Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Several or More Different Questions re: Adiaphora

Someone recently observed that I am significantly interested in adiaphora.  It's true.  Thinking about adiaphora has occupied much of my time and attention for the past decade or more, and that continues to be so; not only from a theoretical perspective, but with very practical consideration.  Whatever isn't adiaphora should simply be acknowledged and honored as the will of God: What He has commanded should be done, and what He has forbidden should not be done.  His Word, and His good gifts, especially of the Gospel, are definitive and of central importance.  So, it's not as though I am not chiefly concerned with those things that are divinely given.  But that which the Lord has left free requires thoughtful consideration, discernment and discretion, in order to guard the freedom for which He has set us free, and so also to use that precious freedom wisely and well.

The fact that God has given us the Gospel by His Word and Sacraments, that is, by external means, requires that adiaphora will be involved in the administration of the Gospel.  The same particular adiaphora will not be necessary in every time and place, else they would not be adiaphora.  However, some or other adiaphora will necessarily be employed in every case, because it is impossible to do what the Lord has commanded without doing many other things that He has left free and unspecified.  There will always be choices and decisions to be made in this respect, whether deliberately or haphazardly.

In considering those choices and decisions having to do with adiaphora, I have recently begun to realize that several or more different questions are involved.  That doesn't seem all that striking or significant, except that, where those different questions are not distinguished, the conversation easily becomes muddled.  The answer to one question may seem to be addressing a different question altogether, when it really does not.  If I'm simply discussing the merits or demerits of a particular practice, but someone perceives that I am presuming to impose my own opinion on the Church, that presents a false impression that is helpful to no one.  If someone else is proposing a way for the Church collectively to make decisions and order her life accordingly, but that is heard as though righteousness were thereby to be gained, that would be a grossly unfortunate misunderstanding.

So, I have been thinking about the several or more different questions that need to be asked and answered with respect to adiaphora:

First, there is the question of actually defining and identifying what are and are not adiaphora.  It seems like that ought to be simple enough, and in many cases it surely is.  But not always.  Reverence is required, whereas frivolity and irreverence are forbidden, but defining and identifying "reverence" vs. "irreverence" is a difficult task.  Likewise, the Holy Scriptures frequently commend "beauty," but how is that to be discerned?

Second, there is the question of the criteria by which adiaphora will be measured and evaluated.  All things are lawful, but not all things are edifying or profitable.  With respect to the clarity of catechesis and confession, a spectrum of adiaphora may be considered and compared, in order to identify better and stronger practices, on the one hand, and to rule out those practices that are ambiguous and unhelpful.

Third, there is the question of where and how the practical decisions of adiaphora will actually be made: By the individual Christian, by the local pastor and/or the local congregation, by a fellowship of congregations in a particular territory, or by as large a representation of the Church as possible?  There are variously matters of personal piety, of local custom, of confessional identity, and of ecumenical tradition to be considered.  Not all of the decisions regarding adiaphora will be made at the same level, nor in the same way, nor with the same significance.  The Nicene Creed, for example, is neither commanded nor forbidden by God, but it is not free in the same way or to the same extent that ecclesiastical art and architecture are.

Fourth, there is the question of the benefit, importance, and value of uniformity in adiaphora within the fellowship of the Church.  This question is closely related to the previous one, but it goes beyond asking where and how decisions will be made.  It addresses the implementation of common practices across a community of congregations.  If that is not to be done arbitrarily or legalistically, but in active love for Christ and His Church, it needs to be understood what uniformity in adiaphora is, what it includes, what it does, and what it means.  Then uniformity will not be a denial of freedom, but a godly exercise of freedom.

There are further ways of parsing these different questions, and they could be subdivided considerably.  As particulars are explored, numerous questions of detail emerge, along with questions of polity, structure and governance, pastoral authority and care, and dealing with exceptional circumstances as they emerge.  Yet, it seems to me that identifying these several or more different questions provides some clarity for conversation.


  1. I think the history of the Church plays a large role here. If the Church has never handled adiaphora in a certain way - for example, radically individualistic congregational control of all aspects of worship - then we should be wary.

    If worship should be orderly (I Cor 14) and not frivolous or offensive (FC X) - well, I see a system where 6000 parishes have the authority to do whatever on earth they want as inherently disorderly and guaranteed to offend.

    Thus, I have become convinced that while we should indeed continue to try to win individual brother pastors and sister congregations over to the Reverent Worship Movement, we will not find peace, order, edification, etc., without returning to the historic manner of dealing with the adiaphora involved in worship. That is, until we agree to decide on these matters in a trans-parochial way.


