Do All Things with a Good Conscience
“Happy is the man that does not put himself on judgment by what he approves.”—Rom. 14:22.
1. Why should we be cautious about giving advice to others on personal matters?
IT IS not an easy thing to make right decisions on all the questions that we face in life. Jesus’ half brother James acknowledged that “we all stumble many times.” This was a reason, he said, that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment.” (Jas. 3:1, 2) If we expand our giving of advice to others, we multiply our responsibility and liability for the outcome.
2. Why must all counsel given to others be based solidly on the Bible?
2 If our counsel to others is based simply on our own conscience or opinion, we are bound to mislead them. Even if we try to counsel altogether according to the Bible, we must be sure that we have the right understanding, not mere conjecture or a privately held view. When a person accepts counsel based just on another’s conscience or opinion and puts it into effect, it is of little benefit to him. It may even cause much damage. Why? Because he is not acting at the direction of his own conscience. For, “indeed, everything that is not out of faith is sin.”—Rom. 14:23.
3. What is required on the part of an individual when making a personal decision?
3 To have faith on a matter, which includes making a personal decision, an individual has to gain accurate knowledge from the Bible and firm evidence based on facts. (Heb. 11:1) “That the soul should be without knowledge is not good, and he that is hastening with his feet is sinning.” (Prov. 19:2) If he does not have accurate knowledge of God’s will, he could be led to hurry right into a bad course.
4. If a person has difficulty in making a decision, what can he do to get help?
4 Some Christians, however, do have weaknesses in their faith, often due to a lack of knowledge on a certain problem or question in life. James comments that the Christian can get the required wisdom to handle any trialsome situation by praying to God for that wisdom. (Jas. 1:2, 5) Of course, to get an answer from God, he must also consult the Bible. Why will this help? Because Christians have the same human problems today as servants of God have faced throughout the centuries. If we look to the Scriptures we will see how faithful men, including the apostles and their associates, gave advice and handled these problems. Circumstances differ, of course, but there is no problem for which the Bible does not provide the right principle. Application of the principle brings into play knowledge and conscience.
LAW ‘WRITTEN IN HEARTS’
5. Why did the apostle Paul write on the subject of conscience to the Christian congregation at Rome?
5 This matter of conscience was taken up by the apostle Paul in Romans, chapter 14. In the congregation at Rome, there was general agreement on the basic, foundation doctrines of the Bible, and on how to carry forward the work of proclaiming the “good news.” (Rom. 1:8) But there were differences of opinion, particularly on personal matters. This was due largely to the background and training of the various members of the congregation. These differences were principally because of the wide gulf that had separated the Jews from the Gentiles prior to their accepting Christianity.
6, 7. (a) What were the ‘weaknesses in their faith’ that some in the congregation had? (b) What was the primary purpose of the Law, and what changes did the Messiah bring?
6 Paul writes: “Welcome the man having weaknesses in his faith.” (Rom. 14:1) These “weaknesses” were not weaknesses in faith in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, which leads to salvation. All had to have this faith. (An American Translation reads: “Treat people who are overscrupulous in their faith like brothers.”) These “weaknesses” were points in which certain Christians were not fully established, not being so clear as to the scope of Christian freedom. For example, for centuries the Jews had been under the Mosaic “law code” (Rom. 13:9; 2 Cor. 3:6), which restricted them from eating certain foods that were “unclean,” and which commanded observance of specific days, and so forth. (Lev. 11:46, 47; Deut. 5:12-14) God’s purpose in giving this law was to keep the Jews from being absorbed into the pagan nations, with their idolatrous practices, until the Messiah should come. (Gal. 3:23-25) Then “the perfect law that belongs to freedom” would take its place—a “law within them,” written in their hearts. (Jas. 1:25; Jer. 31:33) This new law is set forth in the Christian Greek Scriptures.
7 By the sacrifice of his own life the Messiah, Jesus Christ, did indeed release the Jews who accepted him. Gentiles could also gain release from their former bondage to idolatry. All Christians—Jews and Gentiles—now stood on the same ground before God. (Eph. 2:14-16) Nevertheless, it was hard for some of the Jewish Christians, ingrained with the former customs and practices, to make the changeover. In some things it ‘just went against their consciences.’
