I recently received a lovely pair of earrings that may or may not depict the deities of an ancient civilisation (I’m not familiar enough with the culture to know). As a believer in Jesus Christ, is it wrong for me to wear the jewellery?
The closest biblical injunction that comes to mind is the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-6). With immense gratitude to the Holy Spirit, I can say that of my countless sinful tendencies, worshipping graven images isn’t one of them. But that doesn’t do anything about the uneasiness I feel about wearing the earrings. Which leads me to the New Testament’s teaching on conscience.
I was greatly helped by a talk given by Kevin DeYoung titled “Holiness” at this year’s Next conference. Here’s an excerpt of what he had to say about a weak conscience in reference to 1 Corinthians 8:7-13:
A weak conscience is one that accuses you of things that aren’t inherently blameworthy. So in this case, Paul says, “Look, idols are nothing. They are no gods whatsoever. So eat the food. The food is not really offered to any sort of deity because they don’t exist.” And then he says, “Some will not have knowledge and some will eat this food and their conscience will tell them ‘this is wrong.’” Now it is not strictly inherently wrong but Paul says very clearly throughout his letters that if it is wrong to you then you should not do it. The conscience is weak.
Here’s how a stumbling block works: the person with the weak conscience—let’s just use the category that seems to fit most clearly in our context, the category of alcohol. Drinking alcohol in moderation when you are of legal age is not a sin. But perhaps, some of us grew up with this understanding or because we hear about the dangers—rightly so—of drunkenness, that alcohol feels very wicked to us. God would say, “If it feels wicked to you, you should not do it.”
But here’s what happens with a stumbling block, you have this Christian over here—they’re 25, they drink in moderation, they do it once in a while and they are pressing in on this brother with a weak conscience saying, “Come on. Are you a fundamentalist? Are you a legalist? Come on, just have a drink, it’s not a big deal. You have freedom in Christ!” and what are you training this person with the weak conscience to do? You are training him to ignore his conscience. That is the stumbling block. So then you are training this person that, though I feel in my heart this is wrong, I should suppress that feeling and do it anyway. That’s why Paul says you will lead the brother to destruction. You and I do not want to do anything that will ever encourage our brothers and sisters to violate their conscience. […] It is a dangerous thing to push people to act against their conscience.
Right. Now that I have the problem figured out, what’s the solution? DeYoung again:
- Turn from sin when your conscience tells you that what you’re about to do or what you’re in the middle of doing is wrong.
- Turn to Christ when your conscience tells you what you’ve already done is wrong.
The regular state of a Christian should be that of a clean conscience. If that is not the case, then your conscience is not working as it should, or you’re not dealing with sin as you ought (1 Corinthians 4:4).
So, I’ll keep the earrings. It may turn out that the figures aren’t idols after all. Or the Holy Spirit may work on my heart that it doesn’t bother me. Or I may choose not to exercise my freedom for the sake of a brother or sister in Christ. Or something else entirely, I don’t know. What I won’t do is ignore my God-given conscience.