Monday, August 15, 2005

Liberty, Conscience, and God’s Word

“God Alone is Lord of the Conscience” is used quite often in Presbyterian conversations, especially those which are on the topic of what we are to believe and do. The intent of this phrase is to recognize that there can be differences of opinion, but it was never intended to justify rejection of God’s Word. The seven words “God Alone is Lord of the Conscience” are followed by many others which are almost never quoted:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship” – The Book of Order G-1.0301(a)

This phrase has a long history in the reformed tradition, having originally appeared in the Westminster Confession of 1647 (see below). It was adopted by the first Presbyterian General Assembly in the United States in 1789, and has been a part of our Book of Order ever since, with only one minor change – “any thing” became “anything”. This statement was the first of several in a section of The Book of Order (G-1.0300) titled “The Historic Principles of Church Order.

The clear meaning of the complete statement is that Presbyterians accept that our conscience is subject only to the Word of God, and not to beliefs or practices which are not based on God’s Word. We also recognize that there can be differences of opinion over the meaning and interpretation of Scripture. Since we are fallible humans, we individually and collectively can be wrong, as we now recognize with regard to slavery and our failure in the past to recognize that God calls women as well as men to spiritual leadership. Our denomination is struggling with war, abortion, capital punishment, economic justice, and other issues over which consensus eludes us – yet in so far as these issues are being illuminated by Scripture, we are open to being reformed through the Word. It is our willingness to listen to prophetic voices that allows us to be reformed according to God’s Word.

For your interest, here is an excerpt from the Westminster Confession as it appears in the 2002 version of the Book of Confessions:

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20 (UPCUSA)

Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience

1. The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love, and a willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law; but under the New Testament, the liberty of Christians is further enlarged in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of.

2. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything 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.

3. They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty; which is, that, being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

4. And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness; or such erroneous opinions or practices as, either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the church; they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the Church.


Russell Smith said...

Thanks for some really good thoughtful posts -- your voice is a welcome addition to the Presbyterian corner of the blogosphere!

Soli Deo Gloria!

Anonymous said...

I've also always been puzzled by the general overlooking of the very next section in the Form of Government, which says:
That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of
common right, every Christian Church, or union or association of
particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission
into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and
members, as well as the whole system of its internal government
which Christ hath appointed; that in the exercise of this right theymay, notwithstanding, err, in making the terms of communion
either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, they do not
infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only make an
improper use of their own.

I don't see how "Freedom of conscience relates to ordination standards discussions at all.

Denis Hancock said...

Thanks, Russell, for your comments. I hope I can can make a positive contribution to the blogosphere.

Denis Hancock said...

Anonymous: I see you have read your Book of Order, too. I wish more of us did as well.

It was not my intent to delve into ordination standards, but people who read the principles I outline here can probably infer where I fall on that topic.

Suffice it to say that the historical principles on which the Presbyterian Church governs itself make it clear that ordination is not and entitlement of membership.

Tom Paine said...


Good thoughts. Yet, as we keep these words from our confessions in our minds in today's church atmosphere, I hope that the 'doctrines of men' we get trapped by are neither by those that feel gay ordination and marriage should be the focus of the church right now OR by those who feel that fighting against such movements should be the centerpoint of the church.

There is so much need for the Gospel of Christ and the grace of our Lord in this world. We have been commissioned by Christ to go forth into all the earth baptizing in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How much money and time has been spent in the past ten years on this tedious fight (by both sides) when it could have been been spent clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and spreading God's Word?

The current fight in the denomination is not going to go away. But we must not let it define us.

Let us be defined by Christ alone, follow His call, and worship together, even when we may disagree at times.

You've got a new reader of your Blog! Keep on writing Dennis.

In Chirst,

Chaplain Tom Paine
a PC(USA) Chaplain serving in the USAF

Romans 12:21

Denis Hancock said...

Thank-you, Chaplain Paine, for your comment. A couple of my ideas for future posts are related to comments you raise.

First and foremost I concur with your assessment of how resources have been diverted in an area where consensus is not likely.

As chair of our congregation's Mission Committee, I am esecially sensitive to the needs around us and the dwindling resources which are able to be allocated.

And another topic for a future post relates to my hope that we can all focus on what unites us rather than what divides us.