Biblical silence as an argument for individual conscience

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Romans 14 tells Christians to "stop passing judgment on one another" (v. 13) and speaks of the believer's liberty of conscience in certain matters. In the passage, for example, it mentions those who eat meat, versus those who eat only vegetables, and those who consider every day sacred, while others regard only certain days as sacred. Paul argues, "He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God, and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." He points out that each of us will give an account of ourselves to God, and concludes that therefore we are not to pass judgment on one another.

Now, it's clear when we look at the rest of Scripture that this doesn't mean we aren't to judge anyone at all (for example, many other New Testament passages command believers to make judgments about people in certain situations, or command churches to cast out those engaging in certain kinds of immorality, etc.). So this passage is (I think rightly) understood to speak about what I would call disputable matters -- matters where individual Christians may have different convictions which are rightly left up to the conscience, because they are free to act in either way. Paul gives the only restriction by concluding the chapter with this statement: "Everything that does not come from faith is sin." The idea, then, is that in these cases of disputable matters, as long as people are acting in faith in accordance with their conscience, they are free to do as they see fit (and either eat meat, or not eat meat, to use Paul's example).

But where are the boundaries of these "disputable matters"? Is that, too, left to the believer's conscience? Or is it safe to say that when Scripture teaches something sufficiently clearly (for example, that murder and adultery are wrong) those are beyond dispute? That is, does the clear teaching on those issues mean that Christians can't commit such acts and then claim that they must not be judged on the basis of Romans 14? I'm interested in comments on this.

Assuming that we can agree that Scripture is sufficiently clear about certain behaviors that we can conclude that the behaviors are morally wrong, regardless of what one claims about one's conscience, we need to return to the questions of boundaries. To give a concrete example, I've recently heard a prominent evangelical theologian argue that Scripture is silent on the issue of masturbation, and so it should be left to the individual conscience, and isn't a matter the church should concern itself with. Others have even argued that it is a God-given way of avoiding sexual sin. Tim Challies disagrees rather strenuously, and argues that it is wrong. So how do we know? If Scripture does not speak explicitly to an issue, does that necessarily mean it is a disputable matter to be left to the individual conscience?

I don't intend to answer these questions in this post; rather, I wanted to raise them for discussion and will be happy to update with links to thoughtful posts which attempt to answer them from a Biblical perspective. Either send a trackback to this post or e-mail abednego.azariah - at - gmail.com.

[UPDATE 1: I want to point out, as Jeremy does in the comments, that there are really two issues here. The first is how we determine whether acts that Scripture does not *explicitly* address (this would presumably include those that didn't really exist at the time, like drug abuse) are wrong or not. The second issue is how Romans 14 then teaches we should relate to those who commit, or refrain from committing, such acts. I included the Romans 14 discussion mostly because I think some people try and argue based on Romans 14 that many moral issues ought to be left to the individual conscience, but I don't think this is what Romans 14 is saying at all.]

[UPDATE 2: Here are some links, from trackbacks and comments, which are relevant:

  • Blogotional comments on how unusual a discussion of Christian ethics is, and has some thoughts on the role of the law now. I would add that I've heard people argue that the comment that Jesus has fulfilled the law means that we are no longer under any of the Old Testament laws as a rule of obedience, except (perhaps) those reiterated in the New Testament. While I will agree that they are not how we receive salvation (we receive salvation only based on the work of Jesus Christ), I am convinced that the moral laws given in the Old Testament still apply as a "rule of walking". (Note: This doesn't include all laws in the OT -- for example, Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial system, so I think it's proper to distinguish between ceremonial/sacrificial laws and moral laws).

  • Off The Top has a related series -- focused on masturbation more than on the general issue of how we know what is to be left to individual conscience and what is not. See here, here, and here. Bonnie also points out this essay that argues that there's no problem with it as long as it can be separated from lustful thoughts. Joshua Harris in this book argues that the two can't be separated, and I tend to agree with him.

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With most ethical teachings in the NT, including Romans 14, I tend to think the point is more theological than ethical, relying as much as possible on the ethics of the OT. Read More

When Jesus said, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged,� what was He talking about? He continued, �For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.� (Matt. 7:1-2) Read More

Whew! What a relief! I thought I was going to be Ezra or something else equally un-fun. You are Romans. I can live with Romans. I have my faults and they are strong ones. I am often confused in my Read More

18 Comments

I'm not sure I'd agree that Romans 14 is about things that scripture is silent on. It seems to me to be about something that Paul is quite clear on. We have no obligation to keep a kosher diet, which is the issue of Romans 14. Some people think it would be contrary to faith to eat meat, so it would indeed be wrong for them to do so. Those of us who know better need to be gracious with them and not provoke them to do it if they think it's wrong. That doesn't mean there isn't a clear answer for us.

