In what is one of the most beloved statements penned in all of church history, the Westminster Divines explained that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (WCF 20.2). Few things can be so damaging to the church as when one believer seeks to bind the conscience of another believer with a personal application of a biblical principle of holiness. To be sure, we should all be zealous to teach and exemplify every principle of holiness taught in Scripture; but more often than not, individuals who are most zealous for holiness fall into the trap of teaching their personal applications of a biblical–or a supposedly biblical–principle of holiness rather than simply teaching the principle. After all, very refined personal applications of a principle tend to feel more potent–they make us feel more effective in our attempts to help people grow spiritually. However, the more refined the application the more we are in danger of crossing the fault line of legalistic conscience binding. To be sure, the line between pious advice and unbiblical conscience binding is a razor’s edge.
Many times such unbiblical conscience binding occurs in less than explicit ways. The personal applications are subtly presented as the principle. Sometimes they come in the form of an individual setting himself or herself up as the example of piety in application specific ways. You’ve witnessed this sort of thing. One believer tells another believer how often he or she prays every day, or how long he or she spends in the Scriptures each morning. Then, the conversation slides into exhortation without differentiation: “I’ll be glad to hold you accountable to doing this too,” or “I don’t know why more people don’t spend as much time praying…” Such attempts at unbiblical conscience binding occur in every sphere of life and ministry–often resulting in creating undue guilt in the minds and hearts of God’s people. Consider the 7 following areas in which you have most likely witnessed such unbiblical conscience binding:
1. Etiquette, Dress and Hygiene
Before we consider the danger of binding consciences with personal applications of biblical principles regarding etiquette, we have to understand what principles the Scriptures do and do not teach on this subject. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” right? Not according to Scripture! James tells us that if a man with “filthy” clothes comes into the assembly of the saints and we give preference to those with costly and clean clothes than we are the transgressors–not the man in the filthy clothes. “But, what we wear outwardly reflects what’s on the inside, right?” Maybe. It all depends on what guidelines the Scriptures give us on that issue.
The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament have absolutely no binding application to our external etiquette, dress or hygiene. They were given to point to the internal cleansing accomplished by the blood of the sacrifice–which, in turn, pointed to the cleansing blood of Jesus. They were cultic in nature. They had to do with the worshiper’s acceptance before the infinitely holy (clean) God.
There were those, in Jesus’ day who were really into external cleanliness. They were called Pharisees. The Pharisees were so commited to external cleanliness that they made it their life’s ambition to bind others to both those ceremonial washings that God had ordained in the Old Testament Law as well as to washings that weren’t God ordained. On account of this, Jesus purposely didn’t wash His hands before he ate to prove a point (Luke 11:38). Furthermore, nothing is more ridiculous than parents teaching their children that they need to clean their rooms and fold their clothes because Jesus folded His grave clothes after he rose from the dead. I have actually heard parents say that sort of thing to their children. Children need to obey their parents with regard to cleaning their rooms or folding their clothes because they are commanded to obey their parents in the moral law of God–not because Jesus folded his grave clothes. We have to make sure that the principle of holiness is founded squarely on the clear and divinely intended meaning of the teaching of Scripture.
What about our “Sunday Best?” That’s clearly taught in Scripture, right? Actually, the only dress code set out in the Apostolic writing is that we are to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ and that we are to dress modestly. Even when we begin to unpack modesty, we run up against the same challenge that we have been addressing. If you asked most Christians what modesty dress is, you will almost certainly get responses about how covered a Christian sister’s body should be. True though some of the responses may be, the biblical teaching on modesty actually has to do with the immodesty of heaping up clothing and jewelry (which might be even called someone’s “Sunday best”) in order to get attention from others (1 Tim. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:3).
