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. Read more
D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and general editor of Themelios.