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Part 2d: What Are The Terms? Adiaphora

Glossary 26 Adiaphora

Adiaphora. A concept of moral neutrality; that is, behaviors, traditions, and practices that are neither sinful nor righteous in and of themselves, because there is no biblical command to warrant them or prohibition to avoid them. The NT does not employ this word, but Paul certainly describes matters of indifference—things that are nothing—and provides guidance to ameliorate controversies that arise from them (Rom 14:1-15:6; 1 Cor 8:1-13; 9:19-23; 10:23-33; Gal 2:3-5; 5:13-15; Col 2:16-20). “True adiaphora are things neither commanded nor forbidden by the Word of God and which, therefore, concern matters that can be decided in the church by the mutual agreement of the members.[1] “Situations where there are differences of understanding or practice about matters having to do primarily with social background, personal opinion, or personal preference—that is, with the so-called adiaphora, or matters that are neither required of nor prohibited to believers in Jesus”[2] As Paul noted about matters of indifference, one may still sin in attitude, either by action or inaction, e.g., offending a weaker brother by eating meat offered to idols (1 Cor 10:23-29). While it is true that a liberty taken can offend someone or lead one to become less circumspect, it is also true that a freedom given away can lead to other personal violations and encroachments or a loss of self-government. However, when adiaphora become required or denied by ecclesiastical authorities, controversy over the matter is certain, because this affects both doctrine and conscience, and impedes the gospel message (Gal 2:3-5).

The historical underpinnings for the notion of adiaphora (Gk. ἀδιάφορα) developed with the Stoics who evaluated human endeavors as either good, bad, or indifferent (not able to differentiate). The idea arose again during the earliest stages of the Reformation.

After the publication of the Augsburg Confession in 1530 by the Lutherans, the Roman Catholic Church began their eighteen-year Council of Trent in 1545 to clarify their doctrine and practices. Since the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Paul III was supported by the Spanish King Charles V, Lutherans in Germany faced persecution, imprisonment, and war for their beliefs. Some Reformers, like Melanchthon, thought it best to concede on certain practices that he considered tolerable in order to protect Lutherans, but other Reformers, like Flacius, were less conciliatory. They reasoned that “one should not even make concessions in regard to practices which under normal circumstances would represent things of indifference or ‘adiaphora.’ To yield in external practices to false teachers would give the impression that one agrees with false doctrine, thereby also compromising one’s public witness to the faith.”[3] The Lutherans, having learned through this controversy, addressed adiaphora specifically under the heading of Ecclesiastic Ceremonies in the Formula of Concord, published in 1576.[4] Adiaphora are defined as above (things neither enjoined nor forbidden) and viewed as practices permitted by the church for the sake of order, decorum, and edification. Churches may not judge other churches because they have more or fewer ceremonial or ritual practices in place, provided they share a mutual faith. However, when forced under persecution to adopt adiaphora, they are no longer “adiaphora,” but have become moral precepts to be resisted.[5] “Indeed, other evidence in this early period point to a low view of holy days; for these days were either treated as adiaphora or opposed as popish remnants in the Church.”[6] While the Reformers made wonderful changes in reducing the number of external rites and ceremonies involved in Christian worship, they eventually paved the way for the re-introduction of a shadow-law and transforming it into a moral precept. As Paul observed: Human traditions deceive by a show of wisdom but are without value (Col 2:23). Calvin’s criticism of Roman Catholic rituals, composed of “a strange mixture of Judaism” and enforced by “perverse legislators [who] make no end of their demands and prohibitions until they reach the extreme of harshness”[7] should prove prophetic of the churches of the Reformation with the rise of Sabbatarianism. Calvin defined human traditions as “all the laws enacted by men, without authority from the word of God, for the purpose either of prescribing the mode of divine worship or laying a religious obligation on the conscience.”[8] “Paul and John say a lot about the godly behavior that springs from Christian faith and love, but the Sabbath is simply never commanded.”[9]

Following the resurrection, the first Jewish Christians—the apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ—likely observed the Sabbath and then met together on the first day of the week. The new covenant was in place, yet they may have expected to add to their yearly, monthly, and weekly observances a meeting with fellow Jewish-Christians on the first day of the week. Prior to Jesus’ ascension, He directed them to wait in Jerusalem which allowed them to observe one more Sabbath prior to Shavout (Pentecost) on the first day of the week (Acts 2:1). Luke relates that following the gift of the Holy Spirit the apostles preached at this time bringing thousands to faith in Christ (Acts 2:41).

