On Adiaphora

OK, to save you scrambling for your dictionaries or your Greek phrase books let me spill the beans here: this term means ‘things indifferent’. In theological jargon, it refers to those things which are neither sanctioned nor prohibited by Scripture.

They are in a sense neutral things – not directly endorsed by Scripture, but not directly condemned either. As just a very recent example of what we are talking about here, I recently had a critic tell me that Christmas is nowhere mentioned in the Bible, and therefore we should have nothing to do with it.

Well, this is a rather unhelpful remark for numerous reasons. There are of course all sorts of things which are deeply part of our Christian experience and worship today which are nowhere to be found in Scripture. Where in the Bible does it say we should have guitars in our worship services?

Where does it say we should have one hour services on Sunday mornings? Where does it say we should have separate kiddies church or Sunday School? Where does it say we should only use KJV Bibles? Where does it say we should have coffee and tea after our midweek Bible study? Indeed, where does it say anything about a midweek Bible study?

There are zillions of things we do as Christians today which have no direct permission or promotion found in Scripture. They are often neutral – neither good nor bad in themselves. So we need to extrapolate biblical truths and principles, and extend them to all sorts of customs and practices which we do today.

And there has actually been a very long debate about these matters throughout church history, certainly in some Protestant circles. Given that there is so much stuff today which Scripture does not address, just what should our position be? There have been differing schools of thought here.

For example, some would argue that if the Bible does not specifically prohibit something, and it goes against no clear biblical commands, then it can be done for the glory of God. A more extreme position would be that unless the Bible specifically gives us the go ahead on something, we should not do it.

But that can be rather unhelpful, as already pointed out. If you do only that which Scripture explicitly sanctions or commands, you would not be driving a car, using a computer or going to dentists – at least in terms of Christian work and ministry. Worse yet – at least in my books – you perhaps would not be eating donuts, drinking Dr Pepper, and eating Italian sausage pizzas!

The Bible of course gives us a lot of material on how to live the Christian life. But on many things it is silent. We are to take general biblical principles or those clear commandments, and use them to understand how to deal with other matters today.

And many of these are indeed things indifferent. God and Scripture give us Christian liberty here. We are allowed to do all sorts of things, as long as they are not clearly sinful, and as long as we can follow the advice of Paul: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17).

And getting back to that black gold – DP – we have texts like this: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Thus we have real Christian freedom available to us here. But that is of course not the end of the matter.

There are other principles to keep in mind here. Paul lays out many of these. Sometimes he will speak about Christian liberty and how we must not abuse this principle. For example in 1 Cor. 6:12 he writes, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.”

And in 1 Cor. 10:23 we find a similar passage: “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”

The principle here is pretty clear – yes I have freedom in Christ, but not everything is valuable or worthwhile, and may even be counter-productive or even harmful. Paul wanted to spend his time wisely, doing the work of the Kingdom. He may have had freedom to do other things, but we would not allow that to distract him from what was really important.

Applying this today is not too difficult. I of course realise that far too many Christians are not even thinking in these terms: they are not overly exercised about what they are doing being either helpful or unhelpful, etc. They are quite happy to do their thing, and seldom think about whether it is beneficial and constructive.

Thus millions of Christians today will spend countless hours playing things like Facebook games (Candy Crush, Farmville, etc). They may never ask themselves whether this is a good use of their time, or actually contributing anything to the Kingdom.

There is certainly a place for believers to relax, play a bit of sport, or engage in some mindless leisure time, be it hobbies, reading, movies, games, etc. But how many believers are wasting their lives playing such games, when so much more important stuff could be done?

I often tell folks that if they want to play two hours of lousy FB games every day, then they better at least pray for two hours a day as well. How can they waste so much time on useless games when so much needs to be done in a broken and needy world?

How can they frivolously waste so much time when Jesus suffered and died a horrific death so that miserable people in bondage could be set free? We don’t know if Jesus had some relaxing time outs – he likely did, as would have the disciples. But I just cannot imagine any of them wasting hours a day on stupid games or other trivial pursuits.

So, is playing FB games sinful? Well it depends. It likely is if you are spending too much time on them, addicted to them, and not caring one bit about a very needy world around you. If you are playing more than you are praying, or studying God’s word, or speaking to others about Christ, then it may well be sinful to you.

But if done in real moderation, for a bit of relaxation, and with ministry work and concerns taking the bulk of your time, then it is likely quite alright. Paul laid out this principle in Rom 14:22-23: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

All of Romans 14 is devoted to this theme, and the principle again is doing what you can in faith, for the glory of God, yet without stumbling others. As he counsels in verse 5 for example: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”

So we have real freedom in Christ. As Paul says in Colossians 2:16, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” We have wonderful Christian liberty in so many areas.

But we dare not use that Christian liberty to do anything sinful, or that which will bring shame on our Lord. Many things are OK in themselves, but those who deeply love their Lord will eschew many legitimate things for the better things.

I have freedom to watch lots of TV, play FB games, and all sorts of other things. But I usually don’t, because there is so much more pressing stuff that needs to be done. There is never a shortage of what we can be doing for Christ and the Kingdom.

Life is short and we dare not waste it. By all means relax a bit and enjoy the many good things of life. But the really sold-out disciple of Christ will always prioritise, will always say no to many things which are good in themselves, because there is so much more of greater importance.

The old phrase, “Others may, I cannot” is always descriptive of the zealous follower of Christ. You may do all these various things, but I just cannot. God has called me to a serious call of discipleship which I dare not squander or minimise.

That is always the attitude of the believer whose heart has been fully captured by Christ.

