Monthly Archives: October 2019

Preference and Amorality

Adiaphora (indifferent matters) are misunderstood on two grounds. First, evangelicals misunderstand the term indifferent to mean unimportant. Second, evangelicals conflate the moral neutrality of adiaphora themselves into morally neutral actions once they are used.

First of all, “indifferent” things has nothing to do with feeling indifferent about a matter. Adiaphora does not mean “matters of little consequence”. The term originates from ancient Greek schools of thought, where it referred to the inability to differentiate two things logically, or the inability to differentiate whether morality demanded a thing or forbad it. In other words, the “indifference” was not a feeling of apathy or boredom with the issue. It had to do with the difficulty of differentiating, not with the unimportance of the issue.

Indeed, consider how formative are those matters which are commonly considered to be preference. Music shapes character and forms the Christian imagination. The observance of days of worship or rest has profound effects on our godliness. Food and drink can be used for asceticism, gluttony, drunkenness and broader immorality. Forms of recreation, leisure activities, what we watch and listen to, the places we frequent, the clothes we wear, may indeed be matters of preference. This hardly makes them inconsequential for godly living.

Second, “indifferent” things do not remain morally neutral once used by a moral agent. Certainly, food by itself does not commend us to God one way or another (1 Cor. 8:8). The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Ro. 14:17). Yes, the heart is established by grace, not by foods (Heb.13:9).  And yes, what goes into a man does not defile him, but what comes out of his heart (Mark 7:18-23). All of this establishes that certain substances, objects, sounds, periods of time, and places are neither intrinsically good or evil.

Once used, however, these things become instruments of faith toward God, or unbelief (Ro. 14:23b). This is Paul’s project in 1 Corinthians 8-10: to show the Corinthians that morally neutral food can be used to glorify God or to please self sinfully. It can glorify God in thankful participation, and it can be used to glorify God in deferential and considerate abstention. It can be used selfishly by eating wantonly in front of a believer whose conscience has not stabilised, and it can be used selfishly by eating in front of an unbeliever who associates the food with idolatry. It can be used selfishly by abstaining with a proud and haughty attitude, or by eating with a scornful, in-your-face attitude. The food itself is simply part of “the Earth which is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”. It is what moral agents do with the morally neutral food that makes their action moral or immoral.

The childishness found in evangelical circles is to assume that morally neutral objects, substances, materials, or colours somehow transmute the actions of people that use them into morally neutral actions. Yes, not every action carries the same moral weight and consequence. But “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We may have different preferences on food or days, but we both share the same obligation to convert our preferences into worship. “He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks” (Rom. 14:6).

Put simply, morally indifferent things almost never translate into morally neutral actions, or morally neutral agents. We are required to take those morally neutral objects and discern their nature, their associations, their use, their dangers, their possibilities. We may find that certain morally neutral things, such as the musical notes C, D, or G, or the chemical substance alcohol (C2H6O), are no longer morally neutral once combined into a musical language, or an inebriating drink. To rightly use adiaphora, we are to consider a number of questions, mentioned in an earlier post in this series.

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)?

In other words, out of the three areas that God reveals His will (commands, principles, adiaphora), it is ironically adiaphora that require the greatest discernment and the greatest wisdom. Far from being a third-tier, unimportant area of life with little to no moral consequences, adiaphora turn out to be areas that will affect vast swathes of our lives, and shape us profoundly. Perhaps one of the remaining differences between conservative evangelicals and mainstream fundamentalists is that many fundamentalists still recognise the moral importance of adiaphora, while evangelicals insist that matters of preference are to be given little attention.

Indeed, there have been those [fundamentalists] who elevated their preferences to inviolable standards for all. But Romans 14 warned us against this. Yes, there have been those [fundamentalists]  who converted their conviction into commandments for others. But Romans 14 teaches precisely the opposite. The abuses of adiaphora by those who ignored Scripture’s teaching on the conscience does not warrant the current dismissal of adiaphora as unimportant and morally inconsequential. They are precisely the opposite.