Now the other issue you raise is exactly not like this. This issue is something not wrong that someone believes to be wrong. You wonder about a case when something is wrong (e.g. adultery) and someone might not understand that. I think Paul would clearly say that such cases are very different. Consider the incest case of I Cor 5. Don't even eat with such a person (provided you've gone through Matt 18's proper order of confrontation and still not seen repentance). The key difference is that it's wrong to do what's wrong, but it's not necessarily wrong to abstain from something that's ok. It's the latter case that Paul is dealing with here.

Given that, is Romans 14 relevant to masturbation? Well, it's relevant if there's nothing wrong in principle with masturbation but some people consider it wrong. It's not relevant if it is wrong in principle but some people consider it not wrong. So I think we're going to have to look somewhere else to answer the question of its wrongness, and if we determine that it's not wrong we can come back to Romans 14 to see how to treat people who think it's wrong.

Jeremy,
You're right about Romans 14 speaking about something Paul is quite clear IS permissible: Eating meat. But people take the principles of Romans 14 and apply them much more broadly -- not just to cases where someone abstains from doing something which is fine (like eating meat) but to cases where someone wants to do something which others are claiming is not fine.

I don't think these people are entirely justifed, for the reasons you're describing. But they could argue, "But if I'm the person who doesn't eat meat, I'm abstaining because I believe it's wrong. Isn't this passage then telling me not to pass judgment on those who believe that eating meat is fine?"

I don't personally see Romans 14 as particularly relevant to masturbation. I only raise the issue because some who I've heard argue that masturbation is something Scripture is silent on invoke this passage as support for the argument that, in view of Scripture's supposed silence, masturbation ought to be left to the individual conscience.

Thanks for the careful thinking. Maybe I'll put an update on the post to make clear the distinction about really two questions...

acts that Scripture does not *explicitly* address (this would presumably include those that didn't really exist at the time, like drug abuse) are wrong or not.

Both the Old Testament and New Testament are replete with condemnations of drunkenness, which would seem to go for recreational drug use too. I would note also that Paul explicitly condemns sorcery and witchcraft. The word translated "sorcery" comes from the Greek word pharmakei from which we get the English words pharmacy and pharmaceutical. In those days, and in that culture, drug use was tied to sorcery. Drugs were prepared as part of a religious rite to induce an altered state of consciousness so the participant could enter into the spiritual world.

Galatians 5:19-21: Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery [which includes drugs use], enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NASB)

I'll comment on the first issue.

[A] "how we determine whether acts that Scripture does not *explicitly* address are wrong or not."

{Side thought: I think that Romans 14 and some other Scriptures here and there refer to amoral acts that weak Xtns mistake for being immoral and strong christians know are amoral...}

I'll take a stab and provide some examples.

Re: [A] - If we do not have explicit statements in Scriptures, regarding an act, then I think that we need to look for other less direct "statements" that will give us an idea of whats wrong. To this we need to fall back onto our theological pictures, and see how the actions fit into our theological schemes.

For example - masturbation.

I could fall back on (1) The Doctrine of the Trinity and (2) some Old Testament stuff

For example: there are several things out there that are an image of the Trinity (the family, marraige, etc.). I would argue that anything that deviates from the Trinitarian picture is ... is well deviant. I call them heresies of sameness(heresies of unity) and heresies of difference(plurality).

For example - polytheism deviates, and so too the monotheism that one finds in Islam.

For example - unbibical divorce on one end deviates, and same sex marriage on the other end deviates.

For example - polygamy deviates, and so too narcissism (masturbation would enter here).

One other theological picture to fall back on - I think that I could also argue against masturbation based on what the Levitical Purity laws symbolised, viz. mans fall, our separation from God, and the state of death and decay we are now in. One of the things that made an Israelite unclean and he had to separate himself from the camp (I believe) was loss of "life" fluid such as semen, blood, menstruation, etc. This = death and decay.