They quickly established a community practice of meeting at homes or the temple grounds based on their unity in the Spirit (Acts 2:42). Shortly after, when Peter preached again, the persecution of Jewish Christians began (Acts 4:1-3). It was not long before their welcome at the synagogue or temple was withdrawn and within a few years, those who professed Christ were clearly viewed as enemies to be cruelly mistreated (Acts 9:2). Following Paul’s conversion, he continued to go to synagogues to interact and gain the opportunity to preach, but this can hardly be viewed as a consanguineous relationship. As more people entered the ranks of Christianity—both Jew and Gentile—the leaders of the synagogue recognized that Christianity was a threat to Judaism. Concurrently, the early Christians realized that to meet together without conflict or danger they best continue to assemble with like-minded believers on the first day of the week.

The reader should already be aware that an individual’s transition from one religion to another is neither abrupt nor straightforward. People must sort out many conflicting emotions and new realizations within their mind. There are habits of life and social relationships that complicate the withdrawal from one sect and the incorporation into another. A Jewish convert to Christianity at this time might have continued to attend a Sabbath synagogue meeting; however, if it interfered with their full acceptance of Christianity, it could be a spiritual danger to them (Gal 5:1-6; Heb 10:23-27). Within a few years Christians already established a way of life that was distinct enough to be evidentiary of their allegiance to the doctrines of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:2). If a Jewish believer stopped going to synagogue, their name would be known to the leaders and surrendered to Paul for investigation. But if a Jewish believer continued at the synagogue, it was out of fear of discovery. Gentile believers would face the same dilemma if they were already regularly attending synagogue, but new gentile converts were oblivious to any such obligation. Paul warns the church to be wary of any person advocating the observance of days (Rom 14:5-6; Gal 2:8-11; Col 2:16-23). By the time Paul addressed the church at Colossae, it appears that on the personal level, he considers Sabbath-keeping to be a matter of indifference (for Jews), yet he couches it within a warning (to Gentiles) of being beguiled by false teachers.

Paul identified the Jewish observance of days as matters of indifference—adiaphora. In his letter to the Colossians, he said, “Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths.” The reason these were no longer matters of Christian morality is because they were shadow-laws that forecasted and revealed the substance of Jesus Christ, now dispelled by the new covenant. It is not just that the Mosaic covenant has been superseded; Paul rejected them because they had served to inform Israel of the coming Messiah. That is, Christ is the telos—the fulfilling end or goal—of these laws, representing in His person what these laws portrayed in a rudimentary way.

The festivals of Israel also adumbrated the life and work of Jesus Christ, but the Sabbath was the epitome of a foreshadowing device within the law. Leviticus 23 summarizes the calendar festivals for Israel. The Sabbath repeats throughout the year (as well as the New Moon) and the annual ceremonies are infused with sabbatic features and are coordinated with the Sabbath. The whole calendar is suffused with rituals foreshadowing the mighty work of redemption to be provided by the coming Messiah. This is why Jesus affirmed that He provided true rest that was otherwise unobtainable through Canaan, the Temple, or any of the Sabbaths. Jesus claimed to be the giver of rest (Matt 11:28-30)—a clear reference to the Sabbath and its calendar relatives, the land of Canaan, the Tabernacle or Temple, and various leaders who provided rest for the nation following military victories. He is greater than Joshua (Heb 4:8), David (Matt 22:42-45), and Solomon (Matt 12:42). He is greater than the temple (Matt 12:6; Jn 2:19). He is our Passover (1 Cor 5:7). He encompasses the Day of Atonement (Heb 9:25; 10:1), the High Sabbath of the year, and He is our Jubilee, the grandest of all sabbatic institutions (Lk 4:18-21). Again, if Jesus fulfilled the greatest of the sabbatic rituals, a fortiori, He fulfilled them all. Once an OT ritual law finds its fulfillment in Christ, His redemption, or His church, the obligation to perform the outward demands of that law are annulled. The substance and reality of Christ’s work of redemption for His people is tangible and complete, possessed and guaranteed—effects that the shadow-laws could never achieve, claim, or promise in and of themselves (Col 2:16; Heb 4:3). At this point in history, there is no good reason to pattern new covenant church life precisely after old covenant Jewish ceremonies or rituals. As such, no church leader, organization, or denomination should promulgate rules or doctrines endorsing a specific diet or the observation of days as if there were some spiritual benefit affixed to the practice or some negative outcome to be expected for non-observance.


[1] Muller, Richard A. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985) p.26.

[2] Longnecker, Richard N. The Epistle to the Romans, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), p. 1001.

[3] Kilcrease, Jack. “The Augsburg Interim” https://lutheranreformation.org/history/the-augsburg-interim/ (Accessed Apr 29, 2020)

[4] Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, “Formula of Concord, Art X” Vol 3, p. 160-164.

[5] Johnson, J. F. “Adiaphora, Adiaphorists” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Ewell, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 24-35.

[6] Parker, Kenneth L. The English Sabbath, (Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1988) p. 51.

[7] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4:10:13.

[8] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4:10:16.

[9] Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing (Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2002), p. 260-261. 


1 Comment

  1. Manfred says:

    Indeed, Jesus is the Sabbath for all who believe!

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