by Lee Ann M. Pomrenke
Adiaphora: in a church context it means “not essential.” Jesus will be raised and forgiveness proclaimed, regardless of the color of the carpet in the sanctuary; the carpet color is therefore adiaphora. Yet deep bitterness can be attached to conflicts over adiaphora. When the new carpet color in the sanctuary was found to complement the wedding color scheme for the musician’s daughter too well, it set off the faction that had wanted the other option all over again, months later. Naming such an issue as adiaphora could re-focus us on the One on whom our relationships with each other are centered, but the challenge is to do so without dismissing the actual people involved.
Adiaphora works on theological ideas too. How and when we worship are not prescribed by any members of the Trinity, and all the various versions are admissible. The best funeral sermons I have ever heard or preached let proclamations of judgment go unsaid, because faced with God’s mercy, our views on who ends up where are pretty much adiaphora.
I love this word and concept. I have preached on it specifically. I also really like Matthew 10:14 when Jesus instructs his disciples to shake the dust from their feet as they leave places where people do not greet the Gospel with peace; perhaps I like it too much. These are my inclinations anyway, to cast off non-essential things and strip away details that bog us down. Simplify, so the message is clear.
But maybe I am just letting myself off the hook. When planning my own installation service at the first church I served as a pastor, my senior colleague asked me what hymns I would like. “Oh, I don’t care,” I believe I replied. He looked at me askance and said, “You should probably care a little bit.” And probably I should have, because in the end, a large percentage of leading a congregation is attending to a myriad of details. Young Clergy Women International recently published a tongue-in-cheek article listing “the real reasons we became pastors” a catalog of “other duties as assigned.” Yet even if many of these tasks are truly adiaphora to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament, the people who are concerned with them are not. I may frame my propensity as an asset: I’m flexible, agile, don’t get bogged down in the details. But when everybody else does and I cannot recognize the value in their concerns, the impulse to label and cast off “adiaphora” becomes a liability.
It may be non-essential to the core of our faith, but we still need to care about the people who are invested in the issue. How do we do we declare adiaphora with sensitivity? The litmus test I have always used is my understanding of grace: Would the unconditional love of God for all people be denied by one response to the issue at hand? No? You know what I’m going to say. But all the in-between questions help answer this big one, such as:
- Have we directly asked people on the margins to share their perspectives, in a manner that is comfortable to them? For example, relying on a hymn committee to which only one demographic of the congregation shows up means we need a new process for getting input. And have we included conversations about the theology and cultural origins of our music, and the message that sends, rather than making it entirely about preferences?
- Does a certain practice glorify those in the room, while putting up a barrier to those who will not show up? Does it reinforce our comfort at the expense of honoring the dignity of all people? This one comes up especially around observing Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.
- Would a certain response commit actual heresy, or spiritually-damaging theology? I err on the side of generosity here. We can talk about St. Nick, as long as we do not turn it into: God watches us too, rewarding us if we’re good and punishing us when we’re bad. The resurrection of Jesus is a non-negotiable, but we can certainly talk about the real “miracle” of the Feeding of the 5,000 being that maybe people got out what food they had and shared, so that there were even leftovers (and use that interpretation to bolster support of our congregation’s feeding ministry)!
Sometimes declaring something “adiaphora” means we can agree to disagree, but no one gets to declare that the others are going to hell for their stance; we can afford to let people do what their own consciences tell them. But when my church body, the ELCA, voted in 2009 to allow synods to decide based on their own “bound consciences” about ordaining LGBTQ clergy or officiating at same-sex marriages, we created a new dilemma. First, members and entire congregations for whom this issue was not adiaphora at all left the denomination completely. Among those who stayed, the path to rostered leadership is technically open to LGBTQ candidates, and yet many complete the process but remain in a holding pattern for years for a call to a congregation (this happens for others too, especially people of color and women). The clergy shortage may in fact be a shortage of congregations willing to call these prepared leaders, because we didn’t agree on whether or not sexuality is adiaphora to rostered leadership. Far from meaning that it doesn’t matter, this kind of tension identifies our deep ambivalence or unwillingness to engage the conflict again.
Jesus himself could have argued all day with the Pharisees, about whether it was right to heal on the sabbath or to eat with sinners, and get nowhere. I doubt I could be more effective at convincing others to let go of what they think is important through argument or dismissal. But I will stick to my adiaphora litmus test, and continue communicating the priority of everyone’s voice being heard and their dignity being honored, for the sake of the Gospel. Instead of judging the merits of the point being argued, a re-direct for myself and others is essential: “Tell me why that is so important to you.” Then at least the people know they are not themselves “adiaphora.”
Rev. Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is a writer and pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her spouse and two daughters and blogs at leeannpomrenke.com.