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A number of people have asked me if my conscience troubles me with the thought of opposing a Trump presidency by checking Clinton in November if it comes to that. In yesterday’s post I offered a brief and simple reply of “Yes.” But I also went on to say that a spotlessly clear conscience may not be open to Christians of conviction if we seriously think we face two “evil” outcomes. Part of what “choosing the lesser of two evils” necessary involves is a conflict of conscience.

As I’ve been asked this question it’s seemed to me that many people think their conscience is the final arbiter of what’s right and wrong. They’ve suggested an implicit trust in their conscience, that internal witness to right and wrong that God has placed in every human heart. But we ought to be careful of implicitly trusting our conscience because the conscience can be weak, defiled, uninformed, overly sensitive, dull or even cut. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in our spiritual lives for our consciences to function properly.

To be clear, no one is arguing that anyone should "vote against their conscience." What I’m suggesting here is that we have to have a biblical view of the conscience, inform it by the Bible, before we can act in ways that properly satisfy it.

In that spirit, here are ten summary statements about the conscience from the Bible:

1. We should seek to live in good conscience before God all of our lives (Acts 23:1; 2 Cor. 1:12; 2 Tim. 1:3);
2. We should seek to live with a clear conscience before men (Acts 24:16; 2 Cor. 4:2; 1 Pet. 3:16);
3. Our conscience bears witness for/against us (Rom. 2:15; 9:1);
4. We should submit to government as a matter of conscience (Rom. 13:5);
5. But the conscience can be weak, defiled, and even seared (1 Cor. 8:7, 10, 12; 1 Tim. 4:12; Titus 1:5);
6. We have a responsibility to consider the consciences of others in matters of worship (1 Cor. 10:27-29);
7. God's word is meant to produce in us godly love that comes, in part, from a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:5);
8. One part of our spiritual warfare and faithfulness is defined by keeping a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:19);
9. The conscience is not perfected by religious acts of worship like sacrifices (Heb. 9:9) but only by the blood of Christ (Heb. 9:14; 10:22; 1 Pet. 3:21);
10. Christians should pray for one another, that our acts lead to a clean conscience (Heb. 13:18).

What is evident in all of this is that the conscience should be a guide, an alarm system of sorts, but shouldn't be trusted as the final arbiter. The word of God has that place because the conscience needs to be instructed, informed and sometimes reformed. So, in the context of clear and present evil, it's not enough to simply say, "My conscience won't let me." We actually have to ask our conscience some questions about the whole counsel of God in our situation. We may still end up saying, "My conscience won't let me based upon the word of God," but that's a better position than an implicit trust in one's conscience-which can be wrong and often is for many.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.” Ghandhi was wrong. There is the court of heaven whose laws are written in the scripture. There’s no higher court than God’s; it supersedes the conscience. If we trust our conscience without inspecting it by the light of God’s word, then we’re closer to Gandhi in our view of the conscience than we are the Lord Jesus.

So those asking questions of conscience have a correct concern. We all just need to keep pressing into the scripture for the answers rather than the conscience alone.


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14 thoughts on “A Quick Word on the Conscience and Christian Witness”

  1. MarieP says:

    Brother, the issue for me is that I don’t see anything in Scripture telling me I need to vote in a particular election or vote for someone who is likely to win. It sounds like you believe our conscience is bound in that area, is that correct?

    1. MarieP says:

      I agree with R. C. Sproul

      “But here is what I’m going to tell you to do when you vote. As a Christian you have obligations opposed upon your conscience that in some sense other people don’t have, although they should have. And the first thing is this: You have to understand what a vote is. The word vote comes from the Latin votum, which means ‘will’ or choice. And when you go to the ballot box and you vote, you are not there to vote for what’s going to benefit you necessarily. Your vote is not a license to impose your selfish desires upon the rest of the country. You only have the right to vote for what is right. And not only do you have the right to vote for what is right, but when you vote you have the duty to vote for what is right.”

      1. MarieP says:

        I really appreciate your statement in the previous post that “I’ve argued on principled grounds that I could not vote for anyone in the last couple of presidential elections because I found their moral positions on vital issues unconscionable.” I actually wish I had thought through that more and voted for somebody other than whom I did…

      2. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

        Taking Dr. Sproul’s comment to its logical end, since no candidate is Jesus and all hold some position repugnant to scripture, means no Christian should vote. That, then, binds the conscience in the opposite direction without any biblical warrant. The truth, I think, is in the middle somewhere. If we choose to vote, we should do some so with a fair amount of discernment and care, knowing that not until Christ returns (where there is no voting–hallelujah!) will there be any leader whose “platform” is perfect.

    2. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      No. That is not correct. I haven’t voted or felt bound to vote in the last several elections. If you were reading this blog four years ago you’d read a lot about not voting. So, I respect and have held the position for some time. I’m simply saying, that for me, this election is different.

  2. Michael says:

    Still sounds to me like you are trying to convince yourself of something you aren’t convinced of yourself. Good luck with that

  3. don sands says:

    Good word for me brother. I needed this. I have been saying to others: “I can not vote for “the Donald” and leave my conscience in the parking lot.” But I need to think a little deeper than this. God put David as His King. Even Solomon. I suppose Hezekiah was the best King; though David is called the “man after God’s own heart.” Thanks again. I shall pray and read the Word, and seek God’s Spirit and truth in this up coming time of voting; and sharing my thoughts with others about voting.

