Pastor Steven Kneale of Oldham Bethel Church in the United Kingdom recently shared his thoughts about the binding of consciences.
“A good case in point is when the disciples of John approached the Lord and his disciples and asked why they weren’t fasting. They said that John, and so they too, fasted. Shouldn’t Jesus’ disciples be fasting just like them? Jesus’ answer to them was that his disciples weren’t going to fast while he was with them. In other words, it wasn’t something he demanded. As helpful a practice as John’s disciples found it – and Jesus was okay with them doing it – they shouldn’t be binding everyone else’s conscience when Jesus himself doesn’t.
This is typically how most of these things go in the Christian world. Somebody, somewhere, has a practice that they find helpful or beneficial. What they find helpful soon, in their own mind, becomes something important for everyone. Perhaps what they are doing is even drawn from a wider principle in scripture and is a valid application of it (more on that in a minute). But that soon gets turned, in their own mind, to being the principle application of it. If, they begin to think, it is the principle application, then it is as good as a command from the Lord himself. And that, to all intents and purposes, then gets taught and pressed as though it were a cut and dried command, binding on all people.
The problem is, of course, that Jesus hasn’t said it. Yes, there may be a principle in the Bible of which that is a valid application but the emphasis is squarely on it being an application, not the application. It may be a valid outworking, but it is not the only outworking, nor a binding outworking. Whilst these things may get passed on through generations and work in certain cultures, they are seen to be the problems they really are when they are taught to entirely different cultures in which the outworking suddenly doesn’t make much sense nor is it even possible in practice.
This is where the rule of thumb comes in. The only safe way to ensure that we are not binding everyone’s consciences on matters that Jesus doesn’t is to ask ourselves one simple question: Could every believer, in every place, across all time, people’s and cultures, both now and forever, do this thing?”
You can read his entire remarks on his blog “Building Jerusalem“ here
A great temptation may exist for Sessions to create offenses, but as Kneale has demonstrated, the problem is “Jesus hasn’t said it”.
In our Presbyterian tradition we uphold the Holy Scriptures and believe that the Westminster Confession of Faith is a proper exposition of the Scripture. A Session therefore should never seek to bind the consciences of members of its congregation or otherwise penalize those who may hold differing stances that are not prohibited by Scripture or the Westminster Standards. Simply, such behavior is divisive and improper.
The PCA Book of Church Order (BCO) specifies a clear definition for “offenses” in 29-1:
An offense, the proper object of judicial process, is anything in the doctrines or practice of a Church member professing faith in Christ which is contrary to the Word of God. The Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly, together with the formularies of government, discipline, and worship are accepted by the Presbyterian Church in America as standard expositions of the teachings of Scripture in relation to both faith and practice. Nothing, therefore, ought to be considered by any court as an offense, or admitted as a matter of accusation, which cannot be proved to be such from Scripture.