The door swings both ways

Much is made of adiaphora in Lutheran congregations. For those who are not in the know, adiaphora refers to those elements of the Divine Service that are neither commanded nor forbidden by God in Holy Scripture. Sometimes these things are seen as things “indifferent” but Paul H. D. Lang in Ceremony and Celebration thinks that a better meaning of the word is things that are not essential for the valid celebration of the Eucharist. For instance, it is not essential that two candles be on the altar, or even that a pastor be fully vested in chasuble and stole. Scripture does not command these things, but neither does Scripture forbid them. Lutherans have retained many of these older customs because of their pedagogical (teaching) value, and because there has been no good reason not to retain them.

Since there is not command of God concerning them, they are left up to Christian freedom. We do not preach from pulpits because God commands us to, but because of our desire to extol God’s Word and to hide ourselves. We do this in freedom, but not without good reasons. Thus, one cannot say that it does not matter whether or not one preaches from a pulpit or not–it does matter, because all things are not equal, even in matters of adiaphora. Preaching from the aisle of the church, walking up and down as you see in many non-denominational (and sadly, many Lutheran) churches draws attention to the man, to his mannerisms, to his personality, and the Word of God is not supreme.

I think this is frequently forgotten (or ignored) in discussions of adiaphora. Today, it is often the case that when a pastor is under fire from the congregation, it is not over matters of doctrine, immoral life, or neglect of duty, but over adiaphora. In other words, the pastor chants and the congregation doesn’t like it. Or, the pastor bows or makes the sign of the cross and the congregation doesn’t like that. So what happens? The District Presidents come in and tell the congregation that they are right, that these things are adiaphora, and therefore they are neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. And that is where it is left. The pastor, who has not offended in doctrine, life, or duty, is left looking like the “bad guy” who “won’t yield” in these non-essentials, and the congregation is emboldened in its sinful rejection of a servant of Christ.

My question is, doesn’t the door swing both ways? If something is neither commanded nor forbidden, then isn’t the congregation being a bit legalistic by insisting on its own way? If these things are matters of Christian freedom, doesn’t the pastor have any freedom? Or, is all the freedom on the congregation’s side? In other words, if the congregation wants to do any number of things, that is okay. But if the pastor wants to chant, wear more elaborate vestments, or even offer the Sacrament more often (one could argue whether or not this was actually a matter of adiaphora), that is not okay. He is not “free” to do these things.

If something is truly free, then that should apply both to the congregation and the pastor. Here’s another example: acolytes are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Bible. We do not have to have them. But we certainly may if we want. Since there is an area of Christian freedom, then it should be no problem for the pastor to choose whom he wants to fill this role. If he only wants boys to be in this role, and he has good reasons for it, then there should be no problem–if, IF it is truly a matter of adiaphora. See my point? Catch my drift?

Friends of mine have been on the receiving end of this double-standard regarding adiaphora and I think it is wholly unfair and unjust. Congregations that do not allow the pastor some freedom in these non-essentials ought to be told that they have no grounds to remove an otherwise faithful pastor, and that they are being legalistic by insisting on having things done a certain way.


About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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8 Responses to The door swings both ways

  1. Perhaps you are right, but if the congregation doesn’t like chanting it might behoove the pastor to quit too. I think that is the problem it does swing both ways. But pastors so often don’t see it this way, and get hellbent on doing things their way. A DP is rightly going to side with the congregation in many of these situations.

  2. Alan says:

    In the past, I’ve educated about why I’ve done what I’ve done. (Thanks be to God, my predecessor in my current parish has done a lot of the legwork for me!) Some have listened and said, “Oh, okay. That makes sense,” and they have either happily let me continue to do as I do or even adopted similar practices themselves. Others have listened but then have continued to complain about it. And still other stubbornly (and sinfully) refused to listen at all.

    The problem is, now their fellow congregation members know what’s going on, and some of them are doing it, too, whether it’s bowing or making the sign of the cross or kneeling for confession or whatever. So should I have told the members who have adopted the practice to stop? And how do I explain it? “I’m sorry, but for the sake of your weaker brethren, so that you do not lead them into sin through your faithfulness, we need you to abandon your own personal piety.”

    How much do we abandon for the sake of the weaker brother? Where’s the line that says we’ve abandoned too much for the sake of the “weaker brother”? When the crucifix is gone from the sanctuary? When the paraments are gone? When the font is put into storage when it’s not in use? When the Druids are communing at Lutheran altars? When we’re down to Communion 4 times a year?

    I’m not trying to be flippant here. A close friend of mine (I introduced him to his wife) was called an A$$H0|3 (let the reader understand) by his DP (who is now teaching pastoral theology at a seminary) when his congregation contacted the DP to complain that he was practicing closed communion. So what do we do when the meet, right and salutary things of the church cause our brethren to sin?

  3. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    @Bror–In this post I am not talking about the need for pastors to exercise self-restraint. That’s a different subject. I am addressing the double standard that is at work when it is ALWAYS the pastor that is expected to yield, and NEVER the congregation. Adiaphora are free only for the congregation it seems, but pastors are not given any latitude, and they are not defended by the DP when the congregation goes into hostile mode.

    @Alan–I’m not surprised.

  4. I think a lot depends on the reasons.

    If the congregation doesn’t want the pastor to chant because his is tone deaf and it is a distraction, then the pastor ought to yield. But if the argument is that chanting is unlutheran, or makes the service too long, or it’s just a power struggle in the parish – then the matter is no longer an adiaphoron (FC X).

    I think most such matters are more of the latter (i.e. “It’s too catholic!”) than the former. And in such cases, the DPs should not just automatically take the easy way out, condemn the pastor, and teach the congregation that they should bully their pastor or insist that being Lutheran is to look as neo-evangelical as possible.

    I know that we have lost some of our brightest and best pastors because of this kind of treachery. And what a shame!

  5. Juan Palm says:

    If I can use an analogy.

    I use the book Love and Respect for some marriage instruction and bailouts. The basic premise of the book is that the wife does something disrespectful to her husband so he does something unloving to his wife so she does something disrespectful to him so he… etc. ad repudium remittere.

    Someone has to stop the out of control cycle. Who should do it? Both have been hurt and have legitimate grievances. They both need to change but the first to act must be the one who is more mature. Perhaps this is why DP’s assume that the pastor has to be the one to change. If the congregation was showing maturity they would not be ready to string up/boot out their pastor for something as little as how many yards of fabric he chooses to wear on communion Sundays. The problem is perhaps that the pastor, analogous to the husband, is rightly told to love his congregation, but the congregation, analogous to the wife, is never repudiated for the way she disrespectfully treats her pastor.

    I blame feminism… again.

  6. boaz says:

    You want to talk about the pastor’s rights against the congregation in indifferent matters. The pastor is a servant, he does not assert rights. He is never the weaker brother. Of course teach the congregation the doctrine behind the practice and why it is helpful, but that doesn’t mean they’ll get it and accept it.

  7. boaz says:

    But maybe there are times where the pastor is the weaker brother. If he is so offended by female acolytes, and can’t think of any other way to teach orders of creation, maybe the dp should teach the congregation about compromising out of love for the pastors weakness.

  8. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    I’m not really sure if the word “rights” applies in either case. It is not about “rights.” I was simply pointing out what I have observed–nine times out of ten, the pastor is simply expected to yield to the congregation in matters of Christian freedom. Is that right? I’m simply raising the question Boaz. No need to bring on the sarcasm.

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