Brad Littlejohn made a thoughtful contribution to the great pink hair discussion here, and he was going great until he got to the part about what binding consciences actually looks like. But his beginning was really strong—he sees that pastoral work centers on numerous applications of first century principles to twenty-first century tangles.
“To preach and pastor effectively, the minister must be waist-deep in the stuff of everyday life, the myriad personal, social, political, and cultural challenges that confront his congregation and that at every point draw them closer to or drag them further from the face of God.”
The task is one of casuistry, and only a simpleton legalist would think that figuring these things out is easy or automatic. But then, because some of the situations are difficult, and wise men leave space for differences of opinion, it is assumed that all such situations are equally complicated and that it is necessary to leave that same “room to differ.” But let me give you a short list of such things, some of which I think should be discussed charitably—for are these things not complicated?—and others of which I think the preacher should only address from the pulpit if he is willing to throw his necktie over his shoulder while hopping around in a denunciatory fashion.
Using birth control. Yoga pants on people who can’t afford to be seen that way. Hard-R movies. Yoga pants on people who can afford to be seen that way. Thirty-year mortgages. A tattoo of a .357 Magnum. A tattoo of a tiny butterfly on a suburban mom’s ankle. Pink hair, there we go. Unwillingness to come within thirty yards of gluten. Septum piercings. Septum piercings with a bone through it. Posting 328 photos of yourself on your Facebook page, with at least a third of them trying to capture that sultry look. Using earbuds to create a day-long musical cocoon for yourself. Rolling your own cigarettes and smoking them ironically.
Now everything on this list is (at a minimum) challenging, and some of them are way over a line that every pastor ought to have clearly established in his own mind. But wise pastoral responses will vary, and they will vary according to the importance of the issue, and the clarity of biblical teaching on the subject. Keep that last phrase in mind—does the Bible address the subject directly?
In his piece, Brad defines conscience-binding this way:
“Speaking more loosely, however, and from the subjective viewpoint, conscience-binding happens whenever a believer thinks, based on what another Christian (often a pastor) has said that they must act in a particular way or else incur divine wrath.”
But left out of this equation is whether the pastor is correct, and whether the believer would be right in thinking what he now does based on what the pastor says. And this goes back to the clarity of the scriptural teaching.
As I look at how the apostle Paul gave instructions to Timothy on how to make sure his ministry in the church of God was orderly and pleasing to God, I cannot escape the conclusion that how the women adorned themselves was an important element in it—“likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (1 Tim. 2:9, ESV).
Now I could look at this passage, and apply it woodenly, and crack down on a cute ten-year-old girl who did up a braid with a red rubber band. Or I could do what I actually do, which is to interpret this passage as prohibiting ostentatious display. That is the principle. Some women in the first century would go in for ornate braiding systems, with jewels braided in, and then top it off with gold dust sprinkled on. Okay, don’t do that.
Here in the twenty-first century, who is responsible not to be the ostentatious display? Well, the women. Who is responsible to exhort them, as needed, not to be the ostentatious display? Well . . . the pastor.
And when the Westminster Confession addresses liberty of conscience, a truly precious thing, it says that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” and that He has “left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men” (WCF 20.2). This is quite true, but urging women to dress modestly and with self-control, summoning them to avoid becoming a spectacle, is not a doctrine of men. Paul teaches it and Peter teaches the same (1 Pet. 3:3-4). Isaiah makes fun of the women of Zion strutting their goods at the mall (Is. 3:16). How is it possible that we have fallen to the point where we think that feminine modesty is a private choice and a private choice only? This is more than sub-Christian—it is sub-pagan.
The Confession, again wisely, cautions against the tendency that we have virtually surrendered to.
“They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life” (WCF 20.3).
Those who ape the world and its lust for autonomy, individuality, and the reinvent yourself vibe are doing what? They are destroying the end of Christian liberty. The foe of this liberty is not the pastor who warns Christians flirting with adultery (which is dalliance with the world, Jas. 4:4) away from the cliff edge. But we are so cowed that most churches wouldn’t know what to do in the most flamboyant of cases. Say a woman shows up at church in butt-hugging yoga pants (that say “don’t you wish”) and flaming neon hair (that says “don’t you dare say anything”). And the conservative church takes this as a signal to start guarding against legalism. What are we conserving again? C.S. Lewis commented on the phenomenon—confronted with a flood we break out the fire extinguishers.
I have a brief thought experiment for you, and it is not an experiment that is trying to see how far we can get with this “legal spirit” that afflicts us. Take one hundred Christian women who see no problem with neon hair, and who use it to celebrate their creative individuality, and who argue that it is an exhibition of their spontaneous love for Jesus. They are working on “spunky” and “creative.” Now take one hundred women who are deeply suspicious of that kind of thing, and who would never dream of doing anything like that themselves. They are working on “modesty” and “decorum.” Now fast forward 10 years. In one of our local churches we have a family that has decided to “transition” their 6-year-old boy into a girl. It is local, has made the front page of the paper, is being celebrated in the world, and all 200 women know the family involved. Here is your thought experiment. Will the percentages of disapproval in the two groups of women be exactly the same? If they are different, in which direction will the difference lie? By the way, this is not a hard question. As Dylan once put it, you don’t need to be a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing.
One last observation from Westminster. Liberty of conscience does not grant a license to publish or maintain “such opinions . . . such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity (whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation)” (WCF 20.4). Conversation here refers to way of life, or lifestyle. And how men and women relate to one another in community is one of the central features of our conversation.
And one last observation from me. When it comes to binding consciences, the fundamental question is or else what? The Bible teaches that some violations of the law of God are to result in church discipline. The man who took his father’s wife at Corinth needed discipline, not arguments. But the Bible teaches that a host of other problems with sin are be addressed via admonition and exhortation—and teaching and arguments and blog posts.
It is not binding the conscience to do so. It only feels that way to a narcissistic generation that is ill-accustomed to have their personal choices questioned in any way.