The title of this post is the exact title of a new little book written by Andrew David Naselli & J. D. Crowley and published by Crossway. This new book is intended for a general Christian (non-academic) audience, addressing an oft-neglected subject: the conscience. Discussions of this topic have been few in recent years, despite the fact that the Greek word for “conscience” (συνείδησις) appears 30 times in the New Testament (20 times in the writings of Paul). The book is short (142 pages without the appendices and indices). Thankfully, it is also clearly written. One can easily imagine a book dealing with the so-called grey areas being less-than-clear. The authors have done a fine job in making a complicated subject easy-to-understand.
Chapters 1 and 2 offer an answer the question: What is the conscience? After laying the groundwork and briefly walking through all 30 uses of the word “conscience” in the New Testament, the authors posit the following definition: “The conscience is your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong” (p. 42). In employing this definition, the authors acknowledge that people who hold to differing moral standards will variously judge certain activities to be acceptable or unacceptable. They also note that conscience can change for the good or the bad. Furthermore, they note that conscience “functions as a guide, monitor, witness, and judge” (43). The authors have landed upon a simple definition that seems to work well both in the relevant biblical texts and in the practical areas of life addressed in the rest of the book.
The remainder of the book addresses key questions about the conscience as lived out in the life of a Christian. What should you do when your conscience condemns you (ch. 3)? How should you calibrate your conscience to match God’s will (ch. 4)? How should you relate to fellow Christians when your consciences disagree (ch. 5)? How should you relate to people in other cultures when your consciences disagree (ch. 6)?
One of the strengths of this book is the apparent past ecclesiastical setting of the authors and the thoughtful way they relate to their backgrounds. They apparently grew up around some very conservative Christians who instructed them to hold to and promote scruples about various activities that the Bible does not directly indicate are good or evil. The authors themselves seem to have moved to a place of greater balance in these areas in which Christians can legitimately disagree. In my opinion, the respective spiritual journeys of the authors have helped them think more deeply about the topic of the conscience than might have been the case if they had not come from such conservative church traditions.
For those thinking about engaging in cross-cultural ministry, this book—and especially chapter 6—will be of significant help to them. I lead a group of young adults in my church who are praying about entering into long-term cross-cultural ministries. I intend to buy a copy of this book for each person in this group so they can start considering issues of conscience in cross-cultural settings. Thinking through how cultural customs impact the conscience probably should be part of the pre-training of everyone wanting to serve the Lord cross-culturally. Since I lived overseas for more than seven years of my adult life, I should say that I would have appreciated reading this book before I went overseas and encountered the multiplicity of situations where I felt my conscience pricked—sometimes legitimately, and sometimes not.
The only thing that might have improved the book would have been a discussion of when a Christian should invoke the principles found in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. I regularly interact with college students who want to expand the grey-area category to include all sorts of activities that probably shouldn’t be labeled as grey. I believe that there are two steps required of a Christian before he can invoke the classic biblical passages that deal with the grey areas. First, before invoking Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8-10, a Christian must inquire about whether particular Bible passages clearly prohibit or require a certain activity. If the answer is “yes,” the believer should proceed no further (apart from obeying what God has instructed him to do or not to do in His Word). Second, before Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8-10 can be utilized, a Christian must ask whether there are any biblical-theological themes that bear upon the activity in question. Drawing out such themes is hard work, but this step must be engaged before principles related to grey areas are invoked. Only after these two steps have been taken should principles such as those found in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 be employed. I’m pretty sure that the authors would agree with what I’ve written in this paragraph, but unless I somehow missed it, I think they failed (at least explicitly) to remind readers of these preliminary steps, despite the importance of working through the ethical decision-making process in this order.
Despite that one critique, I thought this was an excellent book, and I am happy to give it a “two thumbs up.” I hope it is read and used by many Christians.