I think that masturbation is symbolic of decay.
See the Ritual Purity Laws section in :
http://www.reformed.org/social/response_to_helminiak_2.html

- Raj Rao

Is masturbation narcissism, though? It doesn't seem to me to be worship of self or thinking of oneself as better than anyone else. The trick is in distinguishing it from other actions that someone can do that they enjoy. If you work in the purpose of sex, you can say a lot more, but it doesn't seem to me that you can do it in terms of narcissism as if the mere fact that you're doing something alone is in violation of the fact that God created people to be in relation with others. We do all sorts of things alone. It has to be tied to the purpose of sex and not just something about aloneness, because aloneness isn't narcissism. I brush my teeth alone. No one does it for me. There's nothing wrong with that. I feed myself, and that's not narcissistic either.

I'm a bit skeptical that you're going to get much out of the Levitical laws. So many of them are taken by Christians to be symbolic of deeper things and simply not meaning anything in their physical details. We don't worry about blood in meat, for instance, and we don't worry about touching menstruating women. We don't even know which ones are menstruating or even eating food they have prepared.

With the purpose of sex issue, I think that has more potential, but I'm not going to try to explore that at midnight. Maybe I'll have something to say tomorrow, and maybe someone will offer a particular argument to engage with before I get the chance (which would be ideal for me). I think the key would be to establish that it's impossible to masturbate in a way consistent with the purpose of sex. If that can be done, then you've got an argument. Showing that most cases of masturbation are inconsistent with the purpose of sex won't do it. I'm not confident such an argument can be mustered. Any that I've seen rely on particular features of the psychology of the person writing it, which may not be true of others. Part of the problem is going to be what the purpose of sex is to begin with, and I know there's a lot of debate over that. I have a view on that, but I haven't thought as carefully about its application to this issue, though I have some thoughts about how it would go.

Whole-heartedly agree with your view on Romans 14 in light of other scriptures. I think a helpful analogy here is fasting. When a person fasts, they are choosing to not eat food for God. Are they then to judge others who eat? No. Do those who eat food, judge those who aren't? No. Rather they congratulate them for their faith and commitment. Granted fasting is a limited time affair. I think it is still helpful.


Well... back tracking a bit... I was just using masturbation(mb) as an example of how when scripture does not explicitly give instructions regarding a matter, - of how we can fall back to our theological doctrinal schemas for further guidance. That was my attempt to answer the first issue.

But getting back to MB, no - I did not mean to equate that with narcissism. Sorry - poor typeng and grummar on my part. However I did mean to suggest that we Christians do have an idea of what the Trinity is, and what some of its images are. These images of the Trinity are indeed purposeful atleast in that they give us a "darkened glass" picture of a reality up above. Based on what we know about these we can also know what is not an distorted image of the Trinity.

These distorted images of the Trinity however serve either no purpose or serve sinful purposes. What is the telos of MB ? It could be self -gratification or acting on lust, or some other bad, etc. Or it could be relief - I dont think that this is the way to go. It could be without purpose perhaps in the case of some chump out there - a habit perhaps.

I would say that we Xtns have to image the Trinity in our lives, and MB (for whatever reason) does not do that. I need to think all this through even more.

Will come back to the Levitical laws.

Raj -
Spring Valley, PA

Matt,

I hadn't heard the sorcery argument before. On that particular issue, I would have gone the route of arguing that it is *implictly* forbidden in several different ways. First, based on Romans 13, illegal drug use is immoral since it is rebellion against the civil authorities, and everyone must submit to the government God has established as far as the particular laws are not contrary to Scripture. Second, even if it weren't illegal (or for those drugs that aren't illegal), Paul says that he won't be a slave to anything, or be mastered by anything -- suggesting that addictive behaviors should be avoided. And maybe you're touching on this with the drunkenness reference -- God wants us to be filled with the Spirit, not with various substances which profoundly affect our emotional life (this is Paul's reasoning when he prohibits drunkenness). So I think the principle applies equally well to much drug use.

Raj,
It's not clear to me how the Trinitarian aspect necessarily means masturbation is wrong but various other solo acts are OK. (For example, if someone goes running by himself, we don't say that it's a violation of the idea of the Trinity and therefore wrong). I do agree it's wrong, and I think I can give an argument why, but first I wanted to see how other people would respond. And I agree with Jeremy that levitical laws may not be the way to go -- many are, I think, civil laws for OT Israel which are no longer applicable today. This certainly doesn't include moral laws like the 10 commandments, but it explains why we (as Peter discovered) in the New Testament age can eat meats previously considered "unclean".

Jeremy, you said,
"I think the key would be to establish that it's impossible to masturbate in a way consistent with the purpose of sex."

