Tag Archive for conscience

Judging Areas of Freedom (5)

Modern Christians are in the habit of labelling all sorts of things as ‘matters of Christian liberty’ or ‘areas of preference’. We do not doubt that these adiaphora (“indifferent things”) exist; Scripture explicitly deals with them in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10. The question is, how do we identify them?

Genuine adiaphora can be identified by a process of elimination. Anything explicitly commanded or prohibited is clearly not an area of liberty. Further, anything forbidden or commanded by a more general principle cannot be an area of liberty either. If we can supply good and clear warrant for connecting a Scriptural principle to a practice, we no longer have an area where Christians may have opposite convictions and both be pleasing to Christ.

After this process of elimination, what will remain are those matters where multiple principles, of equal weight, seem to apply, some of which seem to point in opposite directions. In these cases, no Scriptural principle will clearly take precedence over another. Further, the information we obtain from the world to understand this practice may have meaning on various levels. Here is where careful judgement must take over. Among the questions we will ask are:

1) How is this thing typically used? What activities, actions and ends is it used for?
2) Does it make provision for the flesh (Ro 13:14)? Are you fleeing from sin and lust by doing this? (2 Tim 2:22)?
3) Does it open an area of temptation or possible accusation which Satan could exploit (Eph 4:27)? Are you taking the way of escape from temptation by doing this (1 Cor 10:13)?
4) Is there a chance of enslavement, or addiction (1 Cor 6:12)?
5) Does it spiritually numb you, and feed the flesh or worldliness within (Ro 6:12-13)?
6) Does it edify you (1 Cor 10:23)?
7) With what is this thing or activity associated? Does it have the appearance of evil (1 Thes 5:22)? Does it adorn the Gospel (Tis 2:10)?
8) Could an unbeliever or another believer easily misunderstand your action? Does it lend itself to misunderstandings (Ro 14:16)?
9) Could your action embolden a Christian with unsettled convictions to fall back into sin (1 Cor 8:7-13)?
10) Could your action cause an unbeliever confusion over the Gospel or Christian living (1 Cor 10:27-28)?

If two Christians seeking to please God could answer the above questions honestly and yet differently, we have a genuine area of liberty.

But notice, we have not here been agnostic of meaning. Instead, since the area is neither explicitly commanded or prohibited, we have been especially scrupulous with meaning. The example which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 8-10 shows us that the focus for adiaphora is not the preference of the person, but the meaning of the situation. Paul teaches that the solution for adiaphora is a careful judgement of meaning. These are not areas of freedom to do whatever appeals to you. These are areas in which all Christians have the freedom to judge carefully, and then obey that judgement (I Cor 10:25, Rom 14:20, 22-23).

Having been careful with our inner judgement, we are then to be charitable with others who have followed the same process and come to different conclusions. In particular, Romans 14 calls on believers to neither despise or judge one another when we come to opposite conclusions. Further, the strong are to bear with the weak, Paul instructs. Who then are the weak?

The weaker brother is not always the ‘stricter’ brother. By this logic, every move towards permissiveness would be a move toward maturity. To abstain from some practices hardly makes one weak in conscience. Someone strong in faith may have a particularly ‘strict’ conviction, relative to another believer.
The weaker brother is not the more easily offended brother. This brother is simply the crabbier brother. He is a brother who takes personal offence where he should not, and needs to be discipled in the virtues of forbearance and patience.

The weaker brother is the brother whose conscience has not settled, who is prone to falling back into a pattern of sin. He is tossed to and fro in his understanding of the adiaphora. He may find refuge in extreme denials and abstinences, but he will just as quickly fall back into foolish indulgence. His weakness is not his abstinence, nor his thin skin. His weakness is his lack of stability in judgement, and the volatility of his conscience. This brother, whose conscience is wobbly and unstable, is to be carefully guided by those Christians whose consciences have settled. They are to limit themselves, sometimes denying their own freedoms, to protect the believer from unwise or foolish choices while he cements his convictions.

Matters of Conscience and Freedom (4)

Scripture devotes two sections of the New Testament to explain how certain choices in the Christian life are not explicitly or implicitly forbidden or prescribed: explicitly by commands or prohibitions, or implicitly by a very clear application of general Scriptural principles. These two sections are Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. Here we meet matters sometimes called adiaphora (‘indifferent things’). Specifically given as examples of adiaphora are eating food offered to idols, and the observance of days. Modern Christians have, perhaps without warrant, classed many other things as examples of adiaphora: entertainment, dress, recreation, drugs and alcohol, language, and even sexual purity. Since, in the minds of some, these then become examples of ‘liberty’, and any questioning of them becomes some form of legalism, bondage, or narrowness, it is worth debunking some evangelical haziness about adiaphora.