I have witnessed one theologian attempting to bind the consciences of seminary students regarding their need to wear their “Sunday best” by appealing to the command of God for the Israelites to wash their clothes before they came to the mountain to worship (Ex. 19:10). This is clearly ceremonial in nature. To suggest that God cares whether someone’s clothes are clean or not is to bring God down to the creature’s level. God Himself says that He “does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Matthew Henry, in his comments on Exodus 19:10, wrote:
In token of their cleansing themselves from all sinful pollutions, that they might be holy to God, they must wash their clothes (v. 10), and they did so (v. 14); not that God regards our clothes; but while they were washing their clothes he would have them think of washing their souls by repentance from the sins they had contracted in Egypt and since their deliverance. It becomes us to appear in clean clothes when we wait upon great men; so clean hearts are required in our attendance on the great God, who sees them as plainly as men see our clothes.1
Jesus said, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Applications of biblical principles don’t get any clearer than that. However, when we move from that to telling others that they have to put certain filters on their computer, have their wife lock down their iPhone from allowing them access to download apps, etc. we move from the realm of principle to the realm of personal application. Don’t get me wrong. I think that having Covenant Eyes and having someone lock down your iPhone is wise–really, really wise. However, we must be careful not to try to bind the conscience of another regarding how they seek to protect their heart from the sin of adultery.
We are all aware of the way in which Christians seek to bind the consciences of others regarding a personal application of the principle of purity regarding what movies and TV shows they can and cannot watch. While I wholeheartedly believe that there are movies that believers should absolutely refrain from watching, one man may not be able to watch movies with wartime violence in them while another may. Or, as John Frame has so helpfully observed:
Indeed, for similar reasons, we must beware of G-rated films as much as of R- and X-rated films. Yes, let us limit our exposure to all of these influences; but not to the extent of leaving the world, or to the extent of becoming ignorant of Satan’s devices…
That balance, of being “in” but not “of” the world, is sometimes difficult to maintain. One’s choices in this area should be based in part upon his or her own moral and spiritual maturity. Some people, especially children, or those young in the faith, or those with special problems like alcohol addiction or unusual susceptibility to sexual temptation, should limit their exposure to secular culture in appropriate ways. But at the same time they should be trained in Christian maturity, so that eventually they can enter more fully the secular arena, not fearing that they will be compromised by the culture, but expecting to influence the culture positively for Christ.2
Homeschooling. Need I say more? The past decade has given rise to a plethora of marvelous resources for families who chose to homeschool (for which this homeschooling family is grateful)–as well as a plethora of sinful conscience-binding books and conversations. Does God command homeschooling? Absolutely not. Neither Scripture nor history support that idea (no matter how much the homeschool revisionists try to convince you that He does). In Psalm 119:99-100, David speaks of having more understanding that “all his teachers.” Note that the Hebrew doesn’t say, “than all my parents.” Furthermore, the Apostle Paul sat at the feet of Gamaliel. Jesus Himself left his parents and sat in the Temple, listening and asking questions of the Scribes. What the Scriptures do teach is that Christian parents are to be committed to giving their children a consistent and thorough Christian education. That may mean that they have to do the long, hard work of undoing certain things that the children learn in public school; or, it may mean that the parents deem it best to delegate the education of their children to teachers at Christian or private school. Not everyone is equipped to teach in the home. Not every mom is gifted and called to teach a full orbed curriculum, just as not every man in the church is gifted and called to teach the congregation. Seeking to bind others’ consciences with a personal application of the principle in this regard has caused much harm in the church.
The Apostle Paul had much to say about “food legalism” (1 Tim. 4:3; Rom. 14:14; 1 Cor. 8:8, 1 Cor. 10:30, etc.). In what is, perhaps, the clearest summary of what the Scriptures teach on this subject, the Apostle wrote, “Let no one judge you in food or in drink…Why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body,but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:16-23). For a fuller development, see this post.
Many years ago, I was engaged in a week-long intensive post-graduate class in which we had very short lunch breaks built in between class time. Since I didn’t have long, I drove to a fast food restaurant nearby and brought my food back before the next class started. As I sat there eating my lunch, one of the staff members walked by, stopped at my desk, looked at my french fries and said to me, “You shall not kill.” I nearly choked on my food (which ironically would have been paramount to this individual breaking the 6th commandment!). He was seriously insinuating that I was sinning by eating french fries. That is the core of food legalism. Jesus made things abundantly clear when he said, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man” (Mark 15:11). Instead of listening to Jesus, this individual came up with the brilliant eisogetical idea that the 6th commandment forbids the eating of french fries; then, he went around seeking to bind others’ consciences with his own misplaced application of a biblical principle. The 6th commandment teaches that we are not only to cease from taking life but that we are to preserve and promote life. The only thing I knew to do at that moment was to apply the 6th commandment to this situation, letting this individual know that the fries were keeping me alive at that moment!
