Presbyterian Principles: God alone is Lord of the conscience
Sunday, April 30, 2023
The Rev. Dr. Tim Hart-Andersen
1 Corinthians 10:23-32
Corinth in the first century was a busy commercial hub, a cultural crossroads, a Roman city, part of the empire, teeming with travelers, immigrants, sailors, outcasts, merchants, soldiers, impoverished people, wealthy citizens, free and enslaved persons, Greek-speakers, Latin speakers, Jews, practitioners of a wide variety of religions.
Archaeologists have found there more than two dozen temples and shrines to a veritable smorgasbord of gods of the time. One early traveler reported that right next to the Roman Forum in Corinth was a “temple for all the gods.” (J. Paul Sampley, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X [Knoxville: Abingdon Press, 2002], p. 773-774)
Corinth, like our city and our nation today, was trying to live peacefully within the pluralism of the time – but there’s always potential for trouble when people of different religious traditions live together. Don’t we know that.
The fires in two mosques in south Minneapolis this past week – one of which was in the former Oliver Presbyterian Church building on Bloomington Avenue – are the latest examples of attacks on houses of worship in this city. During Passover Temple Israel was targeted by vandals who spraypainted anti-Semitic slurs on the building. A third mosque was hit by vandalism two weeks ago.
We denounce these assaults and stand in solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors. An attack on one faith community is an attack on all faith communities.
We don’t know if that level of conflict was present in first-century Corinth, but from the Apostle Paul’s letters and other sources we do know the people in that ancient city struggled to live peacefully in a religiously plural society.
Paul walked into those challenges when he arrived in Corinth around the year 50 CE. He was newly converted from Judaism to the Way of Jesus and sensed a call to establish new churches among the Gentiles of the eastern Mediterranean. He was coming from Thessalonica and Philippi where he had already planted churches. Paul spent a couple years in Corinth and then left when things weren’t going well for him.
We’ve just listened to an excerpt from a letter Paul wrote to the church he had established in Corinth. Given their religiously diverse context, they were working hard to find their way. They were worried by some basic issues – especially, it turns out, about what to eat. Most of the meat in Corinthian markets had been sacrificed to idols, and the new Christians feared if they ate it, they would be violating rules of their faith and running afoul of the believing community.
They were struggling with temptation, after all, they wanted to eat, and with conscience – they thought it was forbidden. Paul assures the Corinthians. “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience,” he says.
“If an unbeliever invites you to a meal, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I mean the other’s conscience, not your own.” (I Corinthians 10:25, 27-29a)
Paul is trying to walk a fine line here, to find balance between sticking to one’s own religious beliefs and living in a world where many do not share the same convictions. He shows, frankly, a surprising degree of flexibility here. Good for Paul! At a point earlier in the letter in another passage about eating, he tells the Corinthians that if his eating meat were to cause a someone to stumble, he would become vegetarian. He was that serious about accommodating those of other traditions.
Paul listens well. He adapts his response to the situation with grace, rather than falling back on religious regulations. He’s trying to model his life after the life of Jesus, who showed no partiality.
“So, whether you eat or drink,” he says, “Or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.”
Paul uses the Corinthian conundrum as more than a lesson in eating responsibly. For him it’s a metaphor for how to live peaceably with our neighbors. Where do we draw the line in our behavior toward others? How do we make moral decisions that affect more than only ourselves? How can I live with my own convictions and let others live with theirs – and stay in community with them?
Long ago Presbyterians recognized this very challenge, the challenge of respecting freedom of conscience in a complex, pluralistic world. In 1788 we adopted a set of defining principles of church order that became the foundational building blocks of life in the Presbyterian Church in this land. Westminster was established in Minneapolis only 70 years after their adoption. From the beginning through today, our congregation’s ministers and lay leaders have been guided by these tenets of life in the church – our ecclesiology: how we will be and do church. (In 1788 the Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia adopted these principles, now in the PCUSA Book of Order: F-3.01)
At issue for the Presbyterians, not unlike the Corinthians, was how to allow freedom for believers within the bounds of the faith of the Church. The principles – now nearly 235 years old – have stood the test of time. Today, especially in a period of deep division, distrust, animosity, suspicion of those outside our circles, and embrace of prevarication, principles such as these are important reminders that our faith gives rise to certain concrete values. Those values guide us in our life together, both in the church and in the world.
