Adiaphora, a Study in Liberty and its Boundaries by Jack Kettler
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
In this study, we will look at the biblical teaching regarding what is called “adiaphora.” What does this mean? As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, lexical evidence, commentary evidence and confessional support for the purpose to glorify God in how we live. Glorify God always!
“Actions or beliefs which are neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and thus left to the liberty of the conscience; issues of theology or morals to which scripture does not speak definitively.”*
“Teachings and practices that are neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture. An example might be whether or not to use a sound-board in a church, to meet in a tent or a building, to have two or more services or simply one on the day of worship.” **
In Pyrrhonism, “adiaphora” indicates things, which cannot be logically differentiated. Unlike in Stoicism, the term has no specific connection to morality. In Stoicism, “adiaphora” indicates actions that morality neither mandates nor forbids. In the context of Stoicism, “adiaphora” is usually translated as “indifferents.”
When considering the above definitions, one might ask, how could there be disagreements on such seemingly trivial matters. Simply said, adiaphora it could be said is not majoring in minors. Unfortunately, what is obvious to some is not oblivious to others. When considering that a man has fallen sinful nature, majoring in minors can quickly become the norm when approaching seemingly matters of indifference.
“But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” (1 Corinthians 8:8-13)
When looking at Scriptural evidence on the topic of adiaphora, you find 1 Corinthians 8:8-13 frequently referenced. The following commentary evidence will look at the issues involved. Paramount, to this to this issue will be the very real danger of causing a weaker believer to stumble, and at the same time in preserving real Christian liberty. This side of heaven, majoring in minors can become the cause of disagreements among brothers, and even leading to church conflicts. What is considered adiaphora to one may not be to another. This is why there are conflicts and offenses. The following commentary evidence is not a digression or going off topic; it is directly related to differences among brothers to seeming indifferent matters.
With that said, the commentators will set explain how the apostle Paul instructs believers on how to not offend their brethren in matters of dispute.
The New Testament Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:9-13:
9. But beware that this right of yours not become a hindrance to those who are weak.
With an adversative, Paul indicates that although he agrees with the general sentiment of the quotation (v. 8), he rejects the context in which it is used. In preceding verses (vv. 1–2), he had told the Corinthians that knowledge and love must go hand in hand. Knowledge by itself results in arrogance, but when it is accompanied by love, it edifies. And Paul, discovering an absence of love in the conduct of some Corinthians (compare Rom. 14:15), now registers a pastoral objection.
Paul detects a dangerous attitude that will undermine the unity of the church. He commands the readers to beware of their own conduct. He drafts the phrase this right of yours, in which the pronoun this reflects a trace of his dislike for the apparent haughtiness of some Corinthians (see Luke 15:30). Moreover, this is the second time the word weak occurs in this chapter (see v. 7). If this expression comes not from Paul but from these spiritually strong Corinthians, a measure of arrogance seems obvious. They aggressively claim for themselves the right to Christian liberty.
However, just as knowledge without love produces pride, so freedom without love generates arrogance. The Corinthians have the right to assert their freedom to eat food, for Paul himself teaches that “no food is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14:14). Yet Christian liberty must always be observed in the context of love for one’s neighbor in general and the spiritually weak brother or sister in particular.
The right that a Christian legitimately exercises should never become a hindrance to a fellow believer. Paul uses the word stumbling block to describe a specific obstacle a Christian can place on someone’s pathway. And the hindrance here is eating sacrificial meat, which was an offense to others in the church.
The freedom which a Christian enjoys must always be asserted in the context of serving one another in love (Gal. 5:13). His attitude should not be a hindrance to the weaker members of the church. Paul is not saying that those who are weak take offense but rather that those who are strong give offense. The members who promote their right to be free are exerting undue pressure on those whose conscience restricts them from eating certain kinds of meat. Paul, therefore, alerts the freedom-loving Corinthians to demonstrate love by not offending their fellow church members.
10. For if someone sees you who have knowledge dining in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of someone who is weak be emboldened so that he will eat food offered to idols?
