Several significant controversies or conflicts arose early enough in the history of the Christian church that they were reported in the book of Acts, and in the letters of Paul. These controversies, which today don’t seem very important in contemporary reading, threatened to irreparably divide or destroy the fledgling church. One of the primary controversies was the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Another was the priority of circumcision. A lesser conflict included observance of holy days.
Behind these questions were more important questions. What constitutes idolatry? What part of the Old Testament law remains applicable in our time? How do we remain in fellowship with one another when we have completely different histories and expectations of one another? What is the relationship between Scriptural commands of obedience and the radical grace of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ?
The way through these questions, as recorded in Scripture, results in what we are calling “bound conscience”.
Meat Sacrificed to Idols
In their attempt to follow the 1st Commandment (You shall have no other gods), some early Christians refused to eat meat sacrificed to idols. One could never be certain that the meat they purchased was not used in these sacrifices. Some Christians were becoming vegetarians in order to be certain that they were not breaking the First Commandment and insisting that this practice be adopted by all Christians. Apparently, this conflict threatened to divide the church, for vegetarianism was resisted by those who did not see this as idolatrous behavior. Both groups would have reason from scripture to support their particular perspective.
St. Paul weighed in on this conflict without declaring a winner, but rather addressing some of the underlying issues. Near the very end of his letter to the Romans, Paul changes the tone of the letter from one of dense theological argument to pastoral. Romans 12-15 grounds his pastoral response with the theological arguments he made earlier to address how the people of God might live their lives and resolve these conflicts.
Romans 14-15 addresses the question we are considering about meat sacrificed to idols. In that section of Romans, Paul argues that we are not to pass judgment on one another because each side of the conflict has been called into this relationship with God by God. We are not to not put a stumbling block to the faith in front of the other by insisting something contrary to what another believes. In an astonishing statement from a man who was a Pharisee, Paul writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (Romans 14:14) He also writes that it is the Christian’s obligation to consider the impact of one’s behavior on other believers. I recommend a careful reading of Romans 14-15 now.
In 1st Corinthians, this subject is also addressed. In chapter 8, Paul first argues the question itself. Since there are no other gods, eating meat sacrificed to idols is not idolatry. However, Paul says, some are so accustomed to thinking about other gods that their conscience is “defiled”. To somehow lead these brothers or sisters back into idolatry (that is insisting that they eat meat) is a sin against them and to be avoided at all costs, even if one is absolutely right in eating what one wishes. The argument extends into chapter 10, where the word “conscience” appears a number of times. Please read 1st Corinthians 8-10, paying particular attention to this specific controversy.
Notice that Paul answers many of the questions I claim lie behind the specific topic of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Idolatry is being convinced of the presence of other gods and acting on that conviction. Participation in actions peripherally related to idolatry are not idolatry in and of themselves. We remain in fellowship with one another by not imposing our standards on another, and respecting the conclusions others draw from their encounter with God. Christ has made us free. Paul says here that we are not to judge our brother or sister or their relationship with Christ.
I specifically see Paul’s statement in Romans 14:14 as instructive and helpful in our consideration of Bound Conscience. Critics of the idea of “bound conscience” point to the term making scripture subjective, rather than objective. Paul argues that the designation of clean and unclean is subjective, not objective. This is contrary to the teaching of the Old Testament but certainly reflects the revelation Peter received (as described in Acts 10-11).
When God establishes the covenant with Abram (Abraham), circumcision becomes a commandment.
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Genesis 17:10-14)
Notice that this is a commandment established forever for all who are directly connected with God and God’s people (including slaves of the people).
As Paul began to proclaim the Gospel to Gentiles, no small controversy arose about circumcision. Some (often referred to as the “circumcision party”) insisted that entry into Christianity demanded circumcision. Paul, a circumcised Jew with an extensive ministry to Gentiles, saw circumcision as no longer necessary, and in fact an impediment to the proclamation to the Gospel.
In Acts 15 we read the account of the consultation in Jerusalem about this very matter. Paul defends the full inclusion of Gentiles without the requirement of circumcision while the Pharisees insist circumcision must be performed. At the conclusion of the debate, James declares the decision to not require circumcision.
“Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20)
I note that “abstain only from things polluted by idols” refers to eating meat sacrificed to idols.
While Paul was victorious in this decision, the very next Chapter indicates that he doesn’t get legalistic with regard to this decision. Rather, the circumcision of Timothy becomes a matter of what we might call “respecting the bound conscience” of the Jews “in those places”. His action reflects what we read in his pastoral responses to congregations in conflict.
Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him; and he took him and had him circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. (Acts 16:1-4)
The controversy did not go away. Through the rest of Acts, this conflict continually guides the story until Paul is arrested and transported to Rome for trial, specifically because the circumcision party would not accept Paul’s teaching in this matter.
The Epistle to the Galatians is often understood as a lengthy argument against circumcision, where Paul actually argues that Christ is of no benefit to those who allow themselves to be circumcised.
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. (Galatians 5:1-3)
I find it quite instructive that Paul is adaptable with respect to circumcision. He has Timothy circumcised while also distributing the letter from Jerusalem with the decision that circumcision is not required while condemning the Galatians for willingly submitting to circumcision.
In both of these examples, eating of meat sacrificed to animals and circumcision, a different reading and understanding of scripture and its authority in particular matters was challenged and a new understanding was affirmed. We understand that Paul had a new revelation from God, but many of the people of his day did not trust this. Respecting the bound conscience of others did not mean that all matters were permissible. You will note that some expectations remained in place, and were often reiterated following the reinterpretation of a portion of Scripture.
Challenges from those opposing Bound Conscience
Bound Conscience and the current controversy
On a Personal Note