5. Corporate Worship
When we move into the realm of worship, conscience binding becomes all the more prevalent and serious. Just as the Pharisees made the commandment about the day of worship the centerpiece in their policing of others, so too can serious minded believers with regard to what goes on in the worship service. Those ministers who take the regulative principle of worship (or what they believe the RPW to be) love to judge others for not doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way as their church does in the worship service. In his 2010 Tabletalk article on the RPW, Derek Thomas has helpfully explained that the regulative principle of worship doesn’t mean absolute uniformity in all things done in a worship service. He writes:
The regulative principle as applied to public worship frees the church from acts of impropriety and idiocy — we are not free, for example, to advertise that performing clowns will mime the Bible lesson at next week’s Sunday service. Yet it does not commit the church to a “cookie-cutter,” liturgical sameness. Within an adherence to the principle there is enormous room for variation—in matters that Scripture has not specifically addressed (adiaphora). Thus, the regulative principle as such may not be invoked to determine whether contemporary or traditional songs are employed, whether three verses or three chapters of Scripture are read, whether one long prayer or several short prayers are made, or whether a single cup or individual cups with real wine or grape juice are utilized at the Lord’s Supper. To all of these issues, the principle “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) must be applied.3
This means that we must be very, very careful when seeking to apply the categories of elements and forms to such things as style of worship, specific hymnody, instruments, etc. in a way in which we attempt to bind the consciences of others to do exactly the same as we do in worship. Of course, the principles that establish a biblical model of worship with the elements and forms set out by God are binding on all; however, the unbiblical conscience binding usually comes in through the back door of adiaphora circumstantial aspects of worship (i.e. whether you use acoustic or electric instruments as accompaniment, whether a minister wears a robe or jeans, etc.).
6. Family Worship – Family worship is one of the least practiced graces in the Christian church in our day. It is one of the most important too. My friend Jason Helopoulos has written an incredibly helpful book regarding the practice. That being said, serious proponents of family worship–who are consistent at doing them at every meal, three times a day–sometimes seek to bind the consciences of others with the same personal application of a principle. While the Scriptures charge us to diligently teach our children the word of God, nowhere is family worship “explicitly”* commanded–let alone how often or in what specific ways we should carry out family worship. This is an area, as in all the aforementioned in which we must be careful not to seek to bind the consciences of others with personal practices.
7. Pastoral Ministry – Another sphere in which unbiblical conscience binding often occurs is in the realm of pastoral ministry. I knew a seminary professor who once insisted that students ought to get up at 5:30 AM, put a suit on like all the other men in town going to work and eat breakfast at the restaurant where they all met to eat at in the city prior to work. While he did not say that we needed to do the same, the emphasis that he placed on his own personal example came dangerously close to binding the consciences of the students to whom he spoke. While it may have been good advice, it should not be presented as a binding command.
Additionally, the idea of home visitations may also be a wise personal application of a biblical principle of shepherding the flock; however, the only verse to which ministers–who bind the consciences of others regarding this practice–appeal for support of the idea is in Paul’s farewell discourse to the Ephesian elders in which he suggested that he “taught…publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). This could just be Paul speaking about meeting in the fellowship of believers in different homes since they did not have church buildings in his day and they met in houses. It is a stretch to be dogmatic that this is a binding descriptive passage teaching that all ministers are required to do home visitation.
There are many, many, many other ways in which all of us can fall into the trap of unbiblical conscience binding. The best thing for us to do is to stay in the Scriptures–comparing Scripture with Scripture, and learn to be cautious about pushing our own personal applications of a perceived principle on the consciences of others. We should be zealous to quietly live out, exemplify and teach the principles of holiness that are clearly taught in Scripture. We should follow the advice of our Lord and do our praying, fasting and giving in secret–not wanting to be seen by men. In all that we do we should be exalting the Lord Jesus Christ as the source of any and all holiness, holding up the cross before men so that they might be drawn to Him by faith and seeking to promote the liberty that He has purchased for us in the Gospels. After all, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (WCF 20.2).
1. An excerpt taken from Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Exodus
2. Excerpts from John Frame’s ebook, “Theology at the Movies.”
3. An excerpt taken from Derek Thomas’ July 2010 Tabletalk article, “The Regulative Principle of Worship.”
*Because some read this sentence in the worst possible light and with the least amount of contextual care or charity, I have added the adverbial word “explicitly” for epexegetical clarity.