Adiaphora are not “externals”. This is a quick-‘n-easy term for lazy minds who prefer to abbreviate judgement into split-second intuitions. Nothing about adiaphora makes them clearly something external as opposed to internal, whatever the proponents might actually mean by that vague categorisation. This unfortunate and unhelpful dichotomy probably comes from misinterpreting Christ’s words in Mark 7:14-23, where He explains that the defiling matter is not the food that goes into the body, but the sin that emerges from the heart. I once heard a theological dabbler tell a room full of people involved in Christian radio that this Scripture means that the music that goes in our ears can never defile us; only our hearts’ reactions can defile us. I wanted to ask if that holds with watching pornography, but all the heads nodding around the room told me that a lot of ears were getting a pleasant scratch at that moment, and my interruption would hardly go down well. Clearly, the point of Christ’s words is not that anything we take into our eyes or ears is incapable of defiling us. The point was to teach some Pharisees that foods declared unclean were not intrinsically evil, and the far greater moral danger lay within. At any rate, if we are to keep this ridiculous external/internal method of dividing up the Christian life, there is very little that I cannot happily lump with the less important “externals”: what I watch, listen to, wear, eat, drink, where I go, what I buy, how I spend leisure time. Pretty soon, what is genuinely “internal” is conveniently a closely guarded-secret: my thoughts about God, or my Gospel-centred meditations.

What’s going on here is that a generation of Fundamentalists made lists of rules regarding dress, makeup, theatres, haircuts, beards, and rock music, and the children of those Fundamentalists are now responding with their much shorter two-column list. As silly as some of those lists might have been, and as ridiculous as it was to dictate to everyone’s conscience, this does not mean all of previous Fundamentalism was ‘external’ and the prodigious present generation have newly discovered ‘internal’ Christianity. Rather, what we should hope to say is that while the previous generation often attempted to define the boundaries of their movement by dictating what the conscience should believe, the present generation is attempting to teach sound judgement for the conscience. That might be wildly optimistic, but it’s a better articulation of the issue than this silly and unhelpful internal/external dichotomy.

Adiaphora are not meaningless. It is common for people free-wheeling in their thoughts about matters of liberty to say that adiaphora refer to matters without any meaning or moral significance. They like to say that these matters are ‘morally-neutral’. But this is impossible, because in God’s universe, everything that exists has a meaning. And since it is meaning-laden, it is not amoral. In a personal, moral universe, there is a sense in which molecules, galaxies, sound waves and scents are moral. In a second sense, objects or potential actions which are not clearly morally defiling or edifying can become instruments of moral action by humans. What Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10 teach us is that some objects or actions do not have a fixed, intrinsic morality pertaining to their use. In other words, while there is a command, “You shall not steal”, there is no command, “You shall not eat food offered to idols.” Instead, the action of eating food offered to idols requires careful judgement. In some circumstances, it is wise and permitted; in others, it is unwise or even forbidden. It can be used both ways, but once used, the action is either sinful or obedient. It is certainly not meaningless.

Adiaphora are not always unimportant. Though the Greek term adiaphora (“indifferent things”) might lead us into thinking we can be indifferent to their importance, this is not the meaning of the term. In Greek philosophy, the adiaphora were those matters that could not be differentiated into either good or evil. This did not make them unimportant, merely difficult to classify or judge. Some Christians infer that clear prescription or prohibition in Scripture indicates a priority to God, while an apparent silence proves an indifference, or lack of concern, on God’s part. While it is fair to say that what is essential will be communicated in the Bible, and what is non-essential will not, this is a far cry from saying that a lack of explicit Scripture on a topic indicates it is of little import. This reasoning would make most ethical matters (abortion, bio-ethics, the environment, death penalty etc.) unimportant. Simply because a matter requires we use careful, critical judgement in the absence of explicit Scripture hardly makes a given matter unimportant.

The role of preference in adiaphora must be properly defined. Proponents of this phraseology, “preference-issue” or “matters of preference” suggest that matters of conscience are determined by the internal likes or dislikes of the Christian in question. Now, it is true that when we have eliminated the forbidden and the unwise, and remain uncertain on the best or wisest choice, we must do what we think is best. But by this definition, preference is simply good judgement – thoughtfully parsing meaning so as to glorify God. If this is how we define ‘preference’, well and good – let preference guide. But what some people mean when they tout preference is that we should determine these matters merely by what we arbitrarily like, what tickles our fancy, what amuses or pleases us, and that such pleasure or displeasure has no moral significance, like choosing between red and blue. But this misses the real point: why does something please you, and should it please you? If you bother answering those questions, then you mean preference in the first, good sense: good judgement. If you don’t ask those questions, then what you mean by preference could be defined as prejudice, whimsical inclinations, or merely appetites. And I hardly think Paul would summarise Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8-10 with the words, “Look, in these areas, just do what feels good, you know?”