“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Rupertus Meldenius
The church life can be complex. It can be joyful and downright difficult all at the same time. There are few things that can challenge those in the church much more than matters of conscience. It can seem hard to put your finger on it because what is it actually?
The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) says this about the Scriptures.
The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.
This is clear. It’s easy to understand where the conscience leaves room for someone else “feelings” right? I can say, “well my conscience is bothering me about what I’m hearing, seeing or feeling so, therefore, my feelings are validating and I’m now free to do as I please…”
Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in divers manners to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
Through His word, the Lord reveals Himself and declares His will unto His church. This preserves, propogates, establishes and comforts the church. It protects the church against the corruption of the flesh, the malice of Satan and the world.
In short, the word of God is all-sufficient. And yet, the conscience works in concert with the word of God to reveal the truth. Further on in the 1689 we deal specifically with matters of liberty and conscience:
Chapter 21 paragraph 2:
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 not contained in it. So that to believe such doctrines, or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also.
J.I. Packer writes about the Puritan understanding of “the conscience in action” as we try to draw these ideas of the word of God and personal conscience together.
Then, second, this ethical teaching was all given (again, just as in the New Testament) not as a code of routine motions to go through with mechanical exactness, but in the form of attitudes to be maintained and principles to be applied, so that however much teaching and advice a man received, he was always left to make the final decisions and determinations (whether to follow his pastor’s advice; how to apply the given principles in this or that case; etc.) on his own initiative, as spontaneous, responsible acts of his own conscience in the sight of God.
Packer explains that it was important that all things be measured against the word of God, through proper biblical exegesis. This can create problems left unchecked by leaders that desire to control others, so having biblical discernment is paramount to avoid the authoritarian leader.
Puritan ethical teaching was not authoritarian; it was offered as exposition and application of Scripture, and was to be checked against Scripture by those who received it, according to the Protestant principle of the duty of private judgment. The Puritans did not wish men’s consciences to be bound to their own teaching, as such, but to the Word of God only, and to Puritan teaching only so far as it was demonstrably in accord with the Word of God.
What does all this really mean to us today? The Puritan’s view of conscience was traced immediately back to Popery. Coming out of the teaching of Rome, that men should exclusively look to their leaders. While leaders are God given, they are not infallible. Looking back to the quote by Meldenius we can see the goal of the local church and the concerned shepherd.
“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
A Christian’s great desire is to honor the Lord in the essentials of the faith, we must be united. If you do not believe God is triune, we have a problem. We cannot be unified in the faith. This is clear and easy to grasp.
However, as we jump to the non-essentials things tend to get stickier. This is where we need to have balance and grace. Or as Meldenius said… “Liberty”. Liberty or freedom of conscience frees us from the teachings of men. It allows unity without uniformity. It allows for grace and not oppression. When leaders drive home certain biblical texts that place them on the throne we need to beware. The Puritans understood this and it was of great concern for them.
If freedom of conscience is not treasured, is not fought for in and by a local church this should be a concern for you and for me. Christ died not only that we be free from the penalty and condemnation of sin but we also be free from the penalties and condemnation of men. Liberty is never a license to freely sin but it is a priceless element of the gospel of Christ.
While the Lord has given gifts to the church of pastors and teachers their authority is limited and we should allow no-man to take us captive. This is crucial to true Christianity.
Lastly, of course… charity in all things, even in disagreement. Without love we are clanging gongs and tinkling cymbals. We are obnoxious noise makers void of love. But often times true love comes with conflict. Conflict can be and is sometimes necessary. We cannot roll-over, be intimidated or bullied.
May the Lord endow us with wisdom from on-high, and grace to love His church.