Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

29 Apr 2024

Is Ethics Ever a Matter of “Indifference”?


The term ἀδιάφορα (adiaphora), literally, matters that are to be viewed with indifference or that make no difference, does not appear in the Christian Scriptures and does not feature significantly in Christian Theology until the Reformation era. The term does, however, predate the Christian period by several centuries, being well-established in Greek philosophy/ethics. For instance,

  • In Cynicism, the ἀδιάφορα were pursuits of life that do not matter (e.g., wealth, pleasure, or power)—pursuits that were to be actively suppressed through asceticism.
  • In Stoicism, the ἀδιάφορα constituted a broad category of ideals that existed between virtue and vice, and thus were not subject to ethical scrutiny: they were ethically neutral.

The rise of the term to significance emerges in the theological discourse of early Lutheranism. One well-known early adiaphorist controversy concerned the inclusion of the modifier sola in defining justification by faith in a pair of interim peace agreements proposed between the Lutherans and Romanists after the Schmalkaldic War (the Augsburg and Leipzig Interims of 1548, respectively). Some Lutheran magistrates regarded the term sola as an ἀδιάφορον and embraced the agreements without the modifier; others found the adjective essential and refused to sign, leading to great persecution. 

More sustained was the use of the term in association with the Lutheran principle of normative worship. The normative principle asserts that any element of worship not forbidden in the Bible may be practiced freely. This contrasts with the regulative principle of worship, which asserts that any element of worship not explicitly commended in the Bible is forbidden. The term ἀδιάφορα came to designate worship elements neither commended nor forbidden in worship (e.g., the sign of the cross, the use of incense, icons, etc.). Lutherans generally accepted these elements of worship; the Reformed rejected them. The Anglican Church was conflicted on this issue, with Laudian or “High Church” Anglicans tending toward a normative approach and “Low Church” Anglicans (including many Puritans) tending toward a regulative approach. One of the more persistent adiaphorist controversies in Anglican worship erupted over the allowance of clerical vestments in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. The controversy raged for a quarter century. An uneasy peace prevailed with the principle of “edification.” The majority accepted ἀδιάφορα in worship, provided those elements could be shown to build up rather than jeopardize the faith of the participants.

The concept of ἀδιάφορα also made its way into Protestant ethical discussion and has persisted to the present day. The earliest such discussions were fairly nuanced and robust, but what has trickled into contemporary practice is a surprisingly Stoic version of Christian ethics. Specifically, there is a prevailing assumption that Paul’s διακρίσεις διαλογισμῶν (lit. matters of evaluative doubt/debate—Rom 14:1) are synonymous with the Stoic concept of ἀδιάφορα—neutral activities that make no difference and should be treated with indifference. Since these practices are neither commended nor forbidden in Scripture, they become issues of personal liberty. In technical terms, what has emerged is an ethical model that is firstly deontological, then secondarily egoist in nature: If the Bible doesn’t command or forbid (deontology), then personal liberty becomes the watchword (egoism). 

There are multiple problems with this approach:

(1) It is firstly clear that the principal matter under review here is not a matter of biblical silence. God has clearly approved the eating of meat (Acts 10:13; Rom 14:14, 20), though he does not require us to eat meat. What emerges here is not anything close to indifference (whether mine or God’s), but incidental discernment: sometimes one positively must eat meat (1 Cor 10:27), sometimes one definitely must not (Rom 14:14–23; 1 Cor 10:28–29). In summary, the positive general practice of eating and drinking is ALWAYS done either (1) detrimentally or (2) to the glory of God (so 1 Cor 10:31). There is no neutrality.

As such, I reject categorically the Stoic approach to ethics. There is no middle ground between virtue and vice; no area free from ethical scrutiny. God is always either inclined toward or disinclined away from any specific action I take. He is never ambivalent.

(2) That egoist liberty is the default ethical approach that succeeds deontology, secondly, is clearly rejected both in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10–12. Paul’s tone is nothing remotely close to the libertarian egoism proposed by some contemporary evangelicals. There is, instead, a very thick layer of consequentialist ethical concern. Every time a believer engages in some action, he needs to be aware of the consequences of that action. Sometimes he should not do things that are intrinsically good (e.g., if it closes doors to the gospel; if it results in a brother lapsing into sin or abandoning the faith; if it is “not of faith”; if it damages the unity of the bond of peace; etc.).

In reality, even the pagans do this. A small percentage of society is libertarian in their eating habits, but this is generally considered immature or irresponsible in polite society. Most unbelievers are instead ethical consequentialists in their eating practices: 

  • They tell their kids to take only one hamburger at the family picnic and not to take too much cheese so that everyone gets some.
  • They eat Aunt Gertrude’s weird meatloaf so that they don’t offend her and lose their place as a beneficiary in her will.
  • They eat calamari with a client so that they can close the deal.
  • They don’t eat too much salt and cholesterol so that they stay alive a little longer.

