“Conscience” in the Bible: insight into abusers and their targets

Scout’s honor, I didn’t start out to make this a blog post about Mark Driscoll. I was thinking about how those with hardened/polluted/jettisoned/seared consciences take advantage of those with sensitive/weak consciences, and I wanted to study conscience in the Bible to understand it all better, and then post about what I had learned.

So I did the Bible study, learned a lot, and then wanted to see what other people were saying about the conscience. In the middle of all that, another former member of Mars Hill Church (which had imploded after the many scandals of the Driscoll debacle) decided to speak publicly about the spiritual abuse she and others endured, and in that interview she mentioned something significant about the conscience (which I’ll get to later).

Mark Driscoll Uncle Sam wants you

Mark Driscoll admonishing his listeners.

That led me down a very intriguing trail, which I have to say, made a study of the conscience a whole lot more compelling. And now Driscoll, who barely missed a beat after destroying one church to start another one, is giving interviews spinning the story of the end of Mars Hill. So it looks like his story, which peaked in 2014, is still relevant.

As I studied about the conscience and asked the Lord to show me what He wanted me to see, as often happens, I found out that what I had previously thought—a “continuum” of conscience—wasn’t really accurate, and I saw things I hadn’t seen before. (This is not to say that “I see things.” ugh.)

So, beginning from Scripture, I see three main categories of conscience, which I’m talking about in three parts: (1) the weak conscience, (2) the bad conscience (described three different ways), and (3) the good or clear conscience.

First of all . . .

Part One: the weak conscience

The go-to Scripture for this concept is I Corinthians 8, which tells us that a person’s weak conscience is defiled when he eats meat offered to idols because he thinks the meat has been spiritually contaminated.

First off, what the “weak conscience” passage is referring to

The word weak has the ordinary meaning of “incapable” or “less capable” in some way. Most of the uses of the word weak in the New Testament refer to physical weakness. Romans 8:3 says the Law was “weak” to save us, so Christ came to accomplish our salvation, and Galatians 4:9 speaks in the same vein.

When a person’s conscience is called “weak,” it isn’t to say that she is incapable in other ways—she might be an extremely capable person able to do many things, and do them well. It’s that her conscience is incapable or less capable of . . . something.

In the specific case Paul discussed in I Corinthians 8 (and Romans 14, which doesn’t mention conscience, but appears to be talking about the same thing), he explained that because there is no intrinsic moral evil or moral goodness about meat—in fact, God made meat—it isn’t wrong to partake, even if it has been through a religious ritual.

Though Paul didn’t specifically mention the Judaizers here, they were a group he often had to counteract (like in Colossians 2:20-23 and Galatians 2:11-21), because they wanted to impose huge sets of rules on new Christians—rules that looked a whole lot like Judaism. It’s possible that they were involved in this teaching, because the Judaizers wanted to control the consciences of the new Christians in order to keep Christianity from being the free, transformative gift of grace that it is. In fact, they pretty clearly fit the profile of spiritual abusers.

In this passage, Paul’s point about “knowledge” and “liberty” was that no Christian would be made any more or less holy by any religious activity (like offering to pagan idols) regarding any actions that were morally neutral in and of themselves (like eating meat), because their holiness was accomplished in Christ alone.

 A weak conscience, then, is one that doesn’t have the full strength of understanding of what Christ has accomplished and who they are in Christ, and as a result thinks that certain activities—like eating ceremonially cursed meat—would affect that standing.

Mark Driscoll, though, has a different take on the weak conscience.

Mark Driscoll’s teaching about the weak conscience

In his efforts to engage the culture, Driscoll had quite a bit to say about the Christian’s conscience. In May of 2006 he preached a sermon on I Corinthians 8 called “The Weaker Christian.” (And just to note, the Bible doesn’t use the word “weaker,” only “weak.”) A few months later, Driscoll was catapulted to international respectability in the New Reformed Crowd by being invited to speak at John Piper’s Desiring God conference, after which his controversial teachings on freedom of conscience—for example, tattoos were actually edgy for Christians in those days—were heard, studied, and quoted many times over on the newly-burgeoning social media channels.

