Adiaphora. It’s a word unfamiliar to most of us. In fact, you won’t find it in many dictionaries. Nevertheless, it’s a term which might serve us well.
At the time of the Reformation, when church arguments covered a wide scope of topics, some of the reformers decided it was important to differentiate between those issues which were at the core of the Christian faith, and those which were more peripheral. Adiaphora was the word they chose to define the latter category.
Some modern wordsmiths define adiaphora as “those things which are not important,” however that isn’t exactly what the reformers meant. Items classified as adiaphora might be extremely important issues of belief and practice, however, they were not at the core of the faith. They were not the issues which were non-negotiable; the faith didn’t stand or fall depending on the outcome of the conflict.
The distinction between Gospel and adiaphora, core and negotiable, might well be useful in many of the theological arguments and church wars of today. There are areas of heated disagreement ranging from the proper method of baptism to issues of human sexuality to which political candidate best represents Christian values. Those discussions are vitally important and the church needs to both speak and listen. At the same time, differences of opinion in these areas are not grounds to break fellowship nor are they reason to declare our opponents heretics.
For the Christian, the core of the faith is called the Gospel. This proclamation of Jesus Christ as the gracious saving presence of God invading our world is the basis on which all other doctrines and decisions derive. It was that central Gospel which led Martin Luther to stand before his accusers at the Diet of Worms and declare, “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.” For Luther there was that non-negotiable core of the Gospel from which he would not and could not budge. At the same time, he disagreed with the church of his day on such issues of monasticism and the marriage of priests. However, he admitted that such topics were adiaphora, and total agreement was not necessary; whatever decision was reached, the Gospel was not compromised.
In Christian scripture, there is precedent for the practice of defining adiaphora. The Apostle Paul addressed both sides in some heated battles. One such battle concerned meat which nonChristians had offered as sacrifices to their idols. Some members of the church felt that it was no big deal if believers ate that meat since the community granted no credibility to the idols in the first place. However, others were offended, arguing that eating such meat was, in effect, paying allegiance to other gods. Paul suggested that neither position threatened the Gospel, the core of the faith, and that the issue should therefore be decided by conscience and concern for those who were weaker in their beliefs; both sides had their merits.
Modern Christians have acquired the reputation of being myopic and rigid on a variety of issues. Sometimes that accusation is well deserved. It is important to feel passionately about our positions and our faith. However, instead of assuming that everything we profess is Gospel truth, maybe it is best, in some instances, to allow that there are areas of disagreement which just might belong under the heading of adiaphora.