Applying the Principle of Adiaphora with Confidence, by Klemet Preus

Article X of the Formula of Concord deals with indifferent matters or what has been called “adiaphora.” The application of Article X to the question of worship among Lutherans in America today may seem difficult. But once we sweep away some of the extraneous issues and get to the core of the Biblical and Confessional position on adiaphora, we can apply it today with confidence.

Here was the issue which confronted the Lutherans. They had been part of the Roman Church until recently. While establishing the ministry of the Gospel and Sacraments among themselves they had discarded certain Roman customs. The Roman church wanted the Lutherans to return to these customs in order for there to be peace among the two groups. Some Lutherans figured that they should go ahead and reintroduce the abandoned customs. They thought that they might as well not antagonize the Roman church any more than necessary and since some of these customs were neither commanded nor forbidden in the church then they were not doing wrong for actions intended to minimize the conflict.

Other Lutherans said that there should be principles which would guide the church as she decided which customs to reintroduce. These are the principles.

Obviously you can’t introduce ceremonies which are contrary to the bible even if these customs are claimed to be indifferent matters.

  1. If certain customs or ceremonies are designed to give the impression that our religion does not greatly differ from that of the papists then we are not free to use those customs even if, under different circumstances, the ceremonies would be indifferent matters.
  2. When customs or ceremonies are introduced as though through these ceremonies contrary religions are reconciled, then such ceremonies are not matters of indifference. (FC SD X 5)

Let me make some observations especially pertaining to number 2 above.

First, let it be noted that the “two religions” mentioned and discussed in the formula are the Lutherans and the Papists. But the principles apply to the true church and any religious expression which teaches contrary to the pure Gospel. So “enemies of the gospel,” as they are called in the Formula (FC SD X 2), could be Calvinists, Armenians, Nestorians, synergists or American Evangelicals.          

Second, the confessions address the question of giving the impression of unity when there is none. “Nor do we include among truly free adiaphora or things indifferent those ceremonies which give or (to avoid persecution) are designed to give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from that of the papists” FC SD X 5, Tappert 611). So, it is wrong to give an impression which is false and it is doubly wrong to do so in order to avoid persecution.

Third, the Formula negatively states the motives for employing ceremonies which give a false impression – “to avoid persecution.” But it is not merely the avoidance of persecution which can motivate wrongly in this context. In principle the same prohibition would apply if employing ceremonies was done for positive reasons. If we deceive people into thinking that we are something different than we are so that we can gain acceptance by the dominant culture or at least by the dominant religious culture then the gain through deception violates the principle of the Formula no less than does the avoidance of pain through deception.

Fourth, at the time of the Reformation the Papists had the ability to force upon the Lutherans certain ceremonies by the threat of persecution through legal means. The capacity to persecute through legal means is not possible today in America where we enjoy freedom of religion. Does that mean that there is no application of the principles articulated in Article X of the Formula? Hardly. The example which the Formula finds in the scriptures is the well known case of the imposition of circumcision by the Judaizers upon Paul’s disciples. The imposition occurred “in order to establish their false doctrine that works of the Law were necessary for righteousness and salvation” (FC SD X 12 Concordia 628). Yet such an imposition was not done through legal pressure. Only the Romans could have done that. Rather, the Judaizers (enemies of the Gospel in Paul’s day) employed a type of ecclesiastical intimidation to force their will on others. That is why the Confessions enjoin the church “not to yield to the adversaries or permit these adiaphora to be forced on them by their enemies, whether by violence or cunning” (FC SD X 10 Concordia 628, emphasis mine).

So when customs are cunningly imposed upon the church which give the impression of unity with the dominant church culture even though that unity does not exist then the principles articulated in FC X are violated.

Now someone might say; What customs might fall into this category today? What practices are being imposed today? How do these give the impression of unity?

And I would answer; these customs are being imposed:  

Bands in front of the church, whose purpose is to entertain,

A medley of songs at the beginning of the service which have the purpose of warming up the people for the preacher,

The insertion of crossover music into the divine service,

The removal of paraments and vestments,

The removal of hymnals in deference to projections on a screen,

The removal of the pulpit,

Decreasing the use of the ecumenical creeds,

Departure from the standard historic ordinaries,

Public testimonials of laymen and laywomen during the service and even during the sermon,    

And probably many more.

And someone would object; Are you saying these things are wrong?

And I would answer; In and of themselves these may be matters of indifference. Most of them are neither forbidden nor commanded by the Bible. But all of them are strongly associated with American Evangelicalism which is the most powerful religious force in America today. They picture and promote the theology of Evangelicalism and are “pushed by the enemies of the gospel to establish their false doctrine” (FC SD X 12 Concordia 628). And there are strong cultural and ecclesiastical forces which are trying to impose these customs upon the Lutheran churches today. We need to resist accepting these ceremonies just as strenuously as the Lutherans in the 16th century resisted the imposition of Papist ceremonies on their churches. If we do not then we will “give the impression that our religion does not differ greatly from that of the” Evangelicals.