[1515 words]

9 Replies to “On Adiaphora”

  1. “But the really sold-out disciple of Christ will always prioritise, will always say no to many things which are good in themselves, because there is so much more of greater importance.”

    Yes, now who was it said “the ‘good’ is the enemy of the ‘best’ “?

    John Angelico

  2. Relaxation used to be called re-creation. That is a very descriptive word, as it describes more the purpose of the activities, rather than what it does to the person involved in it. I wonder how many parents, teachers or even preachers at times explain the purpose and meaning of our leisure time. Therefore we mainly follow our fleshly instinct and working order to relax, where we are meant to relax in order to work again.
    As in all things it comes down to hearing the voice of the Lord and obeying it.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  3. Where indeed does it say in Scripture that we should have guitars in church services! Doesn’t it say somewhere that we must have pipe organs?

    Thanks for the reminder that those of us who are Christians and are retired have not really retired until our lives come to an end. There is often a temptation to be weary in well-doing.

    David Morrison

  4. Thanks Bill.
    I can endorse everything you have said above. I have long found the “regulative principle” too restrictive, whereby only what Scripture gives a positive warrant for – at least in matters of worship – is permissible. there are many things we do, which have no positive Scriptural warrant, e.g. in the Presbyterian tradition the elders carrying out a Bible at the beginning of a worship service and placing it open on the communion table. That is a tradition, but a good and proper one, which sends all the right messages.

    However, in the above discussion of Christian liberty issues, you have not touched the vexed issue of wine and beer (Heb. yayin and shekar resp.). Perhaps it is venturing into delicate territory where you fear to tread!? There is an area where Christians have differed over the years, although there was normally no dispute until Wesley and the Methodists. The only issue prior to that was over excess. My own view is that Scripture sanctions wine, but we must be on guard against excess in any form. Drink wine only with food, and furthermore, we must stand firmly against the sinful excesses of our age: party drinking, binge drinking (most certainly!), mixed cocktails and strong spirits (gin, vodka, whisky), and I would add, pub drinking.
    I would welcome your response on this since you have raised the general issue of adiaphora.

    Murray R. Adamthwaite

  5. I am reminded of the late David Wilkerson, who years ago sold his tv and spent two hours every night praying instead of watching television. The rest is history. A good lesson for us all (myself included) to follow.

    Alison Stanley

  6. I too would be happy to hear your views on alcohol. Reading between the lines on other posts I am of the opinion you are not entirely anti. My personal philosophy is usually one or at most two drinks at any one time, rarely more than once a week if that. I don’t mid a beer or cider at the end of a hot day. Am rather partial to nice ports and liquers. A glass of wine sometimes with meals, usually when I am out. Spirit mixes occasionally. An interesting cocktail can be fun too sometimes.

    What was the social attitude to alcohol in new testament times. Jesus changed water into wine and used it at the last supper to be used in his memory. Some say it was only grape juice but I wonder if grape juice could have been kept for any length of time in those days before fermenting. I think the context of those & other passages meant that alcoholic wine was being referred to.

    David Williams

  7. Thanks guys. Of course this was a general and introductory article. If I started looking in detail at all the particular cases, to do them justice I would need lengthy articles on each issue. So that may have to wait for another time. But since I am a biblical Christian, I have to go with what Scripture teaches here. Given that the Bible does not demand teetotalism of all believers, neither do I.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Agreed. I`ve been thinking of the parable of the Talents. I`d been watching people on my recent holiday wondering what they do for the rest of the year, and then thought of myself. I have time abundant, money in the bank, house, 2 cars, a job, family, Church, all the food I want, live in Australia, I can read and have access to all manners of information, and what do I do with these blessing that I can bless others with, how will I answer God when asked “what did you do with the talents I blessed you with?” I don`t drink often, gamble or visit brothels, but that doesn`t answer the question. The Bible urges me to use my talents, and even if I don`t realise what they all are, there`s this list plain as day. The talents we are blessed with are not always physical attributes, though most are, and most I have been using for myself. Bill, I`ve just read Vishal Mangalwadi`s book “The Book that made your world” it`s an eye opener for me, and this is what I`m trying to convey, God created me to do, to create, to build, to talk, to invent, to share. My bit here isn`t for the above reply page, but just to encourage you to keep doing, you encourage me almost on a daily basis, thank you.

    Johannes Archer

  9. The Regulative Principles is an important and necessary principle. But it needs to be properly applied.

    It’s key application is not in the worship service but in relation to the jurisdictions that God has ordained, such as family, church, state. etc. Here is it absolutely essential that both church and state may ONLY do what God has expressly said they may do. Everything else remains with the family, the jurisdiction that is primary in Scripture. Especially in politics, the state is limited in Scripture to what God says it may do. Hence, the conversation between Naboth and King Ahab.

    It is this principle that forms the concept of federalism in our own political structure. The whole idea of a constitution is to LIMIT the power of the Federal Government, which should only do those things expressly handed to it by the State governments. But the State Governments themselves are not free do make up their own legislative program. They are bound by the Word of God to go no further than he has expressly declared they may go.

    Thus, for example, education is not a prerogative of political order. Neither is business management, nor redistribution of wealth in attempts to ameliorate the human condition. To that we could add abortion and same sex marriage.

    This point is illustrated in the life of Daniel, who prayed to God when the King approved a law that prohibited such prayer for 30 days. Daniel followed the “no jurisdiction” rule, prayed anyway, and was vindicated in God’s court, but not the king’s.

    The Regulative Principle – properly applied – is needed now more than ever. And believers should be challenged to live like Daniel – declaring the political order out of bounds when it is so.

    Ian Hodge

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