Volume 40 - Issue 3

On Disputable Matters

By D. A. Carson

Every generation of Christians faces the need to decide just what beliefs and behavior are morally mandated of all believers, and what beliefs and behavior may be left to the individual believer’s conscience. The distinction is rooted in Scripture: for example, the practice of certain kinds of behavior guarantees that a person will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9–10), but other kinds of behavior are left up to the individual Christian: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom 14:5–6).

The matters where Christians may safely agree to disagree have traditionally been labeled adiaphora, “indifferent things.” They are not “indifferent things” in the sense that all sides view them as unimportant, for some believers, according to Paul, view them as very important, or view their freedom from such behavior as very important: “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” They are indifferent matters in the sense that believing certain things or not believing certain things, adopting certain practices or not adopting them, does not keep a person from inheriting the kingdom of God. Today there is a tendency to refer to such adiaphora as “disputable matters” rather than as “indifferent matters”—that is, theologically disputable matters. On the whole, that terminology is probably better: in contemporary linguistic usage “disputable matters” is less likely to be misunderstood than “indifferent matters.”

In the easy cases, the difference between indisputable matters and disputable matters is straightforward. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an indisputable matter: that is, this is something to be confessed as bedrock truth if the gospel makes any sense and if people are to be saved (1 Cor 15:1–19). If Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith is futile, the witnesses who claimed they saw him are not telling the truth, we remain in our sins, and we are of all people most to be pitied because we are building our lives on a lie. By contrast, Paul allows people to differ on the matter of honoring certain days, with each side fully persuaded in its own mind.

Immediately, however, we recognize that some things that were thought theologically indisputable in the past have become disputable. Paedobaptism was at one time judged in some circles to be so indisputably right that Anabaptists could be drowned with a clear conscience: if they wanted to be immersed, let us grant them their wish. Until the last three or four decades, going to movies and drinking alcohol was prohibited in the majority of American evangelical circles: the prohibition, in such circles, was indisputable. Nowadays most evangelicals view such prohibitions as archaic at best, displaced by a neat transfer to the theologically disputable column. Indeed, such conduct may serve as a possible sign of gospel freedom. Mind you, the fact that I qualified the assertions with expressions like “most evangelicals” and “majority of American evangelical circles” shows that the line between what is theologically indisputable and what is theologically disputable may be driven by cultural and historical factors of which we are scarcely aware at the time. Moreover, some things can cross the indisputable/disputable divide the other way. For example, in the past many Christians judged smoking to fall among the adiaphora, but their number has considerably shrunk. Scientifically demonstrable health issues tied to smoking, reinforced by a well-embroidered theology of the body, has ensured that for most Christians smoking is indisputably a no-no.

Since, then, certain matters have glided from one column to the other, it cannot come as a surprise that some people today are trying to facilitate the same process again, so as to effect a similar transfer. Doubtless the showcase item at the moment is homosexual marriage. Yes, such marriage was viewed as indisputably wrong in the past, but surely, it is argued, today we should move this topic to the disputable column: let each Christian be fully persuaded in their own mind, and refrain from making this matter a test of fellowship, let alone the kind of matter on which salvation depends.

What follows are ten reflections on what does and does not constitute a theologically disputable matter.

(1) That something is disputed does not make it theologically disputable, i.e., part of the adiaphora. After all, there is no cardinal doctrine that has not been disputed, and not many practices, either. When the troublemakers who followed in Paul’s train argued that in addition to Christ and his death, it was necessary to be circumcised and take on the burden of the law if one was to be a Christian under the Jewish Messiah, Paul did not suggest that everyone was entitled to their own opinion. Rather, he pronounced an anathema, because outside the apostolic gospel, which is tied to the exclusive sufficiency of Jesus, there is no salvation (Gal 1:8–9). When some in Corinth gave the impression that certain forms of fornication could be tolerated in the church, and might even be an expression of Christian freedom, Paul insisted on the exercise of church discipline all the way to excommunication, and emphatically taught that certain behavior, including fornication, inevitably means a person is excluded from the kingdom (1 Cor 5–6). Across the centuries, people have disputed the doctrine of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, his resurrection from the dead, and much more, but that does not mean that such matters belong in the disputable column. In short: just because something is in fact disputed does not mean that it is theologically disputable. If this point were not valid, any doctrine or moral stance could be relativized and placed in the adiaphora column by the simple expedience of finding a few people to dispute its validity.

