Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Evangelicals Move the Goalposts on Adiaphora

Adiaphora is not a biblical word.  It is a transliteration of a Greek word not found in the New Testament. It's more of a philosophical word that has now become a theological, practical category.  It means, "indifferent things," and in technical language, "disputable matters," and refers to what some might call, "Romans 14 issues," speaking of "doubtful disputations" (KJV) in Romans 14:1.  Someone isn't to judge another believer in disputable matters.  What matters though are disputable?

Evangelicals, compared to fundamentalists or separatists, categorize more matters as disputable.  This list is growing too.  More beliefs and practices are disputable than ever.  How does this happen?  Aren't scriptural teachings and practices set in stone?  The Bible means what it means and it doesn't change in its meaning?  Isn't that liberalism, a sort of loose construction of scripture, or progressivism?

Evangelicals move the goalposts on adiaphora, and it's no wonder, if you read one of the more prominent evangelicals in the world, D. A. Carson in the very first sentence of his journal article in 2015, named "On Disputable Matters":
Every generation of Christians faces the need to decide just what beliefs and behavior are morally mandated of all believers, and what beliefs and behavior may be left to the individual believer’s conscience.
That sentence alone could open a can of worms.  Does every generation of believers need to decide what beliefs and practices are mandated, or has that already been settled?  Do these things change?

Todd Friel deals with adiaphora in a recent session of his Wretched TV, titled, "Principles of Christian Liberty."  In a recent weekly interview with Phil Johnson, Friel says that Phil Johnson greatly influenced what he says in this presentation (maybe speaking of this program with Phil).  Two points stood out to me from Friel that reminded me of the subjectivity or relativism of evangelical Christian liberty, what they believe Christians are still allowed or now allowed to do, that at one time they were not.

First, Friel said that Christians have liberty in "non-essentials."  This is where evangelicals move the goalposts on adiaphora.  They are not telling the truth on this.  It seems like they are lying.  I don't think Friel himself is lying.  He's not a theological heavyweight and he's now heard this mantra of non-essentials long enough that he thinks it's actually in the Bible without providing a single reference for it.  There isn't a solitary reference in scripture that categorizes adiaphora as non-essentials.  Christians don't have liberty to disobey anything in God's Word.

Evangelicals have, like the Pharisees of Jesus' day, ranked doctrines on matter of importance, which justifies unbelief and sin.  I say this is moving the goalpost.  Adiaphora is about disputable matters, which in other words is something not a clear application of scripture.  A common example in the New Testament is eating meat offered unto idols (cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10).

Second, Friel uses the example of "musical styles" as adiaphora.  He's saying that Christians have liberty in musical styles, that musical styles are disputable, so one cannot judge them as wrong or sinful.  This is where evangelicals have voided about every possible application of scripture, allowing them to have liberty in almost everywhere to live how they want.  As a result, they are worldly, fleshly, and sensual, all of which are forbidden.  They are unwilling to make application of scripture in almost every possible way.

As an irony, as I wrote this post, I looked at Phil Johnson's twitter feed and noticed his retweet of an article on an interview of Wynton Marsalis, who berates rap music to Jonathan Capeheart of the Washington Post.  He appreciates the Marsalis judgment of what seems a disputable matter to Friel.  It isn't a consistent position.  Of course we have to judge music.  Of course not all musical styles can be used in worship.  God can't be worshiped with something sensual, fleshly, worldly, or profane.  Using pop music to worship God does more damage to the knowledge of God among men than most false doctrinal statements.

In the Christian Liberty session with Friel, done at the G3 conference, Friel asks Johnson for an example of a Christian liberty, and he says, "Dancing."  Is dancing a liberty?  I would judge that as a poor example by Phil, because Christians don't have liberty in just any kind of dancing, actually in most kinds Christians don't have liberty.  Earlier Jesus said that the truth shall set you free (John 8:32), and He was saying "freedom from sin."  How many forms of dancing are sin?  No one is require to be circumcised or observe dietary restrictions anymore, so Johnson's usage of Galatians 5 doesn't work.  What people today know to be dancing involves numbers of different ways to sin.  Liberty is being set free from sin, not liberty to sin.  This is a major error of most of evangelicalism, including the conservative evangelicals, like Phil Johnson.

It has become almost impossible in evangelicalism to disobey many passages of scripture, because they make it impossible to apply those passages to anything in the real world.  Almost all applications are disputable to them, especially where it steps on their own toes.  Same sex marriage has become disputable in much of evangelicalism because of this very practice.  Friel and Johnson both feed this practice in order to protect this convenient view in evangelicalism.

