The Christian and Things Indifferent
When we want to know the boundaries and contours of right and wrong we consult the teaching of the Word of God, not our own feelings or natural reasoning (Prov. 3:5,7).
Scripture clearly prescribes the things that are right and prohibits the things that are wrong. However, the Word of God also indicates to us that the Christian life is not a matter of our reducing all things into absolute categories of right or wrong. There are things indifferent, which in themselves are neither right nor wrong, with moral quality being in the attitude that prompts our use of or abstinence from those things. For example, whether a man’s diet is restricted or expanded is a matter indifferent. It is neither right nor wrong for a man to eat only vegetables or to partake of meat. The Apostle Paul deals fully with this question of the use of or abstinence from things indifferent in Romans 14. If Scripture devotes an entire chapter to this matter in a letter which is the most full and clear theological articulation contained in the Bible, we do well to consider, understand, and abide by the Scriptural teaching on this subject.
Basically, we are to regard things indifferent with a holy, principled indifference. This means that we do not labour to impute moral value into those things that are neither sinful nor righteous in themselves. If we stay with the matter of one’s diet that Paul deals with in Romans 14, we must learn to draw the line of legitimacy not between the items one eats, but rather between a responsible use of food and the abuse of food to which a glutton resorts. Our Lord considers how and why we use things indifferent, rather than the fact that we use such things. The degree of our use and the motive prompting our disposition toward such things, then, determine whether what is being done or not done is right or wrong. For example, a man may deny himself meat in an endeavour to reduce his fat intake and lower his cholesterol for the sake of enhancing his health in view of the sixth commandment. That would be a right abstinence from a thing indifferent. Another man may abstain from a sense of legalistic pride, and that would make the same act to be wrong and sinful.
We must admit that it would be easier for us to reduce all things into clear and absolute categories of right and wrong, but such a mindless and mechanical grasp of things is not what Scripture teaches. Rather, we are to grow in our understanding, discernment, and loving consideration for others, and nothing contributes to and manifests better our growth in such areas as does our disposition toward things indifferent. The man who exalts his opinion to an absolute moral standard for all is not wise and mature in the things of the Lord, but is childish and churlish in his conceit.
The right rule of our attitude and actions towards things indifferent is that we allow most charitable generosity toward others in their use of such things, while being more critically careful in our own use of such things. In this way we are inclined to be most lovingly respectful toward and considerate of others, while we avoid the intoxicating conceit that we know what is best for others more truly than they know for themselves.
William Harrell is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia.
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