“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 20.2).


“…[W]e…believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (Presbyterian Synod of New York and Philadelphia, 1788; Book of Order: The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church [USA], Part II).


When I was younger, there wasn’t a liturgical or ecclesiastical issue ditch I wasn’t willing to die in. The fate of the Church and maybe the world hung on what provisions were voted in or out of the denominational constitution, what doctrines we affirmed, and/or how the church year was observed. Everything mattered and in the same measure. So I applied litmus tests (“I don’t think he’s Truly Reformed”), listened closely to examinations of ministers for the proper theological buzz words (whether of the left or the right), and argued with organists and church members over whether we could sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on the first Sunday of Advent.


But as I got older and learned more, grew in experience and maybe faith, the list of issues that were absolute matters of conscience became shorter. Don’t get me wrong: there are still things that are vitally important to me. But the world has not ended because somebody sang a Christmas carol in early December or didn’t wear the right vestment for Holy Communion or even disagreed with me over the interpretation of some doctrine. Maybe I’m weary from the fight, but I hope the reasons for my mellowing are that I’ve gotten wiser, more tolerant, and above all, less full of myself as the Arbiter of All Things True and Good.


I forget exactly when I first encountered the term “adiaphora” (ah-dee-af-oh-rah), meaning “things indifferent,” but I’m glad I did. It’s an important concept. The word originally was used by the Stoics to refer to matters that were morally neutral, doing neither good nor harm. But since the Reformation, it’s been applied to rites and practices, particularly in worship, that vary with circumstance and context. So, what kind of wood the pulpit is made of or whether the choir wears robes or when the announcements are read really doesn’t matter. (Of course, I’m speaking generally. In actual practice, there are people in the churches who would more readily deny the Incarnation than give up their insistence that the chancel furniture or the paint in the chapel look a certain way.)


But “adiaphora” is not just a word to use in church. Watching the inauguration of Barack Obama last Tuesday, it occurred to me that the majority of Americans have expanded their list of things indifferent while at the same time populating their roster of essentials with some things that really do matter. For the former, the new American adiaphora: race, political dynasties, conservative religion, social issue litmus tests, and old divisions. For the latter, things that truly matter: hard work, personal responsibility and accountability, cooperation to solve problems, imagination, courage, curiosity, confidence, and hope.


There’s a common saying regarding adiaphora: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Let both our churches and our nation affirm those words with energy and enthusiasm and resolve to give our attention to what really matters for the future and the good of all.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham