Now there’s a word that you don’t often hear in ordinary conversation! But it’s actually a very useful and important concept for discussing Christian practices, so let’s dig in a little!
Adiaphora (ah-DEE-ah-for-ah) is a word meaning ‘indifferent things.’ It was used in Greek philosophy to indicate choices that are morally neutral, that is neither commanded nor forbidden. Choosing the color of the car you drive is a trivial example — black is no more virtuous than red, or vice versa. So why should we waste time talking about things that don’t matter? Well, that’s because we humans can’t always agree on what is or is not moral behavior. For example, some Christians think it wrong to display a crucifix with the corpus (the body of Christ hanging on the cross) – to them it seems a violation of God’s command to avoid graven images. Many other Christians regard displaying such a crucifix as an act of commendable piety.
The problem of adiaphora is humorously illustrated in a short meditation by author Max Lucado in his book A Gentle Thunder. In the story, a man on a trip becomes engaged in conversation with a stranger carrying a Bible. They quickly discover that they are both committed Christians, belong to the same denomination, and in fact hold identical views on numerous aspects of their shared faith: “I had only one other question: ‘Is your pulpit wooden or fiberglass?’ ‘Fiberglass,’ he responded … ‘Heretic!’ I said and walked away.” Silly? Of course! But the story aptly illustrates how Christians often have strong feelings about things which are peripheral to Biblical faith.
Jesus was clear about His desires when He prayed that His followers might be “perfectly one” (John 17:20-23), so why can’t we all just forget our differences and accept whatever a fellow Christian believes? It seems so simple, yet it really isn’t. For one thing, when people create rules and imply that obedience to them will win favor with God, it distracts from the Gospel and can mislead others. Alternatively, when we flaunt our freedom in ways that disrespect the sensitivities of others, this also reflects badly on the Gospel. Christ-like love for others requires us to perform a balancing act.
You see, just because a matter is morally neutral in itself doesn’t mean that it cannot involve sinful behavior. For example, if I truly believe that the color red honors the devil, deliberately choosing a red car becomes an immoral action. Or if I condemn others for making this choice I am “playing God” in a matter where He has not spoken. It gets complicated!
In his 1st letter to the Corinthians, Paul deals with the question of whether Christians could eat meat that might have been sacrificed to idols (a real possibility in a Gentile meat market). His finely-nuanced answer stands as importance guidance to Christians regarding matters of adiaphora (1 Corinthians 8 -10, and note especially 10:23-33) Though he insisted on his freedom to partake of such food, he was willing to forgo this freedom for the sake of not causing offense to others – the Gospel always comes first!
Adiaphora was also a big issue during the Reformation. On the one hand there was the Roman Catholic Church accusing Luther and his followers of being heretics because they didn’t insist on certain practices, such as private confession to a priest. On the other hand, there were more radical Protestants who thought Lutherans were heretics because they didn’t forbid private confession and certain other practices that they considered ‘too Catholic.’ And to this day, many regard Lutherans as occupying a ‘compromise’ position between Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.
But the traditional Lutheran position is far more nuanced (and often more contentious) than a relaxed “middle of the road” approach. Historically, Lutherans have insisted that we must do what the Bible commands, we must not do what the Bible forbids, and in all other matters we must insist on the exercise of Christian freedom while acting in love. When we allow matters of adiaphora to become matters of doctrine we are trading the freedom of the Gospel for the laws of man, and that is a serious offense. For some Lutherans this means that fellowship is to be avoided with those Christians who insist on (or forbid) practices considered adiaphora. In any case, we should take these matters seriously as we strive to be guided by the central principle stated by Saint Paul:
“ … do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)