The libertarian impulse is never absent in unbelievers, but the unbridled libertinism of some Christians (to borrow a line) is sometimes “of a kind that does not occur even among pagans.” This is a problem.

(3) But if I may go further, Paul seems to suggest yet another layer of ethical concern—a communitarian concern. After deontology and consequentialism are exhausted, I still act as a representative of my local church before I act as an individual. When we can, we think and consult and act in community for the sake of the Christian mission. Sometimes that even means that we make collective “rules” for the advance of the Christian mission and the health/stability of the Christian community. It starts with theology (we all agree to certain facts) and moves to utility (we all agree, say, to meet for worship at 10:30), but often issues in ethical commitment as well, born out of Christian consequentialism:

  • Some agree “to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage” so that we do not become drunk or cause a brother to lapse into a besetting sin.
  • Some agree to “maintain family devotions” so that we formally introduce our children to the faith. 
  • Some covenant to “walk circumspectly in the world” so that we may realize “the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances,” and then offer some examples of what that looks like.[1]

I hesitate to defend this practice with unqualified approval, because it has been levied in some quarters to strip away the responsibility of every believer to cultivate “incidental discernment” (above), and to place that responsibility under the hands of elite ecclesiastical “regulators,” leading to abuse of authority. Still, I am disinclined to demonize these regulators as harshly as some do. Why? Because, in my experience, most of these regulators are motivated by a sincere sort of communitarian Christian consequentialism that falls far short of the “legalist” or “Pharisee” labels with which they are sometimes branded. Is there a genuine threat here? Of course. Is the threat as great as libertarian egoism/indifference? Not even close.

Conclusion: There is a category of Christian liberty found in Scripture. God gives us a great many options freely and selectively to enjoy. But this layer of ethical privilege exists only after Christian deontology, Christian consequentialism, and Christian Communitarianism are exhausted. To yield too quickly to egoism and “indifference” in ethics is at best a dubious practice.

[1]These three citations all appear in J. Newton Brown’s “Church Covenant” (1853), widely used or adapted for use in a great many Baptist assemblies. 

9 Responses

  1. Bill provenzano

    In light of this ….”Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.“
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭14‬:‭4‬-‭6‬ ‭ESV‬‬

    Maybe consider rephrasing this – “God is always either inclined toward or disinclined away from any specific action I take. He is never ambivalent.”

    It seems clear in Romans 14 that it’s not that God is always inclined or disinclined to someone’s specific actions, but to the individuals response and motivation behind the actions that are otherwise not prohibited. To me there is a gigantic difference in this nuance. One person can view a lifestyle or worship style choice in faith while another cannot do the same in faith or good conscience, perhaps in either case because their conscience was misinformed or informed differently. Using your language would seem to indicate God could be both inclined or disinclined to the same action which appears double minded, which God is not. So, it’s not the action that God is disinclined or inclined towards specific actions, but the heart condition in the midst of the action.

    Focusing on the action translates into people taking the position that God is inclined to their preference and disinclined to someone else’s. These are the regulators. The problem with the “regulators” today in both ecclesiastical and other non-ecclesiastical space is that they almost inevitably end up judging others and “separating” from them or even worse, committing other sins to “defend” their perceived “purity” as in the case of the Board of Trustees at BJU who acted unethically/sinfully towards Pettit (per his public letter of resignation) in an effort to remove him because of their view of his positions. This has likely done far more damage to the name of Christ than anything. Instead, they chose not to exercise Roman’s 15: 5-7. On a more practical level in the church, there are numerous examples of how this plays out. Our goal should be Romans 15:5-7 when it comes to things that are not specifically prohibited.

    Could it be that even some things that are currently perceived to be prohibited actually are so based only on an incomplete view of the God and the scripture (e.g., how divorce was once viewed in the church). It used to be “understood” divorce was never allowed and if you did, you were disciplined out of the church. Now, there is a clear understanding of what is actually prohibited in this regard….or so we think it’s more clear now, anyway.

    Anyway…my two cents.

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    I think you may have missed my intent. By speaking of “every specific action,” I am not speaking of bare actions, but taking into account specific context: circumstances, motives, consequences, etc. As I said in the immediately preceding paragraph, the bare act of eating meat is sometimes required by God, sometimes forbidden. The circumstances, motive, and consequences create a context that remove the bare act from the realm of “indifference.” I would say the same thing with respect to your divorce example: the incidental choice to divorce is either a good one or a bad one, never a matter of shrugging ambivalence. That’s my point.

