Conviction vs. Preference in Church Matters
May 16, 2023
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
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The following is excerpted from the May 2023 edition of Keys to Fruitful Church Membership, available as a free eBook from Way of Life Literature -


Another key to fruitful church membership is to understand the difference between conviction and preference. Conviction is based upon a clear teaching of God’s Word. Preference is not. Preference is a personal opinion. A Christian can have preferences on all sorts of church matters, but he is not at liberty to judge the church on the basis of his preferences, to disturb the church’s unity on the basis of his preferences, and to make them a law for others. This is discussed in Romans 14:

“Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks” (Ro. 14:1-6).

This passage is often misused by ecumenists to support their phony idea of legalism. They claim that it is not right to judge others even in matters of doctrine, but that is nonsense. It is not legalism to cry out against sin, to judge false teachers, to set standards for God’s people based on the clear teaching of the Word of God, to demand that Christians obey the details of the Bible. In Romans 14, the Lord forbids His people to judge others IN MATTERS THAT ARE NOT CLEARLY TAUGHT IN SCRIPTURE. 

Two examples are given: what we eat and how we respect holy days. These are issues that the New Testament does not address. There are no dietary laws for Christians, and there are no holy days that we must keep after the fashion of the law of Moses. These are matters of Christian liberty. I am free to eat meat or not to eat meat, but I am not free to judge others by my conscience in this matter or in any other matter that is not plainly taught in the Scripture.

When the Scripture speaks plainly, we must speak; but when the Scripture does not speak, we have no authority to speak. In such matters, I am free to follow my conscience and the Lord’s leading for my personal life, but I am not free to make my conscience a law for others. That is the teaching of Romans 14.

The things mentioned earlier in this article fall into this category. There is the matter, for example, of holding social fellowships or evangelistic meetings on Valentine’s, Christmas, and Halloween. Obviously it is wrong to be involved in witchcraft, idolatry, or immorality, but as for the days themselves, they are nothing. Why would it be wrong to have a church fellowship or gospel outreach on October 31, for example, so long as the church does not promote things associated with evil, such as a haunted house or ghosts and goblins? If the church tries to incorporate such worldly things into its activities, this should be resisted loudly, but if the church is simply having a youth activity on or near October 31 in order to reach the unsaved or for the edification of Christian young people, there is nothing wrong with that. 

Our former church had a Harvest Fellowship at Halloween, primarily to provide an activity to help keep young people away from evil. It was also evangelistic. I see nothing unscriptural about this.

I am not giving a blanket endorsement of the world’s holidays. There is much that is evil there. The Cupid of February 14 is connected with a pagan god of lust, and the Christian must avoid every form of immorality. But I don’t believe it is wrong for a church to have a fellowship or some sort of “sweetheart banquet” at Valentine’s Day for married couples.

I am convinced that there is freedom of conscience in such matters. These are matters of preference. If a person doesn’t want to have any type of get together on such days, he shouldn’t have them. But he shouldn’t make his own opinions about these things a law for others.

I know some are going to groan when they hear this, but I believe this principle is applicable for certain Christmas practices, as well. We know that the Christmas season originated with Rome. I am opposed to Romanism. I have written many books against Rome. Yet while I am disgusted at the commercialism and debauchery that often characterizes Christmas holidays, I don’t believe it is wrong to enjoy some aspects of that season. I am convinced there is Christian liberty in many of these things. 

Definitely we must not be involved with Santa Claus, which is a combination of a pagan god and a Catholic “saint,” but a person can enjoy some of the social and family aspects of the season without worshipping false gods or committing sacrilege. I don’t believe in setting up Christmas trees in the church or having a Santa visit the church, but I don’t think it is wrong to have a nativity play and sing some of the Christmas carols that are scriptural and otherwise involve one’s self in activities that do not bring dishonor to the Lord Jesus Christ. Our church has a big gospel outreach on Christmas. 

My objective is not to defend Christmas. I am simply talking about one’s attitude toward those things that other people or churches do that I might not agree with but that are not directly condemned in the Word of God. I am trying to illustrate this with some concrete things that we face in everyday life.

Consider the matter of Sunday Schools and children’s ministries. Jesus said we must not forbid the children to come to Him, and Paul said that knowing the Scripture from childhood leads to salvation (2 Ti. 3:15). It is obvious, then, that churches should be concerned about teaching children the Word of God, winning them to Christ, and discipling them. At the same time, the New Testament is silent about children’s ministries as such. Therefore, this is a matter of liberty and not law. It is a matter for each church to decide for itself: whether to have such ministries, when to have them, who attends, what is done, who teaches, etc.  

I received a communication from a missionary couple that said, “We do not agree with Sunday Schools that separate the children from the families. We do not believe women should be teachers of age segregated Sunday Schools.” 