In this sermon he says some good things, some deceptive things (that I’ll address later), and some things that are just plain incorrect, confusing, and misleading.  I believe they would be especially confusing to those many very new Christians in his church who were hanging on to his every word, wanting guidance about how this God they were getting to know wanted them to live.

Here is the truth about some of the ways I believe he twisted the Scriptures regarding the weak conscience.

Weak conscience (vs liberty and knowledge) isn’t about how well you can resist temptations to sin

The truth is we’re all “weak” and we’re all “strong.”** There’s things spiritually where you’re very strong; you’re not easily tempted. There are other things you’re very spiritually weak, and you’re very easily tempted, and you have to be honest about your own strengths and weaknesses. Paul talks in I Corinthians 8 about those who are weak and those who are strong, and those who are strong not causing those who are weak to sin. . . . We’re all weak, we’re all strong.  

**[The Bible doesn’t teach this at all.]

Driscoll goes on to give as an example the fact that he’s not tempted to drugs, so he can hang out with drug addicts, but if you’re tempted to drugs, then you should get away.

But this example has nothing to do with a weak conscience trying to understand if a morally neutral activity is acceptable before God—this is about desire to sin. He conflates the two, to the confusion and potential damage of his listeners.

A weak conscience is not a conscience that’s tempted to sinful activities. It’s a conscience that thinks something morally neutral is sin because of its religious associations.

The Bible contains no hint of “I’m weak and strong, and you’re weak and strong.” This new way of interpreting and applying, not taken from the passage but wrested out of the passage (eisegesis) leads followers down a wrong road.

Weak conscience (vs liberty and knowledge) isn’t about tolerating or embracing harmful worldviews

Another quotation from the same sermon.

I’ll tell you where I’m weak: I’m weak with horror movies. . . . I won’t tell you all the freaky stories, but I’ve dealt with a lot of demons, quite frankly, and I don’t like them. . . . So when I watch a horror movie, and they’re like somebody’s possessed, or their head’s spinning around on their neck, or they’re flying, or stuff’s raising, or superhuman power, . . . they think, you know, it’s kind of enticing into the occult – man, I’ve seen it. I don’t like it; freaks me out. I’m also weak when it comes to movies and television shows with storylines where children are being tormented and harmed. . . .

Is it a sin to watch a horror movie? Probably not. . . . You’re not all weak and all strong. You’re all weak in some areas; you’re all strong in some areas.  So you gotta ask what does my weakness require? Where you’re strong, you could be free – you can have a lot of freedom and liberty. Where you’re weak, you have to restrict your freedom.

Do you see what he did here? He drew a parallel between the Corinthian Christians eating meat (a morally neutral activity, with no worldview to distinguish) and Christian participation in movies about demons and child abuse, which will definitely present some specific worldview, but he seems to think it isn’t important to mention that. Again, this will be confusing to an audience looking to him for guidance, as he implies by silence that worldview doesn’t matter, when it matters immensely and we are shaped by the worldviews we imbibe. (I don’t mean to imply it’s always wrong to watch movies about demons or child abuse. I’ve watched them, but with a Christian worldview, wanting to help rescue people from the darkness.) Even Paul, in the very passage in question, tells the Corinthians a couple of chapters over, basically, Don’t you know that what the pagans offer, they offer to demons? How dare you think you can actually go into that idol’s temple to eat the meat!

So if a person feels like his conscience is “strong enough” to not be bothered by movies with a worldview that is antithetical to Christianity, he is told that he can go ahead with it. It could be that his conscience isn’t bothered because it has been seared, but that possibility doesn’t enter the picture.

From the same sermon:

You don’t have a problem with violence – because you’ve read the Old Testament and you know it’s Biblical – you don’t have a problem with violence, then you can watch Ultimate Fighting. If you marry someone, though, like I did, and she says, “I don’t like violence,” then I watch it with my boys, not with my wife.  

