I have been interested in the question of adiaphora – ‘things indifferent’, as expounded by Paul in particular – for many years, both at the historical level (what did Paul mean and why did he take the line he did?) and at the practical level (how does today’s church navigate the topics which some today want to treat as adiaphora (‘let’s agree to disagree’) and others insist must be regarded as making a real and substantial ‘difference’ to Christian fellowship?).
Granted that virtually all the meat offered for sale in a city like Corinth would have already been offered in an idol-temple, does that mean it is all ‘off limits’? Is it irrevocably ‘tainted’? [See 1 Corinthians 8-10.]
Paul’s main point . . . is that to buy the meat in the market, or to eat it when invited to someone’s home, is absolutely fine. But to go into an idol-temple and share in the meal on offer there is not. In Ben Witherington’s characteristic phrase, ‘it is more a matter of venue than menu’. That is the basic framework of his argument, thought out clearly on the basis of the christologically reimagined monotheism.
The key question for Paul is then, ‘How does this apply pastorally in a church where many members have in the past frequented idol-temples and shared in the entire way of life that they embody?’ For some, we may suppose – reading between Paul’s lines, but only a little – the very smell of cooked meat might easily conjure up the sights and sounds, incense wafting around idolatrous statues, boys and girls working the crowd to offer sexual favours, another glass of wine, then another, and then . . . bad memories, a dark mixture of thrill and guilt, a soul steadily eroded, a sense of chaos only warded off by more of the same. That was what the Messiah had rescued them from! Why would they want to have anything to do with it again?
Paul designates these two positions the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’. The ‘strong’ know that all meat is available to them; the ‘weak’ will find that it puts a strain on their conscience. We must remember, reading this terminology, that in writing to the Corinthians in particular he insists that the Messiah’s cross has redefined power in terms of ‘weakness’, so we must not imagine that these terms carry a kind of superiority complex in which the ‘strong’ (Paul himself included) can look down their noses at the ‘weak’ who should really, they might think, get their act together. Certainly not. As in Romans 14, these are siblings for whom the Messiah died (1 Corinthians 8.11). And here we come to the heart of Paul’s doctrine of adiaphora.
Meat – in this case, food that has been offered to idols – is not to be a community-divider. It all belongs to the one God. But for that to be a reality – for the community not to be divided – all parties must see that what matters is not the meat itself but the conscience of the person who might or might not eat. Paul even, unusually for him, enters into some detailed situational discussion: if a pagan invites you to dinner, go and eat without raising questions, but if someone says ‘Don’t you realize that was offered to an idol?’ you should abstain (1 Corinthians 10.27–30), not because of your conscience, but because of theirs.
This, then, is how the adiaphora rule works.
- First, the robust Trinitarian monotheism now made known through Jesus and the spirit is basic, enhancing and explaining further the essential Jewish monotheism in which all creation is good (in other words, Paul is a million miles away from Platonic dualism, still more from Gnosticism). Those who have had scruples about this or that need to think through what this Christ-and-spirit-shaped monotheism means in practice.
- Second, that will take time, because humans do not always change mental and practical habits overnight, and in this case they should not be forced to do so.
But in a mixed community, where people are still ‘on the way’ in being taught, in prayerfully thinking this through, the ‘strong’ should defer to the ‘weak’. This neither reflects nor produces a stable situation. Opinions may change, different community members may take different positions, and there is always the awkward moment when, sitting in good conscience at someone’s table, a bystander makes a comment that indicates a ‘weak’ conscience.
Paul is not legislating for all situations, nor could he. He is teaching people to think messianically, and especially to think through their own faith and practice, and their membership of the community with others on the same journey but at different points along the road, in the light of the Messiah’s death and resurrection. He is teaching them to navigate through difficult and only partly charted waters, with the Messiah and his saving death as the principal star by which they must steer. And in that situation the subtle rule of adiaphora is about as different from a modern doctrine of ‘tolerance’ as can be imagined. ‘Tolerance’ is not simply a low-grade version of ‘love’; in some senses, it is its opposite, as ‘tolerance’ can imply a distancing, a wave from the other side of the street, rather than the rich embrace of ‘the sibling for whom the Messiah died’.
There is much more, of course, that could and perhaps should be said about Paul and adiaphora. What matters is that we grasp as firmly as we can the fundamental principles of ecclesiology which Paul not only articulated as theory but worked out in pastoral and epistolary practice.
To understand the church as the Messiah’s spirit-filled people and, as such, as the community of new covenant and new creation, is to understand the difference between the matters in relation to which the church can and must live with difference of practice and the matters in relation to which the church has neither right nor mandate to approve or condone such differences. We, of course, live in a world where, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment’s watering down of Reformation theology, many have reduced the faith to a set of abstract doctrines and a list of detached and apparently arbitrary rules, which ‘conservatives’ then insist on and ‘radicals’ try to bend or merely ignore. It is this framework itself which we have got wrong, resulting in dialogues of the deaf or, worse, the lobbing of angry verbal hand-grenades over walls of incomprehension.
Paul’s framework was very different. It may be painful for us to learn to think within his framework rather than the one into which we regularly fall. But only if we learn to do so will we understand, and be able to navigate, the real challenges we face today and tomorrow.
–Read more in N. T. Wright’s Interpreting Scripture: Essays on the Bible and Hermeneutics, or in the 3-part Collected Essays of N. T. Wright.
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