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Gottesblog

A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

Adiaphorocracy

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The 2007 movie Idiocracy isn’t for everyone. Especially for children. Please don’t queue up the DVD in the Sunday School room. It’s even more inappropriate for children than Veggie Tales. If you are easily offended by crude language, it is not for you. But in the case of this film, the crudeness is necessary, as it is a satire upon the increasing crassness of our culture.

There is just no way to make a film like Idiocracy any other way.

That being said, here is the premise of the film: Through a time-travel literary device, we look ahead 500 years. American culture has been in decline. 500 years from now, a guy of average intelligence is considered a genius. Hilarity ensues. No need for any spoilers.

Here in reality, we are watching a much steeper trajectory of decay in real time, as American test scores plummet, and we see an increasingly sharp generational curve into not only ignorance, but an inability to think critically - or to think at all. Our institutions are being overrun by entertainment, our foods are becoming increasingly unhealthy in ever larger serving sizes, our professionals are increasingly dull, and our politicians ever more corrupt, vulgar (on both sides of the aisle), and stupid. Our culture is also being exponentially sexualized.

Idiocracy portrays these things with a cringy edge.

In 2007, the film was satire. By 2012 it had become a documentary. By 2016 it had become dystopia. Today it is tragedy. In a few years it will be pure horror - well, at least the real-life version of Idiocracy: the increasing polarization of our culture, the rewriting of history, the breakdown of institutions, and the denial of ontological objective reality. Sexuality is becoming so commonplace and accepted that I suppose we may live to see the day when Idiocracy is given a G rating and shown to children at the local public library.

It could happen.

At any rate, we see a lot of the same stultification in the church. Sunday is increasingly about the wave instead of the sign of the cross, about the color commentator instead of the preacher, the burgers and beer instead of the body and blood - and that’s just inside the churches, not having to go to the stadium!

We have seen an increasing idiocracy of entertainment worship in churches, including those that bear the initials LCMS. There is a great temptation of our leaders to appeal to the base instincts of our decaying culture to “attract the youth” and be “relevant.” Pastors shy away from pulpits in favor of ambulatory TED talks. The khakis and polo are the new alb and chasuble. The drum kit and guitar have in many places replaced the choir and organ, and the emoting soloist warbling a kind of pop-improvisation has taken the place of the text-based chant. Churches are jettisoning the name “Lutheran” (if not “church”) in response to focus groups and marketing research centered on what non-believers think our churches ought to be doing.

But of course, this is old news. We’ve been fighting these worship-wars for decades now, to the point where entire careers of pastors have come and gone with the same “contemporary” songs being sung in churches decade after decade. The “praise band” has now become as passé as the chorale, and even the polo shirt is starting to look as tired and dated as the middle-aged guts they are often stretched over.

One can find heavy metal, dancing girls, skits, and immersion baptisms in tee shirts in kiddie pools in LCMS congregations. And even in liturgical settings, we are the Gumpian box of chocolates, even having deaconettes sporting eucharistic vestments and stoles serving at altars.

We’ve gone well past the knucklehead pastors wearing silly NFL sponge hats on their heads in the chancel. We now have deaconesses participating in installations. We have men being ordained with unordained men (or even unordained women) laying hands on them. At least the fellow who was laying hands on a pastorette at an allegedly Lutheran university has been removed from the roster (at least this laying on of hands had nothing to do with the me-too movement).

And when any of these practices is challenged, the response is as predictable as the greeter in Idiocracy intoning over and over again: “Welcome to Costco, I love you.” The response is always: “It’s adiaphora.” Sometimes they even spell it correctly and use it in its proper singular and plural forms. Sometimes.

It is the All Purpose Get Out of Trouble Card. It has become as tattered and frayed at the edges as the “racist, sexist, homophobe!” card played on NPC poker night.

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And technically, it is correct. Scripture gives no rubrics for ordination other than someone lays hands on someone (well, Paul does make reference to the πρεσβυτερίου: the presbytery, or as the ESV renders it: “council of elders” (1 Tim 4:14), so it isn’t just anybody), and even then, our common usage degrades the rite from being a sacrament to a mere custom - and yet, in a true “felicitous inconsistency,” no LCMS pastor ever declines to have hands laid on him, even if those hands include his wife, kids, elders, or the head of the LWML.

