The Christian life is a complex interplay of command, conscience and covenant – and none of these words are particularly popular or well understood in our culture or, perhaps, by many in the church.
Simplistically we could draw understanding from the humble traffic light. Red and green are commands and amber is more or less a matter of personal decision or conscience. Red does not ask you if you feel you should stop, it tells you that you must. Amber however allows you some measure of consideration. And green, like red, is a command to go and if you are in doubt about that you have not experienced missing a green light in Sydney traffic.
The context for the command and conscience of the traffic light is the covenant we all have with each other that we will obey the traffic rules, including traffic lights, and likewise drive safely and responsibly. When we as a community balance command, conscience and covenant well, there is relative safety and amenity on our roads. When these three are out of shape – frustration, damage and even death can result.
As said before, command, conscience and covenant are not much appreciated in modern (post-modern?) thought and only marginally better in Christian circles.
But we are often commanded – we are told when to start and finish work or at least how many hours to put in. We are told to drive on the left hand side of the road, pay for our groceries at the checkout, not smoke in restaurants and many other examples.
Conscience is less obvious but in friendships we would commonly assume that out of good conscience, our friends would appreciate our strengths and deal lovingly with our faults. We will usually applaud the person who hands back a lost wallet, and be glad when our parents remain faithful to one another.
Covenant is everywhere such as the amateur sports people who show up week in and week out to join their team for the love of it, because they said they would. Marriage, employment, government rule, bank savings are all expressions of covenant – promises of how we will treat one another, the intentions we will keep.
In the Bible and other spheres of life there are some assertions that are commands, not matters of conscience. The 10 Commandments are a perfect example. God does not ask us if we are ‘okay’ with not murdering our neighbour – he commands that we don’t. The Great Commandment of Jesus is another – he does not ask if we might like to love God, our neighbour and ourself, he says we must.
Commands usually surround those issues that are most at the centre of what it means to be human and whole. They are also more vital for the strengthening of covenant and at the same time strengthened by covenant.
Conscience, while also in play in relation to commands, is in my context here involved in those areas perhaps more associated with preference, cultural difference, personality, background. When commands are well obeyed, our conscience is more finely tuned. But conscience implies we make a choice based on our internal conviction not the external command of another.
If God does not will to command an area, but allows us an amber-light moment of choice (of course all of it is choice on our part, the consequence is what changes) then we are wise not to seek to command in his place.
The complexity comes in being comfortable in our understanding of what is command and what is conscience. Maturity is a great aid here, as is a remembrance that the whole context is covenant – relationship – a living, flexible, growing but strong and enduring thing.
Common-sense is also helpful, and unfortunately often in short supply.
When we take a matter of conscience of which we have made a certain amber-light choice (to proceed or not through the intersection) and make it a red or green light command for others, we assume the role of God and that is the most dangerous place of all for human kind to be.
You might invoke holiness, righteousness, the word of God, and any other phrase, but you are not entitled to command an area that God knows is more humanly, more godly, left to our conscience.
Perhaps we see many with weak or confused consciences and a similar struggle with command and covenant. We might say it is better for them if we offer command more completely. But if that was the answer, God would have done it long ago.
If God who is all-knowing sees that there are some areas of my existence that he doesn’t need to command, but allows me to outwork the conviction of my heart in peace, then we who see only a fraction should be extremely wary of stepping in with a command, regardless of the title we bear.
As Paul said, “For why is my freedom [as follower of Christ in good standing] being judged by another’s conscience?” (1 Cor 10:29, italics mine)
Of course, in no way does my discussion seeking to diminish the importance and vitality of living life God’s way – just the opposite. If you seek to make a command of God a matter of your conscience you are overstepping God. If you seek to pervert both command and conscience on the basis of his loving relationship and covenant, then you know nothing of real love. And if you seek to make a command out of a matter of conscience, as said before, you overstep God and damage covenant relationship.
“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Heb 5:14
Happy distinguishing. Happy new year.