Facing Up to Questions of Conscience
“I am not conscious of anything against myself. Yet by this I am not proved righteous, but he that examines me is Jehovah.”—1 Cor. 4:4.
1. What still remains true of the moral sense of people generally?
DESPITE the flood of immorality, dishonesty and crime today, not all persons in the world of mankind are “past all moral sense.” (Eph. 4:19) As in Paul’s day, there are some today who, though not having accurate knowledge of God’s Word, still retain a measure of decency, a vestige of that inner moral sense we call conscience.
2, 3. How do Paul’s words at Romans 2:12-16 throw light on the matter, and what do they help us to understand as to human laws and decent conduct on the part of many individuals?
2 Paul said of the non-Israelite nations, those that were never under the Law covenant: “For whenever people of the nations that do not have law do by nature the things of the law, these people, although not having law [that is, a law code from God], are a law to themselves.” In what way? In that “they are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them and, between their own thoughts, they are being accused or even excused.” (Rom. 2:12-16) So this “law” that they are “to themselves” is not a law that they themselves make for themselves regardless of what others think.
3 This moral nature, inherited from God’s first human son, operates as a “law” or rule of conduct in people of all races and nationalities, now as in the past. This explains why the national or tribal laws of virtually all people have reflected at least some of God’s righteous standards, even though these peoples were without the Bible as their guide. It explains why individuals, though not true servants of Jehovah God or even professed Christians, may live generally “decent” lives, often manifesting adherence to certain good principles. At the same time it explains why God could justly hold not only his covenant people of Israel but the whole world of mankind ‘liable for punishment,’ and why, in the coming expression of his judgment, he can justly “render to each one according to his works.”—Rom. 2:6; 3:9, 19.
4, 5. (a) How can the Christian shame those who speak slightingly of his conduct? (b) Give examples.
4 Because of being separate from the world of mankind that is alienated from God, the Christian will suffer opposition. (John 15:18-20) But this does not exempt him from acting so as to appeal to whatever sense of decency, justice or morality that may still remain in persons of the world. People may misinterpret the motive for our separateness, calling us ‘haters of everyone,’ ‘antisocial,’ and accuse us of being inconsiderate, fanatical, unmerciful. The apostle Peter shows we can and should act so as to disarm our critics. “Hold a good conscience,” he exhorts, “so that in the particular in which you are spoken against they may get ashamed who are speaking slightingly of your good conduct in connection with Christ. For it is better to suffer because you are doing good, if the will of God wishes it, than because you are doing evil.”—1 Pet. 3:16, 17.
5 In modern times there are abundant examples where Christian kindness, helpfulness or generosity toward persons in the world has completely changed their attitude toward Jehovah’s Kingdom proclaimers and their work and message. Even when they are unjustly persecuted and put into prisons and concentration camps, their fine conscientious work and respectful way has caused Jehovah’s servants to gain the esteem of officials, and they have been placed in positions of trust and responsibility, just as was Joseph in ancient Egypt.—Gen. 39:21-23.
6. How does conscience affect the Christian’s relationship with worldly governments?
6 Jehovah God has allowed human governments to function on earth and he lets them serve as his “minister” to the extent of punishing much crime and wrongdoing. As long as God lets these governments stand, the Christian should not oppose them, should not act unlawfully. He cannot expect God’s protection if he commits wrong deeds and suffers for it at the hand of officials. But there is a greater reason than fear of governmental punishment that should move us to be law-abiding persons. Romans 13:5 tells us: “There is therefore compelling reason for you people to be in subjection, not only on account of that wrath [expressed in governmental punishment of crime] but also on account of your conscience.” The penalty’s being light or severe is not what governs the Christian’s attitude. His conscience moves him to do what is right, for he knows that, whether “Caesar” governments on earth take action or not, “we must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of the Christ.”—2 Cor. 5:10.
7. In ‘appealing to the consciences’ of others, can we safely let their consciences set the standard for our own?
7 Of course, we can never let the unenlightened or defiled and depraved consciences of others set the standard for our own consciences. Our conscience must be guided by God’s Word and spirit and so may at times testify exactly to the contrary of what certain officials want of us. Then we must conscientiously respond as did the apostles: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29-32.
8. Give examples of basic commands, prohibitions and principles found in God’s Word that should mold Christian conscience.
8 The Bible is very clear, for example, in showing the need for true Christians to free themselves from all association with “Babylon the Great,” the world empire of false religion. (Rev. 18:2-5; 2 Cor. 6:14-18) It shows that Christians are to be “no part of the world,” hence not sharing in its politics or striving for the success of its anti-Kingdom goals. (John 17:14; 18:36; Jas. 4:4) Unequivocally the Bible sets forth the sanctity of blood, of human life and also the standard for God’s people to ‘beat their swords into plowshares and not learn war anymore,’ since their fight is ‘not against flesh and blood’ but against demon powers. (Gen. 9:4-6; Isa. 2:2-4; Eph. 6:11, 12) God’s Word is also specific and definite in its denunciation of sexual immorality in all its forms (fornication, adultery and homosexuality), as well as of other misconduct such as drunkenness, dishonesty and theft.—1 Cor. 6:9, 10; John 8:44; Eph. 4:28.
