Scriptural Rules Governing Indifferent Things

Scriptural Rules Governing Indifferent Things

George Gillespie
A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies
pt. 4, ch. 3, pp. 375–379

Every thing which is indifferent in the nature of it, is not by and by indifferent in the use of it. But the use of a thing indifferent ought evermore to be either chosen or refused, followed or forsaken, according to these three rules delivered to us in God’s Word: (1) The rule of piety. (2) The rule of charity. (3) The rule of purity.

(1) The Rule of Piety.

The first of these rules we find [in] 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether, therefore, ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God;” and Romans 14:7–8, “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord, and whether we die, we die unto the Lord:” where the apostle, as Calvin notes,[1] reasons from the whole to the part. Our whole life, and by consequence, all the particular actions of it, ought to be referred to God’s glory, and ordered according to his will. Again (Col. 3:17), “And whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” In the expounding of which words Dr. Davenant says well, that Even those actions which are indifferent by their own nature, ought nevertheless to be done by Christians in the name of Christ, that is, according to the will of Christ, and to Christ’s glory.[2]

(2) The Rule of Charity.

The second rule is the rule of charity; which teaches us not to use anything indifferent when scandal rises out of it. “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak” (Rom. 14:21); yea, though it do not weaken, if it be not expedient for edifying our brother, be it never so lawful or indifferent in its own nature, the law of charity binds us to abstain from it. “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and the things wherewith one may edify another” (Rom. 14:19). “Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification” (Rom. 15:2). “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (1 Cor. 10:23): where the apostle teaches, that in cibo, etc., In meat, drink, and the whole kind of things indifferent, it is not enough to look whether they be lawful, but that, further, we are to look whether (to do or omit) the same be expedient, and may edify.[3]

The Bishop of Winchester, preaching upon John 16:7, “I tell you the truth: it is expedient for you that I go away,” etc., marks, that Christ would not go away without acquainting His disciples with the reason of it; and that reason was, because it was for their good.[4]Whereupon he infers, 1. That we should avoid Hophni’s non vult enim, and make our vultour enim (1 Sam. 2:15); that is, that we should not give our will for a reason, but a reason for our will. 2.  That we should not, with the Corinthians, stand upon licet, it is lawful, but frame our rule by expedit, it is expedient (1 Cor. 6:13; 10:23). 3. That our rule should not be Caiaphus’ expedit nobis, but Christ’s expedit vobis, for you it is good, you, the disciples(John 11:50; [John 16:7]); and make that the rule of our going out and our coming in. The heathens themselves could say that we are born, partly for God, partly for our country, partly for our friends, etc. How much more ought Christians to understand that we are not born for ourselves, but for Christ and His Church. And as in the whole course of our life, so especially in the policy of the Church, we may do nothing (be it never so indifferent in itself) which is not profitable for edification: “Let all things be done to edifying” (1 Cor. 14:26). From which precept Paræus infers, that nothing ought to be done in the Church which does not manifestly make for the utility of all and every one; and that therefore not only unknown tongues, but cold ceremonies and idle gestures should be exploded [banished] out of the Church.[5]

(3) The Rule of Purity.

The third rule is the rule of purity, which respects our peace and plerophory [certainty] of conscience, without which anything is unclean to us, though it is clean and lawful in its own nature. “To him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Rom. 14:5); therefore if someone imagines there is any uncleanness in the food, he cannot be permitted to make use of it.[6] Whatsoever indifferent thing a man in his conscience judges to be unlawful, he may not lawfully do it; “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom. 14:14); and “He that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith; for whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (v. 23). It is utterly wrong, says Calvin, to come near in any respect to what you think displeases him (the Lord), yes indeed, even to what you are not convinced is pleasing to him.[7] Now if a thing indifferent is used according to these three rules, the use of it is not only lawful but expedient also; but if it is not used according to these rules, the use of it is altogether unlawful.

§3. And since a thing indifferent in the nature of it can never be lawfully used, except according to these rules, hence it follows, that the use of a thing indifferent is never lawful to us when we have no other warrant for using the same beside our own will and arbitrament [pleasure].

