My bible reading recently reminded me of 1 Corinthians 4:4. The reason why this verse stuck out to me is because there was this guy who will always sprout this verse when people rebuke him. It is also very appealing for anyone to appeal to a “clear” conscience when it comes to rebuke and seemingly wrong perspective and wrong-doings. So I was prompted to reflect a bit on conscience and innocence from 1 Corinthians 4:4:
My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.
But as I was reflecting on how wrong the appeal to this verse sounds, I couldn’t point a finger to why it sounds wrong when people appeal to their conscience, or in fact a “clear” conscience even though their perspective and deeds were so out of place with biblical perspectives. As I think about it, I realised that there are at least three reasons why this is the case.
1. Taking the Verse Out of Context
If one studies the verse a bit closer in context, Paul is not talking about his innocence. This was a situation when the Corinthian church was judging his apostolic ministry. He was defending his stewardship of God’s apostolic ministry. The word “innocent” has been misappropriated here by our modern readers. Paul was really saying that whatever judgement that the Corinthians made, it would be irrelevant in light of his ultimate accountability to God. The fact that he knows of no failure with regard to his trust likewise counts for nothing, since that simply puts it back onto the level of a merely human court. His own “clear” conscience, therefore, does not acquit him before God. In short, he was appealing not to his own conscience, he was appealing to a higher authority than mere human judgment – that of God’s.
2. The Subjectivity of Conscience and Innocence
On top of taking the verse out of context, I also began to realise the subjectiveness of appealing to conscience. It seems as though that appealing to a “clear” conscience stops people from judging us. Note that we have already established that Paul was not appealing to his own conscience. What a lot of people would do, however, is to appeal to their own conscience. They will say that as long as their conscience is clear, they have not done wrong.
I recently read an essay by Joseph Ratzinger on conscience. While I am still digesting what he has said in the essay, the general sense of the essay touches on the subjectivity of conscience as a judge for innocence. If a clear conscience clears the way toward acquittal, then we should acquit the Nazis who have committed atrocities with a clear conscience from human ruling. But that is not the case. We, as human beings, know that there is something intrinsically wrong with this assumption.
Moreover, the Scripture talks about seared conscience. This means that while conscience is the moral voice within us that guides our deeds, it can be seared and it can be damaged to a point that it no longer guides us towards right doing. How then can we fully rely on a “clear” conscience? What happen when two persons did polar opposite things and yet appeal to their “clear” conscience
3. The Rejection of an Christian Community
At the heart of appealing to conscience, I highly suspect that we appeal to conscience because we reject the community that oversees us. Appealing to conscience as an authority is attractive since it tells the community around us that that is the ultimate guideline for what we think and what we do. We are saying that it ultimately overrules what the community really believes, assuming that they believe that what you think and what you do is really off-track.
Granted that a community may not be progressive enough to comprehend new trends and new ways of thinking and doing, especially in this fast changing world, nonetheless, we cannot simply dismiss the judgement of our Christian community. In fact, in the same epistle in 1 Corinthians, Paul said that we are to judge those inside of the Christian community. This means that there is a Christian responsibility for the Christian community to provide moral and spiritual guidance to their members.
So indeed, it does get questionable when someone appeals solely to conscience. What we can do is this: stop it and be open to consider rebuke. Stop appealing to empathy too. People who generally appeal to empathy are those who least empathise with people. At least this is my observation.
So are you appealing to conscience and innocence in your own life? Or did you encounter similar encounters where your disciples appeal to conscience and innocence? Share with me your story in the comments below.