Ultimate Fighting is showmanship violence, maybe less like the Old Testament battles commissioned by God and more like the Roman gladiators who fought only for the entertainment of the audience. If the Roman gladiators hadn’t actually killed but had only wounded each other, would a first-century Christian have been right to consider this violence morally neutral?

In one of his recent “Ask Pastor Mark” video talks on his website, Driscoll answers a question about video games, telling the gamer to go to his conscience to determine if video games are ok, since video games aren’t mentioned in the Bible. Yes, seriously.

If your conscience is bothering you, then you’ve got to pay attention to that. The Bible talks a lot about our conscience in the opening chapters of Romans . . . in addition to His Word and the Holy Spirit, God has given us a conscience to help us be sensitive to things that are ungodly or unwise. So, I would say if your conscience is bothering and burdening you, then you really need to pay attention to that.  

And what if it isn’t? In this 15-minute talk, Driscoll never addresses the content of the video games played by the many of the most dedicated gamers: violent rapes, gory murders, and desecration of bodies (in the name of destroying your enemies). A person with a hardened/seared/jettisoned conscience will have no problems of conscience with video games like this, and I know several abuse survivors whose abusers loved playing this kind of video game. No “weak conscience” there, for sure, by Driscoll’s definition.

Weak conscience (vs liberty and knowledge) isn’t about how you respond to using the body in ways other than those in which God designed for it to be used

I wasn’t going to address this part. I didn’t want to go here. And I could be labeled “so 1990s,” I suppose. But I’ve read and seen how Mark Driscoll has pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed for sexual practices that have degraded, demeaned, and physically harmed people I care about.

In Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll, in the very explicit chapter about sex, the authors said,

“No spouse should be manipulated into doing anything that violates his or her conscience” (p. 178).  

But other teachings indicate that the one with the violated conscience needs to get with the program—Driscoll’s program. In Heath Lambert’s review of the very same book, he says,

[The Driscolls say], “Seeking to emulate what their husbands view in porn compels women to push their bodies beyond God’s creation design” (148). Then, only pages later, the Driscolls commend anal sex as a potentially helpful practice in marriage. The contradictory nature of such phrases is astounding. It is difficult to imagine a more degrading, dangerous, and pornographic practice than this one. Few other sexual acts could be identified that more clearly push a woman’s body beyond God’s creation design.

The Driscolls make clear that they have hundreds of victims of sexual abuse in their congregation (130). In spite of this the Driscolls commend oral sex [and] anal sex. . . . I know and have counseled many victims of sexual abuse, and know with certainty that—standing alone, and without qualification— such counsel will send many women into despair at the sex practices they will have to endure. . . . [O]ne would imagine that the knowledge of the many sexual abuse victims in his congregation would commend some modicum of pastoral sensitivity in suggesting such practices to his audience. . . .

Second, the responsibility for the difficulties in the Driscolls’ sexual relationship was placed on Pastor Mark’s wife [who is a sexual abuse survivor]. The sad reality is that many real women who struggle in the aftermath of sexual assault will be confused, hurt, troubled, and plagued by much of the Driscolls’ talk about so-called real marriage.

 Based on Driscoll’s infamous 2007 sermon on the Song of Solomon, John Macarthur responded,

We’re assured . . .  that the shocking hidden meanings of these texts aren’t merely descriptive; they are prescriptive. The secret gnosis of Solomon’s Song portray obligatory acts wives must do if this is what satisfies their husbands, regardless of the wife’s own desire or conscience. I was recently given a recording of one of these messages, where the speaker [Driscoll] said, “Ladies, let me assure you of this: if you think you’re being dirty, he’s pretty happy.” Such pronouncements are usually made amid raucous laughter, but evidently we are expected to take them seriously. When the laughter died away, that speaker added, “Jesus Christ commands you to do this.” That approach is not exegesis; it is exploitation.

