IN HIS EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS St. Paul speaks of a distinction between Jews and Gentiles. Jews, he indicates, have the Law (the Torah), the record of God’s revelation to Moses, as their guide, unlike the Gentiles. This does not make them superior or holier in any way, “For there is no partiality with God” (Romans 2:11).
St Paul goes on to note that there are sinners and righteous people among both Jews and Gentiles. Sinful Jews “will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:12-13). Gentiles, “who do not have the Law,” (v. 14) have another standard by which they are judged. Gentiles, who “by nature do the things in the Law … who show the work of the law written in their hearts,” (v .15) are judged by whether their conscience is in accord with the way of God. “In the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (v. 16) Gentiles will be judged by the witness of their conscience.
The Lord Jesus’ parable of the last judgment (cf., Matthew 25:31-46) expresses the same teaching in story form: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the Gentiles will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (v. 31-32). Some are judged righteous because “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me” (v. 35-36). While commentators usually stress the charitable basis of the judgment, the point of the parable is actually that the righteous Gentiles served Christ without knowing Him: “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You?” (v. 37). These righteous Gentiles were simply following their conscience, doing what they felt was right. But when a person’s conscience leads them to love God’s creation as He does, then “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (v. 40).
What Is Conscience?
The idea that there is something within a person which leads them to decide what is right or wrong is found in many ancient cultures. Conscience, as St Paul uses the term, comes from the thought of the Greek and Roman philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, Seneca and Philo. It is described as a sense of moral awareness or consciousness that enables a person to judge something to be ethically right or wrong.
Those with a well-developed conscience have a keen sense of right and wrong. People with no such beliefs may be amoral, even sociopaths with no principles governing their lives other than their own needs or desires.
Early Christian thinkers like St Clement of Alexandria and St Justin the Philosopher saw the truths in classical philosophy as preparing the Greeks to meet Christ just as the Torah did for the Jews. They saw the best of human thought as leading inevitably to the teachings of the Lord Jesus. This is why in many Byzantine churches frescoes depicting the pagan Greek philosophers were placed on the outer porches. Thus it was natural for St. Paul to use the philosophical term conscience when speaking about Greeks.
A Christian Conscience
Christians are called to form their consciences, their sense of right and wrong, not from secular philosophy but according to the teachings of Holy Tradition. Thus, when Fathers like Ss. Ambrose, Cyril of Jerusalem or John Chrysostom instructed catechumens, they used as examples the Biblical figures who personified the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.
St Basil the Great developed a coherent system of Christian ethics in his works The Judgment of God, Faith and Morals. He, too, based his teaching on the Scriptures but not simply on isolated passages. The word of God, he insisted, had to be proclaimed all-inclusively so that people could correctly form their consciences. St Basil warned the clergy to be sure to preach the word of God in its fullness; if they omitted some necessary teaching they would be accountable for their hearers’ transgressions.
For an Eastern Christian, that fullness is based, not on principles of philosophy, but on the mystery of our salvation in Jesus Christ. It consists ultimately in putting on what St Paul calls “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16) which we discover in the pages of the Gospels. We also understand this mind to be expressed in other elements of Tradition, the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Church. These include all the Scriptures as well as the creeds, the writings of the Church Fathers, the texts of our liturgy, the canons of the councils, the icons, and the witness of the saints.
The Mind of Christ Today
The heart of the authentic Tradition – in contrast to mere custom – is marked by its continuity with the practice of the apostolic Church and by its agreement with the consensus of the Church’s experience through the ages. Thus, for example, abortion has been condemned by the historic Churches since the first century. Similarly sexual activity between any except married couples has never been accepted in the Church. The unbroken Tradition is that God’s purpose for sexuality is directed at something more than bodily pleasure. In such cases we cannot claim to be discerning the mind of Christ by picking and choosing those teachings of the Tradition which suit us. Rather we are called to embrace the entire authentic Tradition which the Church has received it and passed it on to us.
Other issues seem to fall into much grayer areas where there is no clear or unwavering Tradition. Thus Christians can claim precedents for pacifism and for supporting the government or the armed forces in both Scripture and Tradition. Politics, the economy, the environment and social ethics are contemporary issues on which Christians often take opposing stands. As long as there is no clear teaching on such questions, Christians may take whatever stand is in accord with their conscience.
Some may not feel any guilt at supporting a free-market economy or open borders while others, who find these practices objectively wrong, would be morally guilty if they condoned them. The one person violates his conscience by endorsing such an act; the other person would not be guilty of sin for doing so.
The dilemma of conflicting consciences is a classic theme in Western literature. A recent example is A Man for All Seasons, the drama about St Thomas More who resisted King Henry VIII in his drive to separate the Church of England from Rome. When Thomas refused to endorse the king’s plan, his friend the Duke of Norfolk advised him, “Oh, just come along and do it.” Thomas More responded, “Oh, that’s fine for you. Your conscience allows you to do that. And when you die, you go to heaven. And as for me, I go to hell.” And Norfolk says, “Well, do it for friendship’s sake.” And he says, “When I go to hell, Norfolk, will you come with me ‘for friendship’s sake’?”