The Church and Formation of Christian Conscience

September 21, 2018


The Campolo Center for Ministry kicked off the Campolo Fellows Lecture Series with Rev. Dr. Curtis Freeman, from Duke Divinity School. As a research professor of theology and Baptist studies, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke, and author of Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity (Baylor University Press, 2017), Dr. Freeman shared from his extensive research and teaching about the importance of a having “an intact and fully functioning conscience” to faithfully follow Jesus. Dr. Freeman discussed this issue and his concerns in a variety of forums during his visit with us, beginning with a dinner with Tony and Peggy Campolo and Campolo Center Executive Director, Robert Gauthier, on Wednesday evening.

Tony, Curtis and Peggy at the Campolo’s home.

Dr. Freeman said “You won’t believe it, but I almost got Tony Campolo to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.””

After a nights rest, Dr. Freeman joined Eastern University students and faculty on on campus in Walton Hall for lunch and a riveting discussion on catechism and conscience.  In short, catechism, or discipleship, is essential to the formation of a Christian conscience.  Later that evening, Dr. Freedman shared a devotion and dinner with the Campolo Scholars, student chaplains, student ministry leaders, seminarians and faculty from Palmer Theological Seminary and special guests.

Rev. Dr. Freeman leading a devotion from the book of Daniel before dinner.

After dinner, Dr. Freeman delivered a guest lecture in Dr. George Hancock-Stefen’s Christian World Mission seminary class and discussed with students the history and problems of “colonialism” in global, evangelistic missionary endeavors.

Seminary students pondering the lecture from Dr. Freeman.

On Friday morning Rev. Dr. Curtis Freeman delivered a lecture titled “The Dys-Eased Conscience of American Evangelicalism” for Windows on the World in McInnis Auditorium.  He summarized his diagnosis and concern of the contemporary American Evangelical conscience as follows:

“But something is happening to the conscience among evangelical Christians in America. Whatever it is, it is contributing to a condition so severe that there no longer seems to be much of a conscience left in American evangelicalism. That something is what provoked Carl F. H. Henry, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo [each of whom are former, current or emeritus faculty at Eastern University and Palmer Theological Seminary] and other prophetic voices to sound the alarm that awakened the evangelical conscience from its dogmatic slumber. But something is going on now that is causing the uneasy conscience of evangelical Christianity to become eased again. And in the words of the prophet Amos, “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1 KJV). What is the cause of this easing of the evangelical conscience? Perhaps it is the traumatic effect of enduring long-term stress, which is resulting in something far more serious than a kind of moral exhaustion from prolonged anxiety about social concerns. Whatever it is, American evangelicalism is exhibiting signs that it is suffering from a condition that is disordered and pathological, so that it is no longer un-eased, or even eased, but rather can only rightly be described as dys-eased or perhaps even diseased. To suggest that the evangelical conscience is diseased is to note that it is no longer troubled by injustice, that it is no longer concerned about the difference between right and wrong, that it no longer recognizes unrighteousness that must be righted. The evangelical conscience is no longer attuned to the suffering of the world. It has become callous so that it no longer feels pain. It is as if it has been cauterized with a hot iron so that the moral nerves have been destroyed (1 Tim 4:14). To put it bluntly, there is an atrophy, a wasting away, a disease in the evangelical conscience. The pathology of this moral disorder, seems to be degenerative and progressive, and unless it is halted, the diagnosis may be terminal, for it hard to imagine that evangelical Christianity can long survive without a healthy and functioning conscience.”

Dr. Freeman delivers his lecture at Windows on the World in McInnis Hall Auditorium on September 14, 2018.

Dr. Freeman identifies three symptoms of a dys-eased, or diseased, conscience:

“Frist, it is a sign the conscience has become dys-eased when it focuses on individualistic morality severed from wider social and structural realities.”

“Second, it is an indication that the conscience is dys-eased when it is more a reflection of the agendas of the social and political majority than a response to the weak and vulnerable whom Jesus called “the least”.

“Finally, it is a sign of dys-ease when the conscience becomes a tool of selfish material and economic interests rather than a means of discerning the direction of God’s reign in the world.”

However, he notes, and laments, that this is a dramatic and disconcerting departure from the origins of the Evangelical Movement in early 20th Century America.

“Yet the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit results in a conscience that is sensitive and responsive to social problems. Evangelicals like Henry, [Ron Sider and Tony Campolo] contended for a both-and approach that demanded personal and social righteousness. To put it simply, evangelicalism in America began with and is unintelligible apart from an intact and fully functioning conscience… ‘God expects His changed people to change the world.’ Changed people changing the world. That is the evangelical conscience.”

The urgent need and challenge for all churches, Evangelical and otherwise, is to facilitate and nurture the formation of the conscience among its members so that they — we — will be the the “salt” and “light” in the world that Jesus commissions us to be.  It is the mission of the Campolo Center, Eastern University and Palmer Theological Seminary to contribute to the spiritual and moral formation of the Campolo Scholars and all of our students so they will become effective and faithful leaders in our churches and all sectors of society. 

After his lecture, Dr. Freeman joined students, faculty, staff and guests for a luncheon and discussion of questions and comments about his paper.

Campolo Center Executive Director, Robert Gauthier, Visiting Campolo Fellow, Dr. Freeman, and Campolo Scholar seminarian, James Williams at the post-lecture luncheon and Q& A

To conclude his visit, Rev. Dr. Freeman joined a discussion of “What is Education?” with Eastern University faculty and the Templeton Honors College.

Dr. Jeff Dill, Dr. Amy Richards, Dr. Phillip Cary, and Dr. Brian Williams discussing “What is Education?”

It was a busy and fruitful few days with Rev. Dr. Freedman. We are thankful to have been able to learn and grow through what he has shared, and we look forward to having him back. The Campolo Fellow’s Lecture Series continues on October 25-26, 2018 with visiting Campolo Fellow, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, from the Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.

*Special thanks to Campolo Scholar Ally Bartlett who contributed photos and commentary for this review.