And some one would object, “But it is demonstrable that the church will not grow without these changes.”

And I would answer; Whether we grow or not it is deceptive to make people believe that we are similar to mainstream American Evangelicalism by adopting their ceremonies. If we deceive in order to avoid persecution we violate our confession. If we deceive in order to enjoy numerical growth we violate it just as well. “A clear cut confession of faith is demanded of us” and “we dare not yield to the enemies of the gospel in indifferent things.”

 But someone would say; You are trying to impose your customs on us.

 And I would answer: That’s a different question which can wait for another day.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Applying the Principle of Adiaphora with Confidence, by Klemet Preus — 11 Comments

  1. Pastor Preus, as always compelling. Some great points I haven’t heard of on this issue. Adiaphora is turning into an excuse to move away from the Lutheran Confessions in many cases. We must be careful lest we make things ‘customs’ and thus an issue of law that you must do, but if what one calls adiaphora leads us farther from the gospel, then is it really adiaphora?

    Your points regarding deception – disguising the Lutheran church as an evangelical church – what is certainly happening in many of our churches – is wrong. But is it deception or a desire to become more like the evangelical church? Being entertained is certainly a strong force, but even more cunning is the enthusiast motive at work. Working the congregation into an emotional response is bringing the old mystic into play – a powerful force that has enticed many and will do so until Jesus returns. Hopefully we can fend this off in our synod, but many don’t see the danger I’m afraid.

  2. And that is precisely what makes it dangerous! I believe Todd Wilken did an excellent job addressing adiaphora on this past Friday’s listener email segment when it came to customs lay readers and elders/vicars/women serving communion. Adiaphora, yes, but certainly needlessly confusing!

    Right now in our congregation, we have lay readers because we had a pastor with macular degeneration who needed assistance reading the lessons. Even the Gospel lesson was read by a layman (yes, even women) because he could no longer read the text. That pastor has since met his Lord, but the lay reader program continues despite having a confessionally grounded pastor who is very capable of reading even tiny print. We have not been catechized strongly in the boundaries of the office of the ministry and that of the laity. Strong biblically-based instruction in why we do what we do, done in the spirit of telling the truth is a good solution for controversies over adiaphora.

    A drop of raw sewage in a gallon of pure water makes a gallon of raw sewage.

  3. One of the problems with adopting ceremonies from other denominations is that too often over time the theology of those groups are also adopted such as gospel-reductionism or a Theology of Glory. Since the adoption of ceremonies gives the impression of similarity between religions then if the religions are similar you give the impression that the theologies must be similar as well. It is a small step from having similar ceremonies to having similar preaching. I imagine a sense of accomplishment of spreading God’s Word as evidenced by the growth of a church through dynamic “relevant” preaching can be quite tempting, even to LCMS pastors.

  4. My wife and I have visited no less than 13 local lcms churches here in SE MI. Every one of them have some kind of “praise worship” and/or healing sessions using annointing of oil, what the heck is going on. The Pastors seem like lemmings with no theological core at all and their feel good or sanctification preaching is pathietic, “‘deserves to be sat upon by dogs” as Luther would say. I have come to feel that the LCMS has left us. It so often feels like we have walked into a AOG or Saddleback, Lutheran core teaching of God for us has been replaced by God in us. Something has to be going on at the sem that leads them to buy into this crap. Maybe WELS had it right when they refused to mingle with evangelicals.

  5. @ Mames

    It isn’t the seminary, it’s coming from the SP office in St. Louis.
    Fuller Seminary is running all the church growth in the LCMS, of course it’s not Lutheran.
    Get ready for CG 2.0, I think the Adiaphora is going to get worse.
    We’re going NewAge/Emergent Now a/k/a/BM (Being Missional)

    @mames #4

  6. A couple of historical issues that need to be remembered.

    1.) The adiaphora argument to re-admit Roman customs was made not on a congregation-by-congregation basis. Rather, it was initiated under a document drawn up by Philip Melanchthon called the “Leipzig Interim” of 1548. It attempted to be a more Lutheran document than an earlier document called the “Augsburg Interim.” Compare our own situation. Changes were made on a congregation-by-congregation basis. There wasn’t even a unifying document that gave any kind of theological rationale for the changes that were made. Any kind of movement forward will also be on a congregation-by-congregation basis…which is not the structure envisioned in the Lutheran Confessions when they deal with adiaphora. Do adiaphora exist? Definitely. How are they negotiated? Historically and confessionally the answer is that adiaphora and their regulation are both a local AND a trans-parochial issue.

