Fr. Gregory Jenson: Conscience and the Christian Life of Virtue

If you are not a regular reader of Fr. Gregory Jensen’s blog Koinonia, bookmark, subscribe, or run down to your nearest internet cafe now! Seriously, Fr. Jensen offers some of the most cogent reflections on the Christian life (drawing deep from the Orthodox moral tradition) of any internet commentator that I know. “As iron sharpens iron, so sharpens a man the countenance of his friend” the scriptures tell us and one of the great benefits of internet dialogue (in spite of its raucous and sometimes irresponsible character) is that good people teach us good things that we need to know.

Below Fr. Gregory writes about the necessity of maintaining the distinction between person and sin, person and passion, person and ideology (however a given circumstance might require the distinction to be framed) in order to both protect the integrity of the conscience and ensure its proper formation. It’s the same distinction that I argue is collapsed in my recent article critiquing the Listening group on Facebook (Facebook “Listening” Group Drags Culture Wars into the Orthodox Church).

For the record, Fr. Gregory’s post was written before my essay and is not a response to it. Nevertheless, in clarifying why the distinction is necessary in the Christian life, it supports my point that the activist ideology of the Listening group is not only foreign to Orthodox thinking, but threatens a key anthropological insight that is essential to the Christian life. An excerpt is included below. The complete essay can be read on the Kononia website.

Source: Koinonia | By Fr. Gregory Jensen

A friend sent me this from a Russian Orthodox site:

First of all, homosexual acts will be included under the general umbrella of fornication. And note that it is the acts that are the issue. A person may be tempted by all sorts of things but unless he commits them he does not sin and should not be condemned. A man may be inclined towards homosexual acts, just as another man is inclined towards over-indulgence in alcohol or anger, neither of them are sinners unless they commit the act. Theologically speaking the Church does not accept that a person is “a homosexual”. And here there is a challenge for the Orthodox Church because the homosexual culture of today would very much like to re-define human beings not as men and women but with a qualifier: he is a “gay man” or she is a “straight woman”. This fundamentally un-Christian labeling must be resisted.

Homosexuality is not my primary concern here. I want to offer some thoughts on conscience. Specifically, I want to look at why a properly formed conscience is essential for Christian life.

Many American Christians have improperly formed consciences.  This isn’t to say that people are wicked—they almost never are—but it is to say that many of us don’t engage in moral reasoning in a way that is consonant with the Christian tradition.

Instead of thinking with the Church, that is with the saints throughout the ages, we think “for ourselves.” We often take great pride in this.  But we don’t really think for ourselves do we? What generally happens is that Christians end up thinking pretty much like everybody around us. We don’t hold to Christ’s view about a moral issue, or even come to our own conclusion. Instead we make our own whatever is the popular sentiment (I hesitate to use any term that would suggest more than a mere feeling) about the matter.

For many American Christians, the words quoted sound harsh. And yet the ability to distinguish between the sin and the sinner, or between the act and the actor, is what prevents us from being identified with our failures (or for that matter, our successes).  Put another way, the distinction the authors draw reminds us of the primacy of the person, and so of love, in Christian morality.

Unfortunately the primacy of the person—and so of love—is closed to those who reduce personal identity to ideology. Whether that ideology is, as in the quote, sexual, or political or economic doesn’t matter. An adjective—at best—reveals only an aspect of a person. When identity becomes absorbed by a qualifier the person in her uniqueness is lost. Further because we are created in the image of God our unique, personal identity is always a mystery to us known fully only to God. Because of this we are always tempted to short-change ourselves, to ignore the mystery of our own identity.


Read the entire article on the Koinonia website.


  1. Thanks for the link and the kind words Fr Hans!


  2. George Michalopulos :

    Fr Hans, I especially like your assertion that Fr Gregory sees the necessity to “maintain distinctions” between sin and sinner, person and ideology, etcl. That reminds me of the old Marxist canard that “the personal is political.” Those four words justified the horrendous murder of tens of millions of people during the Cold War.

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