We make these observations:
a. Dining. Taking a situation from daily life, Paul envisions the possibility of a spiritually strong Corinthian who sits and eats in the temple of an idol. This believer might be asked to come to a celebration held in one of the many dining rooms of the temple. There the meat of an animal sacrificed to an idol would be consumed. He could reason that the idol was nothing more than a piece of hewn stone and the meat was ordinary food. His faith in God remained strong. Further, he would refuse to break bonds of family or friendship. He would feel obligated to attend a feast to which he was invited and would consider the meal an occasion for fellowship with relatives and friends. Because of his firm knowledge of the Christian faith, he would not see any harm in his presence at a festive meal in a temple dining room.
Although Paul provides an illustration by using the singular you, his intention is to portray the reality of a common occurrence. The possibility is not unreal that Erastus, for example, who was the city’s director of public works in Corinth (Rom. 16:23) and a member of the local church, might attend such functions.
Maintaining Christian liberty, Paul does not reprove a person who eats in a temple dining room. He correctly observes that a spiritually strong believer is not worshiping an idol but only enjoying the company of family and friends. By contrast, in a later passage (10:19–20) Paul comments on idolatry and there delineates the sin of worshiping an idol. Now he calls attention not to the eating in a dining room but to the effect this action may have on a weaker brother. This action has the potential of leading a weaker brother into idolatry.
b. Conscience. The weak brother is probably not a Jew, for a Jew would not think of entering a temple to eat meat that was sacrificed to an idol. Instead, the weak brother is likely a Gentile who recently converted to Christianity, whose spiritual knowledge is limited, and whose conscience is weak. Paul now asks the strong Christian a question that probably conveys a touch of irony: “Does the act of eating in a temple embolden the conscience of the weaker brother?”
By his conduct, the one who is strong is leading the weak one; but the fact is that he leads his brother astray. If a spiritually weak person enters the dining room and eats, his conscience is defiled instead of strengthened (see v. 7). Hence, not the weak brother but his weak conscience is emboldened. The inner voice of his conscience no longer keeps him in check. At the beginning of his discussion of this subject, Paul noted that knowledge leads to pride and love leads to edification (v. 1). Paul now reiterates the same thought in different words. Conduct without love and consideration can be disastrous, especially for the spiritually weak who follow the example of the strong person to lead the way. The full responsibility for the spiritual health of the brother rests on the shoulders of the person who has knowledge. His inconsiderate conduct constitutes a sin against Christ.
11. For the weak brother for whom Christ died is destroyed by your knowledge.
When the weak brother eats sacrificial meat in a pagan temple, he associates his act with idol worship. His confidence is destroyed because of his qualms of conscience. Instead of being built up he is torn down. Paul looks at the consequences of the conduct of the knowledgeable brother who intentionally overrides the objections that the weak brother raises. Paul knows that the insensitive conduct of the brother with knowledge destroys “the weak brother for whom Christ died.”
What the apostle is saying in this verse concerns the spiritual life of the weak Christians. Here is a threefold explanation of Paul’s point of view:
First, with the word order, Paul makes every word count in this text; he stresses especially the verbs to destroy and to die. These two verbs are key words. In this sentence, the verb to destroy is in the present tense to indicate that the action already is occurring. The weaker brother “is being destroyed.” With the present tense, he conveys progressive action but not the thought that the weak brother “has been lost.”
Next, the immediate context (v. 12) features the verb to injure, wound in the present tense. This verb is a synonym Paul uses to explain the meaning of “to destroy.”
And last, the parallel passage in Romans 14:15 and its context shed light on the present verse. “If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.” If Christ paid the supreme sacrifice by dying for this weak brother, then the least a strong brother can do is to demonstrate neighborly love to fellow Christians by not eating certain foods. The intent of this verse is to depict the contrast between the death of Christ and the callousness of the strong Corinthians.
