Tag Archive for adiaphora

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.

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?”