Appealing to the conscience of everyone

I’m not a philosopher or psychologist, so my functional anthropology lacks the precision and care that it deserves. But I’ve often been fascinated by what Paul means by the term “conscience.” It appears in the 2 Cor 4 text that I’ve been writing these meditations on. But the notion of the conscience also features prominently in the Pastorals (1,2 Tim, Titus). (I know this makes any claims about Paul dubious, since authorship of the Pastorals is highly disputed. While I’m open to someone else writing under Paul’s name, I’m more convinced that Paul wrote the Pastorals than Ephesians or Colossians).

In 1 Timothy, Paul urges Timothy to distinguish himself from those who would be teachers of the law. While the law is good, it’s usefulness is primarily for the disobedient, “for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral,” etc. You get the picture. The problem by insisting on the law is that it “shipwrecks” faith and good conscience. It is contrary to “sound doctrine,” literally “healthy words,” which build a capacity in those of faith for faithful judgment.

Now in my faith tradition, we flipped Paul’s notions of sound doctrine to be the black and white things (like the law), which could not be veered from without straying from the faith. For Paul, those who insist on breaking life down into black and white are the ones who shipwreck their faith. The faithful are those whose imaginations are funded with “healthy words” from which faithful judgments can be made. The place where these judgments occur Paul calls the conscience.

I think for Paul, the conscience is like a muscle that can be developed or trained for God. Using the law as a substitute for moral judgement is like always riding a bike with training wheels. It can get you only so far with God and you’ll never really know what riding a bike is like.

Faith depends on the capacity of the conscience to make godly judgments in the innumerable situations we will find ourselves in. To foreclose on this capacity with appeals like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is to put faith at risk. Though Paul doesn’t say it this way in 1 Tim, I think he would say that this is the place where the Spirit can influence us, change us, guide us. In fact, I wonder if this is what he means in Romans by a “renewing of the mind” which allows the believer to “discern what the will of God is, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

So, when Paul says in 2 Cor 4 that he “appeals to the conscience of everyone,” I think he might have two things in mind. First, unlike the tradition of Sophistry valued by the Corinthians, Paul makes his appeal to something other than people’s affections. He is not trying to secure his audience by flattering or entertaining them. Second, he is trying to build a capacity within them for discernment, for making judgments, for exercising a Christian imagination which will be open to the Spirit in all circumstances. He does not spoon feed his listeners principles for godly living. Instead, he funds their imagination with the gospel so that they can live faithfully in the wildly improvisational art of life.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
This entry was posted in 2 Corinthians, Christian practice, conscience, hermeneutics, ministry, missional leadership, missional practice, Paul. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Appealing to the conscience of everyone

  1. Adam Hill says:

    Mark, towards the end of this piece you write: “…he is trying to build a capacity within them for discernment, for making judgments, for exercising a Christian imagination which will be open to the Spirit in all circumstances. He does not spoon feed his listeners principles for godly living. Instead, he funds their imagination with the gospel so that they can live faithfully in the wildly improvisational art of life.”

    I think that one of the greatest temptations in my ministry (and perhaps others as well) is to fall short of the gospel in my teaching and land somewhere in functional moralism. As a result, the Christian proclamation is twisted from being made new to being made better, or even worse being made better behaved. Sadly, most of the churches I have worked with are not very bothered by this, because they are used to it I think. It reminds me of CS Lewis’ statement: “Our problem is not that want so much, it is that we are satisfied with so little.”

    The point of the gospel, it seems, is not for us to be somewhat better versions of ourselves in light of a fuller understanding of the personal example of Jesus; rather, the point of the gospel is that we are being completely remade–new creations–from the inside out by the life-changing presence of the Spirit of Jesus and this will bear fruit as Christ lives in us and through us. Preaching that simply tells people to behave a little better is powerless and ultimately changes nothing, for it falls short of the appeal to conscience that Paul is making opting instead for “preaching ourselves” (v5). As you say, Paul’s appeal to conscience is not moralism; rather, he is calling for a deep and ever-expanding place for the gospel of God within our lives. The call of gospel preaching is to trust the plain truth (v2) that it is about what God has done within us, not what we have done. And it is this trust that will open the way to new creativity, freedom, and boldness so that the Kingdom can tell its greater and greater stories. And that is a much more faithful ministry.

    • Mark Love says:

      Adam, thanks for reading so closely. I recognize myself in your own self-reflections. And the great thing about the Kingdom of God is that everything gets used. But its good for everyone if we aim for the right stuff. But, easier said than done.

  2. John says:

    “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” .. completely backward

    “God said it. That settles it. I believe it.” Godspeak does NOT need my affirmation, only my acceptance. Conscience can be wickedly deceptive.

  3. Pingback: The Law is Not a Substitute for Moral Judgment | Christianity 201

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s