This kind of teaching, which has proliferated like rabbits throughout our churches, is doing physical and emotional damage to people, especially women, because (1) a man they respect has told them to, (2) they want to be obedient to God, (3) they want a good marriage, and (4) who in the world wants to have a weak conscience.

So, they think, I’ll suck it up.

If Driscoll can say out of one side of his mouth, “Don’t violate your conscience,” and out of the other side of his mouth, “Jesus Christ commands you to do this” (when He most assuredly doesn’t), the only way I can make sense of it is that he’s putting the wife in the category of “weak conscience” and essentially telling her to grow up and start doing the thing that feels wrong.

A misinterpretation of the weak conscience of I Corinthians 8 can wreak a lot of damage.

Weak conscience (vs liberty and knowledge) isn’t about how you react to profane language

When I first heard of Mark Driscoll in about 2008, it was, of course, as the edgy “cussing pastor.” In The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (2008), author Tony Jones says,

When Brad Cecil invited Mark to guest preach at Axxess Church in Arlington, he explained to Mark that unlike Seattle, swearing from the pulpit in Texas just wouldn’t fly, and he asked Mark to please keep his language clean.  Mark used the F-word in the first sentence. (p. 48)

First I want to observe that by this action Driscoll belied his claim that he spoke with “raw language” in order to engage his culture. Here was a culture that would be decidedly unengaged by his language. No, this leads me to believe that the purpose of his language may not ever have been to engage. Clearly here the purpose was simply to shock.

This particular word, the “f-word”—which never used to be uttered in polite society at all, but has now become common in casual conversation—is especially troubling to me because words have meaning and significance, and the meaning and significance of this word is to demean and devalue sex, even to the point of debasing it to the level of an animal activity, and I know far too many people who have been treated exactly this way. As I’ve written elsewhere, our words and expressions do mean something, even when we pretend they don’t.

With terms like “Victorian politeness” and “yellow-bellied Midwestern nicety,”  Driscoll implies that it is those of weak conscience who think this profane language in the mouths of Christians is a problem. But the Bible teaches that speech needs to be guarded, and Christians for many generations have understood this.  A few writers still agree with me, even though now, thanks in part to influential preachers like Mark Driscoll, profane language is so common that my “Victorian politeness” is gently mocked by people who care about me.

Some helpful backstory about Driscoll as part of The Leadership Network in a movement to “transition” the church of Jesus Christ from traditional beliefs to something new and different is provided at the Herescope blog here:

A key facet of the “Transition” stage is that people must “abandon” their moorings. This is most easily accomplished by “abandoning” Tradition. This means calling everything about Tradition into question, and pushing the boundaries of propriety and acceptability to the limits.

So, for example, when Mark Driscoll performed his “cussing pastor” routine years ago, he was pushing the envelope of Tradition, which desensitized people to the outrageous, and neutralized their consciences, thus putting them directly into the cognitive dissonance of the “Transition” stage.

Reports (and statements of repentance) coming out of this experience reveal that people exposed to Driscoll’s various misbehaviors underwent this process to get them to accept this bad behavior as the “new normal.” Note that in order to do this they had to disregard (abandon?) Traditional authority, i.e., Bible verses (God’s Word) that state that profanity is a sin, e.g. Ephesians 5:4 ”Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting….” 

How does Mark Driscoll think Christians should live?

As I studied Mark Driscoll in light of the conscience (and there’s a good bit more I haven’t talked about yet), it seems that he has or had a pretty simple plan for living as a Christian:

  • Support your spiritual authority, and serve his church.
  • Believe Reformed and complementarian doctrines.
  • Refrain from certain activities expressly forbidden in Scriptures.
  • Aside from #3, engage in every activity your conscience allows, and some that your conscience expressly disallows, in order to “engage the culture” and “please your spouse.”
  • Support your spiritual authority, and serve his church.

So . . . I still believe the Bible’s “weak conscience” teaching can be applied to abusive situations

I wanted to study what the Bible had to say about the conscience because I saw, on the one hand, people who weren’t sure how to undertake the Christian life who were being manipulated by, on the other hand, people of malignant character. I believed that the concept of “conscience” would address both sets of people.