    I am not suggesting that there is no sphere of liberty at all. We don’t have to identify, say, the one very best hymn ever written (“O Sacred Head Now wounded,” of course), and sing it four times over every Sunday. There are many other hymns that are good. But that doesn’t mean that each individual church attender can sing any song he wants so long as he has good motives, egoistically speaking. That’s why we have “regulators” choose the songs for us. Is there a risk here? Sure. We could have careless “regulators.” But that’s a problem more easily solved than the anarchy of egoist indifference. Paul is not giving each of us the green light to do whatever we want.

    Adding to my previous paragraph, I would also push back at the idea that pure “motive” alone is a sufficient criterion for ethical warrant. Motive is in view for Paul (do all to God’s glory), but consequence and community are also woven into the equation. Will my action build up or imperil my brother’s spiritual health? Will it promote or inhibit evangelism? Will it create unity or division in the body? And so forth. Questions of consequence (not just motive) dominate these chapters. And very often these are not considered in the decision-making process.

    I hope this clarifies.

  3. Bill Provenzano

    It somewhat clarifies. That may have been your intent, but the words inevitably carry forward to bare actions in the mind of the regulator or in the individual. In many cases it is purely a matter of personal judgement as to what the consequences may be of a non-prohibitive action. Even further, the assessment of those consequences is itself a matter judgement whether they are good or bad based on their own presuppositions and perspectives which are in turn based on ones understanding of the scripture.

    I’m not sure I follow the example of an individual singing whatever song they want. Are you referring to a person singing one song in a service while all the other congregants are trying to sing a different song at the same time? If so, then yes…of course. But I don’t think either of us are referring to this type of situation..

    I wouldn’t say that Paul is saying “do whatever you want” but I think he is saying “just because you do something one way or make certain choices about that which is not prohibited, doesn’t mean that’s the only way and it shouldn’t become a matter of division for you.” Hence, “Accept one another…”

    My example of divorce was not an example of an action where in there is room for ambivalence. It’s an example of how humans have at one time perceived something to be absolutely prohibited, and cause for discipline, when indeed it is not in various circumstances. It’s more a reference to a better understanding and not a reference to something to which we can be indifferent.

    Again, to your last paragraph, one’s assessment of those “consequences” is at play. Perceived consequences will be influenced by what one perceives to be prohibited or not, or…what one determines glorifies God or not. I nonetheless agree, consequences should be assessed, but surely you must realize this is a significant matter of judgment to which we are all prone to fail. Which is why it should not be a matter of division.

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    The reason I went with the hymn example, Bill, was in extrapolation of the matter of “special days.” Paul, it seems, it able to say that the recognition of certain liturgical elements (“days”) is something of which individuals may “each be convinced in his own mind.” But no one understands this statement to conflict with a given local church deciding to meet every Sunday at 10:30. A given member may find this day and time inconvenient and wish for another, but the community has spoken: individual members must submit or charitably move on. Same thing with the liturgy. One member may be disappointed with the liturgy proposed by the “regulators” and accepted by the community and wish for something else, but the community has spoken: he must submit or charitably move on. He can’t stand in public judgment of his brothers and sisters in Christ and loudly sing a different song because he has the liberty to do so.

    You rightly see this as a goofy example. Whoever would do that?? But here’s the thing: few would label a church “legalistic” because it decides, in the best interests of the community, to restrict the liberty of their members by meeting at stated times or following a liturgy detailed in bulletins and crafted by regulators. And that’s because CONSEQUENCE AND COMMUNITY ALWAYS PRECEDE EGO IN PAUL’S ETHIC (my original thesis).

    But somehow when it comes to conduct, we adopt a different stance. We can collectively decide to observe “days,” yes, but if we all covenant together in community, say, to have family devotions or not to drink, then that’s legalism. There’s a disconnect here. I concede, of course, that some communities and their “regulators” are unrighteously heavy-handed in such matters. But in principle, covenantal ethical standards are no more “legalistic,” intrinsically, than church signs that say: “Worship Time: Sunday 10:30 AM” or “Today’s Hymns: 19, 336, 105.”

  5. Bill Provenzano

    It seems you are discussing apples and trying to compare to cucumbers. Of course there is a distinct difference when it comes congregational gatherings. It’s like setting up a meeting; everyone has to accept the time. Of course. But this is not the real issue at stake. Yes..if a church want’s to set a time and day to meet and even set a program of service that is consistent. Great. Either accept it or charitably move on. Agree 100%. Maybe a better example is one person holding to the Christmas holiday vs someone feeling they can’t do that because it’s too commercialized. They celebrate the birth Christ in their own way, but have no issue with other celebrating the Christmas holiday.

    I disagree the idea of congregational meeting times is similar to personal choices. It is inherently legalistic to set up extra-biblical standards of fellowship whereby one cannot even fellowship if they don’t hold certain personal standards. Isn’t this exactly what the Pharisees did?It seems what you are doing is conflating that which is required to structurally meet together in an organized way with how people grow and live the rest of the time when not formally meeting together. Setting a meeting time for the congregation to meet and worship together is very different from telling the individual what they can or can’t do in their home in order to glorify God.

