The Westminster Confession is one of the finest compendiums of Reformed theology ever scripted. It is not without minor problems (as is true of all human documents of serious value) but has stood the tests of time very well. Much of what still remains in the PCUSA that is good and right is rooted in the rich soil of Westminster.
One quotation from Westminster found our old Book of Order and still retained in our new Form of Government has to do with freedom of conscience. If you’ve had to endure many presbytery meetings you no doubt will have heard it quoted, or at least partially quoted: “God alone is Lord of the conscience.”
Its primary contemporary use has been by those in favor of homosexual ordination and/or marriage. Their argument is that when my conscience tells me something is right, human regulations (even in the church) have no overruling authority, because, after all, God alone is Lord of my conscience, and God and I don’t seem to have any problems with this issue.
Unfortunately for this argument, the actual statement from Westminster is not truncated at the point its proponents would like. Some people have actually read the whole sentence (and maybe even allowed their eyes to stray over the whole Confession — but I digress…), and discovered that the this portion of Westminster actually subverts the position of theological liberalism on this matter. If one is serious about learning how to properly interpret the words of others, one must quickly learn how to pay attention to pesky punctuation marks — or just go back to watching television and leave the hard work of thinking to others. Let me illustrate.
If “God alone is Lord of the conscience” should be taken as a stand-alone sentence, then indeed the liberal champions at presbytery and GA meetings are right that no other human being has the right to overrule anyone else’s conscience. Of course, if such is the case, then we have no consensual basis for the common good of society (even in the church), and life would then devolve to a social morality of “might makes right:” You’ll do this because I say it’s right, or you’ll suffer the consequences….
Some folks actually quote a bit more of the Westminster declaration: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men.” This is also used to support the claim that our denomination’s former ordination standards (demanding fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness) are merely human doctrines, and as such cannot be binding on an individual’s freedom of conscience. Seems pretty clear. But punctuation marks remain a pesky problem. If you actually read the whole sentence in Westminster 6.309 (or in our Form of Government [F-3.0101a]), you’ll find no period where these debaters stop. Instead, the full sentence reads as follows:
“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”
There’s nothing like a little context to bring out the true meaning. What this text really declares is that no human institution, whether church or government, has the authority or right to bind the human conscience in any matter contrary to or not commanded by the Word of God with respect to faith and worship. Or, to paraphrase the words of Luther, our consciences are to be held captive to the Word of God.
Westminster is championing the cause of those refusing to give up biblical truth under pressure by misguided secular or religious authorities. “You can’t demand such things of us Christians — we answer to God as He has revealed His ultimate truth in Scripture!”
How ironic that liberal Presbyterians are now trying to use a part of Westminster to champion the exact opposite of its intention: “You can’t force us to uphold fidelity and chastity — our consciences are free to do whatever we wish (as long as we can convince ourselves that God doesn’t mind, or even better, that He/She/It radically approves).”
Freedom of conscience is a vital Christian principle to uphold — as long as we understand that this freedom is meant to enable us to hold firmly to the truths of God in a sometimes hostile world, not to enable us to avoid the truths of God in favor of the errors of sin.
Let’s pay attention to those pesky punctuation marks, or we may just lose our way.