8. What was the tendency of some in the congregation toward those who had “weaknesses” in their faith, but how should they have been treated?
8 The apostle Paul sets forth the proper view on such matters as he continues, telling the congregation with regard to welcoming those with a weak conscience, “not to make decisions on inward questionings.” (“Do not criticize their views,” An American Translation; “but not for disputes over opinions,” Revised Standard Version.) Such a man, though his opinion or conscience was different, perhaps even “overscrupulous,” was to be welcomed heartily as being fully a brother, a fellow heir of Christ. It was the tendency of some to dispute over his opinion or view, which came from inside him, from his heart. This was wrong, being damaging to the parties involved and to the congregation, which might tend to take sides and become disunited.
TWO EXAMPLES THAT ESTABLISH THE PRINCIPLE
9. What was the question that arose over the eating of meat?
9 Paul gives the example of eating meats. In those days, the animals slaughtered or the meats sold in markets had been, in many cases, presented before an idol, as if to sanctify the meat for the worshipers that ate it. Of course, this did not affect the meat itself. An idol was really nothing. But those who were not fully established in this correct view had qualms of conscience when eating meat because of fear that it might have been connected with the pagan rite. (1 Cor. 8:4-7) Therefore the apostle admonishes:
“One man has faith to eat everything [all things that are food, including meat bought at the market], but the man who is weak eats vegetables [in order not to eat, even unknowingly, of meat he considered “contaminated” by the pagan practice].”—Rom. 14:2.
10. Should not persons who have different personal views from the majority of the congregation be straightened out so as to bring about ‘one mind and one line of thought’?
10 What was to be done? Should not this man eating only vegetables be straightened out in his view before he could be respected as a full-fledged Christian? Some might call attention to the principle that ‘all should speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among them, but that all should be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.’ (1 Cor. 1:10) But this unity was not a unity in opinion or viewpoint on matters of personal choice or conscience; it was a unity in following Christ, not men.—1 Cor. 1:11-13.
11. How were persons in the congregation viewing one another over matters of conscience?
11 Some Jewish Christians who were fully clear on the matter, as well as most of the Gentile members of the congregation, who had never been used to the Mosaic regulations, inclined toward looking down with contempt on the overscrupulous ones, viewing them as foolish, opinionated or even fanatical, while the overscrupulous ones were judging the others as doing wrong in God’s eyes by stepping beyond the bounds of their freedom. So the apostle corrected both:
“Let the one eating not look down on the one not eating, and let the one not eating not judge the one eating, for God has welcomed that one. Who are you to judge the house servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for Jehovah can make him stand.”—Rom. 14:3, 4.
12. Why must we fully accept other Christians who may have opinions on personal matters that are different from our own?
12 If God has accepted a person, welcoming him and giving him His spirit, though he still may have some conscientious scruples or opinions that seem unnecessarily narrow, or, perhaps more broad than others, who are we to find fault? We all have to give account to our Master. We have enough problems, mistakes and faults of our own to keep us from meddling in someone else’s affairs. One man cannot properly interfere with the servant or employee of another man as to how he serves that man—and this is even more so in the case of a servant of God. God is the Judge of his servant. Yes, “he will be made to stand” by Jehovah.
13. How is it true that God will indeed make his servant to stand?
13 Here Paul does not mean that God will support his servant in everything he does, certainly not in wrongdoing. But even though a Christian has a conscientious view that might be criticized by others and even regarded by them as a disqualifying trait, God will not judge him adversely, but will be pleased that his action is conscientious. If God sees fit, in his due time he will bring his servant’s conscience around to a realization of a more mature view. But no Christian should presume to superimpose his conscience on another. If he does, he may bring the other person into difficulty, or may damage that one’s faith. Consequently, he himself would be subject to a “heavier judgment,” or a certain degree of condemnation, as James says.—Jas. 3:1.
14-16. Explain Paul’s words at Romans 14:5, 6.
14 The apostle gives another example:
“One man judges one day as above another; another man judges one day as all others; let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day observes it to Jehovah. Also, he who eats, eats to Jehovah, for he gives thanks to God; and he who does not eat does not eat to Jehovah, and yet gives thanks to God.”—Rom. 14:5, 6.