Two additional observations on this passage. First, Paul is not teaching that a strong Christian can cause a spiritually weak brother to perish, for he writes “brother” instead of “sinner” or “man.” He implies that Christ continues to protect this person from harm and will enable him to stand (Rom. 14:4). In brief, loving this brother so much that he died for him, Christ will also make him withstand temptation. Second, some translators introduce the helping verb could () or would () to convey the probability of experiencing ruin but not the actuality of being lost eternally. The weak brother is stunted in his spiritual growth by the lack of love from fellow Christians. Nonetheless, Christ has redeemed and sanctified him (1:2) and regards him as his brother (compare Heb. 2:10–11).
Paul no longer speaks in generalities but addresses the strong Corinthians personally. He writes, “your knowledge,” and calls attention to the loveless attitude of these Corinthians who are puffed up by knowledge (v. 1). Also, the use of the personal pronoun you seems to reveal that the current problem involved a number of people. By contrasting Christ’s death—as an illustration of the greatest love imaginable—with the loveless knowledge of some Corinthians, Paul encourages his readers to express their love to the weaker members of the church.
12. Thus you sin against Christ by sinning against your brothers and by wounding their weak conscience.
Conclusively, the apostle comes to the heart of the matter. He writes the verb to sin twice in the same sentence. In the Greek, he accentuates this word by having the form sinning near the beginning of the sentence and the form sin at the very end.
13. Therefore if food causes my brother to stumble into sin, I will never eat meat again that I may not cause my brother to stumble.
The conclusion to this part of the discussion is that Paul himself will provide leadership in the Corinthian church even while he is physically absent. If the spiritually strong Christians fail in their responsibility to strengthen the weak, Paul will set the example. This verse is a conditional sentence that expresses reality and certainty. The readers can be assured that Paul indeed will do that which he is telling them.
Paul writes the general word food instead of the term sacrificial meat, which was at the center of the discussion (see vv. 1, 4, 7, 10). The matter of eating food should not become a stumbling block to anyone in the church. Paul himself scolded both Peter and Barnabas for their refusal to eat with Gentile Christians in Antioch (Gal. 2:11–14). He and his associates delivered the letter of the Jerusalem Council to the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:29). Jewish Christians even refused to buy meat in a local Gentile market for fear of eating food that had been offered to an idol. They fully kept the law of Moses (compare Acts 21:20). Gentile Christians, too, were careful in dining with Gentile friends.
For the sake of his Christian brother, Paul says, “I will never eat meat again that I may not cause my brother to stumble.” In the next chapter of this epistle, he states unequivocally that “to those who are weak I became weak to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that at least I might save some” (9:22). Paul was willing to forego eating certain foods so that he might advance the cause of Christ, the spread of the gospel, and the growth of the church.
Did Paul suggest that every Christian should become a vegetarian? No, not at all. But Paul is willing to go to any extreme to avoid hurting the conscience of anyone for whom Christ died. And if that extreme means not to eat meat for some time, Paul readily adapts. He submits even his Christian liberty to the principle of love. What he is asking every believer to do is to show genuine Christian love to fulfill the summary of the Decalogue: to love God with heart, mind and soul, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matt. 22:37–39). Indeed, Augustine expresses a comment to this effect: “As long as you love God and your neighbor, you may do whatever you wish and you will not fall into sin.”
Additional Note on 8:10
The Jerusalem Council stipulated that Gentile Christians were to abstain from food sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29). But in Corinth, Paul allowed Christians to enter a temple and participate in feasts held in one of its dining rooms. Paul’s consent in this chapter appears to be contradictory, especially because he forbade the eating of sacrificial meat in 10:14–22.
Is Paul lax in the one chapter (8:10) and strict in the other (10:18–22)? Hardly. What Paul is trying to do is walk the thin line between allowing Christian liberty and strengthening the consciences of the weak. To put it differently, in chapter 8 Paul addresses the strong but in chapter 10 the weak.
