Thinking About Adiaphora – 1

Believers obey God’s commandments (I John 2:3). With new hearts, we desire to please God and love Him in all things. To put it another way, we want to do His will as it is done in heaven.

However, to do His will in all of life requires that we make judgements all the time. We have to judge things to be right or wrong, wise or unwise, better or worse in the practical details of life, not merely when speculating about abstractions. We’re continually making judgements.

We also believe that the Bible must form the basis of our judgements. In considering the variety of situation we face in light of Scriptural revelation, we find three areas where He speaks with more or less specificity, which form the basis of all our moral judgements.

The first area is matters of explicit command or prohibition. God simply mandates certain behaviours and forbids others. God tells us not to lie, steal or covet. He tells us to love Him and our neighbour, to pray continually, and to live sober and watchful lives. When God gives us these unambiguous ‘do this’ and ‘don’t do this’ statements, there is no discernment required. We must simply obey. The only difficulty here is knowing if certain commands still apply. For example, there is a command to keep Sabbath, but not all Christian agree on the timelessness of that command. A right hermeneutic will help us to see whether certain commands are timeless precepts for all God’s people of all times.

The second area is matters revealed 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. “Vengeance is mine” is the principle that it is God’s prerogative to punish evildoers and repay evil. However, that principle must be applied and correctly interpreted in varying situations, such as the rights of human government, the prosecution of criminals, the implementation of church discipline, the forgiveness of offences, and how to respond to my neighbour’s loud music.

The third area where we must discern God’s will is on matters that God 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.

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.

Biblical Christianity has always recognised the need to extend the principles of Scripture to all of life. This is wisdom. Biblical Christianity has also recognised the need to be careful and humble in our judgements on matters where Scripture does not speak. However, Scripture’s silence does not always indicate God’s indifference. God has not spoken on every area of human life, because His revealed Word, when used by people who are seeking wisdom, ought to lead to correct moral judgements.  Abortion is wrong, not because it is explicitly forbidden, but because a logical application of Scripture, combined with a right medical view of life beginning at conception, leads us to see it so.

For us to have a full-orbed Christianity that glorifies God in the details (1 Cor 10:31), we must throw off this pseudo-sola Scriptura, and learn again how to principlise, and judge adiaphora correctly.


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