Appeal to conscience is not a ground to never be challenged. Your conscience may not bend – and it would be wrong for you to go against it – but that doesn’t stop another from showing you from scripture why perhaps your conscience is more rigid on this matter than it needs to be. Likewise, your conscience might be pretty soft and flexible, but that doesn’t stop another from showing you from scripture why perhaps you ought to be a little more rigid on that matter. The fact is, our conscience is not a means of stopping other people from following theirs and to use it as a powerplay to get what we want is to abuse it.
If you have had a discussion with anyone about pretty much anything, you will no doubt have run into people citing the importance of conscience. Conscience does, of course, matter. As Luther said, ‘to go against conscience is neither safe nor right’. His conscience wasn’t his ultimate authority. He was certain that his conscience was captive to the Word of God. To go against what his conscience believed God’s Word to be saying was neither safe nor right. And on that, apparently, he stood and he kann nicht anders.
But there is another way in which conscience is often invoked. You may take a stance on something and yet, it seems, the conscience of other people is mentioned to stop you from speaking. The logic usually goes: (1) this is a conscience issue; (2) Christians legitimately disagree; (3) therefore, you cannot and must not tell another that they are wrong because of conscience.
The problem with this logic is that it cuts the other way. The person doing the other thing is presumably acting in line with their own conscience. If their conscience is telling them that this is wrong, they presumably also think it is wrong for all people. If you think that, isn’t it a matter of conscience to want to convince others that they are in danger, or sin, or both if they don’t change course? Now, of course, you may disagree with that person. That is your prerogative. But what you can’t do is decide that your conscience believes this is a conscience issue on which we can differ while their conscience must be silent on what it tells them is a universal matter of right and wrong.
Take Luther, for example. He didn’t say, hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders aber du machst was du willst (here I stand, I can do no other but you do what you want). The implication of what he said was this: I stand here because my conscience tells me it is right because it is captive to God’s Word. Therefore, this is where you should stand too! Luther refused to recant because he believed this was what God’s Word said and doing otherwise would go against conscience. But the conscience issue for Luther wasn’t the position he took; the conscience issue was that it is wrong and dangerous to go against God’s Word and this is what God’s Word says. The implication clearly being, if the rest of you obeyed God’s Word, you would also agree.
Now, of course, those asking him to recant disagreed with him. But Luther wasn’t trying to suggest that this was a conscience issue on which we can agree to disagree. He was arguing that obeying God’s Word is a conscience issue and this is what God’s Word says. You are now forcing me to choose between God’s Word and a doctrine I can only view as man-made. Conscience wasn’t invoked as a call to agree to disagree. It was a invoked to say, we differ hard and my conscience simply won’t agree with what you have asked.
Which brings me back to our use of conscience. Ultimately, everything is a matter of conscience. I do (or should only do) what my conscience will allow. As should you. If my conscience is captive to the Word of God, like Luther, I should only do what I believe the Word says. Where my conscience will not bend, where I understand God’s Word to say something in particular, I have to say, here I stand, etc etc. But in saying here I stand, I’m not really saying, here I stand, you do what you want (though ultimately you are at liberty to do what you want). I am saying, here I stand because going further would be wrong for both me and you! I have no power to stop you, but I certainly don’t endorse what you’re doing just because your conscience is OK with it.