Friday, May 4, 2012

Insisting on Adiaphora (or Not)

We do not insist on adiaphora.  That is to say, we do not insist upon what God has not required; nor do we forbid what God has not prohibited.  We are, after all, called "Gottesdienst Online," not "Adiaphora Online."  We are concerned with God's Service, not with any human pretense or presumption.  And, besides all that, as editors of a blog, we are not anyone's bishop; leastwise not here.  That's not who we are, nor what we do.

To be sure, we do advocate and urge some adiaphora over other alternatives, because, among the many things that God has left free, some practices are better and stronger than others.  We have our preferences, no doubt, and we also have our reasons for preferring some practices over others.  It is also the case that we editors of Gottesdienst do not agree among ourselves on every point; in part because different contexts and different circumstances suggest different approaches, and in part because we are different people with different gifts.  Sometimes, too, it happens that one or the other of us will change his mind.  For all of these reasons and more, we cherish the freedom for which Christ has set us free, because it is the freedom to repent, the freedom to learn and grow, and the freedom to serve and care for the Church on earth.

What God has left free, that is, what He has neither commanded nor forbidden, remains free and clear before Him.  We do not presume otherwise.  Such freedom belongs to the righteousness of faith in Christ, and it is a most precious gift and treasure of His Gospel.  To insist upon any work or sacrifice of the Law, as though by it to obtain the forgiveness of sins, justification and salvation, is flat-out false doctrine.  All the more so, then, to insist upon some adiaphorous practice as though it were necessary for salvation is surely twisted and wicked.  So, too, the requirement that something God has left free must either be done or not done, as though the power and efficacy of the Gospel itself depended upon it, is pernicious and quite wrong.  We dassn't do that.  And we don't.

Now, then, the righteousness of love for the neighbor, and of good order, peace, and harmony within family, church, and state, is another matter.  There the Law must do its duty to serve and protect in the midst of sin and death.  Not only because we live, for now, in a fallen world, but also because we live, by God's grace, in His well-ordered creation.  Although the Lord holds all things in His hand, and He governs all things by His Word, He has given man dominion over the works of His hands, as demonstrated, for example, by Adam's naming of all the animals.  And whereas God has left so many of the details and specifics of life on earth free and unscripted, He has given fathers of various kinds to exercise wisdom and judgment, and so also to establish rules, for the benefit of those under their paternal care.  Fathers are not free to contradict or disobey the Word of the Lord, but under His authority they are free to establish and enforce rules of conduct according to the particular context and circumstances of their own "family," whether that be a single household, a village or city, a state or the entire country.

St. Paul relates the paternal management of household and family to the work of pastors and bishops, who are called and ordained to be spiritual fathers of the household and family of God (1 Timothy 3:4-5).  That apostolic word informs and supports our Lutheran confession that "it is lawful for bishops, or pastors, to make ordinances so that things will be done orderly in the Church" (AC XXVIII.53).

As spiritual fathers, pastors and bishops not only can, but should make decisions and even insist upon particular practices that God has not universally commanded or forbidden; certainly not as though to "merit grace or make satisfaction for sins" (AC XXVIII.54), but for the benefit of the Church on earth in her life together.  Some of those decisions will be unique to each congregation, and that is the nature of pastoral care.  But many others will also connect and relate to the larger fellowship of the Church.  Which means that pastors ought to act in consultation and harmony with one another in caring for, leading and guiding their respective parishes.  Bishops with fraternal oversight of the pastors in their own proximity, "diligently joined in unity of doctrine, faith, sacraments, prayer, works of love, and such" (SA II.IV.9), may also serve to promote the harmony of the Church's life together.

The truth is, because God has left so many of the specific details "free," there must be some insistence upon adiaphora if there is to be any sort of "community."  Rules of conduct held in common within each particular household and family, as well as broader rules of mutual engagement within the larger fellowship of the Church, enable brothers and sisters in Christ, and brother pastors and sister congregations, to live and work together in faith, hope, and charity, each person and each parish according to his, her, or its particular place. The freedom of faith in the Gospel does not prohibit but permits and makes possible such rules or "rubrics" of familial life.  The Church on earth necessarily makes these decisions, as she always has and always will, in one way or another.  Some forms of ecclesiastical polity and governance work better than others, and that may vary according to time and place, but there must be some such polity and governance in place.  Ideally, at ground level, the pastors will care for their own respective congregations in the way that responsible, God-fearing and law-abiding fathers care for their own families, within the context of the communities in which they live.

