“And what we don’t want to do is say everybody binds everyone by their conscience with things that the Scripture doesn’t bind us by, right? Usually everybody’s bound by the preacher’s conscience. I don’t want to bind you by my conscience; I want the Holy Spirit to bind your conscience, and I want you to obey your conscience.” ~Mark Driscoll, in his sermon “The Weaker Christian”
I’m eager to explore what the Lord has been showing me about the defiled conscience. It has much bearing on where we are in the church of Jesus Christ in this day.
The weak conscience: recap
In Part One of the conscience series I explored what is meant by the “weak conscience” in a Christian.
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. The result is believing that certain morally neutral activities would affect that standing.
I also discussed how the weak conscience can be manipulated by spiritual abusers, resulting in
— confusion over right and wrong, as well as
— guilt and shame when one has done nothing wrong.
That fact—the guilt and shame when one has done nothing wrong—is immensely important in the life of the body of Christ.
The weak conscience can become defiled
First Corinthians 8:7 says that if the believer with the weak conscience partakes of something he thinks will spiritually defile him, there’s a danger that his conscience will be defiled, or “soiled” or “contaminated.”
This means the one who has believed in Christ will bear the guilt and shame of having sinned, even if he has done nothing wrong. From what I can see, there are two types of situations that can cause a weak conscience to become defiled:
- Pressure from authorities and peers to participate in an activity that the believer thinks is wrong (but isn’t, like eating meat).
- Force or deceit to participate in or be used in an activity that truly is wrong (immoral, harmful, blasphemous, etc).
The first situation can be a kind of spiritual abuse and can even be used as grooming for worse abuse. The second situation is definitely abusive.
For example, a Sunday school teacher who also runs a child pornography ring confuses the children in his grasp by urging them to engage in harmless activities their parents don’t do at home, and then telling them to keep it a secret. This can then be used as part of the manipulation to force the children to participate in vile activities that are not their fault in any way. The child’s defiled conscience will bear such tremendous guilt and shame that it may be years before they’ll even be able to whisper what happened to them. Though they did nothing wrong, their consciences will be defiled with guilt and shame. (William Cowper, the sensitive and great hymn writer of the 1700s, suffered with deep depression and a sense of guilt and condemnation throughout his Christian life. His own letters, journals, and even his poetry testify that he suffered abuse as a young child in boarding school, very possibly childhood sexual abuse. There may be a connection.)
Having a defiled conscience is a serious problem that can make it difficult or almost impossible for a Christian to find full freedom and joy in Jesus Christ. The Christian whose conscience is defiled because of
- an activity he participated in that wasn’t really wrong or
- an activity she was involved in that was wrong but was not her fault or was perpetrated against her
can fall prey to believing he or she is under the condemnation of God and can never ever do enough to earn the smile of God.
If a person doesn’t feel guilt or shame about an activity, does that mean his conscience is “strong”?
If the weak conscience is a conscience that believes participating in certain morally neutral activities will spiritually defile him, what does a strong conscience look like? It seems evident from Romans 15:1 it’s a conscience that knows that morally neutral activities won’t spiritually defile him. (This would be born of having a solid understanding of one’s position in Christ, as the New Testament proclaims throughout.)
Mark Driscoll’s perspective, though, in his “Weaker Christian” sermon, is different. He seems to assume that if your conscience doesn’t bother you, that means your conscience is strong.
“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.”
But right about here we encounter a whole new problem.
What if something happens to a person’s conscience causing him to determine that activities are morally neutral which in reality are sinful, immoral, corrupting, degrading, blasphemous, or harmful?
This is a crucial question for the church of Jesus Christ, one that is deeply affecting us right here and right now, especially in the area of abuse.
The defiled conscience of a two-faced unbeliever
A Christian with a defiled conscience doesn’t necessarily go on into deep sin because of it. He can remain in a place of weakness, feeling condemnation but continuing to hope that God is good and will rescue him. She can move toward healing and retraining of her conscience, in faith in Christ.
But Titus chapter 1 talks about a defiled conscience that is accompanied by unbelief, with some significant details about what that looks like. It’s an important Scripture, and worth looking at especially because the first part is sometimes twisted in order to abuse.
Tit 1:15 To the pure all things are pure: but unto those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.
Now whoa, stop right there. You may have heard this snippet of a verse quoted by someone engaging in sinful behavior such as viewing or participating in pornography. “It doesn’t bother my conscience. After all, to the pure all things are pure.”