Preferences and Adiaphora

God reveals His will in Scripture in three ways.

The first is by explicit command or prohibition. God simply mandates certain behaviours and forbids others.
The second is by principles. Principles give truths, usually in timeless, axiomatic, or generalised form, which must then be properly connected to the specific circumstances that a believer is in.
The third is by allowing areas that He neither requires nor forbids explicitly in His Word. Theologians have called these things adiaphora, from the Greek which means ‘indifferent things’. These refer to matters where Scripture has not told us one way or another. Here careful judgement is needed. The meaning of the thing or activity in question must be properly understood, and then linked back to Scriptural commands or principles.

It is this third area that we must understand in order to correctly use the term preference. One characteristic of modern libertarian Christianity is its tendency to adopt an inverted legalism. In order to justify its ‘freedoms’, it makes an appeal to the letter of the law. That is, it shaves down the actual obligations of a Christian to explicit positive or negative biblical commands. It wrangles free of the implications of many biblical principles, claiming exemption from them with the post-modern’s motto: “that’s just your interpretation.” Finally, when it comes to adiaphora, it looks incredulously at the one seeking to form a judgement on any such matter. After all, if God hasn’t said anything about it, then the matter is meaningless, morally neutral, and without any serious moral implications. By a weird abuse of sola Scriptura, the only admissible judgements are the first category of explicit commands and prohibitions. The rest of life, it seems, does not matter to God. Finally, with rich irony, these legalists brand anyone who offers a moral judgement on any of the adiaphora with the term – you guessed it – legalist.

It ought to be obvious to us that God did not aim to write an exhaustive manual detailing His will on every possible event. The Bible would then fill several libraries, and be an ongoing work.

It ought to be equally obvious to us that God does want us to glorify Him in every detail of our lives (Col 3:17, 1 Cor 10:31). He has a perfect will, and He wants us to know it (Rom 12:2, Eph 5:16). Therefore, it ought to be plain to us that what God has supplied in the Scripture must be applied to life using information not contained in the Scripture.

Why are Christians so intimidated at the thought of getting grounds to apply a Scripture from outside the Scriptures? Probably because they have confused sola Scriptura with nuda Scriptura. Sola Scriptura teaches that Scripture alone is the final authority for life and godliness. There is no higher bar or court of appeal than the Bible. There we find God’s will revealed. No information outside of the Scripture is to be considered as authoritative as Scripture itself.

However, nuda Scriptura is the idea that Scripture can come to us unclothed, apart from the understanding imparted from the believing community of faith and the Christian past, apart from the progress of theology through the centuries,  and apart from any other accompanying information from beyond the Scripture, even if it be true and given by experts or authorities in their fields. Scripture’s authority becomes limited to the naked black-and-white text, and nothing more than its own explicit applications will be admitted. In supposedly wanting nothing more than the unadorned statements of Scripture to guide his life, such a person ironically destroys the authority of Scripture to speak on life in general. Scripture’s protectors become its captors, not merely keeping competitors out, but keeping its own authority locked within the prison of its own two covers.

Most nuda Scriptura practitioners are unaware of how inconsistent they are with this attitude. They oppose abortion, but the Bible nowhere explicitly says that the killing of an unborn child is an instance of murder. They oppose taking God’s name in vain, but they cannot point to a single Scripture which gives an explicit application of that command. They regard recreational drug use as sinful, but cannot find a verse which links drug use to principles forbidding addiction or harm to the body.

And yet they oppose these things. That’s because they unwittingly violate their nuda Scriptura ethos, and supply outside (non-Scriptural) information to make a valid application. They find out from doctors that life begins at conception; they reason that using the actual name of God in an everyday slang fashion is to treat it in an unworthy manner; they find out information on the addictiveness and physical effects of the drug in question. In other words, Scripture does not give them either the application, or even the link to the application. They do, through the use of reason and outside information. We do this all the time, and God expects us to do so.

