Things Indifferent

by Rick Shrader

For the church, wherever she appears in human society, the constantly recurring question must be: What shall we unite with and from what shall we separate?  The question of coexistence does not enter here, but the question of union and fellowship does.  The wheat grows in the same field with the tares, but shall the two cross-pollinate?  The sheep graze near the goats, but shall they seek to interbreed?  The unjust and the just enjoy the same rain and sunshine, but shall they forget their deep moral differences and intermarry?

A.W. Tozer1


A familiar and appropriate quotation used in our day is, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”  Although we can use it as we see fit, the quote seems to have originated with Richard Baxter in the seventeenth century and was originally written, “In necessary things, unity; in disputed (some have “doubtful”) things, liberty; in all things, charity.”2

Richard Baxter was an English Nonconformist who urged moderation to those who would leave the Church of England.  Eventually, however, he could not remain himself and left the Church because of the Uniformity Act of 1662.  He refused a bishopric offered to him by Charles II and was later imprisoned by James II.3 Baxter wanted religious liberty for those who disputed the church’s dogmas but did not find it in his lifetime.

Baxter’s “disputed” and today’s “nonessentials” may or may not carry the same connotations.  The word “nonessential” however, has a religious history older than Baxter.  It goes back a hundred years to the Reformation era to a dispute called the “adiaphora.”4 This word literally means “things indifferent” or “nonessential.”  In 1548, two years after Luther’s death, Charles V attempted to unite Catholic and Protestant Germany with a law called the Augsburg Interim.  Due to its immediate failure, a compromise measure was reached in Leipzig the same year by consulting Melanchthon, now the Reformation leader.

Melanchthon agreed that many differences in doctrine were adiaphora or nonessential and need not be disputed by the Lutheran churches.  Among these were confirmation, veneration of saints, the Latin mass, Corpus Christi Day, extreme unction and he also “adopted a modified and vague doctrine of justification by faith.”5 Conservative Lutherans who were more followers of Luther, could not abide by what Melanchthon deemed adiaphora.  Their spokesman, Matthias Flacius, opposed him “objecting to his compromising with the Catholic Church on nonessentials.”6 It is “widely conceded that Flacius saved the Reformation.”7 It was not until 1580 and the Book Of Concord, that the Lutheran faith was again a clear voice of the gospel.

Of course, during this time in Germany, “Calvinism and Anabaptism were excluded  from toleration.”8 In fact, all through this century, especially in Augsburg, Anabaptists Balthamar Hubmaier and Hans Denck contended with both Zwingli and Luther over infant baptism, the latter arguing that though the New Testament doesn’t mention infant baptism, neither does it forbid it.  Therefore, it is a nonessential.9 But it was not adiaphora enough to keep the state church from drowning those who differed.

I don’t know if Richard Baxter had the adiaphorists in mind when, a hundred years after,  he pleaded for the unity of the Church of England.  Both he and Melanchthon failed in uniting divergent churches by appealing to nonessentials.  This kind  of effort is again being tried today in the form of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document urged by Chuck Colson and Richard Neuhaus, as well as Bill McCartney’s Promise Keepers.  But what is “indifferent” to one will not be to another and it is only a matter of time until another Flacius or Hubmaier has to draw the line.

There are just some things that cannot be relegated to the status of “nonessential.”  Flacius could see that even if the great Melanchthon couldn’t. But I said in the beginning that I thought Baxter’s quotation, even the way it is used today with the words essential and nonessential, is appropriate.  Somewhere Christians do give and take on things regarding their faith.

There are many cases where brethren differ over things that are not essential to their fellowship or cooperation.  The Articles of Faith of my church are designed to be both broad enough to include many Baptist families and yet narrow enough to say something definite and to distinguish us from other kinds of churches.  There are some things that are too different to be included in the same church.

The Corinthian church was a church that could not make the right distinctions between these things.  They had taken Paul’s teaching on liberty and turned it into license.  “All things are lawful,” they would say, and Paul answered, “But all things are not expedient” and “I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor 6:12).  It was true, that “Meats were for the belly, and the belly for meats” (vs 13).   Eating various kinds of meat was nonessential. But the Corinthians went further and equated the use of the body for fornication with the use of the body for meat.  No! Paul said, God will destroy the belly and meat, but He will raise up the body in resurrection (vs 13-14).  Interestingly, Lenski, (a Lutheran) says, “In this instance, the principle that ‘all things are allowed’ cannot be applied. God himself regulates the sex relation.  He limits it to two distinct spheres, the one that is stamped with His approval, the other with His severe disapproval; both are thus entirely removed from the territory of the adiaphora.”10

We all have the tendency, like the Corinthians or Melanchthon, to relegate essentials to nonessentials with a slogan.  We also have the ability to relegate myths to essentials like Zwingli’s infant baptism.  Tozer said, “Power lies in the union of things similar and the division of things dissimilar.”11 God help us to see them both.

1. A.W. Tozer, The Best Of Tozer (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978) 72.
2. Frank S. Mead, 12,000 Religious Quotations (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989) 43.
3. Mayo Hazeltine, ED, Orations From Homer To McKinley, Vol 4 (New York:  Collier and Son, 1902) 1548.
4. History and definition of the adiaphora can be found in Bible dictionaries as well as church history books.  Eerdman’s Handbook of Christianity has a helpful article.
5. A. Renwick, Baker’s Dictionary Of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978) 24.
6. “Flacius Illyricus, Matthias,” Columbia Encyclopedia (New York: Columbia U. Press, 1964) 725.
7. A. Renwick, Ibid.
8. Charles Jacobs, The Story Of The Church (Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1947) 231.
9. Thomas Armitage, The History Of The Baptists, Vol 1 (Watertown:  Maranatha Press, 1976) Chapter V.
10. R.C.H. Lenski, First Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1963) 259.
11. Tozer, 73.