If ordination be understood as applying to the ministry of the Word, we are not unwilling to call ordination a sacrament.
— Ap 13:10

So, yes, many specific elements of rite and ceremony are adiaphora: “Neither prohibited nor commanded by scripture.”

That’s the “official” definition. The “unofficial” definition is “I can and will do whatever the hell I want.”

Here is a list of things that can be argued to be adiaphora:

  • Preaching an entire sermon on one foot with one’s finger up one’s nose

  • Wearing an apron, rubber boots, and a bowler hat to Divine Service

  • Doing the Hokey Pokey during the distribution

  • Drinking a beer and burping as loudly as possible during a baptism

  • Serving the blood of Christ in a replica of the Stanley Cup

  • Having the Traditional service at 3:00 am

  • Processing into the service dressed as tree frogs while having a kazoo choir play “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”

You get the idea. Does the Bible prohibit any of these things? If not, these are adiaphora.

But even conceding the point that the Bible never mentions burping and kazoos, does the adiaphoristic nature of these practices translate into such practices as being authentically Lutheran, edifying, or, to borrow a term from those who pit missions against liturgy, “best practices”?

Of course, my examples are deliberately extreme. I’m making the point ad absurdum. But nevertheless, even for lesser deviations of Article 24, we hear the “Adiaphora Chorus” sung with the gusto of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir taking on Handel at the Feast of the Nativity.

The fact of the matter is that adiaphora does not mean a practice is salutary, or even good. For as all Lutherans believe, ceremonies exist to teach the people. And given that some 55% of human communication is non-verbal (conveyed through body language, gestures, how words are spoken, etc.), it does matter whether we cross ourselves or pick our noses. It does matter whether we fold our hands or raise them to indicate “touchdown.” A bowed head conveys belief in something, just as does a goofy grin.

Adiaphora is not permission to do whatever the hell we want. For as all Lutherans (supposedly) confess in Article 10 of the Formula of Concord - Solid Declaration, worship practices are not free so as to express “frivolity” or “offense” (FC SD 10:9). In other words, as Christians who confess the real presence, our rites and ceremonies are all conducted reverently and in accord with our tradition - which is well laid out in AC and Ap 24.

Likewise, when there are useless, foolish displays, that are profitable neither for good order nor Christian discipline, nor evangelical propriety in the Church, these also are not genuine adiaphora, or matters of indifference.
— FC SD 10:7

For tradition is not evil - and neither are adiaphora when used with “evangelical propriety.” We still use Christmas trees (adiaphoron), worship on Sunday (adiaphoron), celebrate the Lord’s birth on December 25 (adiaphoron), calculate Easter according to the Western calendar (adiaphoron), and have Reformation Day services at the end of October (adiaphoron). There is value in holding to traditions so long as they do not contract Scripture or our confessions. It’s interesting that sometimes the same people to mock tradition are fanatical about wearing a particular jersey on game day or religiously holding to a certain family routine for a birthday or anniversary.

And finally, our confessions at times pull the rug out from under something being an adiaphoron, actually ceasing to be an adiaphoron “in a state of confession.” In other words, as happened in our history, the government made the wearing of vestments mandatory. The adiaphoristic nature of wearing vestments changed when the power of the state (especially the state controlled by the pope) was brought to bear. It became the duty of Lutherans to doff their vestments for the time being. As Bente quotes Flacius concerning this matter: “Nihil est adiaphoron in casu confessionis et scandali” (“Nothing is an adiaphoron when confession and offense are involved”).

Once again, everything is not adiaphora all the time, nor does adiaphora mean permission to do whatever the hell we want.

We have to ask ourselves if a practice is in accord with the Bible, within our catholic tradition, in concord with our confessions, and is it reverent and lacking in frivolity. If a practice is an offense against any of these, it is not a true adiaphoron, and isn’t a matter of Christian liberty.

True Christian worship is theocentric and focused on the cross of Christ and His gifts. It is the way of love and of the catholic confession. Authentic Christian worship is a manifestation of evangelical liberty, and not Adiaphorocracy.

And one more thing: Plants do not crave Brawndo. Let the reader understand.