Is Ethics Ever a Matter of “Indifference”?


The term ἀδιάφορα (adiaphora), literally, matters that are to be viewed with indifference or that make no difference, does not appear in the Christian Scriptures and does not feature significantly in Christian Theology until the Reformation era. The term does, however, predate the Christian period by several centuries, being well-established in Greek philosophy/ethics. For instance,

  • In Cynicism, the ἀδιάφορα were pursuits of life that do not matter (e.g., wealth, pleasure, or power)—pursuits that were to be actively suppressed through asceticism.
  • In Stoicism, the ἀδιάφορα constituted a broad category of ideals that existed between virtue and vice, and thus were not subject to ethical scrutiny: they were ethically neutral.

The rise of the term to significance emerges in the theological discourse of early Lutheranism. One well-known early adiaphorist controversy concerned the inclusion of the modifier sola in defining justification by faith in a pair of interim peace agreements proposed between the Lutherans and Romanists after the Schmalkaldic War (the Augsburg and Leipzig Interims of 1548, respectively). Some Lutheran magistrates regarded the term sola as an ἀδιάφορον and embraced the agreements without the modifier; others found the adjective essential and refused to sign, leading to great persecution.

More sustained was the use of the term in association with the Lutheran principle of normative worship. The normative principle asserts that any element of worship not forbidden in the Bible may be practiced freely. This contrasts with the regulative principle of worship, which asserts that any element of worship not explicitly commended in the Bible is forbidden. The term ἀδιάφορα came to designate worship elements neither commended nor forbidden in worship (e.g., the sign of the cross, the use of incense, icons, etc.). Lutherans generally accepted these elements of worship; the Reformed rejected them. The Anglican Church was conflicted on this issue, with Laudian or “High Church” Anglicans tending toward a normative approach and “Low Church” Anglicans (including many Puritans) tending toward a regulative approach. One of the more persistent adiaphorist controversies in Anglican worship erupted over the allowance of clerical vestments in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. The controversy raged for a quarter century. An uneasy peace prevailed with the principle of “edification.” The majority accepted ἀδιάφορα in worship, provided those elements could be shown to build up rather than jeopardize the faith of the participants.

The concept of ἀδιάφορα also made its way into Protestant ethical discussion and has persisted to the present day. The earliest such discussions were fairly nuanced and robust, but what has trickled into contemporary practice is a surprisingly Stoic version of Christian ethics. Specifically, there is a prevailing assumption that Paul’s διακρίσεις διαλογισμῶν (lit. matters of evaluative doubt/debate—Rom 14:1) are synonymous with the Stoic concept of ἀδιάφορα—neutral activities that make no difference and should be treated with indifference. Since these practices are neither commended nor forbidden in Scripture, they become issues of personal liberty. In technical terms, what has emerged is an ethical model that is firstly deontological, then secondarily egoist in nature: If the Bible doesn’t command or forbid (deontology), then personal liberty becomes the watchword (egoism).

There are multiple problems with this approach:

(1) It is firstly clear that the principal matter under review here is not a matter of biblical silence. God has clearly approved the eating of meat (Acts 10:13; Rom 14:14, 20), though he does not require us to eat meat. What emerges here is not anything close to indifference (whether mine or God’s), but incidental discernment: sometimes one positively must eat meat (1 Cor 10:27), sometimes one definitely must not (Rom 14:14–23; 1 Cor 10:28–29). In summary, the positive general practice of eating and drinking is ALWAYS done either (1) detrimentally or (2) to the glory of God (so 1 Cor 10:31). There is no neutrality.

As such, I reject categorically the Stoic approach to ethics. There is no middle ground between virtue and vice; no area free from ethical scrutiny. God is always either inclined toward or disinclined away from any specific action I take. He is never ambivalent.

(2) That egoist liberty is the default ethical approach that succeeds deontology, secondly, is clearly rejected both in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10–12. Paul’s tone is nothing remotely close to the libertarian egoism proposed by some contemporary evangelicals. There is, instead, a very thick layer of consequentialist ethical concern. Every time a believer engages in some action, he needs to be aware of the consequences of that action. Sometimes he should not do things that are intrinsically good (e.g., if it closes doors to the gospel; if it results in a brother lapsing into sin or abandoning the faith; if it is “not of faith”; if it damages the unity of the bond of peace; etc.).

In reality, even the pagans do this. A small percentage of society is libertarian in their eating habits, but this is generally considered immature or irresponsible in polite society. Most unbelievers are instead ethical consequentialists in their eating practices:

  • They tell their kids to take only one hamburger at the family picnic and not to take too much cheese so that everyone gets some.
  • They eat Aunt Gertrude’s weird meatloaf so that they don’t offend her and lose their place as a beneficiary in her will.
  • They eat calamari with a client so that they can close the deal.
  • They don’t eat too much salt and cholesterol so that they stay alive a little longer.

The libertarian impulse is never absent in unbelievers, but the unbridled libertinism of some Christians (to borrow a line) is sometimes “of a kind that does not occur even among pagans.” This is a problem.