The Gottesdienst editors, as pastors, do engage in such paternal care of their respective congregations.  But, collectively, as "Gottesdienst Online," we do not insist on adiaphora.  What we do is to advocate and urge the use of godly ceremonies, because such practices contribute to the catechesis and confession of the Word of Christ; they honor the means of grace and the ministry of the Gospel; and they adorn the Church with beauty and glory.  Along with that, we also defend the freedom to do that which is truly free in faith and love.

What we insist upon is the doing of what God has commanded, and the not doing of what God has forbidden.  Thus, along with our Lutheran Confessions, we deplore and decry frivolity, irreverence, anarchy and chaos, spectacles of worldly entertainment, and whatever else contradicts or undermines the Word of Christ (FC SD X.1, 7, 9).  Such things are not adiaphora, but are contrary to the Word of God, and are thus forbidden by God.  Permitting such practices to continue without comment within the fellowship of the Church would be irresponsible and wrong.  So we speak in opposition to frivolity and irreverence, even as we defend and recommend the practice of godly ceremonies that promote dignity and reverence.


  1. It seems as though in situations where something is insisted upon, many immediately determine someone to be legalistic. Yet, no insistence has been made that this is to be done to "merit the forgiveness of sins," an important point that you have spoken on well. Perhaps this is ignorance on the part of the person calling someone legalistic (meriting the forgiveness of sins by the law), or a lack of teaching on the part of the pastor, or some of both. You have beautifully shown that it is necessary to establish, and even in some cases, insist on some things for the sake of tranquility and order in the life of the Church, as our confessions do teach. Adiaphora does not equate with lawlessness, nor does it contradict reverence, ritual, and ceremony.

  2. Thank you for this well-articulated message, Rev. Stuckwisch. It is clear from Scripture that "frivolity and irreverence" are completely out of place within the Divine Service, and it is proper to call it out as sin. Therefore it is not an exaggeration to state that pastors and congregations who accommodate such behavior in their midst are living in sin.

    Ignorance is no excuse either, although it is beyond doubt that many pastors and congregations remain unconsciously ignorant about this point. However, as Biblical teaching about worship makes its way through the LCMS and LCC, those church bodies cannot collectively continue to wink at bad practice in their midst.

    As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct... (1 Peter 1:14-15 ESV)

    Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28-29 ESV)

  3. I think that it may be helpful for people in the congregation to be shown the Biblical principles that drive decisions in matters of adiaphora. For instances, though one cannot say that Scripture prohibits the use of female acolytes, neither does it prohibit the practice of using males only. And, the biblical principles that are at play in using males only are, for one, that only males may be called into the Pastoral Ministry; another would be that the bible does teach male headship, and using males only to "lead" those parts of the Service that involve the duties of servers/acolytes is an attempt to be consistent with the Biblical principle.

  4. Agreed, Rev. Beisel. It's helpful when pastors take the time to explain the "why" and when they draw on Biblical principles in the process. Theoretically this should "work." The problem in practice is that a set of competing principles, taught by our schools and promoted by our culture, have been deeply absorbed by our people too. I don't see a lot of patience among our members to listen and learn (I'm speaking generally here - obviously there are exceptions).

    I'm encouraged by the good work done by many people, including those associated with Gottesdienst and Higher Things, to re-engage people in discussion and debate about theology.

  5. Sorry to be slow in responding, gentlemen. Busy week for me and my family this past week! But thank you for your comments.

    Paul, I agree with what you say. As a father, especially with my older children, I make every effort to help them understanding the reasons for the various rules of the household and family. I've made a point of doing that in my pastoral practice, as well, as a spiritual father of the Lord's children. Not only as a matter of respect, but as yet another aspect of ongoing catechesis. Those under my care do not always understand or agree with my decisions (and, of course, I don't always hit the "mark" in my initial efforts), but that does not negate the benefit of teaching; we learn and grow together.

    With the congregation, although the pastor is a spiritual father of the flock, there is also another dynamic at work, in that he is given to serve and care for those who are not only children of God, but also husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, with families of their own. A pastor cares for the older men as fathers, the older women as mothers; part of that respect, it seems to me, is making every effort to lead them into an understanding of salutary practice in the use of adiaphora.


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