June 20, 2012

Adiaphora and Worship

The issue comes up again and again in discussions of worship: adiaphora. Some would argue that in matters where God has neither commanded nor forbidden, we are permitted in Christian freedom to do whatever we like. This has become the mantra of many contemporary artists, whether in architecture, art, music, or other aspects of worship. Several pastors have stretched Christian freedom to the point of saying, "I will do anything short of sinning to reach people." In some of my recent experiences, when raising concerns over contemporary worship, the response has been one of, "If you place restraints on my Christian freedom, you are a Pharisee and a legalist."

Since this is such a pivotal issue, it bears closer study. This is perhaps why Forward In Christ published a three-part series last year on Christian freedom, the final part of which dealt particularly with adiaphora. I was happy to see the WELS coming down on the issue in a manner that consisted neither of fence-riding nor mandating. Below are some selected quotes from the article.
[T]he major mistake many people make when it comes to adiaphora is to assume that, since God's Word doesn't prescribe a specific course of action, God doesn't care what people do in these matters. That is dead wrong. Everything matters to God! Even in cases of adiaphora, God cares about the decisions we make. 
"You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13, emphasis added). 
Love. It's what God is. It's what God does. It's what God wants to see in his people above all else: love for God, love for the Scriptures, love for our fellow man, love for our soul. Every decision we make gives us the chance to demonstrate love. In that sense, there are no "indifferent things." Everything matters to God, because love matters to God. 
Love is what makes Christian freedom so different from political freedom. When we think of political freedom we tend to think in terms of rights. "I have the right to do what I want, when I want, provided I don't hurt anyone." Christian freedom is so different. Christians are not concerned about themselves or their rights but about love. … Just as Jesus placed himself below us, we place ourselves below family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, the lost, and even enemies. When making decisions, even in matters of adiaphora, we think about what serves others before we think about what we want. "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible" (1 Corinthians 9:19). That's how we show love. 
Someone might ask, "If God wants us to show love, wouldn't it be easier if he just spelled it out?" One might beg, "I don't like this adiaphora business! Tell us exactly how you want us to worship, God. Tell us what we can and cannot wear. Then we'll know precisely how to make you happy." If God did that, he'd be like the wife who tells her husband exactly what she wants each anniversary. She receives that present, but that present displays little love, for it took little thought. But if she said nothing, now her husband has to think. "What would show the woman that I love how much I treasure her?" He is free to choose whatever he wants as a gift. Yet, he is thinking only of his wife's happiness. His thoughtful token of love will be more meaningful than if that token had been dictated to him. 
So it is with our marriage to the heavenly Bridegroom. God leaves much of our lives as adiaphora, but it's not because he doesn't care. Instead, God allows us to exercise our Christian freedom in a manner that demonstrates thoughtful love. "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). 
(Rev. Jonathan Hein: Forward in Christ, November 2011)

There are many reasons why a Christian might object to a particular style of worship out of Christian love. For one, many people consider guitars and drums in the front of church to be irreverent, because of the kinds of music associated with them. They might be wary of a pastor's gung-ho attitude about contemporary worship styles that appears to have no regard for burdened consciences. Or they might wonder why centuries' worth of good hymnody and liturgies are being unceremoniously tossed out the window because someone thinks they are not relevant to today's culture.

It is true that only God knows hearts, and so speculating as to the motives of either side in this debate may be overstepping our bounds. But it has not been my experience that those who object to contemporary worship do so out of Pharisaical legalism. To the best of our abilities, we should try not to project willful ignorance or sinful legalism onto the other parties in this discussion. I am sure that most everyone sincerely believes that he or she is really doing God's work in the worship service.

Now if both sides correctly understand Christian freedom, and both sides are acting out of love, it must be a matter of scriptural inferences that separates one side from the other. Of the WELS pastors whom I have heard promote contemporary worship, they all aspire to the same goal of "removing all barriers possible to reaching people outside the church" (e.g. http://www.gotocore.com/ see "About The CORE"). In other words, they infer from scripture that evangelism is the primary goal of the church. This is certainly a worthy goal. But I see at least two major problems with this inference:
  1. The first is that they assume ex nihilo that a "traditional worship style" is an obstacle to the gospel. But this can only be true if everyone who comes to church does so in order to hear a particular kind of music, and nothing else. If such people exist, they are not wounded souls looking for Christ, but consumers of the most shallow sort. (And in fact, studies of unchurched people who become regular church-goers show that only a very small percentage of people count "worship style" as a contributing factor in choosing their church—let alone the deciding factor.)
  2. The second problem is that in trying to "remove all barriers possible to reaching people outside the church," the focus on gaining new members is likely to marginalize current believers. The purpose of the church is not to grow its numbers, but to make disciples—baptizing and teaching them. That means feeding the flock is more important than filling the pews. If praise bands can offer a nourishing substance on par with most of our hymnal and the historic liturgy, I have yet to see it.
Of course we should love the unchurched and want for them to know Christ. That much anyone would agree with. But it is debatable whether pandering to what (we think) the unchurched want is really showing love to them. A parent may think she is showing love to her child by allowing him to live on a diet of marshmallows and fruit snacks. She probably thinks it is better for him to eat junk food than nothing at all, and that she is therefore removing barriers between her son and nutrition. But in actuality, she is teaching him that food has to be sweet in order to be nourishing. And if that is not bad enough, she gives the same diet to all of her children, including the 19-year-old.

Granted, not all contemporary worship music is "junk food." Some of it is quite good. I am simply attempting to show the flawed logic of the "remove all barriers" principle that guides the worship practices of many Lutherans today. But if we can get beyond the ignorant assumptions that adiaphora means "I can do what I like," or "God doesn't care," then we may begin to have discussions on worship that might actually accomplish something.


  1. Have you ever heard of a church that went contemporary and "seeker sensitive" and came back to the hymnal and liturgy?

    1. I have not. Are you asking out of curiosity, or to make a point?