When dealing with the amazing diversity of Christian thought and practice in our world—and especially when confronted by debate or dispute between Christians—a lot of unnecessary pain can be avoided if we can discern what is important and what is not. What are the matters of gospel principle on which we must not budge, and what are those matters where Christian freedom is legitimately exercised?
Yet it is really not enough to ask the question in this way. After all, who decides whether a specific teaching, decision or practice fits in one category or the other? And on what grounds? This last question proves to be the most important of them all: by what criteria are we to determine what are inviolable principles and what are adiaphora—a Greek word meaning ‘things neither commanded nor forbidden’ and therefore things ‘indifferent’?1
The question has long been an important one for Christians of all complexions. Diversity amongst Christians is not new. Trying to be godly in the face of diversity amongst Christians is not new either. Nevertheless, the question of criteria has received fresh and concentrated attention at the present time when people are appealing to the concept of adiaphora to justify their move down a different path from their Christian brothers and sisters. Here, it would seem, is a way to take the heat out of a number of the current controversies that are dividing Christians in many parts of the world. Advocates insist the things that divide us are really matters of freedom which make no real difference to the fundamentals of the faith; they are very much overshadowed by the many essentials that unite us. Such a sentiment is attractive—especially at a time when division seems to spell disaster—yet we cannot let its attractiveness keep us from asking inconvenient and even disturbing questions.
The New Testament source
The idea that some things really don’t matter—that, as Christians, we are free to choose in one way or the other without any question of being unfaithful or disobedient—goes back to the New Testament itself. The Apostle Paul argued that circumcision was like that (Gal 5:6; cf. 1 Cor 7:19). He felt free to have Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3), but insisted that the ceremony itself had no moral or spiritual value; it was simply good missionary strategy to have it done. Likewise, Paul considered eating meat that had previously been offered to idols not wrong in itself. Christians know that idols are a religious charade and that nothing at all has happened to the meat; if you can get a good deal on a lamb leg or bullock hindquarters at the temple markets, well, good for you (1 Cor 8:8). Don’t eat it if you don’t want to. Similarly, don’t get circumcised if you don’t want to. But if you do, you are not abandoning the faith.
Well, almost. Even in the New Testament contexts, it was not so simple. Paul refused to condone circumcision amongst the Galatians on principle. Once undertaking this procedure became a condition of fellowship or a requirement to be accepted in ministry, it was no longer a matter of indifference. Resisting became a matter of gospel truth (Gal 5:2). Similarly, abstaining from eating idol meat became an issue of genuine Christian discipleship once it was clear that the faith of the weaker brother or sister was at stake. The hint that eating might compromise the preaching of Christ crucified and the Christian condemnation of idolatry was enough to cause Paul to hold back (1 Cor 8:13). So an issue in one context may be a matter of indifference, but, in another, it may be transformed into a matter of principle.2 An insistence that I am free to do as I wish on such matters must not be allowed to compromise either the sufficiency of Jesus’ death or a commitment to build others’ faith in Christ.
Both of these examples from the New Testament concern practices which don’t (or don’t any longer) carry theological significance in themselves. Paul’s choices consistently guard this basic truth. When being circumcised is simply a matter of being a Jew in order to win the Jews, without the slightest suggestion that there is some spiritual advantage to the practice, Paul is happy for it to be done. In order to protect precisely this same understanding that there is no spiritual advantage in being circumcised, he calls on the Christians in Galatia to resist the practice. When meat is simply meat and nobody cares or enquires about its origins, Paul is happy to eat. But when it is invested with religious overtones, he abstains. Consistent principle underlies Paul’s flexible practice.
Unity in doctrine
It is very important in the current climate to realize that it was Paul’s practice that was flexible, not his principle. Neither he nor any of the other New Testament writers ever suggested that some parts of the gospel are matters of indifference. Diversity is embraced at the level of practice, but not at the level of doctrine.3 That’s why it was so critical for Paul that he was, in fact, teaching the same gospel as the pillars of the church in Jerusalem (Gal 2:2, 7). His was not just one perspective among many on the love of God in Jesus. That’s also why he could describe Christian humility and unity in terms not only of “having the same love” and ‘sharing in the Spirit’ but also literally ‘thinking the one thing’ (Phil 2:1-2). His word in the midst of the extraordinary diversity of thought within the Corinthian congregation was “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10). It is clear from later in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that the one mind he wanted to see among them finds its focus in Jesus’ death for our sins and his powerful resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 2:2; 15:3-8).
At no point does Paul make biblical doctrine a matter of Christian freedom. He did not see gospel truth as a smorgasbord from which you can choose your perspective and I can choose mine. God has made his mind known, and it is our delight to have our minds transformed so that we think his thoughts after him (Rom 12:1-2). We need to see ourselves, our world, our present and our future from God’s perspective, rather than from our own or our culture’s. Of course, for sinful men and women, that is always a struggle. We can never claim that we have mastered God and his purposes, or that somehow we have arrived at a position from which we can say, “I have nothing more to learn and no more changes of mind to make”. We need to learn from each other how to listen more carefully to the word of God and take seriously what we might not have noticed in the past. But diversity of doctrine is not, in the final analysis, something to be embraced; it is something to be addressed as we seek to persuade one another gently, lovingly and humbly. The proper goal of our continued study of the word of God together is not that they will think like us, but rather that we all will hear, understand and believe what God has said to us in the Bible.