    The notion of covenanting together around something other than what’s inspired is very deceptive and requiring a “lifestyle” that dictates rules around non-prohibited actions in order to fellowship with the believers is counterproductive and I would assert anti-biblical. It sounds holy. It’s sounds spiritual. But is actually anti-Christ. Isn’t that what Paul is expressing in Romans 15:5-7. he’s not saying…go elsewhere if you have personal/preferential differences described in the previous chapter. He’s saying accept each other. Doesn’t this then imply that personal lifestyle differences within a congregation are expected and if so, doesn’t this contradict the notion of “covenanting together in community, say, to have family devotions or not to drink?”

    Thanks for the interchange.

  6. Mark Snoeberger

    OK, so we’ve migrated past the blog post topic to an aside. I’m OK with that, but to recap:

    (1) Paul is not talking about things that don’t matter. Everything matters. There is no ethical neutrality in the Stoic sense.

    (2) There is a pecking order of ethical concern in Scripture. First, we ask what is necessary or, oppositely, forbidden (deontology). We ask then what is positively good and thus a matter of faith (e.g., eating meat and rejecting holy days). If a positively good thing is not necessary, the rule is to defer, first (a) to my brother’s vulnerabilities and (2) the gospel mission (consequentialism), and then (c) to the broader concerns of the body (communitarianism). Ethical egoism as an ethical standard—my personal preferences—does exist, but it kicks in only after those concerns have been exhausted.

    (3) It is not legalism for a church to agree together to do something that exceeds explicit biblical commands.

    • This is clearly true in Paul’s first example: “special days.” Most Christian churches meet on Sunday mornings and even assign Sundays privileged status (the Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Day, etc.). I disagree with the latter, but would have no problem fellowshipping with and gladly deferring to a church that does. It’s a small sacrifice for the sake of ecclesiastical unity.
    • I suggested also that (1) the elders could enact protocols and programs that the Bible does not positively require (say, a kid’s program, a liturgy, a sermon series) and that (2) the community could agree together to do additional things that the Bible does not positively require (say, take up a special offering or start a school with a curriculum and a dress code). And once the majority agrees, we defer to the will of the church’s authority structure.

    (4) To the question of church covenants that include standards of conduct I admitted I could not grant unqualified approval. I raised concerns about the problem of heavy-handedness and the failure of this model to cultivate discernment. However, the pattern above suggests that it is something I cannot prohibit categorically, and that it is unfair to label the practice something as sinister as legalism/pharisaism, categories that positively bar one from heaven itself.

    (5) To your conclusion, there is likely an implication that “lifestyle issues” exist legitimately in congregations (though I’m not convinced that this is anything close to Paul’s primary concern), but the rule is deference for the sake of the gospel, the spiritual health of my brothers and sisters in Christ, and the unity of the body. I don’t see how this rules out members of a church pledging together to have family and personal devotions.

  7. Bill Provenzano

    Admittedly, it’s difficult not to migrate because of the close relationship of all these issues. 🙂
    1) We agree, there is nothing that doesn’t matter, but how it matters often doesn’t have anything to do with the “thing” “day” or “activity” but has everything to do with our hearts disposition towards the thing, day, or activity.
    2) We agree with pecking order number one, but as I mentioned in an earlier comment, there may be things we are currently understanding as prohibited, but a more comprehensive understanding might change that in the future (e.g. divorce and the current position vs the position taken during at least the later half of the 1900s). What is positively good or a matter of faith can be a matter of judgment. What ever egoism really means (‍♂️), personal preferences is simply a more easily understood nomenclature for those things that are considered good, but are also a matter of faith.
    3/4) We agree, I think, on church covenants: Why create a condition of fellowship the Bible doesn’t even do? The risk of leading people down a dangerous road is high. Again, I’m not referring to programs and functions you refer to in point 3 above, but behavioral standards outside the organization of a church service. Personally, I’m a big fan of school uniforms! But in all seriousness, there is currently a trend in the fundamental circles to “preserve a conservative culture,” what ever that really means. I think it’s unnecessarily dangerous, divisive, among other bad qualities.
    5) I think we agree here, as well. Though, I don’t see the point of “pledging together.” Identifying Pauls primary concern is also a matter of judgement, but one thing is clear in what he emphasizes, accepting each other in unity for God’s glory in spite of our differences. This alone is contrary to the worldly thinking bent towards schisms and divisions and partiality.

    It’s been a helpful dialogue. Thank you.

  8. Bill Provenzano

    I’m not sure what happened to my “hands up emoji,” but I have no idea what that symbol means in my #2.

Leave a Reply