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.

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