  2. Fair enough, Heath. I appreciate the way you approach the question of actual practice. But what I offer for consideration is that this approach does not answer or deal with all of the questions. No matter how detailed and specific a church order might be, there will still be any number of adiaphora that are not specified. There are different levels at which different adiaphora are appropriately considered and dealt with. Not recognizing that fact is, I believe, a big part of the muddle and confusion. Everything gets lumped into the same pot, and there is no clarity of conversation. Instead, along with the worthy efforts that you and others have made to suggest a trans-parochial approach to many matters of adiaphora, there needs to be pastoral consideration and a way of thinking about those many other adiaphora that cannot and should not be legislated across the board. Being able to discern the difference is an important first (or early) step, in my opinion.

  3. Rick,

    Can you give me a concrete example of an adiaphoron that is left undecided by the Braunschweig-Wulffenbuettel Church Order? I don't doubt the existence of such, but I think we will find them to be very small potatoes indeed. So while I do not dispute your premise - that it is impossible to foresee all contingencies and thus it is impossible to make all decisions together as the trans-parochial Body of Christ - I think the number and significance of what we can so decide together, and what Lutherans have in the past decided together and bound themselves to, would be surprising to most 21st century Lutherans.


  4. I can't give you any examples, Heath, but I'm speaking in terms of principle. I suspect that we are thinking of adiaphora differently; which returns to my original point. The life of one parish is not going to be identical to that of another parish; nor should it be. Just as my household and family will not be identical to yours. And while a church order legitimately governs the public practices of the pastors and congregations under its jurisdiction, I don't believe that a church order ought to legislate the personal piety of all the Christians in its territory; no more than it should tell the fathers what they must name their children. I would not be in favor of a church order that attempted to answer and legislate everything that God has left free, but I don't believe that such a thing is even possible.

  5. Rick,

    I agree with everything in your last paragraph! I think we agree perfectly in principle.

    But principles have to become actions. I am in favor of "a church order [that] legitimately governs the public practices of the pastors and congregations under its jurisdiction." The point I wish to add to the points you have made is that:

    1) This is the way the Church has always sought to live out its life together.
    2) More specifically, this is how the Lutheran Reformers sought to live out their life together.
    3) Such a system is by its nature orderly while radically congregational approaches to "the public practices of pastors and congregations" is by its nature disorderly and offensive.

    I like the delineation you make here between public and private - that is probably a good placed to start. But I would also note that there is a long tradition in the Church of requiring certain private devotions from the clergy. In Roman Catholic canon law, clergy and religious are required to pray the Divine Office daily. In Anglican canon law, parish priests are required to pray Morning and Evensong even if nobody else shows up.


  6. I'm fairly certain you are right that we agree in principle, and I haven't supposed otherwise. Where we are differing in this case is in what we are speaking to, or in the questions we are answering. More precisely, with this post I am simply attempting to identify the questions, whereas you are actually offering an answer (or at least a partial answer) to one of those questions, namely, the third question: Where and how are choices and decisions regarding adiaphora made?

    Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that a trans-parochial church order will make all of the choices and decisions regarding adiaphora, the other questions will still need to be answered: First of all in identifying what is free, and what is already determined by God. Second, in establishing and exercising the criteria by which some adiaphora or put into practice, and others are declined or set aside. Finally, in clarifying the benefit and significance of a uniformity in the practice of adiaphora. Saying that these answers are provided by a church order simply moves the answering to that location; the church order still has to be written -- and, then, if it is to mean anything, it has to be enforced, which is, I suppose, yet another question.

    Of course I agree with you that historic and traditional practices should be given weight in determining the exercise of freedom. That will belong to a compelling answer to the second question. It does not relieve each generation of the Church, in each particular place, from the burden of considering how best to care for the Church, to catechize disciples, and to confess Christ.

    For our own purposes, here, if there is nothing to be done but for the trans-parochial fellowship to craft, adopt, and enforce a church order for all of its members, that would leave Gottesdienst nothing more to do in the meantime. However, it seems to me that we can and should still contend for sound theological reflection on the range of possibilities, and for the best and most reverent practices. It will always be the case that, at every level of the Church's life, someone or another will have to be considering and making decisions concerning the right use of freedom. My post is offered for the sake of providing some clarity in how to sort that out and approach it.

    The distinction, I think, goes beyond simply "public" vs. "private." Perhaps in between there is "pastoral," and those three categories could summarize the basic levels at which the discernment and exercise of adiaphora are carried out. In this, I do not disagree with the appropriateness of the trans-parochial fellowship requiring its pastors to practice "personal" piety and devotion, such as you describe. Though a pastor does still have a personal and private life, he is certainly not a free agent, and his piety is never merely a personal matter, but also a public confession of something. What I mean, however, is that genuine pastoral care requires the use of pastoral discernment and pastoral discretion. So, for example, while a church order should require pastors to hear confession (and to make confession), the church should by no means intrude upon the confessional itself. Perhaps that is a helpful clarification.


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