Sacrificial meat in itself is not harmful. If Christians should attend a feast where this meat was served, they were free to partake provided they did not hurt the conscience of weaker Christians. But whenever the eating of meat was directly associated with idolatry, Paul condemned this practice (10:7, 14). When a Christian became a participant in idolatry (10:18, 20), he would forge a spiritual association with an idol and thus become an idolater. Whenever Gentiles were worshiping an idol, a Christian should have nothing to do with them. He ought to know that God is a jealous God (Exod. 20:4; Deut. 5:8). In the words of James, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
Practical Considerations in 8:12
In today’s world, sin is taken lightly. Often it is considered something amusing, especially when it relates to sexual immorality. When the news media mention sexual escapades of prominent people, the expression used is not “sin” but rather “character weakness.” Indeed, the thinking seems to be that the term sin should not be applied to anyone because it might damage a person’s reputation. Although the consequence of sin is evident, people like to pretend that there is nothing wrong.
In many parts of the world, sin is an embarrassment for the offender when his deed becomes common knowledge. Disgrace can be removed by a restorative action of presenting the offended party an appropriate gift. If the offense remains undetected, the guilty person continues to act as though nothing has happened.
In the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day, sin was a matter of frustration. Sin was compared to an archer who misses the mark and thus experiences failure. Sin, therefore, was a lack of skill that continual training could overcome. It was not something that was taken seriously.
The Scriptures, however, teach that sin is a personal affront to God and a transgression of the laws he has established. Sin is stepping over the legal boundaries within which we should live and work. Sin is an insult to God because we choose no longer to serve him but an idol. And idolatry is nothing but spiritual adultery. God loves his people like a bridegroom loves his bride. Instead of loving him as our spouse, we turn to idols and commit adultery.
Sin can be forgiven only through the shedding of blood—in the Old Testament era the blood of animals foreshadowed that of Christ. In the New Testament era, the sinner is cleansed through Christ’s blood shed at Golgotha. As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews aptly puts it: “and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). (1)
“Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.” (Romans 14:1)
From Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on Romans 14:1:
“14:1-6 Differences of opinion prevailed even among the immediate followers of Christ and their disciples. Nor did St. Paul attempt to end them. Compelled assent to any doctrine, or conformity to outward observances without being convinced, would be hypocritical and of no avail. Attempts for producing absolute oneness of mind among Christians would be useless. Let not Christian fellowship be disturbed with strifes of words. It will be good for us to ask ourselves, when tempted to disdain and blame our brethren; has not God owned them? And if he has, dare I disown them? Let not the Christian who uses his liberty, despise his weak brother as ignorant and superstitious. Let not the scrupulous believer find fault with his brother, for God accepted him, without regarding the distinctions of meats. We usurp the place of God, when we take upon us thus to judge the thoughts and intentions of others, which are out of our view. The case as to the observance of days was much the same. Those who knew that all these things were done away by Christ’s coming, took no notice of the festivals of the Jews. But it is not enough that our consciences consent to what we do; it is necessary that it be certified from the word of God. Take heed of acting against a doubting conscience. We are all apt to make our own views the standard of truth, to deem things certain which to others appear doubtful. Thus Christians often despise or condemn each other, about doubtful matters of no moment. A thankful regard to God, the Author and Giver of all our mercies, sanctifies and sweetens them.” (2)
“For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. For meat destroys not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” (Romans 14:17-21)
From the Pulpit Commentary on Romans 14:19-21:
Verses 19-21. – Let us therefore follow after the things that make for (literally, the things of) peace, and the things wherewith one may edify another (literally, the things of the edification of one another). For meat’s sake destroy not the work of God. “Destroy,” or rather, overthrow – the word is κατάλυε, not ἀππόλλυε as in ver. 15 – is connected in thought with the edification, or building up (οἰκοδομήν) before spoken cf. “The work of God” is that of his grace in the weak Christian’s soul, growing, it may be, to full assurance of faith (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9,” ye are God’s building”). Upset not the rising structure, which is God’s own, as ye may do by putting a stumbling-block in the weak brother’s way. All things indeed are pure (i.e. in themselves all God’s gifts given for man’s service are so); but it is evil to that man who eateth with offence (i.e. if the eating be to himself a stumbling-block. The idea is the same as in ver. 14). It is good (καλὸν, not of indispensable obligation, but a right and noble thing to do) neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. The concluding words in italics are of doubtful authority: they are not required for the sense. For St. Paul’s expression of his own readiness to deny himself lawful things, if he might so avoid offence to weak brethren, cf. 1 Corinthians 8:13. (3)
From the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20:
II. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith on worship.