Over the next three Sundays we will explore three of what our denomination’s constitution calls “The Historic Principles of Church Order.” Today we look at the first: God alone is Lord of the conscience. (Book of Order, F-3.01)
Those words did not originate with American Presbyterians in the late 18th century. They were borrowed from the Westminster Confession, written by Scottish theologians, and adopted by Presbyterians from Scotland meeting in Westminster Abbey in 1640. Our church’s name honors that history.
This first foundational principle is embedded in a longer sentence:
“That God alone is Lord of the conscience and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of (people) which are in anything contrary to God’s Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”
Presbyterians have always sought to balance the binding of conscience by the Word of God with individual responsibility when it comes to faith:
“Therefore,” the church’s constitution declares, “We consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable.”
That’s a lot of fancy 17th century wording that means, simply: No one can tell another person what to believe. Each of us has the right – indeed, the responsibility – to decide for ourselves. Presbyterians recognize that at the heart of Christian faith is not a set of rules imposed from some authority beyond us. Frankly, it might a little easier to follow Jesus if what that means were spelled out in a list that we could simply check off, but that’s not how we do our Christianity.
Christian faith is not a set of rules imposed from some authority beyond us, but a relationship each of us has with God in Jesus Christ and with our neighbor. Relationships are living, dynamic realities; religion based on fixed rules depletes faith of its life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. Faith is a living, breathing relationship, not a set of fixed declarations we must obey. Think of our own personal connections and our life in community – the healthiest ones are based on relationships, not rules.
Paul could have said that under no circumstances should food sacrificed to idols be considered off limits because avoiding such food would give credence to idol worship. But instead, the Apostle shows how a Christ-like ethic works: if the food in question is considered holy by a person of another religious tradition, don’t eat it out of respect for that person’s conscience, setting aside your own conscience.
Paul is reminding the Corinthians that the goal of Christian living is to honor God and neighbor. It’s as if he were saying,
God alone is Lord of the conscience and hath left it free from the commandments of people which are in anything contrary to God’s Word.
All theology in our tradition begins and ends with the sovereignty of God, but the sovereignty of God has eroded over time. Today it has been supplanted by the sovereignty of self. The 16th century Westminster divines had no intention of displacing the Lordship of God with a freewheeling Christianity tethered to nothing other than the whims of one’s own heart or mind.
Much of what seeks to pass for Christianity today is little more than self-driven ambition seeking power or privilege or prosperity, or anger propelled by fear that sees the other as someone to condemn and exclude, with a cloak of religiosity draped over it.
The lofty right of private judgement in matters of faith has been perverted in our time. It has descended into a maelstrom of assertions bearing little resemblance to the Word of God found in scripture and proclaimed in the words of Jesus preached by the Church. One cannot genuinely hold to the love of God and at the same time violate the image of God in other human beings by cruelty or injustice or contempt or gunfire. One cannot claim to follow Jesus and ignore how he lived and what he taught and whom he healed.
The exercise of individual religious liberty takes place within certain responsibilities. The foundational principle here is that God alone is Lord of the conscience. The competing claim rampant in our time is that self alone is the lord of conscience.
If we affirm that God is sovereign over all of life, we cannot simultaneously put ourselves at the center and shove God aside and push neighbor away, no matter how different they are or how much we fear them or how thoroughly we reject their politics. Paul’s experience in Corinth taught him that God’s image is present in every person, and, therefore, every person is deserving of respect and dignity and the fullness of their own humanity, their God-given humanity.
The Apostle can sometimes come off as narrow-minded or exclusive – especially toward women – but in Corinth, in this letter we read today, he shows a full grasp of God’s radical intention in Jesus Christ: to make love the essence of our lives, so that what we do or say – everything we do or say – is always considered by its impact on others and on the Other.
“Our own good,” one author says, “Is inextricably tied up with the good of all others.” (J. Paul Sampley, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X [Knoxville: Abingdon Press, 2002], p. p22)
Ethics, morality, conscience – they’re all worked out in community, not in isolation.
Our world is desperate for a new way of life together. To proclaim that God alone is Lord of the conscience, as we do, is to declare that love alone is Lord of the conscience.
Love leads the way. It takes us to a theology of grace and hope. And that theology compels us to join people of other faith traditions and people of goodwill to work toward a culture of kindness and generosity, a politics of humility and compassion, a social order that is fair and just.
As those who follow Jesus, that is our work, and it begins anew every day.
Thanks be to God.