Adiaphora: The Beginning of the Conversation
by Kristi Meyer
“Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others (1 Corinthians 10:23-24, NIV84).
Several years ago, over the course of a few months, one of my pastors and I had a number of conversations on the unique callings of men and women. These conversations were productive and fruitful, helped me refine my thinking on the subject and bring it more into line with what God says in his Word, and formed much of the basis for this summer’s devotional series.
What stands out the most, though, isn’t the particular topics we discussed nor the places where we agreed or disagreed. No, I mainly remember our differing approaches to the question of “What can a woman do in the church?” I wanted to talk about whether a woman could usher, serve on a board, read a Scripture lesson—in short, I wanted to answer the question!
On the other hand, it seemed like all my pastor wanted to talk about was how the practices of our local congregation might be received, both by our members and by other nearby WELS congregations. I was so frustrated with him at the time because it felt like he was completely ignoring the question. But now…now I understand his motivation and reason for approaching the question the way that he did; now I understand the importance of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:23-24.
It is first important to note what Paul is not saying in these verses. The quotation marks around “Everything is permissible” indicate that he was likely quoting a mantra that had sprung up in the Corinthian congregation. We dare not take Paul’s words as permitting anything that is explicitly forbidden elsewhere in the Bible. In particular, as we discussed last week, the prohibition on women teaching authoritatively found in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 still applies.
With this background in mind, we can turn to Paul’s approach for dealing with those matters that God neither explicitly commands nor forbids: matters of adiaphora. In these matters, we are each free to come to our own conclusions, and we are certainly free to come to a conclusion different than that of a fellow Christian. Paul doesn’t stop there, though, and neither can we.
Can women do more in the WELS than they are currently permitted to do? Perhaps, and that’s a question that will be tackled more thoroughly in this week’s second devotion.
We need to consider Paul’s additions to the Corinthians’ mantra: not everything is beneficial; not everything is constructive. Can women do more in the WELS than they are currently permitted to do? Perhaps, and that’s a question that will be tackled more thoroughly in this week’s second devotion. But it is equally important to ask the related question: if women are permitted to do more, would that be beneficial and constructive? These questions aren’t at odds; instead, they’re two sides of the same coin.
In verse 24, Paul gives even more guidance for shaping the conversation. We shouldn’t only think about what is beneficial or constructive for ourselves. In addition, when approaching matters of adiaphora, we should seek the good of others and build up the body of Christ. That might mean giving up some of our freedoms because acting in a certain way will harm the faith of a fellow believer—something incredibly difficult to do, but also an outstanding display of Christian love.
One final caution: we must exercise care not to attribute words to Paul that he did not intend to write. Acting out of Christian love for our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith is key. But if a fellow brother or sister issues a prohibition where God has not, if they incorrectly claim a woman is not permitted to do something even though there is no such command in Scripture, then we are compelled to respectfully disagree. Even more than that, we are free to engage in the very activity that is being prohibited—not out of spite or malice, but again out of love: love that strives neither to abuse nor to restrict our Christian freedom.
“Can a woman do…?” Sometimes “yes”; sometimes “no”; more often than not “maybe.” That’s not always the best question to ask, however, and it’s certainly never the only question to ask.
“Can a woman do…?” Sometimes “yes”; sometimes “no”; more often than not “maybe.” That’s not always the best question to ask, however, and it’s certainly never the only question to ask. It’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end—a conversation that continues later this week.
For Further Reflection
Meditate on or write about how you can balance Christian freedom with the desire to build up fellow believers in their faith. What might cause your thinking to change from “I can do this…” to “Out of Christian love, I shouldn’t do this…”?
Lord God, you call us to exercise our Christian freedom in a way that is both pleasing to you and edifying to the body of Christ. Give us wisdom as we deal with matters of adiaphora, peace when we need to set aside our own desires to seek the good of others, and a desire to glorify you in all things—both in what we do and in what we choose to forego. Amen.