(2) What places something in the indisputable column, then, is not whether or not it is disputed by some people, or has ever been disputed, but what the Scriptures consistently say about the topic, and how the Scriptures tie it to other matters. At the end of the day, that turns on sober, even-handed, reverent exegesis—as Athanasius understood in his day on a different topic. Athanasius won the Christological debate by the quality and credibility of his careful exegesis and theological integration. Similarly today: even if one disagrees with this or that detail in their arguments, the kind of careful exegetical work displayed at a popular level by Kevin DeYoung and at a more technical level by Robert A. J. Gagnon represents a level of detail and care simply not found by those who wish to skate around the more obvious readings of the relevant texts.1 To put these first two points together: That some still argue that the New Testament texts sanction or even mandate an Arian Christology, disputing the point endlessly, does not mean that we should admit Jehovah’s Witnesses into the Christian community today—they are exegetically and theologically mistaken, and their error is so grievous, however enthusiastically disputed, that the deity of the Word-made-flesh, of the eternal Son, cannot ever legitimately be transferred out of the indisputable column. Exactly the same thing must be asserted regarding the Bible’s prohibition of homosexuality, however complex the pastoral issues. In short: the most fundamental tool for establishing what is or is not an indisputable, is careful, faithful exegesis.

(3) My third, fourth, and fifth observations about disputable matters arise from a close reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul does not assert that Christians should not eat meat that has been offered to idols. Rather, he insists that the meat has not been contaminated; there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating such meat. Nevertheless, Christians with a “weak” conscience—that is, Christians whose connections with idolatry in the past are so recent that they think that eating such meat is sinful, even though there is nothing sinful about the action itself—must not eat such meat, lest they do damage to their conscience.2 Eating the meat that has been offered to idols is not intrinsically wrong, but violating one’s own conscience is wrong. The conscience is such a delicate spiritual organ that it is easily damaged: to act in violation of conscience damages conscience, it hardens conscience—and surely no Christian who cares about right and wrong wants to live with a damaged conscience, an increasingly hardened conscience. If we violate our consciences when we think that what we are doing is wrong (even though, according to Paul, the action itself is not wrong), then we will find it easier to violate our conscience when the envisaged action is wrong, with the result that our conscience will be less able to steer us clear of sin. Of course, on the long haul one hopes and prays that “weak” Christians will, by increased understanding of right and wrong derived from careful reading of Scripture, transform their “weak” consciences into robust “strong” consciences. There is no particular virtue in remaining perennially “weak,” for that simply indicates that one’s moral understanding has not yet been sufficiently shaped by the Word of God.

(4) Meanwhile, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, Christians with a “strong” conscience—that is, Christians who rightly see that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating food that has been offered to idols, and whose consciences are therefore untroubled if they do so eat—rightly perceive the intrinsic innocence of the act of eating such meat. Nevertheless, Paul insists, the demands of love require that they refrain from such eating if by going ahead and eating they wittingly or unwittingly encourage those with a weak conscience to follow suit. In short, the love of the “strong” Christian for the “weak” Christian may place the former in a position where he or she will choose not to do something that is not itself intrinsically wrong. In other words, an action that properly belongs in the disputable column, leaving the Christian free to engage in that action, may, because of the Christian’s obligation to love the weaker believer, become off limits to the stronger believer. This does not mean that the action has shifted to the indisputable column: that would mean, in this case, that the action is always wrong, intrinsically so. So we are driven to the conclusion that an action belonging in the disputable column is not necessarily one that Christians are free to take up. Rather, Christians may rule the action out of bounds either because they admit they have weak consciences, or, knowing their consciences are strong, because they voluntarily put the action aside out of love for weaker believers.

Incidentally, one should not confuse the logic of 1 Corinthians 8 with the stance that finds a strong legalist saying to a believer who thinks that eating meat offered to idols is acceptable, “You may think that such action is legitimate, but every time you do it you are offending me—and since you are not permitted to offend me, therefore you must not engage in that activity.” The person who utters words to that effect, however, is in no danger of being swayed by the actions of those who engage in the activity. They are using a manipulative argument to defend a misguided position in which they are convinced that the act of eating meat that has been offered to idols is invariably wrong. In other words, they operate out of the conviction that this activity lies in the indisputable column—and thus they find themselves at odds with Paul’s wisdom and insight.

