Since your Imperial Majesty desires a clear, simple, and precise answer I will give you one which has neither horns nor teeth: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, or by patent, clear, and cogent reasons and arguments (for I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone, since it is evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves) and because the passages adduced and quoted by me have convinced and bound my conscience in God's Word, therefore I cannot and will not recant, since it is neither safe nor advisable to do anything against conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise! God help me! Amen.
From Life of Luther, by Gustav Just, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1903, translated from the German by S. and H.
Where did Luther get the idea that he could deny the authority of the Roman Catholic Church by appealing to Scripture and conscience? From the Apostle Paul.
When Paul was arrested on the accusation of taking Gentiles into the temple, he was brought before the Cheif Priest and the Jewish Council. He defended himself by an appeal to conscience and Scripture.
And Paul, earnestly beholding the council, said, Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day. And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law? And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God's high priest? Then said Paul, I wist not (did not know), brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.
Then, the Apostle was taken before Felix, the Roman Governor at Caesarea, and again Paul defended himself by appealing to Scripture and conscience.
Neither can they prove the things whereof they now accuse me. But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets: And have hope toward God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust. And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.
Indeed, the Apostle Paul many times appeals to conscience as authority. For example —
Romans 9:1 — I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost....
II Corinthians 11:12 — For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward.
I Timothy 1:5 — Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned:
I Timothy 3:2,9 — A bishop then must be... Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.
II Timothy 1:3 — I thank God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, that without ceasing I have remembrance of thee in my prayers night and day;
Hebrews 13:18 — Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.
However, the Apostle Paul notes different conditions of the conscience, depending on the believer's relationship to Scripture and God.
Romans 2:14,15 — For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)
I Corinthians 8:7-9 — Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.
I Corinthians 10:29 — ...for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience?
I Timothy 1:18,19 — This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck:
Titus 1:15,16 — Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.
Hebrews 9:14 — How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Indeed, conscience is always our final authority. However, it must be based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and careful study of Scripture. Church leadership assists in and influences this process of basing our beliefs on truth, but no pastor or minister rules our conscience. Church leadership speaks for the community consensus and experience, but our final decisions on what we believe are our own.