How do we navigate between freedom of conscience and its limits? For Christians this means asking what the bible has to say to such situations.
A support group for same sex attracted youth at risk†, WayOut (a project run by Cobaw Community Health Services), made a discrimination complaint for being turned away when trying to book the Phillip Island Adventure Resort. The resort is operated by Brethren-run Christian Youth Camps, or CYC. The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (the Tribunal) found that CYC discriminated against Cobaw in denying the booking:
The conduct of the respondents [CYC] in refusing the booking was clearly based on their objection to homosexuality. They are entitled to their personal and religious beliefs. They are not entitled to impose their beliefs on others [WayOut] in a manner that denies them the enjoyment of their right to equality and freedom from discrimination in respect of a fundamental aspect of their being. [361 µ]
An analysis of the Tribunal’s decision (which is under appeal as of February 2011) is available elsewhere. The case is an Australian example where tensions between faith communities and public norms have entered the legal system. Given recent debate about the potential negative effect of a federal Charter of Rights (or Human Rights Act) on ‘religious freedom’, it is of interest that this case took place under the Victorian Charter of Rights and Responsibilities (2006) – the first major case of its kind. Nevertheless, the role the Charter played was inconsequential to the ultimate verdict of discrimination and it played a relatively minor role in the Tribunal’s reasoning – in fact, arguably too minor a role (another piece forthcoming on this; also see Cobaw & Charter Analysis).
The Cobaw decision raises the issue of religious conscience in the public domain. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states in Article 18, paragraph 1,
Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Article 18 also states that limits apply to the manifestation of religious belief,
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. (para 3)
How do we navigate between freedom and its necessary limits, especially where rights and freedoms are in conflict? For Christians this means asking questions about what the bible has to say to such situations.
Applying Christian Conscience: What Purpose?
The Cobaw case involved the application of Christian conscience in a particular situation. Rejecting WayOut’s booking was motivated by the conscience of the campsite manager, who saw the nature of WayOut’s activities to be morally troubling. As one of CYC’s directors stated in evidence,
…he, the board of CYC and the trustees of the Christian Brethren Trust would be most concerned that a group could attend the adventure resort for the purpose of promoting same sexual practice to young people. He said it would offend his religious sensibilities. 
This raises the question of the circumstances in which Christian conscience should be applied, particularly in relation to those not belonging to a Christian community. The question goes beyond entitlements to behaviour which conform to generally held public norms. WayOut’s purposes and activities fall within those norms. The issue at stake concerns (religious) norms which specifically differ from those generally accepted. CYC is running a public campsite where members of the general public can be expected to share general norms but may not be expected to conform with those held by a specific religious community. This suggests that an onus of responsibility lies with a religious community offering services to the general public to recognise if a gap might exist between generally held norms and those distinctive to a religious group, and to communicate to the public where the norms differ.
On the other hand, one might also ask if communicating such differences is always necessary and what purpose is served? Many Christian public services, historically and currently, operate with a ‘testimonial’ approach, rather than a ‘regulatory’ one. That is, services are offered to all regardless of faith, morals or lifestyle as testimony to God’s universal love. Non-discriminatory service testifies to the impartial goodness of God. For as Jesus observed,
God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matt 5:45)
Applying Conscience: Two Threshold Tests
Nevertheless, situations can arise which affect our ‘moral sensitivities’, or conscience. In 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul has an extensive discussion of Christian conscience in the context of the fledgling Christian community in first century Corinth. One key issue of conscience in the Corinthian church involved whether it was appropriate for Christians to eat food which had been dedicated to idols (1 Cor 8:1-8). He warns those with a “strong” conscience not to allow their freedom of conscience – in regard to food sacrificed to idols – to harm those of “weaker” conscience:
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. (1 Cor 8:9-11)
Paul goes further. He warns those whose consciences are troubled by idol-tainted food not to allow conscience to hinder the spread of the gospel by avoiding or questioning ‘unbelievers’:
27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. (1 Cor 10:27; my italics)
The instruction is only qualified where a meal becomes an invitation to explicitly honour the deity, or participate in a worshipful feast (v28; cf. 1 Cor 10:19-21). In such circumstances the problem is not merely offense to conscience but the potential impression that by partaking the Christian is also honouring the idols.
