Adiaphora (indifferent matters) are misunderstood on two grounds. First, evangelicals misunderstand the term indifferent to mean unimportant. Second, evangelicals conflate the moral neutrality of adiaphora themselves into morally neutral actions once they are used.
First of all, “indifferent” things has nothing to do with feeling indifferent about a matter. Adiaphora does not mean “matters of little consequence”. The term originates from ancient Greek schools of thought, where it referred to the inability to differentiate two things logically, or the inability to differentiate whether morality demanded a thing or forbad it. In other words, the “indifference” was not a feeling of apathy or boredom with the issue. It had to do with the difficulty of differentiating, not with the unimportance of the issue.
Indeed, consider how formative are those matters which are commonly considered to be preference. Music shapes character and forms the Christian imagination. The observance of days of worship or rest has profound effects on our godliness. Food and drink can be used for asceticism, gluttony, drunkenness and broader immorality. Forms of recreation, leisure activities, what we watch and listen to, the places we frequent, the clothes we wear, may indeed be matters of preference. This hardly makes them inconsequential for godly living.
Second, “indifferent” things do not remain morally neutral once used by a moral agent. Certainly, food by itself does not commend us to God one way or another (1 Cor. 8:8). The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Ro. 14:17). Yes, the heart is established by grace, not by foods (Heb.13:9). And yes, what goes into a man does not defile him, but what comes out of his heart (Mark 7:18-23). All of this establishes that certain substances, objects, sounds, periods of time, and places are neither intrinsically good or evil.
Once used, however, these things become instruments of faith toward God, or unbelief (Ro. 14:23b). This is Paul’s project in 1 Corinthians 8-10: to show the Corinthians that morally neutral food can be used to glorify God or to please self sinfully. It can glorify God in thankful participation, and it can be used to glorify God in deferential and considerate abstention. It can be used selfishly by eating wantonly in front of a believer whose conscience has not stabilised, and it can be used selfishly by eating in front of an unbeliever who associates the food with idolatry. It can be used selfishly by abstaining with a proud and haughty attitude, or by eating with a scornful, in-your-face attitude. The food itself is simply part of “the Earth which is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”. It is what moral agents do with the morally neutral food that makes their action moral or immoral.
The childishness found in evangelical circles is to assume that morally neutral objects, substances, materials, or colours somehow transmute the actions of people that use them into morally neutral actions. Yes, not every action carries the same moral weight and consequence. But “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). We may have different preferences on food or days, but we both share the same obligation to convert our preferences into worship. “He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks” (Rom. 14:6).
Put simply, morally indifferent things almost never translate into morally neutral actions, or morally neutral agents. We are required to take those morally neutral objects and discern their nature, their associations, their use, their dangers, their possibilities. We may find that certain morally neutral things, such as the musical notes C, D, or G, or the chemical substance alcohol (C2H6O), are no longer morally neutral once combined into a musical language, or an inebriating drink. To rightly use adiaphora, we are to consider a number of questions, mentioned in an earlier post in this series.
1) How is this thing typically used? What activities, actions and ends is it used for?
2) Does it make provision for the flesh (Ro 13:14)? Are you fleeing from sin and lust by doing this? (2 Tim 2:22)?
3) Does it open an area of temptation or possible accusation which Satan could exploit (Eph 4:27)? Are you taking the way of escape from temptation by doing this (1 Cor 10:13)?
4) Is there a chance of enslavement, or addiction (1 Cor 6:12)?
5) Does it spiritually numb you, and feed the flesh or worldliness within (Ro 6:12-13)?
6) Does it edify you (1 Cor 10:23)?
7) With what is this thing or activity associated? Does it have the appearance of evil (1 Thes 5:22)? Does it adorn the Gospel (Tis 2:10)?
8) Could an unbeliever or another believer easily misunderstand your action? Does it lend itself to misunderstandings (Ro 14:16)?
9) Could your action embolden a Christian with unsettled convictions to fall back into sin (1 Cor 8:7-13)?
10) Could your action cause an unbeliever confusion over the Gospel or Christian living (1 Cor 10:27-28)?
In other words, out of the three areas that God reveals His will (commands, principles, adiaphora), it is ironically adiaphora that require the greatest discernment and the greatest wisdom. Far from being a third-tier, unimportant area of life with little to no moral consequences, adiaphora turn out to be areas that will affect vast swathes of our lives, and shape us profoundly. Perhaps one of the remaining differences between conservative evangelicals and mainstream fundamentalists is that many fundamentalists still recognise the moral importance of adiaphora, while evangelicals insist that matters of preference are to be given little attention.
Indeed, there have been those [fundamentalists] who elevated their preferences to inviolable standards for all. But Romans 14 warned us against this. Yes, there have been those [fundamentalists] who converted their conviction into commandments for others. But Romans 14 teaches precisely the opposite. The abuses of adiaphora by those who ignored Scripture’s teaching on the conscience does not warrant the current dismissal of adiaphora as unimportant and morally inconsequential. They are precisely the opposite.