    2.) The trans-parochial argument is why we have “worship wars.” Previous posts I have made have reminded us of territoral churches, church orders, and language issues relative to adiaphora. These need to remain on the table for a complete understanding of FC X and the issue of adiaphora.

  7. @rogue Lutheran #5

    rogue Lutheran,

    Was your quote —

    “Get ready for CG 2.0, I think the Adiaphora is going to get worse.”

    — related to the link for the upcoming NID conference you provided?

    If so, could you please explain?

  8. @ Rev. Gilbert my last comment got messed up, ComEd has my yard torn up

    I’m sorry I wasn’t more clear, Rev.

    The new ‘Becoming Missional’ is clearly the new form of the Church Growth insanity afflicting the LCMS.

    Dr. Fitch who looks to be a pleasant fellow is not a Lutheran and appears by all accounts to be the ‘front’ person” via Fuller/WillowCreek to unleash another wave of this church growth nonsense on unsuspecting Lutherans.

    Readers should visit Dr. Fitch’s website and credentials and various writings available on the internet.

    Especially an intriguing interview on vimeo with Dr. Fitch & ED STETZER
    Video from Vimeo
    Ed Stetzer & Dave Fitch – a missional conversation Part II, 4 months ago
    Interesting at the 11:00 & 20:00 mark.

    At about the 20:00 mark there is an interesting exchange:
    Fitch:  The goal to be a mega church is a misguided one.
    Stetzer:  That probably fair.
    Paraphrasing (mine): church growth has been a bust because it’s too big, the overhead is too great, it’s labor intensive, and probably not sustainable because it employs too many gimmicks.  

  9. “Lutheran core teaching of God for us has been replaced by God in us.” All I can say is ‘huh?'”. I absolutely am NOT for compromising one iota on tradition, the Confessions, the Lutheranism that was heaven sent 500 years ago. However, I must admit the aforementioned quotation really threw me. The writer’s statement demands that these two ideas, God for us, and God in us, be mutually exclusive. Is there not another possibility? Is it possible that these two, I believe, compatible positions have rather become disproportionately emphasized, favoring the second, God in us, so that feelings now become the goal, the measure by which we judge worship? The church must become Disneyesque, an experience of entering into God’s presence? Isn’t this at least part of the problem? But to say that “God in us” is the problem seems like a pretty hinky statement.

  10. Often, we in our American individualism practice a crass liturgical reductionism in the name of adiaphora. It bothers me when, to make the Eucharistic liturgy seem simpler, folks take out the Proper prefaces, Sanctus, etc.–sometimes even the Lord’s Prayer–to scurry toward the Words of Institution. I understand that the main liturgical part of celebrating the Eucharist are the Words. But, when people discard the other rites of preparation such as the Agnus Dei and/or substitute other ditties there, they will more easily fail to recall the full promise our Lord gives in His Sacrament.

    The liturgical rites taken straight from Holy Scripture help us remember how the season of the church year relates to the Sacrament and vice versa (proper preface), God’s holiness coming to us (Sanctus, Isaiah 6:3), and the sacrifice Christ made once for us and which He through His Church distributes to us each Lord’s Day. (Agnus Dei, John 1:29).

    Take away these elements from corporate worship–corum Deo–and we must remember their meaning in private. Keep them, and we together “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven laud and magnify” our Savior’s grace which He freely distributes to us by the hand of our called and ordained pastor.

    Liturgical reductionism often takes place in the name of convenience when individually congregations negate the Confession and Absolution from the Divine Service! Again, while the wording may be different in each setting in our hymnals (an orthographic adiaphoran), their absence leaves the remembrance of Jesus’ promised forgiveness of our sins to our private reflection. Yet, when, thanks be to God, congregations retain these beautiful elements, our called and ordained pastor speaks Christ’s sure promises as if Christ Jesus Himself were standing visibly there, saying them to us in our hearing, publicly.

    Ours is not a privately reflective faith first. Rather, our confession of Christ streams from the corporate, worship corum Deo, into our lives of devotion and vocation in service to one another.

    We do live , in the phrasing of FC X, in a time of persecution. We, then, do well to have even more careful diligence in observing the historic liturgy in all its proclamation of God’s unerring Word. Then, we will have the joy and assurance of speaking God’s Word (tying it on our foreheads and teaching while walking on the road) (Deut. 6:4-9, etc) In avoiding liturgical reductionism, we more fully behold the way our Lord enriches our daily devotions to be solid, recollections of His Word instead of detached serendipitous meandering in possibilities.

  11. Boris

    yes, it is an issue of emphasis. Praise does not generate faith or love it is the other way around. When God’s Word has done its work, praise is a natural by product and God is in us but when you start with praise and continue with praise you have a serious problem. Many of these services place so much emphasis on mantra like praise that it is sad, the Law and Gospel are lost. Many of these congregations begin to see the confessions as antiquated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.