(5) How, then, does the argument of 1 Corinthians 8 relate to the argument of 1 Corinthians 10:14–22, where it appears that the apostle Paul absolutely forbids eating the sacrifices of pagans, which is nothing other than participating in demonic worship? It is difficult to be absolutely certain, but it appears that in 1 Corinthians 8 what is permitted in principle is the eating of meat that has been offered to idols, while in 1 Corinthians 10 what is prohibited is eating meat that is part of participating in any service or worship or cult or rite that is tied to pagan deities. And this affords us another insight: actions that may belong to the adiaphora, i.e., that are rightly judged disputable, may in certain cultural contexts become absolutely condemned, thus now belonging in the indisputable column. More briefly: in the right context, what belongs in the disputable column gets shifted to the indisputably bad column. On the basis of Romans 14 and what Paul says about some viewing one day above another, and others viewing all days the same, Christians may disagree about whether it is appropriate for their children to play in soccer matches on the Lord’s Day. At some point, however, if those soccer matches mean that neither the child nor the parents are meeting regularly with the Lord’s people in corporate worship and for biblical instruction and edification, what appears as a disputable matter becomes indisputably bad (Hebrews 10:25).

(6) That leads us to a still broader consideration. Sometimes the theological associations of an action, in a particular context, establish whether an action is right or wrong. In one context, it may be absolutely right or wrong, and thus belong in the indisputable column; in another context, the action may belong to the adiaphora. Consider the strange fact that Paul absolutely refuses to allow Titus to be circumcised (Gal 2:1–5), but circumcises Timothy (Acts 16:3). On a superficial reading, it is small wonder that Paul’s opponents dismiss him as a people pleaser (Gal 1:10) who sniffs the wind and adopts any position that seems convenient at the moment. But a little probing discloses Paul’s reasoning in both instances. In the context of Galatians 2, Paul’s opponents seem to be saying that a Gentile must be circumcised and come under the law of Moses if he or she is to be saved by the Jewish Messiah. If Paul agreed with such reasoning, it would mean that Jesus’s sacrificial death and resurrection are an insufficient ground for Gentiles to be accepted before God: they must also become Jews. That jeopardizes the absolute sufficiency of Christ and his cross-work and resurrection. The gospel is at stake. Paul and the other apostles ensure that Titus is not circumcised: the issue is non-negotiable; the prohibition lies in the indisputable column. In the case of Timothy, however, no one is claiming that Timothy must be circumcised to be saved. Rather, because of his mixed parentage, he was never “done,” and if he is circumcised at this stage it will make mobility in Jewish homes and synagogues a little easier, thus facilitating evangelism. It’s not that Timothy must not be circumcised, and it’s not that he must be circumcised. Rather, this is the outworking of the apostle’s cultural flexibility for evangelistic purposes: he becomes a Jew to win the Jews, and becomes like a person without the law to win the Gentiles (1 Cor 9:19–23).

(7) Under the new covenant, there is a deep suspicion of those who, for the sake of greater spirituality or deeper purity, elevate celibacy or who prohibit certain foods or who inject merely human (i.e., biblically unwarranted) commands, or who scrap over minor points (e.g., Mark 7:19; 1 Tim 4:3–4; 1:6; 2 Tim 2:14, 16–17; Tit 1:10–16; cf. Rom 14). Such people try to elevate matters that should never be placed in the indisputable column to a high place in the hierarchy of virtues. Paul has no objection to celibacy, and in the right context he can extol its advantages (1 Cor 7), but he resolutely sets his face against those who prohibit marriage, thinking, perhaps, that celibacy signals a higher spirituality. Almost always these topics that some individuals want to make indisputably mandated are at best relatively peripheral, external, or clearly presented in Scripture as optional or temporary.

