Belgic Confession, Article 32: Not Binding or Compelling the Conscience
In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial, that those, who are rulers of the Church, institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church; yet they ought studiously to take care, that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, hath instituted. And therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws, which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever. Therefore we admit only of that which tends to nourish and preserve concord, and unity, and to keep all men in obedience to God. For this purpose, ex-communication or church discipline is requisite, with the several circumstances belonging to it, according to the Word of God.
by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant PRC, Ballymena, N.Ireland, laboring in Limerick, Ireland.
I Corinthians 8:12: “But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.”
Belgic Confession Article 32 contains a warning for all who seek to make rules for the maintaining of the body of the church. Do not bind or compel the conscience! Take care studiously not to depart from those things that Christ has instituted! Do not introduce human inventions! This is the danger when men begin to make rules for the church. A manmade rule can become more important and more binding than the Word of God. The Reformation churches understood very well the necessity of the freedom of conscience.
The conscience is the testimony of God in the consciousness of every man, either accusing or excusing him in his actions. By the conscience even the heathen know that they have done something wrong. Because of conscience every culture has an established morality or moral code. Every culture of man knows that to murder is evil, to steal is wicked and to commit adultery is a sin against the Creator (Rom. 2:15). Therefore, every culture of man has laws to punish evildoers to one degree or another. A guilty conscience is very difficult to endure because it accuses the sinner before God. Men seek all kinds of relief—except repentance towards God and faith towards Jesus Christ—to escape the accusations of their guilty conscience. Some men have even so defiled their conscience that it has lost much of its sensitivity to evil. They are deeply hardened in sin and wickedness (I Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15). Other men—usually weak believers—have an uneducated, uniformed or overly sensitive conscience. They imagine that some activity, which God has not condemned, is sin. Therefore they cannot perform that activity with a good conscience. For example, some imagine that to drink wine or to eat meat is sin. Others, having a better grasp of Christian liberty, eat and drink (in moderation) without qualms (Rom. 14; I Cor. 8).
Throughout the Middle Ages the Romish church bound, compelled and tyrannized the consciences of men with rules. For example, the church mandated times for fasting—at Lent; and the church insisted that no meat could be eaten on Fridays. There were many more ways in which the church ruled over the people—often hanging the threat of damnation over them if they stepped out of line. In fact, the pope himself could place an interdict upon an entire people, if the king defied him! The Pharisees bound consciences in the day of Christ. They added to and expanded the laws of Moses to include ridiculously detailed prohibitions and obligations. This was particularly true concerning the Sabbath Day. For the Pharisees to heal or to do good on the Sabbath Day was evil (Matt. 12:1-14; John 5:1-17, 9:1-16). Christ excoriates the Pharisees for this: “Ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46).
The church must take care, therefore, never to impose rules upon the members that might wound their consciences. “They ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, hath instituted.” These considerations must be paramount in the consistory when rules are contemplated. Is this rule necessary? Will this rule offend the conscience? How will this rule minister to the needs of the church?
Let all things be done for the edifying of the body. Then the church will have peace.
Rev. Martyn McGeown
Pastorates: Missionary-pastor in Limerick, Ireland for the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland - 2010.Website: www.limerickreformed.com/
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