Dr. Forbes speaks unadvisedly whilst he says, Evenit nonnunquam, etc.: It falls out sometimes that that which was expedient for you to do yesterday, and to omit this day, you may, notwithstanding, afterward either do it, or not do it, according to your arbitrament.[8]As if, forsooth, our using of things indifferent should not evermore be determined by the rule of expediency which God’s Word gives us, but sometimes by our own will. Dr. Davenant could not dream that any, except the ignorant common people, could be of this opinion which Dr. Forbes holds. The multitude is wrong, he says, when it judges it can permit itself the use of food, clothing, speech, or any indifferent thing whatsoever, according to its own way of thinking; for all these things must be applied according to the rule.[9]

Moreover, as we may not use any indifferent thing at our own pleasure; so neither may the Church, at her will and pleasure, command the use of it; but as our practice, so the Church’s injunction must be determined and squared according to the former rules. And if any man thinks that, in the using of things indifferent, he may be led and ruled by the Church’s determination, without examining any further, let him understand that the Church’s determination is but a subordinate rule, or a rule ruled by higher rules.

Dr. Forbes, perceiving how these rules of Scripture may subvert his cause, desires to subject them to the Church’s determination, and to make it our highest rule. Now, moreover, he says, in the use of such things, that thing edifies which is peaceable; that thing is peaceable which is ordained; that fitting order was set up by Christ Himself in the church, so that in such matters each may not conduct himself according to his own judgment, but that the Church may be heard, and obedience to the teachings be exhibited.[10] 

He has been speaking of the rules which God’s Word gives us concerning the use of things indifferent; and all of them he comprehends under this rule, that we should hear the Church, and obey them who are set over us, as if God’s rules were subordinate to men’s rules, and not theirs to his. We say not that every man may use things indifferent suo arbitratu [according to his own judgment], but we say withal, that neither may the church command the use of things indifferent suo arbitratu [according to its own judgment]. Both she in commanding and we in obeying must be guided by the rules of Scripture.

They who are set over us in the Church have no power given them of Christ which is not for edifying (Eph. 4:12). The counsel of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem (which is a lively pattern of a lawful synod to the world’s end) professed they would lay no other burden upon the disciples except such things as the law of charity made necessary for shunning of scandal (Acts 15:28); and so that which they decreed had force and strength to bind a charitate propter scandalum [by love, because of scandal], says Sanctius;[11] but suo arbitratu they enjoined nothing. Cartwright says, It appears by this place that there may be no abridgement of liberty simply decreed, but in regard of circumstance, according to the rule of edification.[12] And if the Church’s decrees and canons are not according to the rules of the Word; yet, forasmuch as every one of us shall give account of himself and his own deeds, we must look that whatsoever the Church decree, yet our practice, in the use or omission of a thing indifferent, be according to the foresaid rules.

We may not, for the commandment of men, transgress the rule of piety, by doing anything which is not for God’s glory, and ordered according to his will; neither ought any of us to obey men, except “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Pet. 2:13), and “as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God” (Eph. 6:6); which teaches us the manner how we ought to obey men, namely, for the sake of Christ and as Christ teaches;[13] for if we should know no more but the will of man for that which we do, then we should be the “servants of men” (1 Cor. 7:23), not the servants of Christ. Neither yet may we for any human ordinance break the rule of charity; But whatsoever either would weaken, or not edify our brother, be it never so lawful, never so profitable to ourselves, never so powerfully by earthly authority enjoined, Christians, who are not born unto themselves, but unto Christ, unto His Church, and unto the fellow-members, must not dare to meddle with it.[14]

Nor, lastly, may we obey men, so as to break the law of purity, and perform any action with a doubtful conscience; that is, whereof either the Word has not, nor we out of it have no warrant, in which case tender consciences must be tendered rather than be racked by authority; for be the things in themselves never so lawful, etc., they are utterly unlawful to me without such information.[15] Whereas, therefore, some say, that in the use of matters indifferent, the laws of those who are set over us ought to rule us; we still answer that our practice may not be ruled by any law of man, except it be according to the rules of the Word, whereof one is this, There ought to be in Christians such an eagerness for obedience, that they may do nothing which they do not think, or rather are not certain, pleases God.[16]



[1] Com. in illum locum. [Cf. Commentaries, vol. XIX, 2.499.]

