God Is Indeed Lord of the Conscience

August 2, 2011

The first Historic Principle of Church Order in the PCUSA Book of Order harkens back to the Westminster Confession (Book of Confessions, 6.109), to declare that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”

An improper understanding of this principle leads to the claim that one’s “conscience” overrides any other person’s application of Scripture. This translates to “nobody can tell me with any authority that I am wrong; my conscience is my guide and you must respect it.” In the specific Parnell v SFP case brought to trial and appeal, the candidate conscientiously objected to the church’s fidelity and chastity standard for church officers. She has the right to declare this objection, but to the degree that her stand is inconsistent with the Word of God, she is demonstrating a misguided conscience that needs the correction of the Body. Her declaration does not require the PCUSA to accept it and in this case, we argued, the ordaining body (the presbytery) should not have accepted it.

In essence, this misreading of “God alone is Lord of the conscience” really means, “I am Lord of my own conscience.” Personal assertion and the sovereignty of God collide.

To develop this thought, let’s start where the Reformed Tradition starts, with God. God alone is Lord of the conscience. In other words, the One who has the power and authority to shape my conscience—my inner conviction of what is right and wrong—is God alone; nobody else can trump or second-guess God.

The conscience is free of the interference of the world to tell it what to do. But it is not free to disregard or defy the legitimate spiritual authority of Christ and his church. The test of a good conscience is its conformity to the Word of God. Church officers in the PCUSA state a willingness to accept a limit to their conscience by placing it “captive to the Word of God.” So a conscience is properly shaped by faithful learning and applying Scripture, intentionally incorporating God’s Word into faith as a way of life.  It’s not “Let your conscience be your guide”; it is properly, “Let your conscience have a guide.” [Thanks to Dr. John Thompson at Fuller for this turn of phrase.]

Conscience is the conviction we demonstrate out of courageous faith in God’s moral law, and we stake our life on it. There is no merit attached to going our own way, contrary to God’s instruction, no matter how strongly we feel about it. The recurring phrase in Judges describes the situation sadly: “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” And the people of Israel suffered apostasy and chaos as a result. We Presbyterians could end up there, too, if candidates may declare their own “interpretation” of Scripture, which really creates something new and unrecognizable to the Word of God.

Tomorrow: Conscience Captive to the Word of God


3 Responses to “God Is Indeed Lord of the Conscience”

  1. If God is Lord of my concience, then God’s Word is my baseline for everything. I wonder if Lisa Larges and consorts pray to the same God I do or if it is some other god?

  2. Craig Campbell Says:

    Keep it up…I think you are right in this debate and issue.

  3. Sarah Hill Says:

    What an excellent word, Mary. Thank you!

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