If he wanted you to view and participate too and you balked, he may have quoted these seven words to convict and confuse your conscience. “That must mean I’m not pure.”
This is another one of those ways Scriptures are twisted. In order for us to get what it’s really saying, we have to take a few steps back and look at the whole context.
In Titus chapter 1 and the first part of chapter 2, Paul is talking about the kinds of men who should be elders. But in the middle of his descriptions, he takes a little excursion, to rant about the two-faced leaders, the ones who want to lead others astray.
When you see the context, you see who he’s talking about when he says “the pure” vs. “the defiled and unbelieving.” He’s contrasting two sets of leaders:
Character qualities of appropriate church elders (the “pure”)
|Character qualities of church leaders or wanna-be leaders who are defiled and unbelieving (the “impure”)|
|Irreproachable||False and faithless|
|A wise administrator of the gifts of God||Destroying whole families (that would include, of course, their own)|
|Not arrogant||Showing contempt for something or someone that should be respected|
|Not prone to anger||Unruly|
|Not quarrelsome||Mind-misleaders, thought-confusers|
|Not greedy||Greedy for shameful gain|
|Hospitable, loving goodness||Vicious brutes|
|Self-controlled, vigilant, temperate||Lazy gluttons|
|Doing right||Rejected (by God) for any good work|
|Christ-centered (holy)||Detestable (especially said of idolatry)|
|Treasuring the true word of God||Teaching what they shouldn’t teach|
|Able to teach and bring conviction to those who speak against God||Idle talkers, uttering empty senseless things|
|Honorable / honest||Not to be trusted|
|Strong in faith, love, and endurance||Claiming to know God, but denying Him in their actions (often primarily their private or secret actions)|
Look at that first column. This is the kind of Christian Paul is talking about when he says “to the pure all things are pure.” And of course he doesn’t mean sin will be pure to them! “To the pure, murder is pure” just really doesn’t make any sense.
He means instead,
For the “pure” believer, his life, his worldview, his actions, and his interactions—everything about him—will be characterized by purity.
For the other person, the one in the right-hand column? This description may look familiar to some readers. It may be describing someone you know personally.
His mind (thinking) is defiled. His conscience is defiled.
The hypocritical unbeliever will claim one thing while doing another, purposely confusing right and wrong in his own defiled conscience.
It seems to be popular these days to say we’re all hypocrites, but this passage of Scripture and others make an obvious contrast between the person who is willfully living a two-faced life and one who is not. That’s how God determines who is a hypocrite.
Jesus made it clear in the gospels (such as Matthew 15:11) that it isn’t the food a man eats that defiles him spiritually (not even dirt, since that was the context). Instead, a man is spiritually defiled by corruption proceeding from his own heart. This heart needs the cleansing and saving power of Jesus Christ in order to be pure. If he tries to become a leader within the church while allowing or even encouraging this spiritual defilement within himself, then the rest of the church had better look out.
And that brings me to a final observation . . .
The “root of bitterness” can defile many
See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.
In Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind, I dedicate a chapter to untwisting the truth about the “root of bitterness” in the Bible, which has been misused in a way that increases the oppression of the oppressed. I make the case that the “root of bitterness” is a person within the congregation who is leading others astray, and as a result defiling them—and their consciences. Here is a brief quotation:
If other people in the congregation were to begin following someone who exalted himself [that’s the “root of bitterness”], they would be in grave danger of being turned aside from the truth. They would be in danger of becoming a gross caricature of what they should have been, swallowing the poison themselves, and then being swept away to call good evil and evil good, putting sweet for bitter and bitter for sweet (Isaiah 5:50). . . . . The author [of Hebrews] is saying that the group of Christians, the congregation, should discern the individual person within the group who is causing trouble in the way he described, and root him out. If they don’t, if they instead follow his poisonous and destructive path, they will experience the agony and grief that comes with departing from the Lord. They will find the hand of the Lord against them for allowing this ungodly person to remain in their midst.
If other people in the congregation were to begin following someone who exalted himself [that’s the “root of bitterness”], they would be in grave danger of being turned aside from the truth. They would be in danger of becoming a gross caricature of what they should have been, swallowing the poison themselves, and then being swept away to call good evil and evil good, putting sweet for bitter and bitter for sweet (Isaiah 5:50). . . .
