ἀδιάφορα, or adiaphora to those of you who don’t use Greek, is the theological term for:
How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?
As John Wesley is reputed to have said about Christians and their beliefs:
In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.
Of course, proving that we Methodists get our doctrinal slipperyness honestly, how do you determine what is ‘essential?’
Who determines what is essential?
And perhaps most important of all: how do they determine it?
Historically, essential doctrines have always been discerned and debated over time by means of ecumenical councils. Think Nicea or Chalcedon and the creeds which they produced as a result of their consensus.
Presently, as any sentient creature knows, issues of marriage and homosexuality divide the ‘big C’ Church with passion and biblical motivation on both sides and no small amount of fatigue in the middle.
As much as those in the middle would like to move on from the issue and get about the Church’s ‘mission,’ we can’t.
As much as those on the ‘progressive’ side would like the Church to hurry up and get with the times, we can’t.
And as much as the traditional side would like to persist in its tradition and ignore the segment of her Body which believes the Holy Spirit is leading in a new direction, we can’t.
That’s because marriage- and sex within marriage- is not ἀδιάφορα. It’s a belief about which the universal Church has always held a particular, universally-held view.
It’s too important a belief, in other words, for individual churches (or individual Christians for that matter) to chart their own path.
Likewise, it’s too important a belief to ignore what many Christians believe the Holy Spirit has persuaded them about the matter.
Marriage is not ἀδιάφορα; therefore, marriage is a belief that necessarily calls out an even more essential marriage: ours to Christ. The Church’s unity.
And so, like any marriage, we’re stuck with each other for the long haul and, as in any marriage, we need to figure this out together. In conversation.
Here’s how NT Wright put it in his final address as bishop:
“Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate; in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here.
The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on.
Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate.
But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.
No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other…to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart.”