E. Tod Twist
I recently came to the end of a 20-year journey. My ride from seminary to grad school didn’t end with a career in professional ministry or teaching, but in a long-term stint as a stay-at-home dad. In the quiet moments of my role as “Mr. Mom,” those 20 years weighed heavily on me. I thought about the work I wasn’t doing for God and the provision I wasn’t making for my family. In short, my conscience was deeply troubled.
We all know the adage “Let your conscience be your guide,” but is that really what the Bible says? Paul’s advice to Timothy helps us answer that question. In 1 Timothy 1:18–19, he tells Timothy to “wage the good warfare holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made a shipwreck of their faith.” Using four steps, we will find out what Paul really means by this.
Make the Switch to Greek and Establish a Working Definition
Using the ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear, we find that the Greek word behind “conscience” is συνείδησις (syneídesis), which can also mean “consciousness” or “awareness.” Since conscience is a little like arthritis—you only notice it when it hurts—let’s define it as awareness of responsibility (or in hindsight, awareness of guilt).
Briefly Track the Word through Other Greek Sources
Using Liddell-Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, we can understand how syneídesis was often used in an ancient Greek context. This lexicon lists actual examples of how a word is used, not just a list of possible definitions. Here, we find that syneídesis was used in the context of knowledge: knowledge shared with another, knowledge gained by learning, or even knowledge of complicity in wrongdoing. Syneídesis was most often used in contexts that involve our intellect, not just how we feel.
We can compare this understanding with the use of the term in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament). New Testament writers would often quote the Septuagint. By comparing New Testament occurrences of a word with the translation of Hebrew words into Greek, we can see whether the New Testament writers picked up on nuances of a term. We find that syneídesis occurs in Ecclesiastes 10:20, where it renders the Hebrew word mada’ (“understanding” or “thought”). This understanding corresponds to the cognitive emphasis we have already discovered.
Explore New Testament Usage
Using Bible software, we can search for the Greek term throughout the New Testament, or we can look it up in a concordance.
If you are using print books, you can use Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible for this step. Take note of the Strong’s number given to the word syneídesis: 4893. Using this number, you can look up the word in a lexicon. If you are using Bible software, double click the word in the reverse interlinear. Your preferred lexicon will automatically open to syneídesis.
Most often, syneídesis occurs in a context of integrity or consistency. It can be clean and good (see Heb 10:22; Acts 23:1) or defiled and evil (see 1 Cor 8:7; Heb 10:22). Paul emphasizes personal integrity throughout his letters (e.g., 2 Cor 1:12). This is where the moral aspect of conscience lies. Put simply, if you violate your convictions, you defile your conscience.
The most concentrated use of syneídesis is located in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, where Paul discusses meat sacrificed to idols. He urges Corinthian believers to be aware of how their behavior affects fellow believers. Because people can damage their integrity when they make choices that they perceive as wrong, Paul wants his audience to see that their actions can prompt others to make choices that affect their integrity (see 8:10–13; 10:28–33). In short, we need to be aware of both our actions and how others perceive them so we don’t prompt them to violate their integrity.
Look for Recurring Associations with Other Terms
Integrity of conscience—or protection of it—is the key to Paul’s approach. Our example from 1 Timothy contains advice for protecting one’s personal integrity: “wage the good warfare holding faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim 1:18–19). Paul connects faith to conscience. He implies that we must exercise conscience with both integrity and faith to avoid disaster. This conclusion is supported by the use of “faith” in close proximity to three of the four occurrences of syneídesis (1 Tim 1:5, 19; 3:9).
Conscience must be exercised within a context of faith (1 Tim 4:6; compare 1 Tim 1:5). We cannot simply trust that things will all work out; we must step forward in trust, based on what we already know about God.
It’s easy to know how to act in good conscience when we encounter situations that Scripture clearly addresses. But what do we do with tough choices? Or what do we do when we are weighed down by circumstances that don’t have easy answers? When I look back at my 20-year journey that seemed to have no final destination, I know that I couldn’t simply trust my conscience. The implication, from 1 Timothy, is that I am free to step forward in faith. And in all circumstances, I must trust in Christ and live with integrity.
Pick up Liddell-Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon at Logos.com/LSJ Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).