I have attempted to do this in a series of posts (not originally planned as a series; after I posted the first one, I made subsequent discoveries and responded to them as well as to feedback to the first post):

the first post - http://takeanumberplease.blogspot.com/2005/08/sex-and-solitary-person.html

a follow-up - http://takeanumberplease.blogspot.com/2005/09/solitary-sex-follow-up.html

the first of a three-part response to a Christian who defends a limited practice of masturbation and who refers to Romans 14 - http://takeanumberplease.blogspot.com/2005/09/other-christians-on-autoerotism-part.html

I would be interested in your response to these posts.

Oh - you ask whether masturbation is narcissism. I would ask, how would it not be? Narcissism is love turned toward the self that ought to be turned to others. Can it be shown that God purposes for a person to gratify him/herself sexually via his/her own self, by his/herself?

I saw your series before Abednego posted this, and I'd been meaning to get back to it. I haven't had a chance to read it carefully yet, but I intend to.

As for narcissism, I just don't think it could be unless it would be sexual desire for one's own body. Narcissim is loving yourself, and if we're talking sexual love it would be sexual desire for your own body, as in being sexually attracted by your own body. I have trouble thinking of mere self-stimulation as falling under that description.

I'm more concerned about the general implications here than some of the specifics being discussed.

I think one thing to keep in mind is that while every scripture passage says SOMETHING to us, no passage says EVERYTHING about any topic. I've been memorizing Romans 12-15 with a group of guys, so this topic has been on my mind quite a lot lately. At the very least eveyone should read the rest of Romans for some good context for the remarks Paul was making, particularly in regard to the relationship between Jew and Gentile.

That said, I think the passage I would like to see held closely against Romans 14ff is Matthew 18 on forgiveness. The reason for this is not because the truths here are especially difficult to apprehend, but because of a particular tendency in our culture which was foreign to the folks in the 1st century. I'm referring to the "live and let live" idea which get worked out in our lives as a sort of truce of mutually assured ignorance. As long as you are willing to ignore my behavior, I will ignore yours.

In Matthew 18 Jesus commands us to go to a brother with who we have a problem and speak directly with him about it. This is a very difficult thing for most americans to do, and in our refusal we might rely (wrongly) on something like Romans 14 and say that we just aren't willing to judge.

The more positive way to state this, IMO, is as Romans 15:2 does: Each of us is to please his neighbor, for his good, to his edification. That is to say, all of our interactions with our neighbor should be done with the intention of building up. This would, of course, include following the instruction of Matt 18.

I cannot highly enough recommend reading J H Yoder's essay on forgiveness, "Practicing the Rule of Christ." Unfortunately it is not widely available. If you are diligent, you may be able to find it in a good libary in the the volume Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition, ed. Murphy, Nation and Kallenberg.

Just to relate what I said a bit more to the discussion which has been ongoing, I would argue that Paul is not adressing, here (or perhaps anywhere??) a methodology for determining what acts are right/wrong/permissible, etc. Neither does he assume any particular "wrongness" about those who practice any of the positions he mentions. He is, rather, describing how christians with divergent opinions and behaviors should/can live together peacefully.

I'll also note that in Romans 15 Paul does express great confidence in the Roman christians to deal with these issues themselves, stating that they are "fully able to admonish each other."

So, to tie this together a bit, Paul is not adressing ethical issues the way we typically do (what things are permissible and what things are not), but describing what a christian community should look like.

My understanding of Romans 14 includes the historical picture of Roman life during this time period. Roman religious practices included animal sacrifices to pagan gods. The meat from these sacrifices was sold in the marketplace for food along with meat from animals not used in sacrifice and who could tell the difference? The conflict Paul addresses in Chapter 14 is one within the early Roman chuch in which one side argued that, because it was impossible to discern which meat had been defiled by having been sacrificed in pagan worship, it was safer to abstain from eating all meat. The other side of the arguement was that a non-existant god has no power and can not defile anything, including meat. This is a separate issue from Levitial dietary law in which God does specify which types of meat/which animals are acceptable for human consumption.

Regarding how Romans 14 applies to other issues, I believe it's summed up in verse 1: "Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters." Paul goes on to define those weak in the faith as the ones who decided the meat should not be eaten. Were they the legalists? Worried more about other people's behavior than in their own spiritual growth in Christ? Were they so focused on this issue that their own faith in God's sovereignty was compromised?

That Paul acknowledges that there are matters that are disputable (plural) tells me that he is using the issue at hand as an example to speak to other issues that may have arisen and were certain to arise in the future.

