. These things aren’t matters of conscience, they’re not debateable, they are Non-negotiable. If you reject them you’re not a Christian. What are they? That Jesus was the Messiah – God’s long promised anointed Saviour(3), that Jesus died for our sins(3), he was buried – in other words he really died(4), he rose again(5), and was seen physically resurrected by eye witnesses(5-8). Paul also repeatedly makes reference to “according to the scriptures”, in other words it happened just as God said in his Holy word. Paul isn’t giving an exhaustive list, but giving key non-negotiable truths that apply to the issue, the resurrection, being debated in Corinth. Some things aren’t matters of conscience, they’re not matters of interpretation, they are foundation unchangeable truths. Without them we have no faith, no salvation and no hope.
There are other non-negotiables that we’d find in the Bible; the nature of God as Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit, God being eternal, sovereign and good. Salvation being by grace alone through faith not works, the fallen nature of every single human in Adam, and the certainty of the coming return of Jesus, among others.
These truths are non-negotiable. Without these there is no salvation. You can’t abandon them and be a Christian. These are the minimum that every believer must believe. And we must stand for these truths.
However, not everything is non-negotiable, some things are debateable. There are some matters where Christians who agree on the non-negotiables differ on how they interpret the Bible. They are significant issues but they’re not foundational. For example, baptism, should it be of believers when they are able to make a clear profession of faith or do you baptism the infants of believers? Believers sincerely, after wrestling with the Bible, reach different conclusions.
These are important things and generally they influence what church we go to, and we may hold these views strongly, but we accept you can have a different interpretation and be a Christian. Other examples might include whether church leadership is composed of a pastor, or elders or deacons or any combination of those, or gifts of the Spirit and their practice in church.
These are important but not of first importance. They aren’t matters of conscience they are matters of our understanding of truth from scripture.
There is also the third level; matters of conscience. Some examples would be how we view Sunday, alcohol, tattoo’s, singing, instruments in church, dress and so on. There will be differences of conscience across our church family on these issues. And we don’t need to eliminate these differences; rather the gospel calls us to love one another in our differences.
We must stand on non-negotiable issues not flex on them because salvation is at stake. On the debateables we stand though we accept that others differ. But on matters of conscience we mustn’t allow our differences to cause division or splits in the church into which Satan would love to insert his crowbar. We must listen with grace and assuming godly motives and discuss our thinking. Not throw theological stones. So how do we do that?