How should we make choices on matters that are neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture? Today, Barry Cooper considers how Christians should exercise the freedom that God has given us.
Should Christians eat meat? Should we hold church services at 9 a.m. on a Sunday? And should Christians subscribe to Simply Put?
I’m obviously tempted to be dogmatic about that last one, but these kinds of choices would be what some theologians would call adiaphora—things which are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture.
Adiaphora is the plural of the Greek word adiaphoron, which refers to a thing that exists outside of moral categories, something that in and of itself is neither approved nor condemned. Adiaphora literally means “indifferent things.”
Other examples would be the color of the carpet you decide to put in your living room, your choice of podcast app, or your preference of Coke, Pepsi, or Mountain Dew. There would be nothing wrong in making particular choices in these areas; there’s freedom to do as you please.
Try as we might to argue that there really ought to be specific Levitical laws against the consumption of Mountain Dew, no such laws actually exist in Scripture, which means that God has granted us freedom to decide whether or not to drink it. In that sense, drinking Mountain Dew is spiritually neutral, even though it may be dietarily questionable.
Another example of adiaphora is the precise way in which we choose to apply God’s law. For example, as Christians, we’re obliged to love others, but what loving others will look like in practice, given your particular set of circumstances and opportunities, falls into the category of adiaphora. You have freedom to love others in whichever ways will bring glory to God, and God will be glorified by whichever way you choose to love others, as long as it doesn’t conflict with God’s moral law.
We shouldn’t try to bind the consciences of other believers on matters to do with adiaphora, where God Himself has permitted freedom. For example, if the conscience of a particular believer says he shouldn’t ever drink alcohol under any circumstances, other believers should not encourage that person to go against their conscience. But at the same time, the teetotaler shouldn’t condemn believers who enjoy the occasional glass of wine.
The same would go for those who are convinced vegetarians or who are convinced that we ought to celebrate a particular religious festival on a certain day. Paul puts it this way in Romans chapter 14:
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
Paul goes further and says that if you happen to know your Christian brother is convinced that eating meat is wrong, and that he’s likely to go against his conscience by copying you if he sees you tearing into a medium-rare steak, you should exercise love for that brother by not doing so.
We do this, says Paul, to pursue peace and mutual upbuilding. By recognizing that certain things are in themselves adiaphora, we avoid quarreling or giving offense over mere opinions, squabbling about matters which ultimately we don’t have to agree on because they’re not necessary for salvation.
Of course, there is occasionally a debate about whether a particular thing is adiaphora or not. Some, for example, might argue that the use of an electric guitar in a church service falls into the category of adiaphora. But others would disagree.
It’s also worth saying that in one sense, nothing we do is spiritually neutral, because everything we do can be—and ought to be—done to the glory of God. Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 10 that “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
So that means, of course, that we can choose a carpet for our living room, choose a podcast app, grow a beard, or drink a painfully sugary soft drink—all to the glory of God. Or we could do all those things without doing it to the glory of God. So although we might consider them adiaphora, spiritually neutral in themselves, all these things in practice are either honoring to God or dishonoring to Him—depending on whether or not we do them to the glory of God. The attitude of our hearts is what matters.
And this shouldn’t surprise us. Even actions which would usually be considered morally good can become morally bad when they’re done in a certain way. Think, for example, of Isaiah chapter 1, where God condemns people who are doing very religious things—because they’re doing them hypocritically. The attitude of the heart towards God is all-important.
So, as believers, we should be united in our desire to obey God’s laws. And we should feel free to exercise freedom in matters not necessary to salvation, but as we exercise that freedom, we should be mindful of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.