For the first half of my life I did not know the name of the lurking ethical morass we call adiaphora. That is a fancy scholarly word for “stuff the Bible doesn’t directly address”.
Maybe you, like me until the age of 17, have not heard the term before, but I can guarantee that you have heard the notion when it comes to ethics.
How far is too far when dating? Can a Christian listen to secular music? Is it a sin to gamble? What about playing cards, going steady, masturbation, drinking socially, hypnosis, acupuncture, finances, martial arts, genetically modified food, cloning, and…
I could go on for hours. When I was a young man the questions of sexual ethics, rock and roll, and martial arts struck home. I could have had my black belt before graduating high school if I hadn’t been so worried about spiritual warfare that I quit martial arts and changed over to fencing. I flip-flopped at least twice on secular music between fifteen and twenty-five years of age, and each flip involved pretty much replacing my media collection. I dated constantly from 11 through 25, so the sexual questions came up regularly, not much less so between romantic connections.
Sure, there are some lines to be found. Proverbs excoriates drunkenness. We’re commanded not to let any debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another (Romans 13:8). Jesus has some stuff to say about looking at someone for the sake of our strong desire (I hate just translating that lust since its the same verb he uses looking forward to the Last Supper).
I could, and many theologians do, go on for ours about any of these ethical dilemmas. During eight years of youth work I had to give The Talk about sexual boundaries more times than I can track.
But rather than dig into any particular ethical question, I want to shine some light into the fog.
Scripture interprets scripture, and that is a great relief indeed!
To go with less-sticky ethical options, let us look at playing cards. For starters, does God say that it is a sin?
Well, then we get to the Ten Commandments. God does not just give us parents for the sake of feeding us. We have their lives and examples to guide us in ethics, and we have a commandment to honor them. Sure, sometimes honoring our fathers and mothers means NOT following their examples. If there is alcoholism, abuse, neglect, or faithlessness then we honor our father and mother by overcoming the cycles of destruction and snares of sin that they were not able to overcome when we were raised (though hey, always something we can pray for them about). But what about the rest? Did your parents teach you that it was wrong to play cards? Then it’s covered there. The odds are pretty good that you don’t have to go much farther than this commandment to get an answer for most of the rest.
If you’re older, or your folks didn’t lay down a command about adiaphora, then the next guide is your conscience, illumined through God’s Word. If I believe that it is a sin to play cards, and I sit down for a long night of spades, then I am indeed sinning according to the best of my ability. If not, then I am not. But conscience by itself is not enough. 1 Timothy 4:2 talks about liars having consciences seared shut. Proverbs speaks of a way that seems right to a man but ends only in death. So… what is a person to do if conscience alone isn’t reliable?
First of all, conscience is a good thing, but it isn’t enough in and of itself since our sinful nature, the devil, and the fallen world can make it fail us. It’s a simple thing: God’s Word gives direction. When it isn’t clear, Romans 14 gives us some good advice. The two examples of adiaphora used in Romans are when to celebrate a holy day, and meat sacrificed to idols.
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, butit is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.[c] 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.[d]
Conscience is just the first test. If you are free of conscience, then we are free to love another. Loving one another means that love of my brother is more important to me than my freedom. So I am free to play cards, but I would not play or invite a Southern Baptist to play poker. I am atypical in that I do not really hold to holy days, but I never make a big deal about it in church or Bible Study. If I stayed at a Mormon home I would not bring a gift basket of cheese and wine.
There is one final angle that I have to address when writing on adiaphora: Christian freedom. I can, in freedom, abstain from activity for the sake of my brother or sister in Christ, but there is a line I am commanded not to allow them to cross regarding my own conscience:
Colossians 2 contains the following:
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions,[d] puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
So when someone comes to me with a lecture, “You shall not” play cards / drink / eat foreign foods / get your black belt / listen to Imagine Dragons / masturbate / sing Animaniacs on the way to church / talk in the theaters… And my personal favorite was a young man who is now a pastor who listed wrinkled clothes at church as a reason why we could not be friends… I shit you not. I am not to submit to them. I am not allowed to let their judgment of me.
1] I am free in Christ.
2] The appearance of those rules is hollow, they don’t really help us pursue genuine purity
3] Jesus warned against the yeast of the Pharisees, and this is precisely the sort of “build a fence around righteousness” that defines the rabbinic tradition: They even have a particular name for it, Halakkah.
So: If the Bible is not clear about something, I seek the principles the Bible IS clear about. If that hurdle passes, then I have to be true to my own conscience (always guided by God’s Word to curb against my own sinful nature). With those two behind me, I must not use my freedom to harm the consciences of those around me who believe otherwise. Finally, I am not allowed to let another man set all the rules for me in these matters.
If someone can go to God’s Word and plain reason, then they are loving me to correct me. If they cannot, or if their argument does not seem correct, I am commanded to follow God to the best of my understanding. How? Listen to the Word faithfully preached, read the Bible, pray, be honest with the Lord, and carry on in love to God and my fellow man.
There was a great verse that I remembered today for a young man heading off to college:
Ecclesiastes 11:9 9 Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
It is God who judges, Christ’s sacrifice that declares me “not guilty”, God’s Word that guides me, the Holy Spirit that sustains me, and within that framework is not just life to enjoy, but the fullest and greatest life that can be enjoyed. Have a blast. Don’t sin against God or those around you. Remember God in your heart, for he is always with you by grace in your faith.
So… that’s my take on adiaphora. Peace. I’m off to play a fantasy MMORPG…