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.