This is an opinion rather than the Word of God. There is nothing in Scripture that forbids a church to have a children’s Bible ministry. A church has authority to preach the Word to anyone of any age (2 Ti. 4:2). And there is nothing in Scripture that forbids a qualified woman to teach children in the church.

I think of the issue of Sunday School promotions. I don’t like them, personally. I worked in the bus ministry of Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the 1970s. Those were the days of extreme promotionalism. Highland Park would do pretty much anything to draw a crowd: swallow goldfish, cut off the preacher’s tie, hide money under bus seats, all sorts of give-aways. One Sunday they had the “flaming evangelist” who actually lit himself on fire (wearing an asbestos suit, of course). For an anniversary Sunday, a huge cake was rolled to the front of the auditorium, where it opened up automatically and a rocket blasted up to the ceiling. It seemed to me that this type of thing turned the house of church into a three-ring circus. 

But if a church uses some promotions, I am not going to make it a fundamental of the faith. If I were a member of a church that used promotion to attract people, I would not like it on a personal level but I also would not make an issue of it. I would participate in that church’s evangelistic outreach. 

I think of the issue of church-operated Christian schools. Some have been operated well and have had good fruit, and some have operated poorly and have had bad fruit. But there is nothing in Scripture that forbids a church-operated Christian school. In fact, churches are encouraged to instruct children in God’s Word. 2 Timothy 3:15-17 is written to Timothy in his role of instructing churches and homes. The theme of these epistles is found in 1 Timothy 3:15, “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Churches have the authority to instruct everyone in God’s Word, including children, and they are at liberty to do that in whatever way God’s leads in each particular context. Personally, I prefer a good home schooling program, but not every parent is capable of home schooling effectively. I think of a church with several single moms and some couples who are recently saved and just trying to learn to live the Christian life at a basic level. Those with “convictions” against Christian schools need to ask themselves if they would rather that such parents send their children to public school rather than to a good church school? That’s the option. Perfect situations in this life are rare. 

Many of these issues are matters of mere practicality. 

I think of the issue of music. I care deeply about this issue. It is definitely not a “non-essential” to us. In the series The Satanic Attack on Sacred Music, we teach how to discern the difference between a sacred and a worldly style or sound of music. We deal with rhythm and the resolution of chords. We warn that unresolving chords create music that is sensual and overly oriented toward emotion. We warn that this fits the contemporary worship goal of “experiencing God in a tangible way.” “It is wispy and draws on the emotions, with no intellectual purpose or guide” (Tim Kelly). We teach proper sacred styles of singing and warn against styles such as scooping and sliding, breathiness and croaking. We warn about the “soft” style of many of the new hymn arrangements that downgrade the militancy of the music. Again, this is often a matter of the improper resolution of chords. 

At the same time, I must be careful not to make my exact standard the law for everyone. There are rules for sacred music, but there is room for liberty. There is definitely an element of “taste” and culture in the music issue. 

For one thing, it is a matter of looking at the whole picture. If a church has capitulated to contemporary music, I’m gone! I consider this a separation issue. I’m not going to be a member of such a church, and I’m not going to preach there. At the same time, I’m not going to walk out of a church because it allows a special that has unresolving chords, or if it uses some Majesty Music and Wilds songs and arrangements, so long as the overall stance is for proper sacred music styles. I think “Church in the Wildwood” is a simplistic, nothing of a hymn, but I’m not going to make a big deal if some people like to sing it. 

Think of the situation overseas. In Nepal, for example, many of the standard existing hymns were written by Nepali Christians who were not well educated in sacred music styles. To deal with such a situation takes time. It is not wise to come in with a wrecking ball to tear down every jot and tittle of things that one considers wrong. A missionary has to do a lot of education on the issue of music. God has to raise up men and women who can upgrade existing songs and write new ones to a better standard. This kind of thing takes years.

A lot of these things are matters of practical wisdom and love for people and patience. God is very patient with all of His children and all of His churches. 

I am not talking about compromising on the clear teachings of God’s Word. I am saying that we must be wise and caring and patient.

I am saying that we have liberty in matters not directly addressed in Scripture.

I must be careful that I am not trying to make my own preference and private interpretations laws for others and that I don’t judge churches on the basis of my opinions and preferences, even very strongly-held ones.

While we must stand for the Word of God, we must also be careful that we do not take away God-given liberty and hold our own conscience up as a law for others. Anything that is not clearly taught in Scripture falls into this category: whether or not a church uses musical instruments, times and frequency of services, evangelistic methods (unless those methods are clearly contrary to Scripture), choirs, orchestras, children’s ministries, Sunday Schools, Christian schools, holiday ministries, bus ministries, etc. 

The list is long. It is a blessing to understand that God has given His people much liberty in Christ and that in such matters each believer and each home and each church is at liberty to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.

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