The college I attended was situated in a small western Pennsylvania town in an area heavily populated by one of the largest gatherings of Amish people found in the United States. The Amish are a delightful group totally committed to separation from this world. They go out of their way to avoid any social mixing with the non-Amish, or the “Gentiles,” who are present among them. They are easy to discern, as the clothing they wear is a clearly defined uniform, commonly consisting of blue denim. The men wear beards. Their clothes are never adorned with buttons but are gathered together with hooks and eyes.
The Amish make their way about the area in horse-drawn buggies. They studiously avoid the use of any modern devices and conveniences, such as cars, tractors, electricity, or running water. An Amish house can easily be identified by the presence of sheets hanging over the windows rather than the more ornate curtains that would indicate the home of somebody more worldly.
In any case, the entire system of Amish religion is dedicated to a kind of separatism that sees the use of modern conveniences such as electricity and gasoline operated engines as a descent into worldliness. The lifestyle of the Amish is driven in large measure by an ethical commitment that regards such separation as necessary for spiritual development.
The rest of the Christian community regards the use of buttons, electricity, and gasoline as a matter of moral or ethical indifference. That is, there is no inherent or intrinsic ethical content with respect to the use of the gasoline engine. To be sure, the use of the gasoline engine may be the occasion of sin if we use our cars in an ungodly manner, risking people’s lives and limbs by reckless speeding, for example. Yet the very existence of an automobile and its function in society has no intrinsic, ethical content. We regard automobiles, electricity, or telephones as matters that are adiaphora — things that are morally or ethically indifferent.
The concept of adiaphora was developed in the New Testament when the apostle Paul had to address emerging ethical concerns in the nascent Christian community. Christians coming out of a background of idolatry were particularly sensitive to issues such as whether it was appropriate to eat meat that had been offered to idols. After using such meat in their godless religious ceremonies, the pagans sold it in the market place. Some early Christians were convinced that such meat was tainted by its very use in pagan religion, so they went to great lengths to avoid it, thinking, according to their scruples for godliness, it was necessary to have no connection with such meat. Paul pointed out that the meat itself was not inherently good or evil, so the eating of meat offered to idols was a matter of ethical indifference. Yet at the same time, the apostle gave significant instructions as to how the Christian community is to relate to those people who develop scruples about certain behaviors that are not by nature ethically charged.
This problem that faced the early church persists in every Christian generation. Though we don’t struggle with the question of eating meat offered to idols today, we have other issues that touch upon the question of adiaphora. American fundamentalism, for example, has elevated adiaphora to a matter of major concern. In some areas of the church and of the Christian community, questions of watching television, going to movies, wearing makeup, dancing, and the like are considered matters of spiritual discernment. That is to say, people are instructed that true spirituality necessitates the avoidance of dancing and going to the movies, as well as other matters of this sort.
The problem with this particular approach to ethics is that these elements, on which the Bible is silent, become ethical matters of the highest consideration for some Christians. In a word, the adiaphora become elevated to the status of law, and people’s consciences become bound where God has left them free. Here a form of legalism emerges that is on a collision course with the biblical principal of Christian liberty. Even more important is that a substitute morality replaces the true ethical criteria that the Bible prescribes for godly people.
Although on the surface it seems rigid and severe to define spirituality as involving the avoidance of dancing, wearing makeup, and going to movies, in reality it vastly oversimplifies the call to godliness that the Bible gives to Christian people. It is much easier for someone to avoid going to movies, for example, than it is to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. True godliness concerns much weightier matters than superficial ways of distinguishing ourselves from our unbelieving neighbors.
At the same time, when these adiaphorous matters are elevated into the status of law, and people become convinced that God requires them to follow a certain path, the Bible gives instructions on how we are to be sensitive to them. It is not a matter of Christian liberty to bash or to ridicule those who have these scruples. We are called to be sensitive to them. We are not to offend unnecessarily those referred to in the Bible as weaker brothers. On the other hand, sensitivity to the weaker brother stops at the point where he elevates his sensitivity to become the law or defining rule of Christian behavior.
In every age and in every culture, discerning the difference between that which God requires and prohibits for His people, and that which is indifferent, requires a significant knowledge of sacred Scripture, as well as an earnest desire to be obedient to the Lord. There is enough in principle to keep us busily engaged in the pursuit of godliness and obedience without adding to it matters that are ethically indifferent.
How this issue applies to the big question of Christian worship is no small matter. But wrestle through it we must if we are to remain obedient to the living God and receive what He offers as the church worships Him — a taste of heaven.