What is the relationship between conscience and the Word of God? To understand that we need some grasp of what conscience is.
No one image or metaphor is adequate to describe conscience. As much as anything else, conscience is the ability to put yourself in the place of others and to look at yourself through the eyes of others. This ability is presupposed by Jesus' injunction, "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets." (Mt. 7:12 NIV)
There are at least three primary orientations for assuming a standpoint outside ourselves in relation to others. We can assume a standpoint above others, equal to others, or below others. Jesus commands that we exercise this capacity with humility (looking back on ourselves from a standpoint equal to or below others) and not with arrogance (looking down on others).
Arrogance was the chief sin of the Pharisees. They put themselves in the place of God and presumed to look down on others through the eyes of God. They succumbed to the temptation to "be as gods" in the eyes of others. (Gen. 3:5 KJV). Jesus set explicit parameters on this, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Mt. 7:1-2 NIV).
The source of the Pharisee's sin was their pride in the law. History demonstrated that neglecting the law would lead to judgment. The Pharisees were determined to defend the law. Forgetting the Spirit of the law, they adhered to its letter. That is why their eyes were veiled. Their consciences were shaped by the letter of the law and not by a Spirit of love. (2 Cor. 3:1-18)
For Pharisees, the law became an idol. It was their standard of perfection. Measuring fidelity to the law required increasingly detailed and narrow interpretations of its meaning. Then the interpretations were enforced as law. By the time Jesus came, their consciences were so insensitive to the Truth that they refused to believe that the age had come when the law would be written on human hearts. Jesus had rejected their interpretations and claimed to fulfill the law -- an impossibility, in Pharisee eyes, and dangerous. With the certainty of consciences shaped by law and measured by reason, they judged it better that "one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." (John 11:50 NIV)
With this in mind, it may be possible to identify the distraction that has been diverting Baptists' attention from the voice of God in our consciences. Baptists are people of the book. The Bible is the world in which we live and move and have our being. We take pride in the Bible. Too much pride.
The chief sin among Baptists is our inordinate pride in the Bible. History, we have been told, demonstrates that neglecting the Bible leads to judgment. Many Baptists have determined to defend the Bible. Forgetting the Spirit that gives life, we adhere to the letter that kills. (2 Cor. 3:6) Now, Baptist eyes are being veiled because our consciences are being shaped by the law more than by the gospel.
In essence, for Baptists, the Bible has become an idol. The Bible, more than Jesus, is our standard of perfection. Measuring fidelity to the Bible has required increasingly detailed and narrow interpretations of its meaning. For Southern Baptists, these interpretations have been approved as confessions and enforced as creeds. Many Baptists have become so insensitive to the Truth that whenever the Lord leads a professor or pastor or missionary to question an approved interpretation, they are deprived of opportunities to serve.
Baptists need to be reminded that the Word of God that speaks to our conscience is the Living Word. The best way to acknowledge the priority of the Living Word in our lives is to reaffirm that "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." Then we need to try to read the Bible with Jesus' eyes and look at others with the same spirit of humility and sacrificial love with which he looked at them.