The author [of Hebrews] is saying that the group of Christians, the congregation, should discern the individual person within the group who is causing trouble in the way he described, and root him out. If they don’t, if they instead follow his poisonous and destructive path, they will experience the agony and grief that comes with departing from the Lord. They will find the hand of the Lord against them for allowing this ungodly person to remain in their midst.
The church is in grave and dire danger from people in the church who have defiled their own consciences, putting right for wrong and wrong for right, bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
Instead of thrusting out these conscience-defilers, church leaders, in story after story I’ve heard, are instead thrusting out the people who try to stand against them.
When it comes to defiling consciences in the congregation, Mark Driscoll and his disciples provide an example. (Though the article in this link refers to “killing” the conscience, I would probably use the word “contaminating” or “defiling” instead.) In the 1990s Driscoll began as a twenty-something shock-jock conscience-defiling pastor, recording his legacy in Confessions of a Reformission Rev in 2006 (in which he asked a repentant man if the pornography he had viewed was “good porno,” p 60).
By 2012 his books could be found in a large percentage of evangelical church bookstores across the nation and being widely discussed on social media. That’s when he published Real Marriage, promoting activity to a wider and wider audience that defiled the consciences of many.
There are several examples, but I’ll give just one here, from Megan Cox who co-founded Give Her Wings, an organization that helps women coming out of abusive marriages. She wrote to me after the publication of Part One in the Conscience series to say: With my abusive ex-husband I watched the horrible sermon series Driscoll did on the Song of Solomon [which promoted oral and anal sex, among other things]. It makes me sick to think about it now. My husband pointed his finger at me and blamed me for our “bad sex life.” I guess his twenty-year porn addiction had nothing to do with how dirty and disgusting I felt.
With my abusive ex-husband I watched the horrible sermon series Driscoll did on the Song of Solomon [which promoted oral and anal sex, among other things]. It makes me sick to think about it now. My husband pointed his finger at me and blamed me for our “bad sex life.” I guess his twenty-year porn addiction had nothing to do with how dirty and disgusting I felt.
Defilement of consciences is actively taking place in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, all around us, and sometimes perpetrated by leaders.
What to do about the defiled conscience?
I asked a question in the title of this post. And the answer is YES . . . to both.
When the weak conscience has been defiled, the fellow believer needs loving help
Hebrews chapter 9 carries some joyful news.
The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God [shall] purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Believers whose consciences are free of guilt and shame—through an understanding of the power of the transforming work of Christ on their behalf—can assure believers with weak and defiled consciences of the very good news of the gospel. Though you can never do enough to please God, never do enough to earn His smile, all the goodness that needs to be done has already been accomplished in Christ.
You do not need to try to earn God’s smile, for either justification or sanctification. He’s not deciding if His own beloved children earn His smile by the hoops they succeed in jumping through. If you’re trusting in Him, then He is lovingly transforming you from glory to glory by your faith in Christ.
This is our calling in the church of God: with patience and love we want to continue to assure the believer with the weak and defiled conscience that he is greatly loved by God in Christ, that she was not sinning by enjoying a gift such as meat that is given by God, and that they were not at fault for the harm perpetrated against them. All of these will contribute to the “building up” of our fellow believers.
As Hebrews 10:22-23 says,
Let us continue to come near with sincere hearts in the full assurance that faith provides, because our hearts have been sprinkled clean from a guilty conscience, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. Let us continue to hold firmly to the hope that we confess without wavering, for the one who made the promise is faithful.
When an unbeliever has defiled his conscience by choice and is playing the hypocrite, that person needs a sharp, cutting rebuke
In Titus 1:11 and 13, Paul said to his protégé regarding those hypocritical abusive teachers with defiled consciences,
“Their mouths must be stopped. . . .
Therefore, rebuke them sharply.”
Paul’s purpose was, as scholar Robert Jamieson says, “that those seduced by the false teachers may be brought back to soundness in the faith.”
This admonition is reiterated in Hebrews 12, in the “root of bitterness” passage. Root him out of your midst! If you don’t, many will be defiled! In Peter’s second epistle chapter 2 he echoes some of these same thoughts. Peter also issues a sharp, cutting rebuke against these abusers, in order to warn and rescue the people of God.
We’re being warned in Scripture about the conscience-defilers: those who have defiled their own consciences and would defile the consciences of others.
Are we listening?
Part Three of the Conscience series will (I hope) cover the other two kinds of negatively-affected consciences, the seared and the castaway.