[2] Etiam illæ actiones quæ sunt suâ naturâ adiaphoræ, debent tamen à Christianis fieri in nomine Christi, hoc est, [(ut exposuimus)] juxta voluntatem Christi, et ad gloriam Christi. [In Colossians 3:17; cf 1655 ed., 373; cf. Allport trans. (1831) 2.147.]

[3] Paræus, Com. in illum locum. [Cf. Ad Corinthios priorem (1609) col. 650. “In cibo, potu, & toto genere indifferentium rerum non satis esse spectare, an liceænt, sed præterea videndum, an facere aut omittere expediat & ædificet.”]

[4] [Cf. Ninety-Six Sermons (Oxford: 1841) 3.167. expedit nobis—it is expedient for us.]

[5] [Cf. Ad Corinthios priorem (1609), col. 965–967.]

[6] Calv., Com. in illum locum. si quis aliquam in cibo immunditiem imagineter, eo libere uti non potest. [CR 77 (CO 49) 264; Iohannis Calvini Commentarius in epistolam Pauli ad Romanos, ed. T. H. L. Parker (Brill: 1981) 299; Commentaries, vol. XIX, 2.499.]

[7] In Rom. 14:7–8. Nefas est omnino quippiam aggredi quod putes illi (domino) displicere, imo quod non persuasus sis illi placere. [Cf. CR 77 (CO 49) col. 261 (but quidpiam for quippiam); Pauli ad Romanos, Parker (Brill: 1981) 296; Commentaries, ibid., 499].

[8] Irenicum, lib. 1, cap. 12, sect. 16 [p. 74]. [“Unde evenit nonnunquam ut quod heri facere, idipsum hodie omittere expediat, quod tamen postea vel facere, vel non facere poteris arbitratu tuo.” Cf. Selwyn, 164.]

[9] Davenant, Expos. in Col. 3:17. Fallitur vulgus, saith he, dum judicat licere sibi, uti victu, vestitu, sermone, aut quacunque re adiaphorâ pro arbitrio suo; nam hæc omnia ad regulam adhibenda sunt. [Cf. 1655 ed., 354; Allport trans. (1831) 2.148.]

[10] Ubi supra, cap. 11, sect. 3, 6 [pp. 61, 64]. Iam autem in talium rerum usu, id ædificat, quod pacificum; illud est pacificum quod est ordinatum . . . is autem decens ordo est in ecclesia ab ipso Christo constitutus, ut in talibus non suo quisque se gerat arbitratu, sed audiatur ecclesia, et exhibeatur præpositis obedientia . . . [sect. 6, p. 64]. [Cf. Selwyn, 142, 144–146.]

[11] In Acts 15, n. 18. [Cf. Gaspar Sánchez (Sanctius), Commentarii in Acta Apostolorum(1617) 292, 295.]

[12] Annot. on Acts 15, sect. 10 [Cartwright, Confutation, 297].

[13] Zanchi in Eph. 6:5–6. propter Christum et sicut Christus præcipit. [Commentarius … ad Ephesios, ed. A. H. de Hartog. Bibliotheca Reformata, v. 5–6 (1888–1889) 6.393. Cf.Opera, book 6.254.]

[14] Taylor on Titus 1:15, p. 295 [1612 ed.].

[15] Id. Ibid., p. 289.

[16] Calv. in Rom. 14:5. Tantum oportere esse obedientiæ studium in Christianis, ut nihil agant, quod non exstiment vel potius certi sint placere Deo. [CR 77 (CO 49), 259; Iohannis Calvini Commentarius in epistolam Pauli ad Romanos (Brill, 1981) 294; Commentaries,ibid., 496.]

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