Comments in closing:
To summarize, adiaphora, is understood as an unsettled or disputable topic or subjects that deal with non-essentials. To illustrate, these type of issues would fall under secular categories of going to movies, music performances, sporting events, amusement parks, reading adventure stories, vacation traveling or not going. Many have experienced arguments about not going to movies for example because there are bad movies.
A weaker brother may see my liberty and then go to a bad movie. Implicit in this reasoning would be not to cause a weaker brother to stumble as a result of my liberty. The issue is, are all movies bad? How is it the stronger brother’s fault if the weaker brother goes to a bad movie, he could have gone to a good movie too? Banning the going to movies is not a solution to the weaker brother’s sin. This type of argument has been applied to the other examples above. There are bad sports, bad music, and bad literature. By using a fallacious non-sequitur argument, it could be said since there are bad things; we should abstain from all manner of things. This type of thinking leads to a monkish life.
However, it is very real that exercising your liberty may cause your brother to stumble. This is a real concern. We should never pressure a weaker brother to conform to our standards of Christian liberty. However, there is also the phenomena known as the tyranny of the weaker brother. I get together with a group of brothers for a cigar night. Also, various beverages are brought to the event. Some brothers who do not smoke or drink. They enjoy the spiritual fellowship and no one is pressured to participate in any liberty other brothers enjoy. The spiritual fellowship and bonding among men of the church are remarkable.
How do we sort all of these issues out, not offending the weaker brother, and yet maintain Christian liberty of conscience? The best statement on how to proceed with disputable matters can be found in the following quotation from the Westminster Confession of Faith. Scripture is where we go for answers and what may be deduced by good and necessary consequence.
In theology, adiaphora would involve the time the Sunday service starts, how many times communion is celebrated, should there be a mid-week service. Can a church service be held in a storefront or a park? Beside, in the area of theology, there are areas of seemingly irresolvable disputes that are not essential for salvation, such as eschatology.
For example, there are differing views regarding the interpretation of the book of Revelation. Four common views are the historicist (a method of interpretation which associates biblical prophecies with actual historical events), preterist (past fulfillment), futurist (future fulfillment), and the idealist (called the spiritual, allegorical, or non-literal approach) views. The book of Revelation belongs to a class of literature called “apocalyptic.”
The Bible uses many literary forms. For example, it uses genera’s such as; law, historical narrative, wisdom, poetical, gospel, didactic letters, or epistles, predictive, and apocalyptic literature. In addition, there are differences in millennial views, such as Pre-Millennial A-Millennial Post-Millennial and a subset of Pre-Millennialism is Dispensational Pre-Millennialism. To some eschatology would be considered under the area of adiaphora, to others it would not.
How do we sort out and resolve the disagreements? The instruction from the confessional standard is a good rule of thumb where it says, “common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.” Christian prudence and charity are called for in the area of adiaphora.
The Westminster Confession of Faith: Good & Necessary Consequence Chapter 1.6:
vi. The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.
“Blessed art thou, O LORD: teach me thy statutes.” (Psalm 119:12)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, 1 Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1993), pp. 269-278.
2. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary, Romans, (Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson), p.1815.
3. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Romans, Vol. 18, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p.411.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. He served as an ordained ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He worked in and retired from a fortune five hundred company in corporate America after forty years. He runs two blogs sites and is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com
For more study:
* For a great source of theological definitions go to Rebecca writes at Rebecca writes http://www.rebecca-writes.com/theological-terms-in-ao/
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics
*** Reformed answers http://reformedanswers.org/