Old Adam is Lazy but Adiaphora is No Excuse


By Vanessa Rasanen

We learn a lot of new words when we start diving into our theological studies. For those of us not raised in the church it can be a bit overwhelming, but with time, patience, and the willingness to ask a lot of questions without worrying about how silly they might sound, it’s doable and, dare I say it, even fun. Soon enough we find the verbiage of our faith fits effortlessly into everyday conversation. Latin and Greek phrases fall out of our mouths with ease, and we find our groove and settle into our place among our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We also have a tendency to settle into habits and excuses — especially if we, perhaps, had found solace in Lutheran doctrine and the freedom and peace we find in its emphasis on distinguishing Law from Gospel. Listen in — or even engage — in most Lutheran discussions and you’ll likely hear particular catch-phrases or go-to buzzwords tossed about. One in particular has become a pet peeve of mine of late — adiaphora.

This is a fancy-schmancy term to denote when something is neither required nor denounced in scripture.

To be sure, adiaphora can bring great comfort, a breath of fresh air to the person whose heart was unduly burdened over something that, in the end, doesn’t really matter in regards to their faith or salvation. Yet we have — sinners that we are — this rather nasty habit of taking something for our benefit and hiding behind it.

We tend to use our understanding of adiaphora not to rightly unburden our conscience, but to rather excuse our laziness. We hear “that’s not required” and assume it really means “that’s pointless”. We decide if it doesn’t have to be done, then there’s no benefit to doing it — especially if we don’t want to do it. And woe to anyone who would dare to tout the benefits of something we aren’t required to do. No. We will shout “adiaphora” at them and promptly put them in their place.

And we see this in so many aspects of our Christian lives.

Giving —- someone mentions how we really should give 10% of our gross pay at a minimum…. No! That’s adiaphora! I’m free! I’m free from the burden of strict tithing! We close our ears and refuse to listen, insisting “you can’t make me!” and “I don’t have to!”

Church wardrobe —- someone brings up the benefits of wearing nice clothes to the divine service, of making an effort to look fancier than other days…. What?!? That’s totally adiaphora. God doesn’t care if I wear jeans or decided not to wear makeup. I wear what I want! How dare you!

Sign of the cross —- someone explains how this simple gesture can be a blessing and a comfort…. Pssssh. That’s adiaphora and makes me uncomfortable. Reminds me too much of the Roman Catholics, so I don’t want to do it.

Volume of our singing voice…
Memorizing the liturgy…
Our pew preference…
Adult bible study attendance…
Free-standing altars…
Giving something up for Lent…
Instituting regular family devotion times…

And the list goes on and on and on — I’m sure you can think of plenty of others.

We see all these and often prefer to view them as a “freedom from…” rather than a “freedom to…” But when we view these aspects in that light, we excuse our lazy old Adam who relishes in doing the bare minimum rather than seeing the good that often comes from joyfully partaking in these things we are free to do when and if we can.

We are free to give above and beyond the old 10% tithe of the Law, and that benefits our church both locally and globally. It teaches our children that stewardship is a priority. It cares for our pastors, their families, our missionaries, and our communities.

We are free to dress nicely for the divine service, to outwardly acknowledge that something special and important is taking place in that sanctuary at that time. It reminds us that the Divine Service is different than a trip to the grocery store or an afternoon around the house.

We are free to make the sign of the cross often as a blessed reminder of our baptism into Christ. It can also remind those around us — especially our children — of the comfort we have in our baptism, that this is something we can do anywhere, anytime to help us rest in that gift God gave us in Word and water.

We are free to sing loudly! To joyfully proclaim God’s Word through hymnody and liturgy.

We are free to memorize the liturgy — which any parent knows is handy when children are little and active and make holding the hymnal a challenge.

We are free to sit in the front pew so our kids can see better, or to — gasp — switch seats each week!

We are free to attend adult bible study. To show our children and fellow congregants that Christian education shouldn’t end at confirmation and isn’t just for the youth. To keep ourselves reminded of what God’s Word says, what we believe, why we believe it, and what our church is facing in the world.

We are free to do all these things, to see the benefits of them, and to encourage each other to do the same.

Yes, there will always be those folks who try to make laws where they don’t exist, veering off into pietism or insisting we must do or not do things that are adiaphora. And we need not let them burden us and our conscience. However, let’s please seek to remember the 8th commandment (yes, I went there), and not assume the worst of our brothers and sisters who encourage and promote adiaphora, as if they are all legalists and pietists.

Let’s remember that there are many things we are not required to do (or not do), but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still beneficial, good, or meaningful.

Photo credit. Creative commons.

One Comment

  • Patrina Boehringer

    Dear Vanessa, This is soooooo helpful! I have been searching for answers to the adiaphora plague for several years. Thank you for your insights!!!
    I would like to write about adiaphora, too, and would like to ask your permission to quote or reference this article.
    As I see it now adiaphora is caused by two factors- false theology and pride. The pride I see, as you stated, stems from the Old Adams’disrespect and laziness. Would you agree?
    I am a 69 year old mother and grandmother, a WELS member married to a retired pastor and from Watertown, Wi.
    Thank you, again, for this terrific article. I think Lutherans really need to examine this topic!

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