(3) But if I may go further, Paul seems to suggest yet another layer of ethical concern—a communitarian concern. After deontology and consequentialism are exhausted, I still act as a representative of my local church before I act as an individual. When we can, we think and consult and act in community for the sake of the Christian mission. Sometimes that even means that we make collective “rules” for the advance of the Christian mission and the health/stability of the Christian community. It starts with theology (we all agree to certain facts) and moves to utility (we all agree, say, to meet for worship at 10:30), but often issues in ethical commitment as well, born out of Christian consequentialism:

  • Some agree “to abstain from the sale and use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage” so that we do not become drunk or cause a brother to lapse into a besetting sin.
  • Some agree to “maintain family devotions” so that we formally introduce our children to the faith.
  • Some covenant to “walk circumspectly in the world” so that we may realize “the salvation of our kindred and acquaintances,” and then offer some examples of what that looks like.*

I hesitate to defend this practice with unqualified approval, because it has been levied in some quarters to strip away the responsibility of every believer to cultivate “incidental discernment” (above), and to place that responsibility under the hands of elite ecclesiastical “regulators,” leading to abuse of authority. Still, I am disinclined to demonize these regulators as harshly as some do. Why? Because, in my experience, most of these regulators are motivated by a sincere sort of communitarian Christian consequentialism that falls far short of the “legalist” or “Pharisee” labels with which they are sometimes branded. Is there a genuine threat here? Of course. Is the threat as great as libertarian egoism/indifference? Not even close.


There is a category of Christian liberty found in Scripture. God gives us a great many options freely and selectively to enjoy. But this layer of ethical privilege exists only after Christian deontology, Christian consequentialism, and Christian Communitarianism are exhausted. To yield too quickly to egoism and “indifference” in ethics is at best a dubious practice.

*These three citations all appear in J. Newton Brown’s “Church Covenant” (1853), widely used or adapted for use in a great many Baptist assemblies.


I read this paper when it was posted at DBTS. There's a lot I agree with in it, even though Mark and I don't see these passages the same.


In Doctrine of the Christian Life John Frame explains why he does not like the term “adiaphora.”

When Paul says, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31), he implies that everything we do either brings glory to God or does not do so. The "whatever" is universal. It includes our eating and drinking, sleeping, waking, bathing, working, marrying, entertaining ourselves – indeed every human activity. When we glorify God, we are doing right, and when we do not glorify God, we are doing wrong. Here there is no room for a third category that we might call adiaphora. No human action is indifferent to God. p168

The word adiaphora is not found in Scripture. However, if we remove the “a-” (negation) and make it a verb, we have διαφέροντα (diapheronta). And that is a Biblical word. While adiaphora means “not different” or “neither is better,” diapheronta means “to differentiate” or “to discern the better or more excellent option.” This word is used several times in the New Testament.

Philippians 1:9-10 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent (τὰ διαφέροντα), and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

So, no I don't think that in Paul's view ethics was about matters of indifference. Rather, it was about matters of difference.

When we encounter differences of conscience, we should not call them adiaphora. They are the opposite of indifferent. They are, as Philippians 1:10 calls them, διαφέροντα. This is Paul’s prescribed method of living out the righteousness that comes through Christ. In Phil. 4:8, Paul gave a list of virtues and instructed us to “think on these things.” When we do that, we will apply these virtues to our lives and we will rule out or rule in certain actions in our lives. At that point, those actions become διαφέροντα.


Mark, if you are around to answer questions, when you say,

What emerges here is not anything close to indifference (whether mine or God’s), but incidental discernment: sometimes one positively must eat meat (1 Cor 10:27), sometimes one definitely must not (Rom 14:14–23; 1 Cor 10:28–29). In summary, the positive general practice of eating and drinking is ALWAYS done either (1) detrimentally or (2) to the glory of God (so 1 Cor 10:31). There is no neutrality.

As such, I reject categorically the Stoic approach to ethics. There is no middle ground between virtue and vice; no area free from ethical scrutiny.

There are a few things there I would question.

1. The eating in 1Cor10:27 - Why not read it as an allowed, rather than as a requirement? ("Go ahead and eat if you want" instead of "anything he puts in front of you, you must eat.")

2. Questioning the idea of "middle ground" and "neutral" is the theme of this paper. In 1Cor 8 Paul is addressing the question of eating ("reclining") in the temple. Later he'll refute the practice (ch10), but in ch8, he deals with it as a matter of weak-strong disagreement.

1Cor 8:8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.

This language seems to reinforce the idea that there are things that we are allowed to do, but that are not required or even beneficial.


Thanks for interacting. In response to your two questions:

(1) Maybe? It seems more proactive than that: don't offend your host by refusing his hospitality; rather, maintain open lines of gospel witness by eating the meat.

(2) The bare, decontextualized act of eating meat is neither required not forbidden, true. And I DO allow for an egoist layer of ethics (i.e., I do what is in my own best interests). I'm just emphasizing the other ethical layers that are Paul's primary concern. Before I jump to "I can do whatever I want," I have to sift through contextual questions like (a) is it edifying? (b) could it cause spiritual damage to someone? (c) will the goals of the Christian community be jeopardized? IOW, the window of "I can do whatever I want" is considerably narrower than a lot of Christian libertarians make it--and even then it is not technically neutral.

Hope that clarifies.


1 Corinthians 9:19-23 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.we find what some call a benefit.

“Look at what Paul repeated in every verse: “19 That I might win… 20 in order to win… that I might win… 21 ​​that I might win… 22 that I might win… that I might save… Paul did all these things for the sake of the Gospel.

Paul is depicting a gigantic motivation to use his liberties for the Gospel. And a gigantic one to not use his liberties for the Gospel. This sounds like an easy formula. But these are opposite actions. If you're with a group with a particular conviction, don't use liberty in that area, if they're free, you are too. Sounds easy. But what if it's 50/50? 10/90? 90/10?