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Something that takes a lot of wisdom and discernment, both on the part of leaders and on the part of disciples, is sorting out the validity of certain "conscience" issues. As a community, we at least give lip service to the right (and responsibility) of individual members to follow their conscience on moral issues, even if their conscience leads them to act contrary to group expectations. However, when a follower dissents from some activity or situation on the basis of his or her 'conscience', there is often a nagging doubt in the minds of leaders that it is somehow being used to cover up a deeper problem.

I'll start with a problem that comes up quite often. New disciples (especially those with either a Pentecostal or New Age background) often express an aversion to paperwork, whether it's applying for a passport, writing letters, or keeping a record of how they are doing with various resolutions. When the paperwork relates to business dealings in particular, these people tell us that they have conscience problems about doing such things as keeping a budget, registering as a company, applying for a half-fare concession travel card, or opening a bank account.

There may be genuine arguments against each of these activities, but because leaders can see a general pattern of laziness with regard to paperwork in other areas of these people's lives, we become skeptical about the so-called "conscience" problem that the person claims to be having.

Obviously, the mere fact that a person is lazy does not mean that the person's conscience should be disregarded. However, if people want to be taken seriously when they express concerns in one area, it is wise for them to make extra effort to overcome weaknesses in other areas.

Notice, for example, that the same Jesus who said we should hate our parents as an expression of our loyalty to him, also rebuked the Pharisees for ignoring their parents and then claiming that they were doing it as a form of sacrifice to God. (Mark 7:10-13) Obviously the reason why we do these things is all-important in determining whether we are actually responding to our conscience (i.e. to God) or whether we are just using a proof text to excuse our own sinfulness.

I personally have found that calling my parents by their first names makes me try much harder to be loving, humble, and respectful toward them in other areas of our relationship. And it bothers me at times that some people almost relish treating their parents with disrespect and being able to justify it on the basis of the teachings of Jesus. It is very likely that such people will not be rewarded by God for their actions, since they are being more like the Pharisees than like the loving Saviour.

As I've already said, laziness about accepting responsibilities associated with paperwork may have been behind some "conscience" objections to doing a faithful job with budgets and related business. If people want to be sure their motives are right, then they need to compensate for apparent laziness in one area with meticulous care in other areas that are not contrary to their conscience. It is easier to believe someone who writes faithfully to their parents when they say that they feel God has asked them not to reply to a particular letter, than it is to believe the same claim if it comes from someone who seems to have a different excuse every week for not writing, or for writing late.

In the past we used to religiously go for group runs each day. But when I pointed out that runs are a "tradition" and should not be confused with disciplines which are based directly on the teachings of Jesus, it was surprising how many people suddenly started to find excuses for not joining in on the runs. They convinced themselves that they had found a loophole for laziness. But we found that in nine out of ten cases, the same people who slacked off in running showed signs of slacking off in other more serious spiritual matters as well.

One of the subtleties of backsliding is that it often tries to masquerade as "graduation". The backslider becomes self-righteous about some specific issue, and focuses on that issue, as a way of avoiding the real problem. In order to give the impression that they are "graduating", they become too spiritual for some group activity, or they become convinced that God is asking them to exercise a discipline that the rest of the community is not practising.

Because we want you all to grow spiritually, and because individual initiative is so important in spiritual growth, we do not want to discourage anyone who is being asked by God to practise some sort of discipline (whether or not the rest of us feel called to the same degree of discipline). But we must caution disciples to humbly examine themselves and to be careful that the fruit of this new discipline is not division and self-righteousness.

In my experience, genuine growth in one area of your life will lead to genuine growth in other areas as well. When a woman, for example, suddenly doubles the size of her breasts, or an athlete suddenly develops huge shoulder muscles, people immediately suspect something "unnatural", like cosmetic surgery or anabolic steroids. And when one rather small point of doctrine becomes a source of disruption and division within the community, then I become a bit suspicious as well.

Part of my reason for feeling this way is that I have tried very hard to find the whole Truth in the teachings of Jesus, and even when I have approached individual commands with the intention of literally obeying them (whether I understand why they were given or not), it has not been long before I have been able to see how they all fit into an overall plan. I feel that if someone else found an error in our teachings, their correction would either smooth out a hiccup in what we were already teaching, or it would form part of an overall improvement on what we have been saying.

One 'truth' in isolation may actually be a lie pretending to be a truth. The message of The Revelation, for example, overwhelmingly supports the message of living by faith, as taught in the gospels. Although there may be errors in my understanding of the details in each, there is, in my interpretation of The Revelation, ten times as much unity between what the Gospels are saying and what the Revelation is saying as what there is in the usual churchy approaches to each book of the Bible in isolation from one another.

While we are on the topic of Bible prophecy, that is another area where it is easy to use a minor detail of disagreement as an excuse to throw out the overwhelming truth of what we are saying, which is to follow Jesus in preference to all the systems of man. It's getting pretty hard to deny the fact that the prophecy about the mark of the beast is going to be literally fulfilled (although some people still try), but other predictions in Bible prophecy are a little less provable at the moment. So someone can say, "I don't think America is going to be destroyed, so I can't, in good conscience, distribute Armageddon for Beginners." Obviously, we cannot force people to believe that America is going to be destroyed, and there is no irrefutable proof until it finally happens. But I still tend to doubt the sincerity of those who toss the whole book out on such a basis.

Considering that smaller publications (and especially those with a lot of cute pictures in them) can be distributed about twice as fast as can be Armageddon for Beginners, it is tempting for any of us to grab at whatever excuse we can find to dissociate ourselves from the less popular publication, and to align ourselves with whatever is most popular. But are we really following God (i.e. our conscience) when we do that? Have our decisions been motivated by a genuine desire to find that which will be most powerful in turning people to the truth? Or have our decisions been motivated by a desire to look better by getting higher distributing stats?

A similar problem comes up when a new disciple claims to have a conscience problem about asking for donations for tracts. Experience has shown that the problem is almost always more one of pride than greed. (Since they rarely have a problem with accepting handouts from the rest of us, even though the money we use to feed them came from our own requests for donations.) It is too humbling for them to ask someone for ten cents, and they don't want to deal with that area of their pride, so they camouflage their backsliding as graduating, and announce that they are not going to ask for donations, because God has shown them that it is wrong. They delude themselves into believing that they are spiritually superior, simply by turning their weakness (pride) into a perceived strength (faith).

The same thing happens with so many other religious rules as well, whether it's pride about not drinking or not eating meat or not masturbating or just about any other religious rule that is not based on the teachings of Jesus. All the energy that goes into obeying such man-made rules is, of course, not available for them to use on obeying the real disciplines that Jesus wants us to work on. So, instead of arriving at Christ's righteousness, they only manage to achieve self righteousness.

In conclusion, we must say once again that we do want people to develop a strong personal relationship with God, and to be obedient to anything that he tells them to do. However, we must also say that calling your personal opinions and burdens the will and voice of God is probably the source of as much spiritual delusion as is blind obedience to a religious system. The choice is not between following us or doing your own thing, but rather it should be between following either of those and following God. To discern the voice of God above the din of your own emotions and our demands requires a very honest and humble heart. Why not ask God for that today?

(See also Truth in Isolation, and Heavy Burdens and Difficult Yokes.)

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