Adiaphora is a Greek term which means things which are neither commanded nor forbidden. In the context of Christianity, adiaphora are things which God neither commands nor forbids, or things which are not necessary for salvation. Thus, things which are adiaphora lie within the realm of Christian liberty and are not essential to the faith; they are “indifferent things.”
The fun part is that Christians sometimes disagree on just what is adiaphora and what is not. In general, though, things considered “indifferent” include:
- The way we worship (e.g. the liturgy we use)
- When and at what time we worship
- The vestments (if any) used by pastors/priests
- The music we use in worship
- The layout of the church building (or even if we have a building)
- The types of clothing we wear in church
- What types of food we eat
- And others…
However, just because something is “indifferent” and neither “commanded nor forbidden” doesn’t mean it’s not important. In fact, things which are adiaphora can be salient to the life of the Church. For example, there are ways we worship which are more helpful than others. Likewise, there are layouts of church buildings which are helpful for proclaiming the Gospel in visible form. There are also other things related to the actual church service which can be helpful.
For example, the early New Testament Church worshipped on Sunday because it was the day that God first began His creation and the day on which Christ rose from the dead. St. Justin Martyr stated in his First Apology (chapter 67):
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
Now, must we worship on Sunday to be saved? No, we are saved by God’s grace through faith on account of Christ, apart from our own works (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9). Thus, we can worship any day, but Sunday has traditionally been the day on which the Church has gathered together. In our modern, busy lives many people also gather on Saturday evenings to worship. In addition, for centuries (and still today) people worshipped multiple times per week. The point, though, is that it is good for the Church to come together at a regular time to receive the Gospel together through Word and Sacrament ministry.
Similarly, the design of our church buildings is adiaphora. However, the Church has often found it helpful to place the Baptismal font at the entrance and the altar at the opposite end in order to symbolize the Christian life; that is, we enter into the Church through the rebirth of Baptism and are continually fed at the altar with the body and blood of Christ. In ancient times as well, the baptistry was often in a separate building to further emphasize this path of the Christian life.
Likewise, pastors or priests have traditionally been clothed in unique vestments and clothing as an indication of the office they hold. The traditional black cloth of the clerical shirt symbolizes the sin of the man holding the office, while the white collar or tab symbolizes the fact that he preaches God’s pure Word. None of these things are required by God, but the Church has found them helpful in its mission of proclaiming the Gospel.
Our form of worship is also something “indifferent,” but some forms are more helpful than others. Since the Gospel is the proclamation of God’s free forgiveness and salvation on account of Christ, our form of worship (and music) should reflect this. The emphasis should be on humanity’s sinfulness and God’s gracious actions through Christ; God acts first and we respond in praise, prayer, and thanksgiving. Martin Luther compared worship to the act of a beggar coming with an empty bag. We are beggars before God who fills our “bags” with His grace and mercy.
The point is, even though something may be neither commanded nor forbidden (i.e. adiaphora), it may be more or less helpful to the life of the Church and the proclamation of the Gospel.
There is a Latin phrase used by the Church: lex orandi, lex credendi. This means “the law of praying is the law of believing;” basically, the way we worship affects what we believe. Thus, we should make careful decisions about when, where, and how we worship to ensure that we are inculcating the correct faith in ourselves and other believers. Do our hymns reflect our proper relationship as redeemed sinners before God, on account of Christ? Does our worship service allow us to confess our faith corporately and in common with the saints who have gone before us and who will come after us? Is Christ at the forefront?
Likewise, we should also give due consideration to tradition. The great apologist and writer G.K. Chesterton had some illuminating thoughts on this. In his book Orthodoxy (chapter 4) he writes:
Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
As I mentioned at the beginning, people sometimes disagree about what is and isn’t adiaphora. But, the things we do and the way we worship should be considered in light of the mission which Christ has given the Church (Matthew 28:18-20):
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
We should also keep St. John’s words in mind (John 20:30-31):
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.
(Image: By Runner1928 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37776206 )