    1. Mary Elizabeth Palshan says:

      Don Sands: Your friends at Pyromaniacs would disagree with you; they would NEVER vote for Hillary. A vote for Hillary is a vote for abortion.

  4. No vote is a vote for Hillary. I had rather take my chances with Donald Trump, who in any case is a better choice than she or Obama, A third party vote will also hand it to Hillary. My conscience won’t let me sit this one out and not vote against some one who is the antithesis of everything the Bible tells us is good., I urge Christians to vote for the platform of the Republican Party. Whoever is the nominee! I believe Donald’s heart is in the right place. How refreshing it will be to have a president who loves America.

  5. Susanna says:

    Thank you, Pastor Thabiti, for writing these blog posts– even knowing about the pushback you will receive! Thank you for your leadership in helping us think through what to do in November.

  6. Noel Lysen says:

    Let me start by saying that I am part of a diverse family that has differing ideas on the role of Christianity in politics. My brother is half-black, and he is somewhat liberal-to-moderate in his views. My sister is white, and a PhD theology student at Baylor who holds sort of an apolitical perspective (though I know she abhors Trump). I am white, and have held a conservative viewpoint, which has evolved into fiscal libertarianism, and later a more apolitical view as I have allowed the Lord to take ownership of my life.

    I saw you speak briefly on a YouTube video taken from a conference with Al Mohler and Francis Chan, and I wanted to seek out your viewpoints more in depth. I am sort of seeking a Godly voice for my brother as I fear he has put trust in men such as T.D. Jakes and Benny Hinn. After researching these so-called Christian leaders, I have found them to be false brothers along with Osteen and the rest.

    Back to the subject at hand. I appreciate your careful attention to a dangerously divisive topic. I hope you will forgive the lack of brevity, but I have a couple questions for you in response to your posting here:

    1) Why would you feel strongly enough to vote in this election while having abstained in elections past? What made you decide to alter your viewpoint from this that you espoused previously:

    “It seems to me that if we really believe the system is broken but we vote anyway, we simply nullify our contention that the system is broken. Now, we may not believe it’s ‘that broken,’ and so we vote. Praise God. I support you if you feel that way. But if you think the farce of national democratic elections has reached an almost irretrievable state of disrepair, corrupted by big money on both sides and fundamentally manipulative and insincere in its presentation of candidates, then to vote could only end in one outcome no matter who is elected–the further entrenchment of the brokenness we decry.”

    2) What makes you believe Hillary Clinton is the more tenable candidate when she is ardently pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and anti-death penalty? Here is one recent quote of hers:

    “Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth, and laws don’t count for much if they’re not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice — not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will. And deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed.”

    You also previously made a statement alluding to the right-wing dominance of the modern Christian church:

    “Truthfully, the god of ‘God and Country’ is not the God of Galatians and Romans, but a culturally created deity. Many Christians collectively have fallen under the spell of ‘saving America’ and the Republican Party Policy is often seen as Doctrine.”

    I wonder, if you were to simply compare each party’s platforms, would you notice a delineation that might be cause for such polarity among evangelicals? After all, one party supports the redefinition of the sexes, redefinition of marriage, and the redefinition of life opposed to the way it was defined in the Holy Bible. One party continually attempts to take God out of the classroom and to further subvert the accepted paradigms of morality this country was founded upon; and it’s not the Republican Party.

    I agree with you that Trump is a waffler and a show-man, and any of his claims made on the campaign trail should be considered dubious at best. However, I want to know how, and why, you think Mrs. Clinton would be a better representative of Christian values considering her allegiance with a party that stands to diminish God in American society?

  7. Wyatt Finn says:

    Pastor, i believe firmly that you make a false dichotomy to say that to vote with firm Christian principles would mean you HAVE to vote for Jesus.
    Look at the qualifications for eldership that Paul gives. We both know You don’t fit that perfectly but You are a Godly man and worthy of the title elder.

    I would like to understand why you don’t think it’s a requirement for a president to be a Godly man. Ex18:21, ps2:10.
    As Christians we vote for men to rule others. To rule a nation. This is a position of representative headship. As we well know, God takes this VERY seriously……
    And all through the Bible nations are judged for the actions of a leader. And please don’t tell me this is how God worked in the Old Testament because we both know that this was never abrogated in any way. At least not biblically abrogated. Maybe in some artificial modern 2 kingdom construct, but not by scripture. Psalm 2 obligates rulers to repent.
    Why aren’t you using your platform to call these candidates to repent before God lest they bring further judgment on themselves and on this nation.

    The basis of Christian morality is the law of God. There is no nuetrality in the Christian life.

  8. Andrew Smith says:

    Hi Thabiti,
    Thanks so much for this post and the other related ones. I appreciate your courage in articulating an unpopular but important message. Your posts about racial issues have also been helpful to me. Please keep up the good work. Also, I’ve only skimmed it myself, but I’m told that David Van Drunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms presents a particularly thoughtful approach to the relationship of Christianity and politics. As far as I understand his argument, it seems compatible with the sort of reasoning you are presenting here. Perhaps you would find it encouraging and helpful. Praying that God would bless and protect you.

  9. Mary Elizabeth Palshan says:

    There has always been ONE definitive reason why I have never, and will never, vote for a Democrat, and that is abortion. Murder does not fit the picture of who we are as Christians. To vote for murder is to dishonor God completely. I am so disappointed in you, Thabiti. I think Phil Johnson is correct in his assessment—Mission Drift.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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