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When Conscience Leads Wrong

by R H Boll

Reprinted from the October 1917 Word and Work

In any matter of indifference, as for instance the eating of meats (for “neither if we eat not are we the worse; nor, if we eat are we the better”) we may leave our brother to his peculiar conscientious scruples. But when his scruples are of such a nature that they lead directly counter to the expressed will of God, we must lose no time nor chance to correct the error. In a recent issue of the Gospel Herald a young brother, evidently a true and conscientious man, is slipping into a misconception of his duty, which may land him, and many others, in wrong, and in great and uncalled-for suffering. It is in regard to the question of non-combatant service in the army. It has been earnestly pointed out in Word and Work that a Christian may not slay his fellow- man, and that he must refuse to do so even unto death, if necessary. But hope and satisfaction was expressed in view of the considerate ruling of our President, that conscientious convictions should be regarded, and that those who were conscientiously opposed to carnal warfare should be assigned to non-combatant service. But now our good young brother rises up and declares himself unable, conscientiously, to serve in any capacity in connection with the army. His reasons seem plausible: to cook, to feed horses or men; to nurse the men who are to be wounded— these things seem to him to aid and abet in the great slaughter. Without this sort of help, he says, the war could not go on; therefore whoever furnishes that help, assists in carrying on the war. This, I think, states his position fairly. His sincerity is manifest, and it is a serious question of conscience with him, and perhaps with some others.

In reply to this unfortunate view I would urge my brother first of all to rule his conscience by the word of God, and not vice versa. Now God says: “Be subject to every ordinance of  man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme or to governors as sent by him….” 1 Pet. 2:13, 14. “Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers.” Rom. 13:1. My brother acknowledges that to pay taxes is right, and is merely the giving unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Good. But the taxes will be used directly to finance the war, as my brother well knows. Without this help the war could not run on. But he no doubt sees that that is not his concern; he simply pays the taxes as his Lord commanded him and leaves the responsibility of the use of the money with the government. The same precisely is true of any service the government requires. For in fact the money in the taxes itself represents work and service. But the Lord’s commandment went further than the paying of taxes. It tells us to obey everyrequirement of the government. This is limited in only one point: we may not at the bidding of earthly authority do any act directly forbidden us of God. That limitation is always understood. I could not lie, steal, rob, kill, at the government’s demand. But I can cook, feed men or horses, do clerical work, care for the wounded, do any act that would in itself be honorable and right at any time and place. We are told, however, that this furthers the war. But so do the taxes we pay. If it is simply our duty to pay taxes and the use the government makes of the taxes we pay is purely the government’s responsibility, so is it with any other of my possessions or abilities the government may requisition of me. If the government asks anything of me which I may do then I must do it, for the Lord’s sake. The question of the use the government may make of my means or righteous work does not come within my responsibility.

In illustration of the contrary view it has been urged that the man who sells his corn to a distillery thereby aids and abets the whiskey business. Well. But the case is not parallel. The man who sells his corn to the distillery is under no command of earthly or divine authority to do so: he does it of his own free will and choice, knowing and agreeing to the end for which he disposes of his corn. But if the government should demand my corn, I must yield to such an authority, regardless of what use the government may wish to put it to. So I am under obligation to give of my means, my strength, my service to the God- ordained power. Whether my economy in eating, or my garden- spot, my taxes, my service, help the war along or not, is not my concern. All I need to know is that in whatever righteous act I obey the government, I obey God. He assumes the consequences. And my conscience must bow to this.

-R H Boll (1875-1956) was editor of “Word and Work,” 1916-1956




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The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10