It is clear not only in 1 Corinthians but in Romans that conscience was of great importance to Paul (eg. Romans 13:5; 14:23). Yet he retains a flexible approach which in 1 Corinthians is informed by two key principles: mission and love. These principles can be seen as threshold tests for the application of Christian conscience. The threshold test of mission is concerned with the advancement of the gospel (see especially chapter 9). Paul illustrates his own flexibility in matters of conscience by raising one of his shibboleths, the issue of the Jewish Law (or, Torah) and Christian living:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. (1 Cor 9:20)
Paul comments on Corinthian concerns about conscience by showing how flexible he can be on conscience in regard to observing the Jewish Law. Paul was renowned as a staunch opponent of Torah-observance as a mandate for Christian living and salvation. Yet Paul did not stand upon this conviction in such a way that it might restrict opportunities for promoting the gospel. Thus he avoids strictly applying his conscience in the presence of Law-observant Jews. In the book of Acts Paul even leads a group in Jewish Temple purification rites and sacrifices as part of an effort to build bridges with the Jewish community (Acts 21:26). Paul’s mission principle is not simply for apostles or evangelists and is to be applied inside and outside Christian communities, as this passage makes clear:
32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. (1 Cor 10:32-33)
In Paul’s language, “Jews” and “Greeks” refer to those who are not part of the Christian community. Conscience-based action should cause no one outside the church to ‘stumble’. The phrase in v33, ‘even as I’, is a reference to following Paul’s approach and is addressed to the whole community of Christians at Corinth and beyond.
Regardless of the role or office of a Christian, or how deeply held the conviction might be, advancing the gospel is a threshold test of whether – and in what way – it is appropriate to stand on conscience. Applying this to the public domain, the question that arises is how exercising a right to conscience will affect the furtherance of the gospel? Will it cause anyone ‘to stumble’ (10:32) in their movement towards Christ? This key question poses others, such as; integrity (eg. 1 Cor 10:28); scandal (1 Cor 1:23); and reputation (1 Cor 10:32). If Paul’s deliberations on conscience in 1 Corinthians is occasioned by internal church relations, how much more important is the mission principle for those whose primary activities are in the public domain?
The second threshold test for conscience is love. The theme of love permeates chapters 8 – 14 of 1 Corinthians and reaches its zenith in the celebrated chapter 13, where ‘love’ is parsed into action-based, relational terms:
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor 13:4-7)
While this particularly addresses relationships within the Corinthian community, where the friction lies, it is by no means restricted to that community. Love is the most universal and exalted Christian virtue, as the climax of chapter 13 makes clear,
These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:13)
Conscience, like knowledge, power and giftings, must give way to the practical demands of love.
Applying Conscience: Taking A Different Vantage Point
Nevertheless, resolving issues arising from conscience are not as simple as all this might first appear. In many instances matters of conscience are felt to be one and the same with what is believed to promote the faith, or with what is felt to be loving. While 1 Corinthians does not resolve this paradox, at the very least it warns against collapsing ‘what is loving’ into ‘my conscience is saying…’ Rather, questions about how to act from conscience should begin from other starting points – such as what it means to demonstrate kindness and practice patience (1 Cor 13:4), and what effect acting on conscience might have on someone’s journey to faith.
The principles of mission and love are summarised by Paul as not seeking “our own good but the good of others” (1 Cor 10:24). Conscience often stems from a personal perspective on an issue. Perhaps one intention behind moving from “our” conscience to “the good” of another is an effort to re-orient our perspective. Paul illustrates the point as he pursues the potentially negative effects of acting on conscience on the ‘strong’ believer or the ‘weak’. Obviously such re-orientation can never be complete, but the effort to do so is important. As a result 1 Corinthians 8-10 entail that Christians take a liberal and flexible approach on matters of conscience – particularly so in regard to unbelievers and the public domain.
Conclusion: Pastoral and Biblical Reminders
In cases such as Cobaw much more theological reflection needs to be done. For instance, the neglected theme of biblical hospitality should be examined, particularly given that this case involves a group of young people who see themselves as subjects of abuse, violence and exclusion. Christian communities have been poor at theological and pastoral engagement with human rights, as is evident from many Christian submissions to the National Human Rights Consultation∞. The theological and pastoral dimensions of issues such as religious conscience and freedom in the public sphere deserve more attention. This discussion of conscience is a starting point for that rather than an answer to what mission and love might mean in the specific circumstances of this case. It suggests that those involved in faith activities in the public sphere consider such principles as they shape policies and interact with others in the public domain.
† “same sex attracted” is a description for those with feelings of attraction to people of the same sex rather than as a designation of one’s sexual orientation. The term ‘at risk’ is used to describe difficulties young people face as they work out their sexuality, such as family conflict, bullying, violence, substance abuse, depression and suicide.
µ The references in [square brackets] are to the paragraphs in the decision, available at www.austlii.edu.au and search: Cobaw Community Health Services Limited.
∞ Submissions to the National Human Rights Consultation are available on the Consultation’s website.