15 For instance, a Jew who had accepted Christ but who in the past had given longtime obedience to the law of the Sabbath, might feel qualms of conscience in doing any laborious work on a Jewish Sabbath day. It might be cooking, carpenter work, or traveling a considerable distance. Even if it was a work of the congregation, something that other members of the congregation expected him to do for them or with them, on that day he might refrain because of conscience. On any other day he would be glad to do it. But he observed that day as special “to Jehovah,” that is, he felt that it was Jehovah’s will he was doing by observing that day as especially sacred. And in eating, he thanked God that he could be absolutely clean and separate from idol worship because God had clearly outlined his view on such matters in the Mosaic law. (Note how Daniel, then under the Law, felt. [Dan. 1:8]) His conscientious action hurt no one in the congregation, and he was not engaging in any wrongdoing. Therefore, Jehovah did not count him unclean. Jehovah appreciated that he was rendering obedience to the best of his knowledge and with a clean conscience, not denying the sacrifice of Christ.
16 On the other hand, the general body of Christians esteemed all days as belonging to God equally—all as sacred—and none as especially so. They ate meat with a clean conscience, knowing that, if it had formerly been presented before an idol, this did not change the meat itself, because idols actually had no power. They thanked God that they could eat the food that he had provided and were grateful for the freedom that he had given through Christ.
17. Why must each one be fully convinced in his own mind?
17 However, each one had to be fully convinced in his own mind. If a Christian conscientiously could not see the other’s point of view clearly, in his own mind, it would do him no good, but actually harm, should he adopt that view contrary to his conscience. And neither one should criticize, dispute with, judge or look with contempt on the other. (Jas. 4:11, 12) Neither should try to force his own viewpoint on the other. If this were done, an individual would be trying to dominate the other’s faith.
18. Is there anything that the elders or others may do to help a person to get a more accurate view on a personal matter? If so, what?
18 This does not mean that matters of conscience cannot be discussed, and research done, to obtain the Bible’s view. Arguments toward the Scriptural position may be brought to bear on a subject. But wrangling and disputing, or insisting that the other person see it our way or do as we say, should be avoided. Elders and others who are mature can help those weak or misinformed on such points. But that is as far as they can properly go. The individual must then act on what he conscientiously feels is acceptable to God.
PRINCIPLE FOR DECISIONS IN DOUBTFUL AREAS
19. How can we draw the line between what is to be left to individual conscience and what is not?
19 While the apostle here uses only the two examples, he sets the principle for all cases in which conscience is involved. Today there are many circumstances in which there is no specific, direct instruction or rule from the Bible. These are sometimes called “gray areas.” Such areas exist in the fields of employment, medical treatment, food, clothing, and others. The Bible gives principles to guide us in all these areas. What it definitely states, all should follow. For example, the Bible says that dress and grooming should be ‘well arranged, with modesty and soundness of mind,’ neat and clean. (1 Tim. 2:9; 2 Cor. 7:1) Respect for our brothers’ feelings and for the congregation and its good reputation in the community should be maintained. But styles, colors, and so forth, may vary greatly according to individual tastes.
20. What should a person do who faces a problem the answer to which is not clear to him?
20 The individual involved in these “gray areas” should look to the Bible and Bible aids. If he is still not clear on a decision, he may consult elders or others who can help him to see what the Bible says, but he should not let others make his decision for him. They are not his “conscience.” Let him weigh matters himself, make his own decision, and follow through on this conscientious conclusion. With the passage of time he may come to see the matter in a different light, and make an adjustment, but he should avoid doing anything about which he has doubts, so that he will not be self-condemned.—Rom. 14:23.
21. If we have certain opinions that are conscientious, does this mean that we should never change, or what?
21 All Christians should strive constantly to progress in understanding and to make advancement in coming closer to a perfect imitation of God and Christ. In doing this they will be progressing continually toward having a conscience more accurately trained. At all times they should be doing all things in such a way as to maintain a good conscience and they should allow their Christian brothers the same freedom.
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Paul counseled that new believers should be welcomed even though they had ‘weaknesses in their faith’
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Respect a new Christian’s conscience regarding Sabbath observance or eating certain foods