Liberty Of Conscience: Do We Have The Right To Be Wrong?

Romans 14:5b Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.

The answer to the question in the title is a limited yes... and an absolute no. Let me explain.

In this chapter the Apostle Paul discussed differences in belief and ritual observance among individual Christians, and how to handle those differences in a church setting. The underlying principles of liberty of conscience are applied in these verses, but these principles should also be broadly applied to all forms of government.

It could be argued, and I would argue it, that a church has no authority to make or enforce prohibitions in the differences discussed in this passage. That we, as Christians within our churches, are called upon to permit differences in belief and practice to the extent mentioned in this and other passages.

What a church, or any other government, cannot lawfully prohibit and prosecute it must allow. Not only must it allow this liberty, it also must protect this liberty by whatever means are lawfully available. By doing so it may also be acknowledging and protecting the right of God's justice which is essential to real liberty of conscience. The result is that every government with this principle of liberty will have citizens or members of varying disciplines when it comes to matters of conscience and action. Liberty of conscience is a product of God's Grace.

Clearly God may prohibit certain thoughts and behaviors, but then not give His church, individuals, or any government the right of prohibition and prosecution. This means that these "thoughts and behaviors" are allowed on this earth, so, in this limited context, people do have the right or freedom to be wrong. But this God given liberty comes at an awful price: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.

There are clearly certain rights of judgment and prosecution that God retains for Himself. So those sins that we may be free to think or do while living on this earth are still under the jurisdiction of God. So ultimately no one has the right to think or do things that are defined by God as wrong, and there is no behavior or thought that will remain unmeasured by His perfect Justice. So, before God, there is absolutely no privilege or right to be wrong. This truth is vital to the Gospel, and the recognition of God's exclusive authority or jurisdiction is essential to real liberty of conscience and limited human government.

Without God, law and human force become the only controlling authority. This means that atheism is pure human legalism with brutal controls. Atheism is naturally inclined against liberty of conscience. In atheism man must use the force of law and government to eradicate any thought or behavior considered to not be in the common good. And humanity defines the common good because there is no higher authority. There can be nothing left to God because, in the view of atheism, there is no God.

But on the other side of that humanistic coin are those religionists who seek to enforce laws which they have no right to enforce. This power mongering is, in some senses, a form of religious humanism and is anti-faith. The result is the same as atheism: God's exclusive Justice is replaced by repressive human force. Many Christians seem to be, at least in their approach to law and liberty, practical atheists. Which means they believe there is a God, but legislate and live as if He doesn't exist.

So the best human government is one which, under God, vigorously promotes and protects liberty of conscience. But... it leaves to God the judgment of the details of human thought and behavior which He has placed under His sole jurisdiction, and it also trusts Him to right the wrongs of faulty human law and justice.

One more point: essential to liberty of conscience is the right of dissent and non-participation in behaviors or beliefs that are against the conscience of the dissenters. But this right of dissent does not then give the right of judgment or prosecution to the dissenters. Romans 14:10 says, “But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.” Just because we disagree, and may even be right in our view, doesn't mean we also have the authority to judge those with whom we disagree.

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