DIFFICULT DECISIONS OF CONSCIENCE
9. (a) Inasmuch as the Christian is not without Scriptural laws and principles, why is it that questions of conscience still arise? (b) What generally determines how great a part individual conscience must play in deciding on the rightness or wrongness of a matter?
9 Thus there are many, many acts and practices that are specifically approved or condemned in the Bible. Many, many others are clearly in harmony with, or in violation of, principles contained therein. Yet, particularly in the modern, complex society that has developed in many parts of the earth, there remain situations and circumstances where personal decision, based on the individual conscience of the one involved, is required. So many things in life are a matter of degree. The difference between a gentle pat and a vicious blow is a matter of degree of force. The difference between simple respect—as, for example, respect to a ruler or a national emblem—and reverential worship is also a matter of degree. Where extremes are involved there is no real question. It is when the matter comes within what might be called a ‘gray area,’ approaching the borderline between what is clearly right and what is clearly wrong, that questions arise. The closer to such ‘borderline situation’ the matter comes, the greater the part the individual’s conscience must play in his decision. Faced with such circumstances, what should we do?
10, 11. (a) What does God expect of us when such questions of conscience arise? (b) When faced with such a personal matter of conscience, should we expect some ruling to be handed down telling us what to do, and who should bear the responsibility for our decision? (c) What do such decisions reveal about us to God?
10 Jehovah God expects us to use our faculties of intelligence, our knowledge, understanding and judgment, and to do conscientiously what our faith points us to do. God does not place us under the conscience of some other human in such matters. We must each make our own decision in harmony with conscience—conscience molded by God’s Word. We must also take the consequences of our own decisions, not expect someone else to make the decision and bear that responsibility for us.
11 It would therefore be wrong in such matters to try to extract from someone else, from a body of elders or from the governing body of the Christian congregation, some rule or regulation that ‘draws the line’ on matters. Where God’s Word does not itself ‘draw the line,’ no human has the right to add to that Word by doing so. God in his wisdom allows us to show what we are in the “secret person of the heart,” and the decisions we make in such personal cases may reveal this. True, we may err at times without wrong motive, and God, who reads our hearts, can discern this.
12. Does the fact that we are not conscious of any wrongdoing of itself guarantee our righteousness? For what reason?
12 But whatever our decisions, and even though these are made with a clear conscience, we must always realize that, in the final analysis, God will be the One to make manifest the rightness or wrongness of our course and that in his own due time and way. Recognizing this, the apostle Paul wrote: “For I am not conscious of anything against myself. Yet by this I am not proved righteous, but he that examines me is Jehovah. Hence do not judge anything before the due time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring the secret things of darkness to light and make the counsels of the hearts manifest, and then each one will have his praise come to him from God.”—1 Cor. 4:3-5.
13. (a) What does Romans 14:4, 10-12 show as to the right attitude to take toward the one who makes such personal decisions of conscience? (b) However, where do the consciences of those in positions of responsibility in the congregation also come into play with regard to such ones?
13 Where such ‘borderline’ cases arise, we should not place ourselves as judges of the individual who must make his own conscientious decision. Nor should we ourselves feel guilty of making a mistake by recognizing such individual as still an approved servant of God if his decision on a ‘borderline’ case is not precisely what ours would have been. God is his Judge. (Rom. 14:4, 10-12) On the other hand, those in responsible positions in the Christian congregation must also exercise their own consciences in their oversight of the congregation. Though they may feel that their decision would have been different from that of some brother in a particular matter, the protest of their consciences may be very mild, due to the Scriptures’ apparently leaving the matter within the realm of personal decision. If the individual gives evidence of having acted with a clean conscience, their consciences may allow them to assign him responsibility or recommend him for some position of responsibility. Nevertheless, it may be that their consciences will speak with sufficient strength in the matter so that they cannot conscientiously recommend him in this way. Again, God is their Judge and they are not to be condemned.
14. What questions now come up for discussion?
14 Many times these ‘borderline’ questions arise in the field of employment. Does the work you do allow you to have a clean conscience before God? Does it allow you to ‘recommend yourself to every human conscience’ as a genuine follower of Jesus Christ? These are important questions we will consider in the following article.
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Should you write to the Society for a ruling on this matter? Where a personal decision, based on your conscience, is required, the decision is yours to make. Act so as to have a clean conscience before God