Diversity in practice
The teaching of the Bible enables us to identify the practice of circumcision and the eating of food once offered to idols as ‘matters of indifference’. There are very few cases as certain as these. There are a couple of cases in which diversity of practice is reflected in the New Testament without any attempt to evaluate the differences. For instance, it seems that different congregations in the apostolic era were ordered in slightly different ways—some with a plurality of elders and some with one. (Compare the background of the pastoral epistles with that of the letters to the Corinthians.) The precise manner in which a particular congregation is ordered might well be considered a matter of Christian freedom.
However, there are a number of other practices about which the New Testament says very little, if anything at all. We do not know what happened in the New Testament churches when a child was born to Christian parents. Did they bring the child for baptism immediately, aware of God’s ancient commitment to families? Or did they teach their child the gospel, looking forward to the day when he or she would stand and confess the faith for themselves and ask for baptism? Volume after volume has been produced, arguing the relative merits of infant and adult baptism and often mounting convincing arguments from Scripture. But it seems that the Bible draws back from mandating one or the other to Christian parents. In the absence of an explicit biblical command or prohibition, perhaps we should consider this matter an example of adiaphora too.
Human personality, creativity and the circumstances of life produce an extraordinary variety of expression, preference and style. What’s more, the diversity of gifts for the common good, distributed by the Spirit (1 Cor 12:4-7), ensures that Christian life and ministry is far from monochrome. Unity in the gospel and the ‘givenness’ biblical doctrine provides an exciting, dynamic context for the proper exercise of genuine Christian freedom. There is plenty of room for flexibility in practice, while ensuring that we do nothing to compromise the principles that arise from the teaching of Scripture itself.
What about ethics?
There is one particular area that we should mention precisely because it is a significant focus of debate and controversy now. From some quarters we are being told that areas of morality and ethics—especially (but not exclusively) sexual ethics—should be considered matters of indifference and personal preference. They are culturally determined rather than biblically commanded. The New Testament might teach God’s view of the human condition, the way of salvation and the future that lies before us, but it also presents us with just the first century’s view on appropriate human behaviour.
But are the ethics of the New Testament simply a cultural phenomenon? Can they really be distinguished so clearly from the teaching of Scripture about God, humanity and the world? Aren’t they, rather, the practical edge of the Bible’s doctrine? Christian ethics is a branch of Christian theology, not a matter of cultural consensus. Paul, for instance, never suggests that human pride or greed are matters of indifference. He does not place violence towards another, lying or deceit in the category of adiaphora. This is, of course, true also for the biblical teaching on adultery and sexual immorality in all its forms. Sexual expression is not a morally neutral activity. It is very good within the context for which it was given; it is destructive and harmful everywhere outside of that context.
Once again, precisely because the Bible addresses the issue of how we should use our bodies and how we should treat each other, this can never be considered a matter of indifference. While Christians on this side of the cross do not have the same relationship to the Mosaic Law as the Jews of the Old Testament, it is always wrong to murder, steal, cheat on your marriage partner and pursue a sexual relationship with someone from the same gender.
The twin principles
Two principles arise from our brief reflection upon the subject of unity and diversity, and the biblical teaching that underlies it. Firstly, where Scripture addresses a topic, we have the responsibility to study, understand and be transformed by its teaching. Whether it be matters of doctrine or principles of Christian living, we must remain committed to hearing, believing and heeding the word of God to us. Where we have different opinions, we must, with grace, continue to talk to one another—not seeking to coerce someone to adopt our point of view, but seeking with them to be persuaded to the point of view God has given us in the Scriptures. We always remain fellow-learners, open to correction from the word of God. I might be the one who needs to change my mind, but the truth is not determined by consensus or by long-established ecclesiastical traditions. It is through the word of God that Christ rules the people united to him in the Spirit.
Secondly, matters of indifference arise where the Bible specifically provides for them, or where it is silent on a particular issue. No-one has the right to bind our consciences more tightly than the word of God. There are many points where we must respect the legitimate exercise of Christian freedom; I have only hinted at a few of them in this article. We must be careful that we do not insist on more uniformity than God himself has in his word.
Unity in the truth and appropriate principled diversity amongst Christians are both part of God’s wonderful provision for us as his people. The ultimate foundation of both is found in God’s own being as the eternal one who is eternally three. Unity and diversity can be mutually reinforcing. We need to delight in both more than we do, and seek to preserve both in our lives as Christ’s disciples.
The concept of adiaphora is not the answer to the controversies of the hour because too many confuse the principles we have been discussing. Theological diversity is trumpeted as a virtue in a way completely out of keeping with the New Testament. Institutional unity, conformity and survival is treasured beyond freedom and grace. In such a time of confusion, pain is unavoidable. Our task is to respond in gentleness and love, and, in the midst of it all, to seek out today that good work which God has prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph 2:10).
1 The term adiaphora has a long history prior to the New Testament. It also came to have an important role in the writings of later Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius. For them, recognizing adiaphora helped a person avoid distorted values, and the mental and emotional turmoil which disrupted a life of virtue (Marcus Aurelius, Meditationes, 11.16).
2 In the 16th century, Lutherans insisted that, in times of persecution, matters of indifference might become matters of confession (Formula of Concord, 1577).
3 When the concept was debated amongst English Protestants, it typically had to do with the clothes worn by the minister and what liturgical practices might be continued (e.g. Vestiarian and Admonition Controversies, 1565-73).