So again, in opposition to what Mark Driscoll has taught about the weak conscience, I believe the Bible teaches . . .

A weak conscience is one that lacks the full strength of understanding of what Christ has accomplished for them and who they are in Christ, and as a result believes that certain morally neutral activities would affect that standing.

 Besides “negative activities” (actually morally neutral ones) that the weak-conscienced individual believes will spiritually taint him, I believe we could also add “positive activities” (actually morally neutral ones) that the weak-conscienced individual believes will spiritually cleanse him.

Those who have been abused, especially in a Christian context, may often be the ones of “weak conscience” who don’t fully understand in Whom they have their righteous standing before God. Sometimes they need to see that what their spiritually abusive environment taught as wrong wasn’t really wrong at all.

I know of three wolves in sheep’s clothing whose brides were very new Christians. They were capable women in their own way, but in each case at least initially they felt spiritually “incapable,” so they looked to their “Christian” husbands to help them understand how to live the Christian life. Because their husbands were abusive, they took advantage of their wives’ weak consciences to manipulate them, teaching them that what was wrong was right and what was right was wrong, what was permissible was disallowed and what was harmful was commanded. Up was down and down was up. Black was white and white was black. Here is an account from Unholy Charade, from a friend of mine:

I was looking in the silverware drawer to choose a fork to put in my husband’s lunch—one that wouldn’t matter too much if it didn’t return. He said, “I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to give me the worst fork in the drawer.” His tone was accusatory and demeaning, strongly conveying the message that I was doing something terribly wrong—certainly refusing to show him the impeccable respect he was due as “king” of our family. Clearly, in his mind he was worthy of only the very best fork in the drawer—even in his sack lunch.

I thought, “Yes, I guess I am . . .” but felt very confused at the time—was this simple, seemingly innocent act of choosing a fork for my husband’s lunch really the grievous sin against him that he considered it to be? It was not until years later (after I had finally separated from him after 25 years of abuse) that I was able to process through this event. It was then that I realized I would have hunted for the same type of fork if I had been packing my own lunch—and that it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

In each case above, the wife loved the Lord and prayed and searched the Scriptures and eventually got out . . . which is how I was able to come to know them now.

One friend came out of a patriarchal cult church that had taught her that many things were displeasing to God that weren’t actually displeasing to God at all. Some of them were morally neutral (like wearing a certain type of clothing or hairstyle), while other things she was taught were wrong were actually right. (For example, questioning the abusive pastor!) Many of these false teachings needed to be untangled for her, partly by kind and patient counselors who cheered for her when she was excommunicated, partly by the Holy Spirit, who has led her into spiritual strength even in the face of her foes.

Two more installments coming, but a final thought for now . . .

Coming out of fundamentalism, I’ve had to travel my own slow and sometimes rocky journey into full strength of understanding of what Christ has accomplished for me, and who I am in Christ, and what it looks like in my culture to release unnecessary and hindering teachings and embrace true and helpful ones. At the beginning of I Corinthians 8, as Paul was about to address what he knew was an explosively controversial topic, he said (I paraphrase),

“We know we all have knowledge. But remember, knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. Remember that no matter how much you ‘know,’ you still don’t know much of anything.

But remember, if you love God, God knows you intimately.”

This is the ultimate solution for weakness of conscience and the ultimate solution for the puffed-up-ness of knowledge: love God, seek Him, and spend time with Him. When you have come to Him through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the power of His Holy Spirit, then revel in His intimate knowledge of you. Through the Scriptures, seek to know Him intimately as well.

Receive the love that He wants to pour out on you through Jesus Christ in the power of His Spirit. As you receive His abundant outpouring (and in cases of spiritual abuse, lies often need to be untwisted in order to do this), you’ll then find that His love pours out from you to others, and “engaging your culture” (though it will look different for different people) will come naturally, in words, actions, and attitudes of love.

This is the life Jesus has promised. This is a life of joy. This is Christianity.

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