The Bible does not teach a doctrine of non-essentials.  We don't have liberty in non-essentials.  The doctrine of non-essentials proceeds from postmodern uncertainty.  When Christians have established for centuries certain doctrine and practice, it can't suddenly come into play, just because of a slide in the culture.  It doesn't become disputable, and, therefore, permissible, just as a matter of convenience.

I notice that women wear something worse than long underwear in public now.  Now evangelicals wear leggings, what was once hosiery worn under the outer garments, in public.  That's a disputable matter.  What was once nudity is now accepted and on what basis?  Adiaphora.  This is moving the goalpost, friends.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kent,

This is something I have thought a lot about. Here is my take on Romans 14 and "disputable matters". I'd be happy to be corrected if something I write here doesn't line up with Scripture. I hesitate because I know my interpretation on this is uncommon:

I approach Romans 14 like any passage, wanting to understand what it says based on its own context and the context of the Bible as whole, allowing scripture to interpret scripture. With that in mind, I notice right away that this passage is about this thing called "doubtful disputations". So, I want to see if the passage says anything in context to define this term. What I find in this passage are two examples of "doubtful disputations". 1) foods to be eaten, and 2) days to be honored.

In the context, I make a few noteworthy observations:

1) In verse 2, it says "For one believeth", and in verse 5, it says "one man esteemeth". What that tells me is that we are dealing with topics that were commonly disputed in that day.

2) These are both topics that the Bible clearly indicates in the affirmative--that "every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving" (I Tim. 4:4) and "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days" (Col. 2:16). In other words, in both cases there is liberty (Romans 14:14, 18, 20).

It is almost universally concluded that this passage is about "issues that the Bible is silent on". I don't know how that has become the popular interpretation, because the Bible is certainly not silent on the only examples given in this passage.

So, then, when dealing with "Romans 14" issues it ought to be held to this standard if it is indeed to be considered a "Romans 14 issue". 1) It should be something that is commonly disputed among believers today, 2) It should be something that the Bible explicitly gives liberty on.

For example, it might be commonly disputed whether or not a person should marry somebody who is close to his/her age (just an example, and perhaps not the best). However, I Corinthians 7:39 says, "she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord". (I realize that is referring to a widow, but it's just for the sake of example.) I might have a stricter standard about this for various cultural reasons, but I ought not to judge somebody who doesn't hold to my standard, when the Bible explicitly gives liberty.

So, I would argue that the vast majority of what evangelicals like to call "Romans 14" issues have absolute no biblical basis for being called such. Does the Bible explicitly give liberty to worship God any way we please according to any music we wish? Of course not! The Bible is, in fact, replete with examples and principles stating that God desires to be worshiped according to His standards (John 4:23). Does the Bible explicitly give liberty for us to be entertained by whatever pleases us no matter the content? No. But, in fact it says that we should not find pleasure in sinful content (Romans 1:32).

It is my observation that evangelicals (and many fundamentalists) use Romans 14 to excuse a lot of worldly activity rather than restrict based on love as the passage actually teaches we should do(vs. 15-21). It is part of the denial of the sufficiency of scripture that is so commonly found which is used to put man in authority rather than God.

I tried to be brief, but perhaps in doing so, I was not clear enough. Again, I realize this is hardly the popular interpretation, and biblical correction is certainly welcome.

Mat Dvorachek

Kent Brandenburg said...


I think you're right.

Christians have liberty, but liberty is defined. It isn't liberty to sin. It isn't liberty to violate the conscience. It isn't liberty to disobey church authority. It isn't liberty to cause someone to stumble. It isn't liberty to be a bad testimony.

I am unhappy about violations of Christian liberty too, very, but that's not the bigger problem in professing Christianity. License is bigger.

Lance said...

Is the conscience now the new way the Holy Spirit communicates? The conscience is intended to work synergistically with knowledge and conviction of the truths of God's Word. The defining statement of Romans chapter fourteen is the last part of verse 23; "for whatsoever is not of faith is sin." It could be paraphrased, "if you do not have clear instruction from God's Word from which you can find discernment('of faith'), leave it alone." The New Evangelical, Emergent, and now most Fundamentalists see this as, "if you do not have clear instruction from God's Word from which you can find discernment('of faith'), take liberty and go ahead, its OK."

Lance said...

By the way, appreciated what Mat Dvorachek has said.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I agree with your take on the conscience. The conscience and the Bible and the Holy Spirit are not the same.