I think the disingenuous attitude of “the Bible doesn’t say that” really begins once a cherished idol is under fire. The person lives by sola Scriptura in every other area of his life. However, should one of his loves be challenged – his music, his entertainments, his dress to worship, his use of disposable income, his reading matter – suddenly he reverts to nuda Scriptura. Now he wants the Bible to speak explicitly to the matter under question, or his supposed devotion to chapter and verse will throw it out. This is a lying heart.

Adiaphora are not areas where the lordship of Christ does not apply, to be exploited for our own convenience. All of life is to be lived for the glory of God, including those areas where Christians can come to opposite conclusions.

The Protection of Preference

Scripture loves unity among the saints, but does not mandate uniformity. Somewhere Tozer points out that a hundred pianos all tuned with the same tuning fork will all be in harmony with one another. So believers, when conformed to Christ and submitted to the same sound doctrine, will find their Spirit-given unity (Eph. 4:3).

But within the Body of Christ, we will necessarily be different from one another. Indeed, as unpopular as it might be to say this out loud, we will not even be equal. We will be different in both the degree and the kind of giftedness we possess. We will possess and receive different amounts of honour (1 Co. 12:23-24). We will have very different functions in the Body (Ro. 12:4).  We will supply different portions of what is needful (Eph. 4:16). Our differences make us neither useless to the Body (1 Cor. 12:15-18), nor autonomous and self-sufficient (12:21-22). We are mutually interdependent.

Scripture speaks often on this theme because of equal and opposite errors. One is to expect that unity must flatten out differences and enforce a uniformity of ability, appearance, opportunity or even outcome (as the social justice warriors now demand). This ends up destroying the church’s true diversity through legalistic taboos, and making unity a matter of outward similarity. The Bible wants us to accept that we are different and yet unified.

The other error is to turn our diversity into a kind of conglomerate of preferences, with each competing with the others for its space in the sun. The church becomes a mall of consumeristic “tastes”, and everyone demands some shelf-space. Here, preferences turn into protected islands of private property, guarded fiercely, and sometimes even paraded proudly. Here Scripture simply rebukes us for selfishness. A difference in preference can be exploited by the flesh into despising or judging (Ro. 14:3, 10). We can parade our preference causing sorrow in another (Ro. 14:15). We can flaunt our liberty in front of one whose conscience is still unstable, leading him to choices that will destroy him (Ro. 14:13, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:7-13). But these are proud responses, selfishly insisting upon our own preference at the expense of another’s. Essentially, we assert our differing preference as more important, or more valid, than another’s.

This ends up destroying the church’s true unity through a foolish tolerance of selfishness, making diversity a matter of mere multiplicity of competing preferences, regardless of how the co-exist. The Bible wants us to accept that we are one body, with differences submitted to that unity.

Protecting the submitted differences within the church involves several beliefs and practices.

First, believers need to embrace the differences and “inequality” as part of God’s created order and redemptive purpose. We do not need to set up quota systems in the church. No one should ever be excluded on the basis of race or wealth or sex. Diversity, when yielded to the lordship of Christ, is beautiful.

Second, believers need to understand the meaning of “the weaker brother” (It does not refer to someone with a stricter conviction than yours). Protection of the conscience of others always trumps my own liberty.

Third, believers need to know that liberty is always loving, not self-assertive. The strong protect the weak (Ro. 15:1-2). Personal rights and privileges can and should be suspended, delayed or forgone entirely for the sake of winning others and upholding a blameless testimony (1 Cor 9:1-27).

Fourth, believers need to understand that certain areas of life allow for opposite conclusions and practices by Christians, with both sets of Christians pleasing God (Ro. 14:5-6). Certain matters can legitimately have more than one approach by very different Christians, and these responses can all be acts of holiness. Identifying and distinguishing these from matters of clear moral prescription or prohibition is where we now turn.