I'll forgo comment on the side-line topics that have come up in this discussion. I appreciate the viewpoints presented thus far.

The parallel passage in I Corinthians 8-10 is about meat sacrificed to idols. Romans 14-15 is about Jewish ceremonial laws. It includes both keeping Sabbaths and other Jewish special days and keeping kosher (which involved not eating any meat if it wasn't drained properly, which is why it says meat period and not certain kinds of meat; in the Roman context, they wouldn't be able to buy meat on the street but would have had to have Jews kill it themselves, both so it would be killed properly and so it would not be touched by those who had touched unclean food). I Cor 8-10, on the other hand, is explicitly about the fact that some of the meat bought on the streets was sacrificed to idols. These are separate passages dealing with separate issues.

In the I Cor parallel, Paul offers a little bit more on the issue of how to tell what's right and wrong. In particular, he argues that there is nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols, because idols don't exist except as pieces of wood or stone, but participating in worship of idols is immoral, even if purchasing food that may have been used in such worship and then eating it is perfectly fine. He then speaks of the strong and the weak in much the same way as he does of those who insist on Jewish ceremonial law and those who know you don't need that.

The particularly distinctive thing about the I Cor passage is his focus not on what's permissible vs. what's not but on what's beneficial vs. what's enslaving. I think that is indeed the sort of principle that counts as figuring out how to answer ethical questions in the light of NT teaching.

Both passages are primarily about how someone who understands things more maturely should treat people who have more stringent demands and about how those with the more stringent demands should treat those who aren't as tied to unnecessary rules. What's most interesting to me about it is that we'd be inclined to call the more stringent person the one with a stronger conscience, and the one with looser standards the weaker one. Paul reverses it, which shows that he doesn't think these stronger standards are legitimate at all. The person holding them is weak in following unncessary rules that we are free not to follow. That's probably a deliberate reversal because the people in question thought of themselves as having a stronger conscience.

I think that's exactly right, Jeremy. I've been noticing some of the purity language Paul uses in the passage, reminiscent of levitical law. Most intriguing, to me at least, is 15:16 where Paul refers to his own evangelistic work in priestly terms, suggesting that the lives of the Roman christians are the offering he is presenting to God.

It seems he is concerned with their purity/acceptability before God, this going back to 12:1-2, but he seems to define acceptable behavior as that which is characterized by love and peace rather than full and strict adherence to the Torah.

Paul,

I would agree that in Romans 14 Paul is addressing what a Christian community should look like in terms of their relations to one another on those issues which they may legitimately disagree about. To give an example of where I think it might apply, there are people in my church who choose not to watch TV (I ordinarily don't watch TV myself). But I think TV is perfectly permissible (to use Jeremy's distinction) within certain bounds (i.e. the content, how much one watches it, etc.). I just don't think it's beneficial for me to watch it, and I prefer to use my time in a lot of other ways. I see Romans 14 applying, though, because it means that I shouldn't think that others shouldn't watch TV, nor should I think I'm better because I don't. I'm rather like the people who abstain from eating meat: I personally choose to abstain from something which I could legitimately do, for various reasons, but I can't look down on those who do so, because I don't see any clear Biblical reason to think that it's absolutely wrong for anyone to watch TV.

There's also Levitical language for everyday Christian living in Romans 12.

Hi Jeremy, thanks for your response.

I’d like to reply but I know the topic of narcissism is tangential to the post. Hope it’s OK to go ahead with it here; further dialogue can take place at my blog.

I understand how you are viewing narcissism in relation to masturbation. Here's how I see it: Sexual attraction and being “in love��? are certainly components of sexual desire, but there are others as well. Sexual desire is, simply, a desire for sex. What, then, is the motive for masturbation if not sexual desire of some sort? To give/receive pleasure to/from oneself via one’s own sex organs involves this desire intrinsically, regardless of rationale.

I see this as narcissistic in that narcissism is inordinate self-love, i.e., an adoration of the self that gratifies the self, an inordinate pursuit of one’s own interests. One makes oneself the object of one’s own sexuality when one engages in sexual self-gratification. Lest you consider “adoration��? to be hyperbolic, think of how sex with a spouse bestows honor and adoration upon the spouse. By the very act of bestowing this upon oneself, however, one manifests a narcissistic love of self. I am saying that this is the case regardless of the rationale involved, because sex is not a mere physical function (even if one treats it as such.)

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