Should We Act Against Our Conscience?

But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.  Romans 14:23

The proposed separation in the United Methodist Church has created concerns, one of them being stated in the title of this post.  If changes are made in the UMC, will congregations and clergy who stay with the UMC be pressured to accept beliefs and practices they believe are wrong? Will they be pressured to act against their consciences?

Suovetaurile_Louvre

Suovetaurilia (sacrifice of a pig, sheep and a bull) to the god Mars. Marble, Roman artwork, 1st century CE.

As will all questions and concerns, it’s important to remember that we only have a proposal, and it could be revised or rejected. We don’t know what, if any changes are coming.

That being said, the question of acting against our conscience is important to all disciples at all times. The answer transcends all denominational decisions, congregational votes, and theological labels. It’s about how we follow Jesus every day.

My conscience can be misinformed, distorted, and self centered. When that happens, do I want to follow my conscience into sin? There have been times when my conscience has led me down the wrong path. I must take this seriously, and through prayer, biblical reflection and Godly counsel make sure my conscience is aligned with God’s plan for my life.

However, if I act against my conscience, I can also be guilty of sin. For example, I was taught and once believed that a man having long hair was a sin (1 Corinthians 11:14). Now I understand Scripture differently, and I do not believe long hair is sin. Here the biblical principle of Romans 14:23 comes into play.

Paul has been asked by the Roman church whether or not it was a sin to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He responds:

“…nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.  (Romans 14:14)

For Paul, there was nothing in Scripture that said eating meat that had been offered to idols was a sin. Meat was meat. However, it WOULD be a sin if the person eating that meat was acting their conscience. Had I allowed my hair to grow long 20 years ago, I would have committed an act that I believed to be wrong. My sin would not have been in the length of my hair, but in acting against what I believed to be a command of God. I would be acting against my conscience.

Back to the UMC dilemma: Should the protocol pass, could United Methodist congregations be pressured to act against their consciences? l can’t answer that definitively. Our denominational leaders are far from perfect, but in the past few years they have tried to maintain unity while recognizing that pressuring congregations and pastors to act against their conscience is destructive for Christians and their churches.

Huntingtown United Methodist Church can’t control what happens at General Conference in May. We can listen carefully to the Holy Spirit and align our collective consciences with God’s mission in the world. This will not alway lead to agreement, as the argument over homosexuality has shown us. However, our collective consciences should still be telling us all that Jesus is worthy of worship. Our consciences should be opening our eyes to the poor. Our consciences should be telling us we all need a Savior. We should never act against our consciences.

About Corey Sharpe

Where do we get our beliefs? Three theological perspectives have significantly shaped my Christian identity: Evangelicalism, the early Methodist tradition and liberation theology. From my coming to faith in a Baptist church and throughout my education in a Baptist school and college, I was nurtured by convictions that emphasized a spiritual rebirth, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the centrality of the Bible. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of evangelicalism, it has deeply influenced my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. My seminary studies spawned my interest in early Methodism, particularly its approach to spiritual formation. Its leaders were convinced that only a foundation of doctrine and discipline would lead to a meaningful transformation of the heart and mind. In other words, having the mind of Christ enables me to be more like Christ. Life in a suburban culture obscures the increasing gap between the poor and rich, as well as the Bible’s close identification with the poor. My doctoral work in socio-cultural context exposed me to liberation theology, which helps me see redemptive history as a history of oppressed groups, written from the perspective of the powerless, about a God who is actively involved with the poor in their struggles. I am now the pastor at Huntingtown United Methodist Church in Calvert County, Maryland. Together my wife and I are raising 4 young theologians.
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