(8) Some have argued that since Romans 14:5–6 sets the observance of days into the disputable column, and since the days in question must include the Sabbath, and since the Sabbath is part of the Decalogue, and since the Decalogue summarizes moral law, therefore even moral law can change with time as new insights are uncovered. So perhaps it is time to say that the moral prohibition of homosexual marriage should also be revisited. If one moral law (which, one would have thought, lies in the indisputable column) is by New Testament authority shifted to the disputable column, why should we not consider shifting other moral laws, too? The subject, of course, is huge and complex, but a few reflections may clarify some of the issues. (a) Not a few scholars think that the days in Romans 14 refer to Jewish feast days that are tied to ceremonial laws, but not to the Sabbath (e.g., Passover, Yom Kippur). (b) Others allow that the Sabbath is included in the days mentioned in Romans 14, but think the flexibility that Paul there allows means that the shift to Sunday is sanctioned. In that reading, the form of the Sabbath law is flexible, but not its one-in-seven mandate. (c) Although many believers hold that the Decalogue is the perfect summary of moral law3 others argue that the category of moral law, as useful as it is, should not be deployed a priori to establish what continues from covenant to covenant, but as an a posteriori inference.4 In that case, of course, the argument that because the Sabbath law is included in the Decalogue it must be moral law, falls to the ground, yet the category of moral law is retained. (d) In any case, in the Bible there is no text whatsoever that hints that homosexual marriage might in some cases be acceptable. The pattern of prohibition is absolute. As for days, we do have a text that indicates a change of approach to their observance, even if we may dispute exactly what it means.

(9) Some draw attention to the argument of William J. Webb in his influential book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.5 Webb argues that the Bible establishes trajectories of moral positions, and it is these trajectories that ultimately lead the church to condemn slavery, and ought to lead the church today to egalitarianism. Webb himself advances reasons why he would not allow the same argument to extend to blessing homosexual marriages—but of course that is the line of argument promoted in some circles today. This leads to the curious position that the morality attained centuries after the New Testament is complete and circulating is higher than what God himself gives in the biblical documents. The most robust critique of this position is doubtless the lengthy review article by Wayne Grudem.6 In brief: considerable insight into Christian belief and Christian conduct, in particular what is mandated and what is disputable, is to be gained by following the trajectories within the Scriptures, but that does not justify treating the trajectories beyond the Scriptures as normative, the more so when such trajectories undermine what the Scriptures actually say.

(10) A great deal of this discussion could be construed as a probe into what Christians are allowed to do—or, more cynically, what they can get away with. None of the discussion is meant to be taken that way (see, especially, the fourth point), but so perverse is the human heart that it would be surprising if no one took it that way. Yet surely serious Christians will be asking another series of questions: What will bring glory to God? What will sanctify me? What conduct will enable me to adorn the gospel? What does it mean to take up my cross and follow Jesus? What contributes to preparing me for the new heaven and the new earth? What will contribute to fruitful evangelism? What conduct effervesces in love, faith, joy, and peace? What beliefs and conduct nudge me back toward the cross, and forward to loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and my neighbors as myself? Again: What will bring glory to God?

So suppose a Christian is trying to decide whether to go to a movie that is not only R-rated but has a well-deserved reputation for laughing sleaze. Assessing the choice along the lines of this editorial—whether banning the film is an indisputable obligation of Christian morality or belongs to the adiaphora—is a useful exercise. One might acknowledge, for instance, that some with a “weak” conscience really shouldn’t see it; that those with a “strong” conscience shouldn’t see it if they might influence those with a “weak” conscience; and so forth, as we work our way through the various points. But surely Christians will want to ask a different set of questions: Will watching this film adversely affect my desire for purity, or will it fill my mind with images I don’t want to retain but cannot expunge? What are alternative things that I might be doing? If Jesus were here, would I invite him along? Is there any way in which watching this film glorifies God?

[1] Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015); Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).

[2] On these matters, see Andrew David Naselli and J. D. Crowley, Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).

[3] See, most recently, the book by Philip S. Ross, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law (Fearn: Mentor, 2010).

[4] E.g., D. A. Carson, “The Tripartite Division of the Law: A Review of Philip Ross, The Finger of God,” in From Creation to New Creation: Biblical Theology and Exegesis: Essays in Honor of G. K. Beale, ed. Daniel M. Gurtner and Benjamin L. Gladd (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), 223–36.

[5] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 2001).

[6] Wayne A. Grudem, “Review Article: Should We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic? An Analysis of William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis,” JETS 47 (2004): 299–346. See also Benjamin Reaoch, Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate: A Complementarian Response to the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2012).

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and cofounder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.

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