Matters of Conscience and Freedom
Scripture devotes two sections of the New Testament to explain how certain choices in the Christian life are not explicitly or implicitly forbidden or prescribed: explicitly by commands or prohibitions, or implicitly by a very clear application of general Scriptural principles. These two sections are Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10. Here we meet matters sometimes called adiaphora (‘indifferent things’). Specifically given as examples of adiaphora are eating food offered to idols, and the observance of days. Modern Christians have, perhaps without warrant, classed many other things as examples of adiaphora: entertainment, dress, recreation, drugs and alcohol, language, and even sexual purity. Since, in the minds of some, these then become examples of ‘liberty’, and any questioning of them becomes some form of legalism, bondage, or narrowness, it is worth debunking some evangelical haziness about adiaphora.
Adiaphora are not “externals”. This is a quick-‘n-easy term for lazy minds who prefer to abbreviate judgement into split-second intuitions. Nothing about adiaphora makes them clearly something external as opposed to internal, whatever the proponents might actually mean by that vague categorization. This unfortunate and unhelpful dichotomy probably comes from misinterpreting Christ’s words in Mark 7:14-23, where He explains that the defiling matter is not the food that goes into the body, but the sin that emerges from the heart. I once heard a theological dabbler tell a room full of people involved in Christian radio that this Scripture means that the music that goes in our ears can never defile us; only our hearts’ reactions can defile us. I wanted to ask if that holds with watching pornography, but all the heads nodding around the room told me that a lot of ears were getting a pleasant scratch at that moment, and my interruption would hardly go down well. Clearly, the point of Christ’s words is not that anything we take into our eyes or ears is incapable of defiling us. The point was to teach some Pharisees that foods declared unclean were not intrinsically evil, and the far greater moral danger lay within. At any rate, if we are to keep this ridiculous external/internal method of dividing up the Christian life, there is very little that I cannot happily lump with the less important “externals”: what I watch, listen to, wear, eat, drink, where I go, what I buy, how I spend leisure time. Pretty soon, what is genuinely “internal” is conveniently a closely guarded-secret: my thoughts about God, or my Gospel-centered meditations.
What’s going on here is that a generation of Fundamentalists made lists of rules regarding dress, makeup, theaters, haircuts, beards, and rock music, and the children of those Fundamentalists are now responding with their much shorter two-column list. As silly as some of those lists might have been, and as ridiculous as it was to dictate to everyone’s conscience, this does not mean all of previous Fundamentalism was ‘external’ and the prodigious present generation have newly discovered ‘internal’ Christianity. Rather, what we should hope to say is that while the previous generation often attempted to define the boundaries of their movement by dictating what the conscience should believe, the present generation is attempting to teach sound judgement for the conscience. That might be wildly optimistic, but it’s a better articulation of the issue than this silly and unhelpful internal/external dichotomy.
Adiaphora are not meaningless. It is common for people free-wheeling in their thoughts about matters of liberty to say that adiaphora refer to matters without any meaning or moral significance. They like to say that these matters are ‘morally-neutral’. But this is impossible, because in God’s universe, everything that exists has a meaning. And since it is meaning-laden, it is not amoral. In a personal, moral universe, there is a sense in which molecules, galaxies, sound waves and scents are moral. In a second sense (the sense that the proponents probably mean it), objects or potential actions which are not intrinsically morally defiling or edifying can become instruments of moral action by humans. What Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 to 10 teach us is that some objects or actions do not have a fixed morality pertaining to their use. In other words, while there is a command, “You shall not steal”, there is no command, “You shall not eat food offered to idols.” Instead, the action of eating food offered to idols requires careful judgement. In some circumstances, it is wise and permitted; in others, it is unwise or even forbidden. It can be used both ways, but once used, the action is either sinful or obedient. It is certainly not meaningless.
Adiaphora are not always unimportant. Though the Greek term adiaphora (“indifferent things”) might lead us into thinking we can be indifferent to their importance, this is not the meaning of the term. In Greek philosophy, the adiaphora were those matters that could not be differentiated into either good or evil. This did not make them unimportant, merely difficult to classify or judge. Some Christians infer that clear prescription or prohibition in Scripture indicates a priority to God, while an apparent silence proves an indifference, or lack of concern, on God’s part. While it is fair to say that what is essential will be communicated in the Bible, and what is non-essential will not, this is a far cry from saying that a lack of explicit Scripture on a topic indicates it is of little import. This reasoning would make most ethical matters (abortion, bio-ethics, the environment, death penalty etc.) unimportant. Simply because a matter requires we use careful, critical judgement in the absence of explicit commands or prohibitions hardly makes a given matter unimportant.
The role of preference in adiaphora must be properly defined. Proponents of this phraseology, “preference-issue” or “matters of preference” suggest that matters of conscience are determined by the internal likes or dislikes of the Christian in question. Now, it is true that when we have eliminated the forbidden and the unwise, and remain uncertain on the best or wisest choice, we must do what we think is best. But by this definition, preference is simply good judgement – thoughtfully parsing meaning so as to glorify God. If this is how we define ‘preference’, well and good – let preference guide. But what some people mean when they tout preference is that we should determine these matters merely by what we arbitrarily like, what tickles our fancy, what amuses or pleases us, and that such pleasure or displeasure has no moral significance, like choosing between red and blue. But this misses the real point: why does something please you, and should it please you? If you bother answering those questions, then you mean preference in the first, good sense: good judgement. If you don’t ask those questions, then what you mean by preference could be defined as prejudice, whimsical inclinations, or merely appetites. And I hardly think Paul would summarize Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8-10 with the words, “Look, in these areas, just do what feels good, you know?”
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.